1986: A Thrash Odyssey

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I imagine that a lot of people who stumble upon this article will, like me, have been too young to remember or even know metal’s epic year of 1986. Similarly, I’m sure there’s a fair few of you out there who will remember those halcyon days with great reminiscence. So a few aspects of this article are going to look back upon this particular era retrospectively. With the year of 1986 twenty-five years in the making, I felt I had to revert to complete fan-mode and construct an article on it.
I’m a man of many genres, none more so, however, than thrash. I’m so drawn to everything about it – the speed, the shred, the intensity, the crazy guitar solos and feckin’ furious drum beats and blasts. And even though I wasn’t even two years old when one of metal’s greatest uprisings was taking place, I still hanker for those days like no-one else. When thrash had a mini-resurgence a few years ago, no-one was happier than I was. Denim-patched jackets were back in, and as my fervour grew, so did my hair. The litany of explosive shows, neck-wrecking antics and aches and bruises increased. To hell with future good health, because to thrash is to live.
The Bay Area trio of Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth were already making waves prior to ’86. Metallica had already made a huge statement of intent on their first two album, 1983’s ‘Kill ‘Em All’ and 1984’s ‘Ride The Lightning’; Megadeth, formed by Dave Mustaine after his well-documented exit from Metallica, had arrived on the scene with ‘Killing Is My Business…And Business Is Good!’; while Slayer were showing their potential prowess with 1984’s ‘Hell Awaits’. These bands, along with bands such as Anthrax (the other member of the so-called Big 4), Overkill and Razor, were blazing a trail for thrash as it grew in popularity. And all this before I had any visual memory.
This all culminated in the thrash explosion of 1986 – a year in which classic album after classic album was released. The main three, of course, were Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’, released on March 3rd of that year; Slayer’s ‘Reign In Blood’, released on October 7th; Megadeth’s ‘Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?’ in November.

I’m such a Slayer geek it’s ridiculous, so it’s logical I start there. They were one of the first metal bands I got into and I still fondly remember the first time I listening to ‘Reign In Blood’. I bought the CD, took it home, and ran upstairs to the bedroom me and my brother shared at the time. I put the CD in and pressed play, and for the next 35 minutes (yes, ours was the remastered version with ‘Aggressive Perfector’ too), we did nothing but just sit and listen stilly, intently, as riff riff riff, solo, riff, scream, etc. emitted from the speakers. But for the occasional ‘that was awesome’, we didn’t say a word. It was truly the most incredible music listening experience I’ve ever had. Nowadays, I don’t have the time to truly immerse myself in a record like that. But right then, I just wanted to be in the Bay Area in 1986. If only time machines were real.
I can’t see my experience of ‘Master of Puppets’ or ‘Peace Sells…’ were that fanatical or indeed intense, but both albums were no less momentous. I allowed myself to immerse in nothing but both records at the time. I remember my spine tingling when ‘Battery’ began. I’d already heard the track prior to hearing the album but it still had that effect the third or fourth time. By the time the line ‘Cannot kill the battery!’ came, I was already thrashing away. The epic moments just kept coming. Not a single bad track. That same spine tingling sensation reappeared for ‘Master of Puppets’. The heavy stomping groove of ‘The Thing That Should Not Be’, the charge of ‘Disposable Heroes’, and the instrumental wonder that is ‘Orion’, which had Cliff Burton’s mark all over it. But for the tragic accident in Sweden which took his life in September 1986, who’s to know what direction Metallica may have continued in? That’s something we’ll all be left to ponder. But ‘Master of Puppets’ was a fitting epitaph, that is for sure.
Peace Sells…’ is just as great an album as those two, although personally I feel it’s just about eclipsed by 1990’s ‘Rust In Peace’. Here, Mustaine and crew delivered on the potential shown on ‘Killing…’ with an excellent speed/thrash metal record that no true fan should be without. I’d had an on-off relationship with Megadeth up until I heard this album, but the moment ‘Wake Up Dead’ started, I was in the thrash zone there and then. The riffs in that song are just incredible, real headbangers. ‘Peace Sells’, ‘Devil’s Island’, ‘Good Mourning/Black Friday’…wow, wow and wow again. Mustaine, Poland, Ellefson and Samuelson definitely all brought their A-game to that party.
Beyond the Big 4, there were other albums at the time that would later become thrash touchstones against which future releases would be judged. Dark Angel’s ‘Darkness Descends’ is an exercise in blistering speed, shredding guitars and ripping vocals, evidenced on the blistering ‘Merciless Death’ and the frenetic ‘Perish In Flames’ to name a couple. A true masterpiece that nobody should be without either. Flotsam and Jetsam’s ‘Doomsday For The Deceiver’ saw Kerrang magazine’s Harry Headbanger get so excited he eschewed their 5K rating system in favour of giving the album a 6Ks instead! Not that it needs particularly justifying – F&J’s debut (and Jason Newsted’s last recording with them before departing for Metallica) is a real thrash tour-de-force. 
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the British and German invasion. Kreator unleashed ‘Pleasure To Kill’, surely one of the heaviest thrash albums released; tracks like ‘Ripping Corpse’, the title-track and ‘Riot of Violence’ were designed to punish the vertebrae in all ways imaginable; Destruction’s ‘Eternal Devastation’, while somewhat overlooked, was smattered with free-flowing technicality that made for a complete headbanging riff-fest; while on these shores, Onslaught released ‘The Force’, a true UK thrash classic that lit the torchpaper for other UK thrash bands to begin emerging to form a scene of their own.
Thrash metal was further splintering the heavy metal genre in that same year, as crossover acts such as Cryptic Slaughter and D.R.I were getting into their stride, and the first death metal bands were putting out their first demo tapes in a taste of things to come. As metal sought to become more extreme, it’s fair to say thrash got slightly left behind for pure speed by death metal and grind, and then faded from popularity as grunge exploded in a huge way. Yet although it isn’t quite as popular as it was to begin with, its very essence is still true and innumerable modern metal bands owe a debt for pioneering a style that brought extreme heavy music to the fore.
And there’s nothing like attending a thrash metal gig. The community spirit is right there every time. Whether you’re banging your head, pumping your fist, circling in the pit, or launching yourself from a stage, thrash gigs are just as vital and fun as they were back in the 80’s. Thrash has been injected with a fresh new impetus in the last through years and its set to continue with plenty of new releases to come this year, plus the documentary ‘A History of a Time to Come: The Story of UK Thrash’ set to be ready in time for 2012.
I’m sure I’ve not covered every angle but I could go on forever. It just leaves me to say that if you’re one of the lucky ones to have snagged a ticket to Sonisphere to see the Big 4 finally play together on UK soil (no jealousy there, ha ha), then you are truly in for an experience like never before. Four of the world’s greatest metal bands, one after another, anthem after anthem, riff after riff after bloody riff. Regardless of whether you’ve seen them before, or whether it’s your first time, get ready to thrash like 1986!
Readers, if you’ve got any experiences of 1986, or indeed if you’ve get any opinions on the classic albums of that year, please leave a comment below and let’s get the discussion going.
Peter Clegg


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