Looking Back and Ranking Thrash Metal's "Big 4"
Recently, I got drawn into a debate on Facebook about Slayer, a band I've listened to for more than 30 years. The discussion was a masterful attempt at trolling in which a guy was bashing the band for being overrated and inferior to both Testament and Megadeth. It was a sad nerd war, no cooler than arguing over whether Batman or Superman would win in a fight, and it left me feeling dirty afterwards, but I couldn't ignore the troll...His shit-stirring powers were too great. Besides, I was around in the glory days of thrash metal and saw a lot of the bands that made the genre popular, and my online enemy looked too young to have "been there." It got me thinking, just how did these bands rank back then, and what about now? Let's look at Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer, "The Big Four" when it came to '80s thrash metal bands.
It's hard to remember a time when hearing someone say he or she is a huge Metallica fan wasn't just shorthand for "you listen to terrible fucking music," but in the '80s, Metallica wasn't the embarrassing juggernaut of suck that they've been for most of the past 25 years.
Yes, I realize those statements are as inflammatory as my recent foe's take on Slayer, so sue me, I have ears, and as soon as I heard "Enter Sandman" the first time, I laughed one of those sad "This is ridiculous, and this band is awful now" laughs and moved on. But in the days before Hetfield tried to sing... soulfully?...and before it was increasingly evident that Lars is a deranged hobgoblin with an almost magical ability to seem like a huge dick, Metallica was an awesome thrash band. Underestimating their place in the history of the development of that genre would be as silly as trying to rock out to a Metallica cover of a Bob Seger song; it just doesn't work.
Albums like Kill 'Em All, Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets helped define a new type of metal, and Metallica was one of the main thrash bands that seemed to rally fans to that style of music. Before they reached mainstream audiences, Metallica were seen as an up-and-coming underground band and kept that reputation through most of the '80s. Some Houston fans may remember them doing an in-store appearance at the legendary Pasadena Texas Tapes 'N Records — one of the best heavy metal resources in the region — or saw them open for Ozzy at the Summit supporting Master of Puppets. They were great back then.
Megadeth formed in 1983 after Dave Mustaine got chucked out of Metallica and spent most of the decade talking shit, and occasionally putting out albums with the new band he formed. Mustaine was (is) a genius guitar player and there's no doubt that he was one of the pioneers of thrash metal. He also seems like a jackass of almost Larsian proportions, but that doesn't really have anything to do with his musical contributions. A lot of people love Megadeth, but the circles I ran in thought they were always somewhere behind Metallica and Slayer in popularity. Megadeth raised the notch on complexity in thrash metal, but while they frequently had catchy riffs, their songs are extremely polished-sounding and lack the rough edges that I liked in other bands of the time. For some reason, I always associate Megadeth with bad vocals, virtuosic solos, tight pants, pretty hair and ugly white sneakers.
Of the "Big Four," Anthrax was the only band from the East Coast, and the goofiest. For better or worse, Anthrax injected a heavy amount of humor into a genre that often seemed eager to take itself too seriously. Anthrax went through a bunch of lineup changes over the years, but their golden era in the mid to late '80s when Joey Belladonna was their singer is what made them a major player in the thrash metal scene. I always thought they had a heavier sound than some of their contemporaries, but Belladonna's operatic vocals were more traditionally "metal" than the guttural barking of many thrash singers, and combining them with the often silly lyrics for songs like "Medusa" and "I'm the Man," Anthrax was a band lots of folks either loved or hated. They also seemed happy to experiment musically, and were early pioneers in metal/rap and hardcore punk crossovers. Of the Big Four, Anthrax were probably pushing stylistic limits in ways the other groups weren't. I always picture board shorts and Judge Dredd comics when I think back on '80s Anthrax.
In the 1980s, Slayer was a band that could scare parents. Sure, there were plenty of satanic heavy metal bands around at the time, but Slayer just seemed more serious than most of them. I remember being hassled by two burned-out metal creeps at my high school because they discovered I was a fan. "You're going to Hell," warned the slimy, smaller one while trying to look menacing in his Krokus T-shirt. His larger friend just shook his head in agreement that my eternal fate had been settled. I saw both of them at a Slayer concert a couple of years later — I'm assuming that by then, they'd figured out Slayer's music was a lot cooler than anything on a Krokus album.
In any case, Slayer was the only overtly satanic band in the big four, even though it was pretty obvious that their brand of diabolism was created for shock value and was not a serious spiritual viewpoint. Still, the music was great — sinister-sounding riffs and rhythms chugging along to horror-show lyrics that frightened meeker metal heads. I saw Slayer at the Maceba Theater in Houston in early 1987, when they were supporting their new Reign in Blood album, and that show was a game changer for me. They were playing with more conventionally metal bands — Raven and WASP, and the juxtaposition between Slayer and those bands made it obvious that the scary thrash band was far cooler.
Reign in Blood is one of the genre's "perfect albums," just over 30 minutes of raw perfection with no filler or missteps. It was the ideal sound track for late-night teenage adventures, driving around in beater cars with "Postmortem" pounding from the speakers while adults looked on in disgust. And musically, Slayer was just a little more relentless than the other bands back then. Some people criticized the guitar solos for being less refined-sounding, more chaotic than those in other thrash bands, but it was that sort of thing that set the band aside and made them seem unique. And a lot of people seemed to agree, based on the number of photos of metal fans I've seen from the '80s wearing Slayer shirts. The group definitely wasn't for everyone, and the faux satanism alienated a lot of listeners who would've liked the music otherwise.
Fast-forward a good 25 or 30 years, and all of these bands are still around. Metallica, of course, has become one of the most popular bands in the world, a feat that most fans in the early '80s would've thought impossible. Claiming to be a fan nowadays often comes with a disclaimer of some sort..."I only like their old stuff and Death Magnetic," or whatever, but they're bigger than ever. Anthrax went through a bunch of lineup changes, but is back to their classic roster, or close to it, and still slogging away, as is Megadeth, in between crazy, rambling conspiracy monologues from Dave Mustaine.
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Slayer has never relented, even after the death of founding member Jeff Hanneman, and is still plugging away, though they seem to have mostly abandoned the strategy of out-deviling everyone else.
If someone had told my teenaged self that all these bands would still be around decades later, I would've said he was crazy. I owe my recent Internet dust-up with the metal troll a bit of gratitude, though. He made me look back at the period when I discovered these bands, and made me realize just how good they were back then. Even Metallica, and that's saying something.
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