Feb 3, 2008

Retro-Thrash Makes Me Nostalgic

With the advent and current fad of retro-thrash that I've been reading/hearing about a lot on Invisible Oranges, Aversion Online, and other reputable spaces, I've been curious about the phenomenon, but not had the time or exposure to hear a lot of the new stuff. More than that, the phenomenon has made me think about why thrash has been a favorite of mine in the various (and ever-increasing) genres and subgenres of metal.

What is it about thrash? I'm not going to go down this path for too long, because "retro-thrash" has made me go down memory lane and revisit a period of the music past the 1991 release of Metallica's Black Album - which I used to hold was the turning point for thrash, and the point at which I stepped away from metal for a while.

Anyway, I like thrash because of the aggression in the riffs, the just over the top nature of it (just past pop-accessible/mainstream power metal and hard rock), the way that it's not really unified in any way (where black, power, and death metal seem to have some theme/technique that binds them), the showmanship is focused on guitar leads and some riffage - not so much on the rhythm section (I didn't really even pay attention to what drums and bass were doing), and the vocals are all over the map. The funny thing is, they want you to be able to discern the lyrics... there's perhaps a bit of naiveté that they will change the minds of people listening. But think about the singing - from the highly idiosyncratic vocals in Vio-Lence, to more power metal type stuff with Forbidden, to almost a hardcore approach with the thrash bands that adopted that style. And where else could a singer like Joey Belladonna seem to fit on top of a band like Anthrax?

I like thrash because it is pretty uncomplicated - the complexity of death metal (I've been learning) is hard to dig into (especially for someone whose metal journey started with Maiden). I like the social consciousness of some of the lyrics, though you can only imagine there's a "top ten" list out there somewhere from which the lyricists choose their themes (racism? check, environmental warning? check, war?...). I like singing along with people whose voices aren't so technical/skills-based (usually) as power/heavy metal, and yet actually have the pop-sensibilities of verse-chorus-verse structure. And I'll still hold that a strong/solid Slayer lyric is much more aggressive and "dangerous" when you can blast it and the average Joe in the street knows that Araya is screaming "before you see the light, you must die!!!"

As an outsider embracing a music of outsiders and for outsiders (hipsters weren't around when I was coming up), being "close" enough to understanding for mainstream listeners to more clearly demarcate my difference, actually made a difference. I think death and black metal were just so out there at that time that they weren't considered sufficiently dangerous enough for me to let go of thrash. Really, it was the sing-alongs while barreling down small town roads in my buddy's car.

So I've been revisiting older, but not first generation, thrash lately. I got into the genre after the standard-bearing albums had been out for a while - it was catch up for me until Metallica's Black Album came out. The album's "accessibility" blew them up, screwed them up, yadda yadda yadda. The story is documented in their own, tragically funny Some Kind of Monster (a real treat for the Mustaine fans/haters out there, by the way). I'm not going to waste space on the album here - it was baaaaad - it just wasn't thrash (or, really, very revolutionary or new in any way. If I wanted to hear watered down Soundgarden, I'd just as well have waited for Audioslave). More than just the album itself, what I think it did was sound the death knell for American thrash. Albums by other groups after Metallica did so well tried to emulate the accessibility of their effort, or reacted to it. Many groups broke up soon afterwards, and grunge took off in the mainstream.

I have a personal story connected to (and that prompted) this little walk down thrash memory lane. I was turned off by Metallica but I distinctly remember going out during May of 1992, in the midst of my finals in college, to one of my favorite record stores downtown to pick up the day's new Maiden release: Fear of the Dark. I can't remember if I knew or just found out then that Testament's The Ritual came out at the same time, but I picked that up too.

Fear of the Dark struck me immediately because the cover (which I had on one of those large cardboard boxes they dispensed with soon after) featured the first non-Derek Riggs sleeve I'd seen for Maiden. I was shocked, and not happy. The music impressed me even less. But Maiden had lost their way with the preceding album, in 1990, which felt like a step backwards, a quick release, and a major disappointment after the masterful Seventh Son.... Because I was trying so hard to like Fear, I only gave Testament's The Ritual (blessed with a more interesting cover), a few cursory listens. I seemed to have some positive memory of Souls of Black - the 1990 release which is now my least favorite Testament album, going further to suggest that the decline of the metal I listened to actually pre-dated the Black Album because 1990 was a pretty bad year.

Anyway, because of my Souls of Black memory, I thought The Ritual was just not hard enough. It showed a stronger departure from Testament's trademark thrash sound - the highlights on this disk were Chuck Billy's ability to stretch out his voice and sing a bit more, and Alex Skolnick's lead breaks. Even Peterson's trademark outstanding riffage was not particularly interesting or memorable. This seemed like more of a hard rock/crossover kind of album. Now that I know Chuck Billy's roots as more of a rock singer, I can see where this gave him some space to spread out, and he does just that. It's hard to fault his vocal delivery - he really is one of the best. Listening to the album now, it's actually grown on me a little more, though I can't help but notice how boring the drumming is - something I only noticed after listening to more death metal.

Once I heard The Ritual and found out that Skolnick was leaving, I tuned out for about 10 years. I missed their resurgence with Low, the new direction of Demonic, and the full return to form in The Gathering. I only got a sense of how great they'd become when I listened to the outstanding Live at the Fillmore disk - where I heard Murphy shred, and the wonderful 3-song acoustic set at the American Indian Community House in NYC (if only I'd known!).

That I missed the original releases of the key thrash albums back in the mid eighties is one thing: I was pretty young. But missing new classics as they were released because of the Black Album fallout (and how too many groups thought it was a ticket to get away from struggling on the fringe), really sucks. Metallica killed a lot, and the new resurgence of metal (thrash, particularly, because death, which was just a footnote when I was coming up is the real veteran now) is at a good time, and I'm glad to actually be a part of it as it is going on.

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