Speed metal or thrash metal? The consensus seems to be that the terms are interchangeable and probably not even applicable in 2016, although the term "thrash" metal doesn't elicit the groans that "speed" metal does when experts on the subject are asked. In fact, this list of the best speed/thrash metal albums of all time is full of the opinions of many key players who helped shape the scene in Phoenix and beyond.
"I don't think the terms are relevant today," says guitar virtuoso Marty Friedman, a former member of Megadeth who now is a Japanese television personality. "There really isn't a whole lot of stuff that keeps those sub-genres alive. There is a lot of extremely influential things that happened, though, that have a big influence on the way people play their instruments today. It was kind of upping the ante on metal music."
Friedman's opinion is exactly that — an opinion. His sentiment, shared by many of his metal-playing peers, is that metal is metal and there isn't a huge difference between speed metal or thrash metal, although the term "hair" metal definitely is taboo among those who like their metal heavy, fast, and brutal. "Brutal" is a word that seems to come up a lot, actually.
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"The Megadeth and Exodus records were big early influences when we started Sacred Reich," says Phil Rind, bassist/vocalist for Sacred Reich, a longtime Phoenix-based metal band. "[Crossover bands like] Corrosion [of Conformity] and D.R.I. [Dirty Rotten Imbeciles] were big influences early on, too, especially lyrically. The Sepultura records are just brutal and have an intensity that is Slayer-esque."
For the early '80s bands that played "speed" metal, the goal was to play faster, louder, harder, and in a more technical style than the '70s bands they both worshiped and were frustrated by. The influence of two particular things, the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) and punk rock (especially hardcore punk), were key both in the development of speed metal and its subsequent folding into thrash metal. For our purposes, we will use both terms.
"A defining moment for me was the first time I heard Kill 'Em All [Metallica's 1983 debut LP] on cassette," says Michael Gilbert of local metal heroes Flotsam & Jetsam. "I remember it well. Sitting on a milk crate behind 7-Eleven drinking a Mountain Dew 32-ounce Big Gulp with a few of my buddies listening to a boombox. When 'Hit the Lights' started and the fast guitar starts after the fade-in, it unleashed demons for me and changed how I listened to music. I found the Holy Grail that day."
Like a giant wielding a musical sledgehammer, Lemmy had a unique style — in which he played bass like an amphetamine-fueled guitarist — that thousands of bass players have aped but never re-created.
Only records this special can lead a man to remember three decades later what he was drinking and in what size cup when he first heard it. Yet for many people, they can remember the first time they heard Metallica, Anthrax, or Slayer. For those lucky enough to experience these bands in concert, there is a similar reverence and an almost familial bond with fellow fans. Even though the music is mainstream — maybe the most mainstream of American music in many ways — there is an element of thrash metal that still is underground and still somewhat dangerous. And the bands and their fans are connected through the music's power.
The development of thrash metal can be traced to two English bass players. The driving sound of a Steve Harris bass line in many of the early Iron Maiden songs is still mimicked today at metal bars all over the world, and it helped propel the birth of speed and thrash metal. Just listen to "Run to the Hills," from the band's third album, 1982's Number of the Beast, and see what happens at about the 48-second mark to the song. Harris' unique two-finger bass style drives the music to a previously unheard level.
Iron Maiden were part of the new wave of British heavy metal, which included Def Leppard, Motörhead, a reinvigorated Judas Priest, and the influential, darkly comic Venom. NWOBHM was a reaction to the tepid musicality that hard rock had succumbed to during the mid-1970s. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Aerosmith still remained popular, but young listeners demanded something more powerful — something darker, evil, and seemingly out of control.
Just as influential as Harris, the sonic attack of Lemmy Kilmister, the late leader of Motörhead, had the tone and growl no other bassist had when the group released its fourth record, Ace of Spades, in 1980. Like a giant wielding a musical sledgehammer, Kilmister had a unique style — in which he played bass like an amphetamine-fueled guitarist — that thousands of bass players have aped but never re-created.
"Even though Motörhead may not be technically considered speed metal, their influence cannot be denied. They played it loud and they played it fast and infused an element of punk rock attitude that left an indelible mark on, and subsequently defined, the entire genre," says Mike Bolenbach, owner/chief engineer at Phoenix's Full Well Recording Studio.
"It kinda started with Motörhead. As much as Lemmy never wanted the title of 'Godfather of Thrash' — and he refused all that, always saying they play rock 'n' roll — I always look at Motörhead as the pioneers, kinda like [the band that] inspired the whole movement. From [Motörhead] came Metallica and Slayer and the whole thing," says Sepultura/Soulfly's Max Cavalera, who knows a thing or two about being influential.
To be sure, the influence of punk, especially as it shifted into the hardcore period of its early existence, played a role in the formation of the new faster, harder, meaner versions of metal springing up in the early Reagan years.
