The eventual death of thrash metal in the early nineties has often been blamed on the rise of Nirvana, but I think the mighty Metallica deserve as much credit for killing the genre. After the success of the “One” video on MTV, Metallica had broken through to a larger audience never thought possible by a thrash metal act. "One" was the power ballad track off of "...And Justice for All" - an overproduced and somewhat self-indulgent album (but still plenty heavy, and loyal to the genre). Heading back into the studio in 1990, the band had big name producer, Bob Rock and millions of dollars of commercial backing for what was to be the biggest thrash metal release in the history of the relatively new genre.
Thrash metal's birthday is somewhere around 1981-82 in San Francisco and Los Angeles California. A fair number of bands started around that time, combining the technicality of the growing "new wave of British Heavy Metal" with the aggression and speed of the hardcore punk scene. 1983 saw the initial thrash metal releases, the first of which being Metallica's debut, Kill'em All. Though it had much in common with the NWOBHM overseas, there was an sharper edge and more aggression to it that started the ball rolling for other acts. Exodus, Slayer, Testament, and Anthrax all followed shortly after, and by 1985 it was a bonafide movement.
Metallica had always carried the torch for the American thrash bands, setting the rules and then changing them. Though many bands had imitators, Metallica were the fathers of the genre, and clearly had the largest fan base. In the late eighties, independent record labels had grown and developed entire catalogs based solely on thrash metal. Germany, England, and other parts of Europe soon developed thrash movements of their own. Though still rather underground, a handful of bands had started to gain significant followings: Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, and, of course, Metallica.
Each Metallica release was bigger than the last. Ride the Lightning in 1985, and Master of Puppets in 1986 are still classics of the genre. While on tour in Europe, a bus accident resulted in the death of Cliff Burton, Metallica’s bassist. The genre lost one of its leaders, but the band carried on, releasing …And Justice for All in 1988. The popularity of Master of Puppets allowed the band to over-produce their 4th album - mixing their new bass player, Jason Newsted, completely out of the mix and boosting the lows in their guitars so much, that the palm-muted parts distort on average speaker systems.
Despite the production, the album was well received. I’ve always felt it lacked the songwriting of the previous two albums. Some tracks play like a collection of cool riffs rather than a proper song (Harvester of Sorrow, Frayed End of Sanity, Eye of the Beholder), other tracks are fairly strong (Blackened, And Justice for All). One was an obvious pick for their single. It had an approachable verse and chorus, and then thrashed proper towards the end. The response to the single really started the events that led to thrash’s demise.
Music is a business, and Metallica showed music execs that there was money to be made in this relatively untapped sub genre. So, as the 80’s came to a close, the major thrash bands were suddenly being snatched up by major labels at a fervent pace, and with that, came audible market influence into the music. Metallica started to bring in some real money, so the labels were trying desperately to find the next Metallica.
There were positives to this reaction - the production values got much better, as did distribution. Thrash bands were now getting wide exposure - influencing the rest of the world. On the other hand, there was also the obvious market influence in the music’s sound. Just look at the differences between 86-88 albums and the 89/90 albums of key thrash acts: Sacred Reich, Testament, Slayer, Anthrax, Exodus, Flotsam and Jetsam, Sepultura, Death Angel. Yes, one could argue that the bands were all changing with the scene, and Metallica were merely trend-setters. That would be plausible, if not for what happened next. Metallica emerged from the studio on August 12, 1991, with an album without a title and void of cover art that you could really see - reminding all of us old schoolers of a joke from the movie Spinal Tap about “how much more black can you get?… The answer is none… none more black.”
Anyway, cover art aside, “Metallica” had twelve tracks of over-produced metal that fans immediately noticed was “dumbed-down.” The complex arrangements and abnormal time signatures were gone. Any of their previous progressive elements were gone. What Metallica had done, essentially, was take their thrash metal sound and dumb it down for a wider audience. And it worked… to an unforeseen level. Metallica became huge, opening up for big time acts like Guns and Roses.
The idea that Metallica, the fathers of thrash metal, were co-headlining arenas with a band from the LA “hair metal” scene was dripping with irony. You see, thrash metal was birthed out of a loathing for the hair metal scene. Metallica actually relocated from LA to San Francisco to get away from a scene that didn’t really accept them. Now, they were peas in a pod… playing the same bill.
Nirvana’s hugely successful Nevermind was released on September 24, 1991 - 42 days after Metallica’s “Black Album.” Did it add to the genre’s decline? Undoubtedly. But the proverbial nail in the coffin was thrash’s other major acts following in Metallica’s wake with their own attempts at a “Black Album” album to gather more fans. It wasn’t really until 1992-93 when you began to hear the full impact:
- Megadeth’s phenomenal “Rust in Peace,” was followed by the watered-down and occasionally comical “Countdown to Extinction.” (92)
- Testament released “The Ritual” (92) which barely sounded like the same band.
- Sean Killian sounds like he was told to “stop screaming” on Vio-lence’s depressing “Nothing to Gain.”(93)
- Exodus turned into groove metal on “Force of Habit”(92)
- Germany’s mighty Kreator changed their sound completely on the transparently named “Renewal” (92)
- What the hell happened to Anthrax on “The Sound of White Noise” (93)
- Overkill had their own ironic title with the slowed down, and much tamer “I Hear Black” (93)
- Flotsam and Jetsam sound like plagiarists on “Cuatro” (92) - a blatant Metallica wannabe
- Nuclear Assault stretch their sound to places it just can’t go on “Something Wicked” (93)
So, as Thrash Metal’s torch carrier led their followers down paths of false hope for stardom, a new genre started poaching thrash metal’s audience, many of whom had been alienated and disenfranchised by their favorite band’s lastest albums. I can’t explain why “The Black Album” hit gold and nothing else did. I’m not sure it’s any better than any of those albums I mentioned above, but Metallica went on to depart even further from their sound, now sounding like a cover band when they play those classic tracks live.
The grunge that the radio referred to was really alternative rock, and they called it “college rock” before that. It had it’s day and over-saturated the market. In the world of metal, more extreme genres took over: death metal, black metal, and grindcore gave the true metal heads what they needed. Then in 2003-4, a new band emerged, flying the thrash metal flag for the next generation: Lamb of God.
The past ten years has seen a thrash metal revival of sorts. New bands have emerged with a “classic sound” and many of the original bands have reformed, or never really went away. Many of the bands I mentioned in my “sell-out” list have released “comeback” albums over the past ten years. In addition, they have set out on special tours where they play an entire album from start to finish. And guess what, they’re not playing their album from 1993 are they? No, they’re playing the album that was written from their heart and out of their hopes for stardom. Ironically, they’re probably more successful now then they ever were in the 90’s, and they’re doing it by playing thrash metal, and not that watered-down bullshit they were whoring themselves out for. And Metallica? They finally issued their apology in the form of “Death Magnetic” in 2008. It’s by no means on par with those classic first four, but after a decade and a half of crap, it sounds halfway decent.
Thrash metal came into my life at the impressionable age of 13 and because of that, the metal genre has always been what I pour my energy into, even 25 years later. In the nineties, I ran to death metal, dissatisfied with what my childhood thrash heroes were becoming. Sadly, even death metal got commercialized to an extent towards 2000. Then, we metal heads got old enough to have enough money to demand what we wanted: musicianship, creativity, and brutality. Metal is enjoying more exposure now than ever before, probably because it is comfortable with its spot on the commercial end of things, and not trying to be the “next big thing.” And yes, pop music still sucks.