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Thrash metal is a subgenre of heavy metal that is characterized by its fast tempo and aggression. Thrash metal songs typically use fast, percussive and low-register guitar riffs, overlaid with shredding-style lead work. Thrash metal lyrics often deal with social issues using direct and denunciatory language, an approach which partially overlaps with the hardcore genre. The "Big Four" bands of thrash metal are Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer, who simultaneously created and popularized the genre in the early 1980s.

The origins of thrash metal are generally traced to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a number of bands began incorporating the sound of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, creating a new genre and developing into a separate movement from punk rock and hardcore. This genre is more aggressive compared to its relative, speed metal, and can be seen in part to be a reaction to the lighter, more widely acceptable sounds and themes of glam metal.

Musical traits

Thrash metal generally features fast tempos, low-registers, complex guitar riffs, high-register guitar solos, double bass drumming, and aggressive vocals.

Most thrash guitar solos are played at high speed, as they are usually characterized by shredding, and use techniques such as sweep picking, legato phrasing, alternate picking, string skipping, and two-hand tapping. Thrash lead guitarists are often influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement.

Thrash guitar riffs often use chromatic scales and emphasize the tritone and diminished intervals, instead of using conventional single scale based riffing. For example, the main riff of Metallica's "Master of Puppets" is a chromatic descent, followed by a chromatic ascent based on the tritone. Rhythm guitar playing is characterized by extensive palm muting and down picking to give the riffs a chugging sound, along with extensive use of the pedal point technique (creating what can be considered a distinctive, 'thrashy' sound).

Speed, pacing, and time-changes also define thrash metal. Thrash tends to have an accelerating feel which may be due in large part to its aggressive drumming style. For example, thrash drummers often use two bass drums, or a double-bass pedal, in order to create a relentless, driving beat.

To keep up with the other instruments, many thrash bassists use a pick. However, some prominent thrash metal bassists have used their fingers, such as Frank Bello, Greg Christian, Steve DiGiorgio and the late Cliff Burton. Several bassists use a distorted bass tone, an approach popularized by Burton and Motörhead's Lemmy.

Lyrical themes in thrash metal include isolation, alienation, corruption, injustice, addiction, suicide, murder, warfare, and other maladies that afflict the individual and society. Humor and irony can occasionally be found, but they are limited, and are the exception rather than the rule.



NWOBHM bands directly influenced the development of early thrash. The early work of artists such as Diamond Head, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Venom, Motörhead, Sweet Savage, Tygers of Pan Tang, Raven, and Angel Witch, among others, introduced the fast-paced instrumentation that became essential aspects of thrash.

Featured on Judas Priest's British Steel, "Rapid Fire", has been noted as a "proto-thrash" song.

In 1981, a Southern California band by the name of Leather Charm wrote a song entitled "Hit the Lights". Leather Charm soon disbanded and the band's primary songwriter, vocalist/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield met drummer Lars Ulrich through a classified ad. Together, James and Lars formed Metallica, the first of the "Big Four" thrash bands, with lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, who would later form Megadeth, another of the "Big Four" originators of thrash, and bassist Ron McGovney. Metallica later relocated to the San Francisco Bay Areamarker. McGovney was replaced with Cliff Burton, and Mustaine was later replaced with Kirk Hammett. The band released "Hit the Lights" on their first studio album, Kill 'Em All, in July 25, 1983.

Another "Big Four" thrash band formed in Southern California in 1981, when guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King met while auditioning for the same band and subsequently decided to form a band of their own. Hanneman and King recruited vocalist/bassist Tom Araya, a former respiratory therapist, and drummer Dave Lombardo, a pizza delivery driver, and Slayer was formed. Slayer was discovered by Metal Blade Records executive Brian Slagel while performing Iron Maiden's "Phantom of the Opera" at a show, and were promptly signed to the label. In December 1983, less than six months after the release of Kill 'Em All, Slayer put out their debut album, Show No Mercy.

The European thrash scene that began in early 1982 was almost exclusively influenced by the most aggressive music both Germany and England were producing at that time . British bands such as Tank, Raven and Venom, along with German metal exports Accept, motivated musicians from central Europe to start bands of their own, eventually producing German thrash exports such as Sodom, Kreator and Destruction.

In the early 80s Canada produced influential speed metal bands like Toronto's Anvil and Ottawa's Exciter whose insistence upon fast playing and aggressiveness is considered a main influence to proper thrash metal . Bands such as Montrealmarker's Voivod were one of the first bands to combine progressive rock influences with speed metal .