"There were three bands that I always had a love for back then," says Charlie Benante, drummer for Anthrax and Stormtroopers of Death. "There was Agnostic Front. There was the Cro-Mags. I remember seeing the Cro-Mags early on, and I just loved everything about them. The music, the style, everything about it. And then there was a band from New Jersey called A.O.D., which was Adrenaline Overdose, and I thought they were awesome . . . We had more of that New York hardcore element to us. We would have these parts in the song that would breakdown that were really similar to a lot of those bands."
For some, the new sound was an abomination. Of course, for others it was home. For folks who were waking up from the musical haze that behemoths like Led Zeppelin had induced, an album like Kill 'Em All (Megaforce Records) was a breath of fresh air.
Locally, a scene emerged in the early '80s, as bands like Surgical Steel and the School Boys set the stage before quickly giving way to Sacred Reich and Flotsam & Jetsam in the mid- to late-'80s. In 1983, Gloria Cavalera (now married to Max Cavalera and with 30-plus years of band management under her belt) and her brother Paul Guffin opened the Bootlegger on 36th Street and Thunderbird Road in Paradise Valley, providing a necessary spark to help take the Phoenix metal scene to the next level.
"The scene was crazy. I went out every night to see bands," remembers Donnie Crist, a local skateboarding legend and member of many early Valley metal bands, including Scarlet Letter and the Dogz (which later became Flotsam & Jetsam). "There were a ton of bands to see. The bars were packed, especially on the weekends. Everyone was trying to get noticed. Everyone wanted to get a record deal like the L.A. bands."
For Sacred Reich's Rind, these days were important as well.
"I remember seeing Flotsam at the Bootlegger," Rind recalls. "They were like our big brother band. Jason would borrow my bass cabinets when they would have a show so they would have lots of gear. I would come out in the morning to my car and open the door and there would be a stack of Flotsam flyers in my car, and there would be a note from Jason [Newsted, Flotsam & Jetsam bass player who joined Metallica in 1986] saying, 'Distribute amongst your friends' because I was still in high school then."
The success of Flotsam & Jetsam and Sacred Reich locally turned into much bigger things for each band. There were (and still are) world tours, records, and the respect and admiration of fans and metal peers around the world. More than a couple of these records can be considered classics, for sure, with at least two of them belonging in the best of list that follows these paragraphs. Obviously, no list will ever do complete justice to a genre, but we feel strongly these are 11 of the best speed and thrash metal records of all time.
Honorable Mention: Motörhead — No Sleep 'til Hammersmith: "None of the rest of the bands on this list would be what they are without Motörhead," says Nate Garrett, guitarist for both Gatecreeper and Take Over and Destroy, two of the better current metal bands in Arizona.
Is it metal, punk, or just heavy-as-fuck rock 'n' roll? Whatever it is, this album punches you in the face from the opening riff of "Ace of Spades" and keeps on punching throughout. The 18-song live album shows the three-piece at the height of its early power. Bassist/vocalist Kilmister, "Fast" Eddie Clarke on guitar, and drummer Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor laid the groundwork for a ridiculous number of bands that came after Motörhead.
"They were the predecessors to all things speed, reckless, and fun," says Megadeth's David Ellefson.
10. Sacred Reich — Ignorance: Listening to this classic is like connecting battery cables straight to your nervous system. The album contains no finesse, no letup, and nothing but warfare on the status quo with unflinching honesty. Bassist/vocalist Phil Rind, lead guitarist Wiley Arnett, rhythm guitarist Jason Rainey, and drummer Greg Hall created a masterpiece when they recorded the album in 1987 for Metal Blade Records with engineer/producer Bill Metoyer (DRI, Slayer, Corrosion of Conformity).
Songs like "Death Squad," "Violent Intentions," and the title track are just a few of the reasons why Sacred Reich is well respected around the world, even if the band gets less attention here at home. In fact, Sacred Reich regularly plays the festival circuit in Europe during the summer. The mosh pit alone in the European crowds easily dwarf the audience at Sacred Reich's biggest shows in Phoenix.
9. Testament — The New Order: Listen to "Trial by Fire" (from The New Order by Berkeley, California's Testament) and you will get a cross section of East Coast and West Coast metal, '70s hard rock, and the proto-punk of New York City's Dictators. And that is just one song. Testament is another band on this list that qualifies as one of the best examples of speed metal evolving into "thrash" right in front of our eyes. Either way, it is one of the best metal albums of all time.
"Old reliable," says Flotsam & Jetsam's Gilbert. "[The band] keeps the Testament sound intact album after album. They still sound like they did when The Legacy [their 1987 debut] came out."
"I think Chuck Billy is probably my favorite vocalist in the speed/thrash metal genre. I'll never forget being blown away by the dynamics of his vocals . . . Alex Skolnick [lead guitar and principal songwriter on The New Order] is arguably the best guitar player the genre has ever seen. This album has a palpable vibe of menace," Gatecreeper's Garrett says.
Testament's combination of styles and sheer talent makes them a must-listen for any fan of the speed/thrash metal aesthetic. Billy, Skolnick, rhythm guitarist Eric Peterson, bassist Greg Christian, and drummer Louie Clemente had a tangible connection on The New Order, and it was artfully captured by the talented producer Alex Perialas. Testament will continue to influence countless bands for years to come.
