The 25 greatest thrash metal albums ever
No-one played faster. No-one played harder. No-one played angrier or drunker. But on record, who thrashed hardest of all? Slayer? Metallica? Megadeth? We couldn’t decide, so we put it to you lot. And these are the results. Strap yourselves in, then, for the 25 greatest thrash albums… ever!
25. Tankard – Chemical Invasion (1987)
Beer and thrash (unsurprisingly) make for very good bedfellows. Enter German squadron Tankard. While the Frankfurt quintet did dabble in the occasional bit of social commentary, too, their second album is largely a boozed-up celebration of the joys involved in getting completely and utterly tanked-up. But for all the lyrics like, ‘Puke! Puke! I drank too much and vomit on the chair!’ (Puke), songs like Total Addiction, Don’t Panic and the title-track are among some of the most aggressive that thrash has ever produced.
24. Vio-Lence – Eternal Nightmare (1988)
Before he formed Machine Head, a young Robb Flynn cut his teeth in Bay Area thrashers Vio-Lence, alongside future ex-Machine Head guitarist Phil Demmel. Living up to their name, the band’s 1988 debut album was a vicious blast of riffs and fury cut through with a gritty sense of street hardness that came from living in a less-than-upmarket area of Oakland. That they packaged the album’s Phobophobia single with fake vomit was hilarious. That it was music to get your teeth knocked out to, was not.
23. Onslaught – The Force (1986)
Compared to the U.S. and Germany, Britain’s thrash scene was not one of our crown jewels, with bands like Acid Reign and Lawnmower Deth more into LOLZ than tearing it up. Along with Sabbat, however, Bristol’s Onslaught were a force to be reckoned with, and on their 1986 second album, they firmly offered the competition outside with songs like Flame Of The Antichrist and the devastating Let There Be Death. We may not have had quantity, but here Onslaught defiantly brought the quality.
22. Nuclear Assault – Game Over (1986)
While California had the San Francisco Bay Area, over on America’s East Coast, New York was throwing up its own gaggle of thrashing maniacs. After being given the boot from Anthrax in 1984, having played on their Fistful Of Metal debut, bassist Dan Lilker decided to set up his own shop with Nuclear Assault. Heavier, meaner and more single-minded than his previous employers, Game Over was a triumph, taking the genre’s established fixation with nuclear Armageddon to scary new heights, while pushing the speed limit into the red in the process.
21. Voivod – Killing Technology (1987)
Voivod always appeared to be a lot more gifted in the brain department than many of their peers. The Montreal quartet were, of course, fast, hard and loud, but creatively they also operated with a modicum of intelligence and incredibly broad horizons, exemplified by this, their third album. It found them going into almost sci-fi territory, with computerised alien voices and a genuinely prog approach to songwriting on Forgotten In Space and Order Of The Blackguards.
20. Possessed – Seven Churches (1985)
Possessed were still in school when they recorded Seven Churches during 1985 spring break, but it didn’t stop them sounding more evil than everyone else. You wouldn’t trust drummer Mike Sus to accurately hammer a nail into a wall, but the scrappiness adds to the horror of The Exorcist and Satan’s Curse, with Larry LaLonde’s (yes, from Primus) riffs sounding like he’s got razorwire for guitar strings. Pure evil.
19. Overkill – The Years Of Decay (1989)
Roaring out of New Jersey in 1980, Overkill quickly established themselves as a band who lived up to their name. Following a trio of blinding albums, fourth LP The Years Of Decay saw them team up with Pantera producer Terry Date to sharpen their already effective attack into something genuinely deadly. Who Tends The Fire is a killer ’frasher, while the doomy dirges of the appropriately heavy Skullkrusher’s 10-minute onslaught is just as the title says.
18. Destruction – Infernal Overkill (1985)
‘I’m an invincible force of evil / My eternal hatred is destructive / There’s no chance to survive / I incarnate the end of mankind.’ As opening throws go, Destruction frontman Schmier’s misanthropic proclamation on the German trio’s 1985 debut is formidable. Not as expertly produced as works by Anthrax or Metallica, Destruction instead revels in sheer, bottle-to-the-face hatred and aggression. It’s a modus operandi that still works to this day. And if it ain’t broke…
17. Sabbat – History Of A Time To Come (1988)
While they were angry about many of the same things as their peers – nuclear war, injustice, racism – Nottingham crew Sabbat’s lyrical tack was entirely their own. From the seething pen of youthful pagan Martin Walkyier, the words on their debut album were full of wisdom from an older time, yet still fiercely relevant in Thatcher’s Britain. Nowhere was this truer than on the raging anti-fascist warning of Behind The Crooked Cross. This is an absolute gem.