The popularity of thrash metal increased in 1984 with the release of Metallica's Ride the Lightning, Anthrax's Fistful of Metal, Overkill's self-titled EP and Slayer's Haunting the Chapel. This led to a heavier sounding form of thrash, which was reflected in Exodus's Bonded by Blood and Slayer's Hell Awaits. In 1985, the German band Kreator released their debut album Endless Pain and the Brazilian band Sepultura released their EP Bestial Devastation. Megadeth, which was formed by former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine, released their debut album Killing Is My Business... And Business Is Good!, and Anthrax released the critically acclaimed Spreading The Disease in 1985.

A number of high profile thrash albums were released in 1986:
  • Metallica's 1986 album Master of Puppets, was one of the first thrash metal albums to receive critical acclaim and commercial success.
  • Slayer, regarded as one of the most sinister thrash metal bands from the early 1980s released Reign in Blood, an album considered by some to have almost single-handedly inspired the entire death metal genre.
  • Megadeth released Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?, which proved to be the band's commercial and critical breakthrough. Considered to be a landmark thrash metal album, Allmusic cited Peace Sells... But Who's Buying? as "One of the most influential metal albums of its decade, and certainly one of the few truly definitive thrash albums".
  • Kreator released Pleasure to Kill, which would later be an influence on the death metal genre.


In 1987, Anthrax released their album Among the Living, which bore similarities to their two previous releases: Fistful of Metal and Spreading the Disease, with fast and heavy guitars and pounding drums.

Testament would release their debut album, The Legacy, that same year. The lyrics on this album especially were about the occult and Satanic topics that would influence the lyrics of death metal. Death Angel took a similar pro-thrash approach with their 1987 debut, The Ultra-Violence.

In 1988, Suicidal Tendencies, who had previously been a straightforward punk band, released their major label debut How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can't Even Smile Today. This album had very thrashy guitar riffs and an overall very metal oriented sound, with much more complicated song structures than on their previous albums, but the band still stayed true to their roots as a band in that the songs were very melodic and had catchy choruses .
Slayer, shown here in 2007, are one of the "Big Four" thrash bands.

Sepultura's third album, Beneath the Remains (1989) earned them some mainstream appeal as it appeared on Roadrunner Records. Testament continued through the late 1980s with The New Order (1988) and Practice What You Preach (1989), both albums showing the band was continuing to grow musically and almost gaining Testament the same level of popularity as the "Big Four" of thrash: Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer. Vio-lence, a relative latecomer to the Bay Area thrash metal scene put out an acclaimed debut in Eternal Nightmare (1988), combining relentless riffage with a punk vocal delivery, resulting in one of the fastest, heaviest thrash albums of all time . Canadian thrashers Annihilator would release their highly technical debut album Alice in Hell (1989) which received much praise due to its fast riffs and virtuostic guitar solos. Sadus was a later thrash band, featuring a very strong sound which was primarily caused by the fretless bass of Steve DiGiorgio. Meanwhile in Germany, Sodom released Agent Orange and Kreator would release Extreme Aggression. Both albums hit the scene in 1989 and are highly regarded as thrash metal classics by fans all around the world .

Meanwhile, Slayer released South of Heaven in 1988, Megadeth released So Far, So Good... So What! while Metallica's album ...And Justice for All of the same year spawned the band's first video, the World War I-themed song "One".


In the 1990s, many veteran thrash metal bands began changing to more accessible, radio-friendly styles. Metallica were a notable example of this shift, particularly with their mid to late 90's albums Load (1996), and ReLoad (1997), which both displayed minor blues and pop rock influences, and were seen as a major departure from the band's earlier sound. Megadeth took a more accessible route with their 1992 album Countdown to Extinction, and Testament released the mainstream and melodic The Ritual in 1992.

A number of more typical thrash albums were released in the 1990s, including Megadeth's Rust in Peace, Anthrax's Persistence of Time, Slayer's Seasons in the Abyss, Suicidal Tendencies' Lights...Camera...Revolution!, Testament's Souls of Black, and Kreator's Coma of Souls. All of those albums were commercial high points for the aforementioned artists. Many of these bands embarked on a group tour called the "Clash of the Titans" the same year.

As further extreme metal genres came to prominence in the 1990s (industrial metal, death metal, and black metal each finding their own fanbase), the heavy metal "family tree" soon found itself blending aesthetics and styles. For example, bands with all the musical traits of thrash metal began using "death growls", a vocal style borrowed from death metal, while black metal bands often utilized the airy feel of synthesizers, popularized in industrial metal. Today the placing of bands within distinct subgenres remains a source of contention for heavy metal fans, however, little debate resides over the fact that thrash metal is the sole proprietor of its respective spinoffs (see below).

Recent popularity (2000s)

In the 2000s, thrash metal has recently seen a certain degree of resurgence of popularity. Bands including Municipal Waste, SSS and Gama Bomb have been cited as key in the "resurgence" of Thrash Metal. The genre's sense of fun and energy has been cited as a potential reason for its resurgence.

