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The History of Thrash Metal

The History of Thrash Metal

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On June 28, 1991, three of the biggest bands in thrash metal - Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth - headlined a sold-out show at New York City's Madison Square Garden. The gig was one stop on a tour that, fittingly, was billed as the Clash of the Titans. Just as appropriate was the venue for that night's show, the self-proclaimed "World's Most Famous Arena." Cheered on by thousands of screaming fans, the bands delivered a bold statement: Thrash music notoriously nonconformist, ferociously passionate and unbelievably heavy-was no longer an underdog. It wasn't even a contender. It was the undisputed king of the heavy metal heap.

"We were sitting in a dressing room in Cincinnati after a gig earlier that year;' recalls Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, "and our tour manager carne in and told us we had gotten an offer to go out on the road with Slayer and Megadeth. I was fucking pumped, because I knew it was going to be a pretty awesome thing."

It was, in fact, a very awesome thing. After all, Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth had been responsible for creating some of the previous decade's most extreme and uncompromising music. Together with Metallica they had been christened the "Big Four" and were among the originators of the style that came to be known as thrash, which took the thundering force of traditional heavy metal, injected it with punk's sneering aggression and delivered the whole thing with a relentless, insistent groove. Although the thrash tag is rarely used today, the music and its attitude have inspired a new generation of musicians, and its signifying characteristics-rapid-fire, heavily palm-muted guitar riffs, pounding double-bass drumming, and vocals that shunned histrionics in favor of a gruff, street level delivery live on in the sound of countless current metal acts.

"We were playing brutal, real metal music, and the Clash tour showed that we could be successful on our own terms by doing our own thing," says Ian. "So that was important. Back then, it always drove us crazy when people lumped us together with guys like Ratt and Motley Criie. I don't know what they were, but they certainly weren't metal. We were metal."

In 1991, the fans agreed with Ian wholeheartedly. Thrash had become the music of choice for those fed up with the slick, image-obsessed acts that had dominated heavy metal throughout much of the Eighties. The Clash of the Titans tour was a resounding affirmation of that fact.

And yet, little more than a decade earlier, thrash metal didn't exist. In fact, at the beginning of the Eighties, heavy music as a whole was in dire straits. For one thing, many of the genre's leading bands were suffering a massive hangover from the high times and hard living of the previous decade: Black Sabbath were struggling to reinvent themselves with new singer Ronnie James Dio; Ozzy Osbourne, Sabbath's former frontman, was engulfed in a haze of drugs and alcohol; Led Zeppelin were permanently grounded following the death of drummer John Bonham; Kiss had split with original guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss; and Deep Purple, after numerous lineup changes, had finally called it quits. At the same time, up-and-coming bands like Britain's Judas Priest and Germany's Scorpions had yet to make a considerable dent in the American market.

As a result, metal's bombastic sound and rebellious soul were co-opted by anodyne arena rockers that included Journey and Foreigner, who smoothed out the music's rough edges, gave it a spit-shine and fed it, defanged and declawed, to the mainstream masses. So it wasn't just his teenage flair for melodrama that led future Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich to describe the life of an American metal fan circa 1980 as a "lonely existence." When the 15-year-old and his family relocated that year from his native Denmark to Newport Beach, California, Ulrich found that virtually no one in his new home had yet heard of Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, two of his favorite bands, or for that matter any of the other acts who were part of a burgeoning U.K. scene known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.


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