If by some mysterious quirk of fate I were ever to find myself with my own radio show, I would have a section on Big Fours. Although the term was first coined for the big four thrash bands, Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, it is a trend which seems to occur in other genres too; there are often four big players that tend to be at the vanguard of innovation within a given style and, more often than not, achieve the most commercial success.
As I don’t have a radio show, and it’s probably not among the most likely things to happen to me, I figured I could just write about (and rank!) Big 4s instead. So, to kick off the series, what better place to start than with the original big guns from the world of relentless riffing, blistering solos and fast fingered fury that is thrash metal.
Thrash was born in the early 1980s as the sound of traditional heavy metal was taken to a new extreme. There was a heavy influence from the likes of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and New Wave of British Heavy Bands like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, except thrash bands were playing harder, faster and heavier, besides moving in a more serious direction lyrically. It’s impossible to pinpoint an exact beginning to the movement, although albums from US punks Void and Newcastle’s Venom are often cited as being forerunners to the scene. Whatever the case may be, it was the emergence of bay area bands like Metallica and Exodus that really provided the impetus. However, of the big four that would emerge, it was in fact the only east coast band that probably played the most pivotal role.
Despite being the third of the four to release their debut Anthrax were actually formed first and as such were already getting established in New York by the time Metallica pitched up for their watershed visit in late 1982. They made the San Franciscans welcome and helped them out during the stay when Dave Mustaine would get fired prior to subsequently forming Megadeth. Moreover, the term “thrash metal” is said to have been coined in February 1984 in reference to their song “Metal Thrashing Mad”.
Even so, Scott Ian‘s band have always been slightly different; their early sound enjoying strong hardcore influences, besides having an interest in Skate culture and a more humorous approach to their image. Scott is also a lover of rap and their version of Public Enemy‘s ‘Bring The Noise’, featuring a rapped verse from the guitarist, is not only one of the earliest cross-overs, but one of their finest moments.
Like the other big guns in thrash, their output peaked between the mid eighties and early nineties, yet they’ve battled through line up changes and a myriad of record label problems to continue producing quality records. Their latest release, ‘For All Kings’ is another fine release and is as metal thrashing mad as anything from their peak.
Essential Albums: Among the Living & Persistence of Time
Personal Favourite: State of Euphoria
Random Classics: I am the Law, Got the Time, Bring the Noise, I’m the Man, Be All End All & Caught in a Mosh
The heaviest and most uncompromising of the top thrash bands is far and away Slayer; you won’t find them straying into hard rock territory in search of a number one. It’s fair to say that Kerry King, Tom Araya and co are the darkest of the big four, regularly writing about serial killers, hell, war and suicide, whilst pushing the boundaries of thrash to go harder, heavier and faster.
Slayer‘s material has always stood up for its quality and influence, inspiring subsequent generations to go to even greater extremes – ‘Reign In Blood’ was mind blowing at the time of its release and without it, genres like Death Metal may never have happened. Last year’s ‘Repentless’ was the first to feature new guitarist Gary Holt (Exodus), following the tragic death of Jeff Hanneman, and continues their long line of quality, no holds barred, metal mayhem.
Essential Albums: Reign in Blood & Seasons in the Abyss
Personal Favourite: Seasons in the Abyss
Random Classics: Angel of Death, South of Heaven, Mandatory Suicide, Dead Skin Mask, War Ensemble & Raining Blood
Dave Mustaine was pissed when he was unceremoniously dumped by Metallica, but he turned that fury into music, and Megadeth was born. He stayed pissed for a very long time and it’s kinda understandable given that his band has always been and will always be judged in comparison to James and Lars’ work. I mean, you gotta feel for Dave; as Scott Ian says:
“The guy is arguably the godfather of thrash metal. He wrote a lot of the riffs on Kill ’Em All and even some of Ride the Lightning. Without Dave Mustaine, maybe thrash metal never would have happened. At least in the beginning, he was the driving force, artistically.”
Although less successful than his old band, Mustaine is probably the most technically proficient of the big four and the releases from the eighties and early nineties are as good, if not better, than those of his contemporaries – is there a more perfect thrash song than Holy Wars…the Punishment Due?
Despite constant line up changes and well publicised drugs problems, Megadeth‘s output has been pretty damn regular and of consistently high standard ever since -,even the hard rock debacle ‘Risk’ has its moments! This year’s furiously fast ‘Dystopia’ is actually Dave’s fifteenth studio album, so in terms of catalogue, none of the other bands can boast such an extensive collection of high quality original work.
Essential Albums: Rust in Peace, Countdown to Extinction & Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying
Personal Favourite: Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying
Random Classics: Holy Wars…the Punishment Due, Hangar 18, Darkest Hour, Hook in Mouth, Symphony of Destruction & Devil’s Island
You have to respect a band that has sold over one hundred million records, I mean, you don’t get much bigger than that – Metallica are basically the undisputed heavyweight champions of the world.
As for their role in the thrash scene, would the others have done so well, if it weren’t for James and Lars? This is a band that carved out an enormous reputation and was well on the way to becoming a major force on the metal scene without releasing a single or even making a video until their fourth album, and even then, the video for ‘One’ wasn’t exactly made with MTV in mind.
It’s also testament to their stature that the self-titled record which turned them into global superstars, was released just six weeks before Nirvana‘s ‘Nevermind’ changed the face of rock music forever, practically destroying the metal scene in one fell swoop.
Sure, they’ve made all sorts of bad decisions and of all the big four, theirs is the most divisive back catalogue; but they have never stayed still and have always pushed forward on their own pioneering terms; sometimes as true visionaries and at other times misguided. Whatever way you look at it though, there’s no denying the importance of Metallica to Thrash, to Metal and to the music industry as a whole. The fact that they are releasing a new album is about the biggest thing that could happen in music right now, lets hope it delivers the goods, after all, the other three have all come up with killer records.
Essential Albums: Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets & Metallica (The Black Album)
Personal Favourite: …and Justice for All
Random Classics: Enter Sandman, Creeping Death, One, Damage Inc., Whiplash & The Unforgiven
Beyond the Big Four
Back in the mid to late eighties the thrash metal scene was well and truly thriving and a number of other bands were particularly important to the scene and even knocking on the door of mainstream success. Exodus in particular played a major role, supplying Kirk Hammett to Metallica and thirty years later Gary Holt to Slayer, besides recording some superb records like ‘Bonded by Blood and ‘Fabulous Disaster’.
Also from the Bay Area were the likes of Testament and Death Angel, both of which are still active; the former set to release new album ‘Brotherhood of the Snake’ in October, while DA released the superb ‘Evil Divide’ earlier this year. It’s fair to say that the thrash scene is enjoying something of a renaissance.
Suicidal Tendencies, the former band of Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, is another favourite that is also still active. I have previously written at length about their classic album ‘Lights, Camera, Revolution’ right here: https://hardpresseded.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/overlooked-or-underrated-lights-camera-revolution/
Of the many other great bands around back in the day, the one that really stood out and we went mad for in England was Sepultura. ‘Beneath the Remains’ and ‘Arise’ were two of the finest albums from the genre and were comparable to the best work of the big four.
Random Classics: Exodus – Bonded by Blood, Testament – The New Order, Death Angel – Act III, Sacred Reich – The American Way, Suicidal Tendencies – Lights Camera Revolution, Sepultura – Beneath the Remains, Death – Leprosy & Annihilator – Alice in Hell.