Jun 13, 2007

Thrash Retrospective.

I've been filling out my collection with some of the albums that I remember the most from my thrash days which I'd either sold or never upgraded from my tapes. While doing this, I've been thinking about thrash as a genre of metal, especially in relation to other genres. It hasn't fred quite as well, with most bands unable to present resilient shelf-lives, that are comparable to the more "classic" metal like Maiden or Priest. Also, the genre as a whole stagnated quickly, unlike more extreme metal genres like death and black, which seem to continue permuting to this day.

What was it about thrash? I won't go into a long exposition about the subject, leaving that direction in the capable hands of folks like Invisible Oranges (an outstanding music blog, by the way. Dude is well-informed, a good writer, and funny to boot). While there are plenty of classics in the genre, it didn't seem to extend a lot further than the die-hards, and the formula either got too tired too quickly, or people moved on.

Within thrash, everyone talks about the "big four" - Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. I started my journey with Metallica, as a lot of the not-quite-underground folks did. I really liked their first four albums, to varying degrees, and it fit the mood I was in when I found them. But looking back, there are only a few songs after Kill 'em All that remain classic to me. The majority of the non-Mustaine/Burton stuff just feels too long-winded, winding, and ultimately, boring. With only one guitarist who could pull off leads (which all ended up sounding the same), an obsession with Sabbath riffs that only becomes more apparent when you go to the source material, and the inability to turn truly clever or deep lyrics, Metallica has always been more of an emotional thing for people. The songs I love, I'll always love, but that list gets shorter over time. Don't believe me?

Try listening to one of the albums again if you're a fan. One of the "real" albums. It's okay. But did the songs *really* have to be that long? I used to love long tracks. I don't know what's happened to me, but maybe it's the obligatory 20-30 minute long track that most "progressive" metal bands put out nowadays that feel like they're trying so hard to wow me that the soul of the song got up and walked right out the door. Call it Dream Theater-itis. Only a few bands can really pull it off: with Fates Warning remaining at the top of the list because of the textures they bring to their songs, and Ray Alder's rich, full vocal delivery. I guess that means I should give Redemption another chance, even with the long long tracks. Oh, and Opeth. Opeth is amazing. Thanks burnedouteyes for the intro on that tip years ago.

Anyway, so on to Anthrax. The New Yorkers (what what!) in the crew, I'm surprised that they are considered one of the "big 4." I like that they didn't take themselves so seriously, most of the time. I like that they were such big Stephen King fans (to a fault, almost). I just found out that they covered 2 Police songs (and every cover they've done has been awesome). But I haven't really felt them enough to buy albums. I really like John Bush's vocals, where Belladonna got on my nerves, but I got tired of Anthrax somehow. Dan Spitz didn't do it for me either, with his pretty spastic leads.

Megadeth. Gotta either love or hate Dave and whoever he's roped in with him. I wasn't a big fan, following the Metallihype, but then someone kept feeding me the old stuff, and I realized why people liked Dave and his shit. First, he wrote some mean and aggressive music. Second, to a kingdom of misfits and outcasts, he was king - cast out of the band that would later rule the metal kingdom, put on a bus in NY to go home, cross-country, tail between his drunk, high legs. Okay, the metaphor crawled under something to die there, but you get the point. For those of us who have been bitter, upset, rejected, dejected, low and kicked on, and desirous of revenge, Dave was our patron saint. His snarl said it all, and his words helped. In retrospect, In My Darkest Hour is the real thrash dirge. Fade to Black, Sanitarium, and One just don't hold a match to it. If you're feeling angry and betrayed, there's nothing like it on repeat. Over. and Over. and Over.

But Dave has always teetered on the path of self-destruction, and listening to United Abominations, the new one, I don't think I like his politics, to boot. While I thought Rust in Peace was great, I'm more inclined to stick with the first two albums, which featured Chris Poland on lead and Dave's own good guitar work. Dave's been on a mission to prove that he's back for about 15 years, and it's not sticking. He can't hold onto a band for very long, making Megadeth an obvious one-man show with extras. His singing voice leaves a lot to be desired (while Hetfield has been nursing a not-as-hip version of Danzig's demonic Elvis for 2 decades, you kind of miss Dave's snarls from the first albums. His singing isn't anything to speak of (especially when it's supposed to be emotive). He has talking and samples of himself speaking on almost every album. I can't deal with it. Why not just go the books on tape route if you want to talk so much? And one-upping Metallica, who only have one that I know of, he's up to 2 sequels on his songs already, with more possible down the path. I'm sorry, Dave, but sequels to songs in thrash suggest that you're out of material. Power metal? Progressive? Fine. Expected, even. But thrash? Live hard, play fast, don't repeat.

