Back in 1986, death was in the air.
India's Bhopal gas leak disaster exposed half a million people to toxic fumes, scorching lungs and killing thousands. The nuclear reactor meltdown at Russia's Chernobyl power plant spewed radioactive fallout throughout Eastern Europe, an outbreak of cancer and birth defects riding the wind. Then, there was the bombing of TWA Flight 840 and the Challenger space shuttle explosion, stealing the lives of the entire crew.
It was a grim year all around: the Iran-Contra affair coming to light, revealing corruption at the highest levels of government; the AIDS and crack epidemics accelerating from slow burn to uncontrollable blaze; ALF debuting in primetime.
These harsh times begat a soundtrack that was harsher still: thrash metal, a direct product of its contentious environment.
Now, thrash wasn't born in 1986 — its roots extend all the way back to the late '70s, when Motörhead was breaking rock 'n' roll land-speed records — but this was its coming of age, its greatest, most resonant, and most influential year, one that reverberates just as loudly 30 years later.
Musically, thrash was a composite of extremes: the terminal velocity of the aforementioned Motörhead, the elaborate, ambitious arrangements of Iron Maiden, the dual guitar pyrotechnics of Judas Priest, the gravel-coarse vocals of Venom.
Thrash's impact on metal was like a fistful of methamphetamines crossed with the Taco Bell value menu — it took everything up a notch while simultaneously providing way more bang for the headbanger buck.
Lyrically, though, thrash diverged from metal precedent — there was nothing fantastical about it, no songs about ancient mariners or iron men. Thrash wasn't about escapism; rather, it was posited on confronting reality with music that could be as grim as autopsy photos.
Thrash was metal's most topical strain, and in this way, inspired more by punk and hardcore bands like Discharge and Void.
There was a political dimension to it, as well as an environmental consciousness and a fascination with war and its consequences.
Thrash gave metal some real gravitas: It was no longer just about chasing chicks, partying 'til you puked, and/or Dungeons & Dragons-esque medieval fantasies — not that all of those things didn't still have their place in the scene.
And it all came to a head 30 years ago in 1986, when perhaps the genre's three most influential albums were all released within a span of seven months. First, in March, came Metallica's Master of Puppets, a masterpiece of machine riffs fired at metal’s old guard, which vaulted the band from underground favorites to future superstars, blowing Ozzy Osbourne off the stage nightly when they opened for said bird-biter later that year.
Then came Megadeth's Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying in September, a darker, even more technically involved hunk o' hell with songs that both snarled at the powers that be and evoked the Satanic bible. Finally, in October, came the baddest of them all, Slayer's Reign In Blood, perhaps the fiercest 28 minutes and 58 seconds ever laid down, catalyzing countless ACL tears from aspiring drummers attempting to duplicate Dave Lombardo's inhuman double-bass drum fusillades.
In addition to those shoo-ins for the metal Mount Rushmore, there was a massive bumper crop of essential thrash records dropped in '86. Los Angeles' Dark Angel would never find the widespread success of those aforementioned bands, but their Darkness Descends remains a monument in face-ripping power. On the East Coast, sardonic, poly-sci-informed ragers Nuclear Assault dropped their seminal debut, Game Over, an album directly influenced by Cold War paranoia, with songs ripped from the headlines ("Nuclear War," "Radiation Sickness"), all balanced by a caustic sense of humor ("Hang the Pope").
Overseas, that famous German engineering led to ever-more efficient killing machines in the form of Destruction's Eternal Devastation, Kreator's Pleasure to Kill, and Sodom's Obsessed By Cruelty. Those albums' titles alone spelled out these bands' unsubtle intentions: With even harsher vocals and blitzkrieg abandon, all three would prove highly influential in the burgeoning black- and death-metal scenes.
What's more, there was a slew of minor classics that would prove to be influential in their own right, like Voivod's Rrroooaarrr, Flotsam and Jetsam's Doomsday for the Deceiver, and Exciter's Unveiling the Madness.
Thrash also began to seep into other genres, merging with hardcore, a combustible mixture, resulting in Carnivore's crushing, intensely un-P.C. self-titled debut, Crumbsuckers' Life of Dreams, and Cryptic Slaughter's Convicted.
Context is crucial to understanding the significance of thrash's emergence at this time.
Hair metal was about to reach its apex, becoming as big as all those ubiquitous AquaNet-suspended bangs with Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet, Poison's Look What The Cat Dragged In and Cinderella's Night Songs all coming out that year, to the delight of Spandex manufacturers worldwide.
And in perhaps the biggest affront to the Dark Lord's music, Bible 'bangers Stryper released To Hell With The Devil, one of the top-selling albums in the history of the oxymoron that is Christian metal.
Meanwhile, some long-in-the-tooth metal legends were starting to get old in age and sound alike. Black Sabbath dropped one of their most middling records, the bluesy, half-baked Seventh Star. Ozzy Osbourne's Ultimate Sin was as bloated and listless as a booze- and drug-addled Ozzy had himself become. Judas Priest's Turbo was highly polarizing thanks to its smash-hit title track, which featured the heavy-metal equivalent of saltpeter: the dreaded synthesizer.
But as poorly received as many of these albums were critically, most of them did big business, as metal was breaking into the mainstream like never before. The problem was, it was also getting as watered down as the draft beer peddled in the arenas these bands now filled.
Metal was once dark, evil, and as abhorrent to parents as a daughter aspiring to a career in animal porn. But for the most part, mid-'80s, MTV-tailored metal was bright, polished to a radio-friendly sheen, and about as dangerous as a Nerf hand grenade.
Thrash was the opposite of all this pretty-boy posturing, right down to its nothing-but-denim look; the standard attire was jean jackets with band buttons on the front and logo patches on the back, Levis tight enough to imperil one's sperm count, and white high-top sneakers to provide maximum traction when fleeing detention.
More important than aesthetics, thrash brought a real sense of danger to the fold, introducing slam dancing to the scene, which originated in punk and morphed into moshing at metal gigs.
You could actually get hurt at a thrash show, while the only injury you'd be in danger of sustaining at a Motley Crue concert would be the occasional singed mane when someone flicked their Bic too close to all those sweet, hairspray-saturated Pomeranian coifs.
The thrash scene was notoriously anti-glam: If you wore eyeliner to an Exodus show, you’d be lucky to escape with only a bruise or two. Less fortunate types might literally get cut with broken glass.
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Thrash was serious business — at least on stage. Off it, these dudes partied as hard as they riffed.
If mascara-mad bands like Ratt represented the genre's insatiable libido, metal's id with pants down around its ankles, looking to conquer female flesh more than societal ills, thrash was metal's conscience, its discerning superego, troubled by the world, consuming its ugliness and then spitting it right back into its face.
Thrash was a deafeningly loud, angry voice for change — and while these dudes might not have, in fact, changed the world, the same can't be said of heavy metal.