8. Flotsam & Jetsam — Doomsday for the Deceiver: Flotsam & Jetsam gave the Valley a wonderful gift in 1986 with Doomsday for the Deceiver, which cemented Phoenix's place in the burgeoning worldwide speed/thrash metal scene as both having a rabid fan base and a contributor to the pantheon. With Doomsday, Flotsam & Jetsam showed everyone it was a band to be taken seriously after years of honing its craft regionally. Bassist and principal lyricist Jason Newsted, who would join Metallica in 1986, was accompanied by guitar player Michael Gilbert (then a mere 18 years old), singer Eric "AK" Knutson, guitarist Ed Carlson, and drummer Kelly David-Smith.
The recording of Doomsday was not without incident, as Newsted spent a night in a Los Angeles jail for possessing magic mushrooms during the session.
"Some Metal Blade person went down and got him out, so it was no big deal, but [Newsted] went from shrooming in the L.A. county jail to being in Metallica and [eventually] being on [Metallica's] best album ever," says Heavy Metal Television head honcho Eric Braverman, who worked with the band in several different capacities over the years.
Even with the night off from recording, Newsted and the band turned in some amazing work.
Flotsam & Jetsam, or "Flots," as many local fans refer to them, were another example of a great blend between the NWOBHM sound and the burgeoning speed/thrash scene. Knutson's distinctive vocals are reminiscent of Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson's, but not in a way that would invite accusations of mimicry. There are several standout tracks on Doomsday, but "Hammerhead" and "Metalshock" are two of the best metal songs of all time. Between the twin guitar attack of Gilbert and Carlson and the stellar bass play of Newsted, this album received some of the highest praise in the metal world, garnering an extremely rare "KKKKKK," or six-K, rating from British metal mag Kerrang.
7. Nuclear Assault — Game Over: "Live, Suffer, Die," the opening track of Nuclear Assault's 1986 classic Game Over — is a blistering example of amplifiers pushed to the limit. It's an instrumental that rages through a killer combination of notes played at lightning speed. One wonders how many aspiring metal bands have considered covering this song and just given up.
Formed in 1984, Nuclear Assault (bassist Dan Lilker, vocalist/guitarist John Connelly, guitarist Anthony Bramante, and drummer Glenn Evans) tore a new one in the New York hardcore and metal communities when this behemoth record came out and crushed everyone. In founding the band, Lilker, who had spent time in Anthrax and Stormtroopers of Death, wanted to do something a bit more substantial than his previous bands, as well as "make it nice and fast . . . We did have Slayer to compete with by then, you know."
When Connelly sings, "I always thought you were my friend / But it seems that in the end, you're a backstabbing fool / I always trusted you with me / You're the mistress of deceit / You're a backstabbing fool" on "Betrayal," the sentiment screams "fuck you." Undoubtedly, it has been played many times as a direct message to someone who has betrayed a friend or lover. The song, like every other track on the album, is flat-out brutal in its musical intensity and simple yet scathing lyrical message.
"Such a great band with killer intent," says Megadeth's Ellefson. "Loved by the thrash community but somewhat overlooked by the mainstream. I loved the vocals and lyrics with this band . . . brutally heavy."
6. Exodus — Bonded by Blood: Northern California's Exodus released Bonded by Blood in 1985, and the metal world took notice. Rick Hunolt and Gary Holt (who now also plays in Slayer) traded guitar leads on this album like no other band's guitarists in the genre had done up to that point, starting a trend that continues to this day. Michael Gilbert, who followed suit with Ed Carlson on multiple Flotsam & Jetsam releases, remembers that the album "was always on at my house. Scary guitar playing on this album and catchy, fast, choppy rhythms. Another record that helped set the pace of speed metal."
Holt and Hunolt were joined on the record by drummer Tom Hunting, bassist, Rob McKillop, and late vocalist Paul Baloff.
"Everything about Bonded by Blood is lethal, especially Baloff's unhinged vocal delivery," says Gatecreeper vocalist Chase Mason.
While Baloff would leave Exodus for over a decade after the record's release, the singer's mix of metal and punk roots really set the tone nicely on Bonded by Blood. His work on tracks like "Piranha" and "And Then There Were None" helped the band transcend the "typical" metal approach and carry the band into the thrash hall of fame. Baloff's contribution to metal has been sorely missed since his death in 2002.
"This band never apologized for just being a full-throttle thrash band, almost to the point of being funny because they were so rowdy," Ellefson says. "They probably represent Bay Area thrash better than anyone, and for the longest period of time, too."
"It's hard to articulate why Bonded by Blood is a draw other than it completely summarizes the thrash metal spirit of the time," says Danko Jones, the Canadian guitar wizard and singer responsible for 2003's We Sweat Blood album (Bad Taste Records). "The riffs are bludgeoning, and the vocals are so angry and frightening. Nothing about the album is polished."