And now we're at Slayer. Listening to a lot of Slayer again was what prompted this little trip down memory lane. I wasn't a big Slayer fan in the beginning of my metal days. "Too extreme" was what I thought. But again, a friend, who if I remember correctly, carved some Slayer lyrics into one of my trees one day, introduced me to them in a more substantial way. And when Seasons in the Abyss dropped, and I heard the first songs on the weekly metal show that I tuned into every Monday night on Vassar College radio, I was hooked. I actually don't even remember if I heard the entire Reign in Blood album until after Seasons came out. But no one in the big four brought it like Slayer did. Tom Araya's voice, when he was on, had a hypnotic quality to it. He got you thinking that he was inside your head, urging you forward, singing your words (sometimes). The production team that made it feel like he was whispering in your ear in Dead Skin Mask and a few other songs was brilliant. Slayer makes you feel like the rain is going to fall when you play it hard and loud. I wouldn't be surprised if I lost my hearing thanks to them. But why does Slayer even bother with guitar leads? They aren't melodic or interesting, sound like a kid had a seizure while picking up the instrument for the first time, and distract me from the punishing rhythm. Slayer's leads are just annoying (although the better paced stuff on Seasons really works). Song after song, King and Hanneman just go at it again and again. Must be nice to just show up and play whatever comes out, taping it, and going home. Not that I could do better. But with Lombardo behind the drums and Araya screaming bloody murder, why do you need lead breaks? The latest album, Christ Illusion generally doesn't bring much that's new to the scene, although a couple of songs just punish, but I don't like Araya's new vocal delivery - he doesn't have a lot of range, and now he really sounds like he's in a hardcore band. It's not my cup of tea. Either I can understand your singing and sing along, or you should scream the hell out of it. None of this in-between stuff.

I've always been a fan of the smaller bands below the holy quadruped, from Forbidden and Defiance, to Death Angel, Exodus (sometimes), Vio-lence, and a range of others. Testament wins the prize, though. They've grown over time, and Chuck Billy is the consummate thrash vocalist - mixing up the bluesy singing on rock numbers with thrashy yells that still show melodic control, to all out death growls in the later material. I don't know anyone else who can blend the way he can, and still sound aggressive, and yet solidly Testament. Eric Petersen is riff-master, and I think he got out some of his darker tendencies in Dragonlord, his black metal side project. James Murphy is an *awesome* lead guitarist, who I didn't really know much about because I wasn't a death metal junkie, but hearing his ability to take Skolnick's leads and make them sound *more* like Testament than the originals is amazing. I didn't know Low aside from a few songs, and I'm really feeling the album - it's quickly becoming my favorite.

With all this said, I don't know if I can still listen to thrash the way I used to. It's familiar, but it's somewhat boring now. Death metal is still not particularly attractive, but it's a lot moreso with all the different elements that groups have brought forward, from the elements of songs and structures from other musical traditions (Sepultura's Roots) to the jazz influences and interludes, to the extreme/beautiful dynamics of unique groups like Opeth. It's a little more dramatic than thrash - there's more texture there, and more to sink into. And the song structures vary a lot more than the typical thrash set.

But really, Slayer, lose the leads. Or get James Murphy to guest on your next album. And Dave, just stop trying to sing. It's getting embarrassing.


Anonymous said...

*cool* post. It's great to see such detail about what you like & dislike about each band.

some random comments:

- you're right about those Hetfield vocals.

- I'd like to hear some early Megadeth... with the snarl but hoping that it'll be more raw and brutal than their later stuff.

- I like that Slayer. Your post made me think... I realize that when it comes to faster stuff I probably tilt more towards punk/hardcode-influenced metal

- And raw aggressive stuff. I like that Opeth a lot. On the other end of the spectrum I like raw blistering music with a lot of aggression or attitude. That's something else I realized after reading yr post.


Rage said...

Thanks for reading/writing as always. I was working on this thing for too long (saw the repetition on the Hetfield). I'll have to get you some of the music I mentioned, because it's good to see the beginning of some of this stuff, especially with Megadeth. He can still rip, but it was raw and aggressive before. Check it out at: free.napster.com

Yeah. Slayer has that hardcore/punk influence front and center. I mean, when you're one of the main originators of extreme metal, who can you call your influence?

Anyway, I've been listening to a lot of Sabbath's first 6 albums, and I think I'm going to have to post up all the places where I can tell these top 4 groups stole/borrowed riffs. There are more than a few - and even a few nice homage riffs in things like "give it away" by the chili peppers (takes the riff from "sweetleaf" in the last 30 seconds).

Invisible Oranges said...

Friggin' awesome post. Nice to see someone go into such detail about each band. IMO, Kill 'Em All is actually pretty good. The songwriting doesn't hold up, but the playing, tones, and attitude are incredible. The songwriting on the next 3 albums is near perfect for me, too. And I dig the messy Slayer leads - they help give the material an over-the-top quality, though, yeah, they can get a bit repetitive.

Rage said...

Thanks - that means a lot coming from you. I definitely agree on Kill 'Em All (though I haven't bought a copy on disc to replace my tape because I got pissed off that they took Am I Evil and Blitzkreig off the disc).

I do think that the Slayer leads work in the earlier material, but they exhibit a lot of punishing musicality in their rhythm work, so I don't understand why it doesn't come over onto the lead work. I mean, groups like Sepultura were able to do both. Maybe I just like melody too much?