Older thrash bands have continued to put out material such as Megadeth's Endgame (2009), Slayer's World Painted Blood (2009), Metallica's Death Magnetic (2008), Destruction's D.E.V.O.L.U.T.I.O.N. (2008), Sodom's self-titled album (2006), Death Angel's Killing Season (2008), Kreator's Hordes of Chaos (2009), Exodus' The Atrocity Exhibition... Exhibit A (2007), Overkill's Immortalis (2007), Onslaught's Killing Peace (2007), Ultimatum's Into the Pit (2007), Testament's The Formation of Damnation (2008) and Voivod's Infini (2009).

Potential 'Big Four' Tour

In September 2009, it was reported that Metallica's Lars Ulrich was attempting to assemble a tour with thrash metal's "Big Four" — Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax — together on one bill. Slayer guitarist Kerry King broke the news by saying the following:

I’ve heard people referencing Lars.
I don’t know Lars that well and I haven’t heard it from Lars but apparently he’s talking to somebody about it.
Maybe us, Metallica, Megadeth, I think he even threw in Anthrax...

Regional scenes

Like many musical genres, thrash had its own regionally-based scenes, each of which had a slightly different sound. The five most well known of these scenes were:

  • East Coast (New York/New Jersey): The East Coast bands tended to be more punk and hardcore influenced than West Coast bands, with more emphasis on aggression and speed than technicality (though not in the case of bands like Toxik). Anthrax, Nuclear Assault, Overkill, Whiplash, as well as crossover acts S.O.D. and Method of Destruction (M.O.D.), were a few of the more prominent bands to come from the East Coast thrash scene.

Sepultura, a key band of the Brazilian thrash metal scene.

  • Australian thrash metal: While distantly cut off from the main thrash scenes, Australia also has its own thrash metal scene. In the year of 1988, Australia made its first stakes in the genre when Sydney band Mortal Sin and Melbourne band Hobbs' Angel of Death released their respective debut albums to a worldwide audience. These two bands would probably be the best known Australian thrash metal bands, alongside the more cult Slaughter Lord, and Armoured Angel. Today, most Australian thrash metal bands incorporate elements of black metal and death metal, some including Christian subjects - such as Mortification, Deströyer 666, Gospel of the Horns and Atomizer.

  • Polish thrash metal: The Polish thrash metal scene was created by bands like Kat, Turbo and Acid Drinkers. Originally, thrash metal in Poland was strongly influenced by New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Most of the old school Polish thrash metal groups have disbanded, but many new school bands like Fortress, Headbanger, Horrorscope, The No-Mads, Destroyer, Thrash M, and Blade of Terror came in the '00 years.

  • United Kingdom thrash metal: The British thrash metal scene of the 1980s was caught behind the stronger and more developed US scene, with bands hampered by weak support from record labels and a rush to catch up to the American bands. There were important bands such as Onslaught, Sabbat, Atomkraft and Acid Reign, but these bands never achieved the success of the US Big Four, and were never able to compete with this or the German scene. In recent years the UK has taken part significantly in the thrash metal resurgence, with bands such as Evile, Savage Messiah, Gama Bomb, Hospital of Death, Bludvera and a reformed Onslaught.

  • Other scenes: Similar to the British scene, Scandinavia has also become a breeding ground for thrashers, such as F.K.Ü., Blood Tsunami, and Guillotine. Thrash is also emerging in popularity in the New England area , thanks to Municipal Waste(from Richmond, Virginia) and Toxic Holocaust(from Portland, Oregon) who appeal to the area's predominant punk rock and hardcore culture.

Genre spinoffs

Thrash metal is directly responsible for the offshoot popular underground metal genres, such as death metal and black metal. The blending of punk ethos and metal's brutal nature led to even more extreme, underground styles after thrash metal began gaining mild commercial success in the late 1980s. With gorier subject matter, heavier downtuning of guitars, the more persistent use of the blastbeat, and darker, atonal death growls, death metal was established in the mid-1980s. Black metal, also considered the offspring of thrash, may have risen even sooner, with many black metal bands taking influence from thrash metal bands such as Venom. Black metal continued with such deviations from thrash, often providing more orchestral soundtracks and Pagan or Occult-based aesthetics to distinguish itself from thrash.

Thrash metal with even more punk elements than standard thrash is called crossover thrash or crossover for short. According to Encyclopaedia Metallum, the term was coined by the band D.R.I. with their album Crossover, released on 1987. Its overall sound is more punk-influenced than traditional thrash metal, while more metal sounding than traditional hardcore punk and thrashcore.

See also

Further reading

  • Ekeroth, Daniel (2008). Swedish Death Metal. Bazillion Points Books. ISBN 978-0-9796163-1-0
  • Dome, Malcolm. Thrash Metal. Omnibus Press, 1990. ISBN 0-7119-1790-6.


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