16. Slayer – Seasons In The Abyss (1990)
By 1990, Slayer had firmly established themselves as masters of brutality. But they had grown, too. Satan was all but out on Seasons In The Abyss, and in his place were the far more real but equally horrific topics of war (War Ensemble), serial killer Ed Gein (Dead Skin Mask) and spree killing (Hallowed Point). But slowing down (ish) and simply holding a mirror up to the world hadn’t softened Slayer. If anything, it galvanised their status as the world’s most uncompromising band.
15. Dark Angel – Darkness Descends (1986)
It’s often been debated which of California quintet Dark Angel’s first two albums is best, but the correct answer is this one: their second. As intense as they were blindingly complex, there’s an energy here usually associated with sticking a fork in a plug socket. It’s also where legendary drummer Gene Hoglan (Strapping Young Lad, Fear Factory, Death) learned his craft. Not a bad place to learn, really.
14. Sodom – Agent Orange (1989)
Sodom’s importance to both thrash and black metal cannot be understated. The German trio’s run of early releases were possessed of a genuinely dark, murderous aura, and by the time of this war-obsessed third album (the title came from the chemical weapon used during the Vietnam War), their reputation was such that it charted in Germany and sold a cool 100,000 copies in their homeland. Which, for a record with a song called Incest which takes grim delight in its subject matter, is pretty good going.
13. Death Angel – The Ultra-Violence (1987)
In 1982, the members of Death Angel were so young that they still had to sneak their way into shows around the Bay Area. Age, or a distinct lack thereof, however, did not stop them being so accomplished that a certain Kirk Hammett produced their Kill As One demo. When it became a viral sensation within tape-trading circles, they made the aptly-named The Ultra-Violence and announced themselves as contenders. Heavy, ultra-tight and exploding with youthful energy, it was a reminder to their mentors in Metallica and Slayer not to get complacent.
12. Sepultura – Beneath The Remains (1989)
It was with Beneath The Remains that Sepultura went from being a very good thrash band to an excellent, destructive metal force. Having stormed out of Brazil and into the most respected parts of the metal underground in the mid-’80s, it was as if Max Cavalera’s troops of doom were engaged in all-out warfare here. From the rage of the title-track and Inner Self, it was almost pre-ordained that Sepultura’s future would include becoming one of the most important metal bands on Earth.
11. Megadeth – Peace Sells… But Who's Buying? (1986)
Kicked out of Metallica for enjoying being “a bad-ass on guitar who liked to fight and drink” too much, Dave Mustaine started Megadeth partly out of spite and vengeance. And if their Killing Is My Business… debut announced his return, then 1986’s Peace Sells… is where thrash’s angriest man truly laid down the gauntlet. So taut and tense that it sounds pissed-off about it, songs like Wake Up Dead and the venomous, sarcastic Peace Sells are thrash at both its most state-of-the-art, and its snottiest.
10. Metallica – Kill ’Em All (1983)
Metallica’s pre-debut rise was better than some bands’ entire careers, playing 3,000-cap rooms before the album was even out. When it came, it hit like a train. Originally titled Metal Up Your Ass before label objections put paid to that, the news prompted bassist Cliff Burton to declare, “Kill ’em all!” in response. Like Motörhead at 78 RPM, it was a defiant blur of an opening statement from a band who would, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, change the face of metal forever.
9. Slayer – Hell Awaits (1985)
Slayer made a name for themselves with the furious speed and unapologetic satanic imagery of their Haunting The Chapel EP and Show No Mercy debut. But this was only a warm-up for the satanic speed metal of Hell Awaits. The title-track upped the aggression, while Necrophiliac’s lyrics (‘I feel the urge / The growing need / To fuck this sinful corpse’) showed that they were only just opening the door to how near the knuckle they could be.
8. Testament – The Legacy (1987)
If there was a Big Five, Testament would be in there, and The Legacy is more than enough of an argument as to why. Originally named Legacy until they learned of a jazz outfit of the same name, as children of the scene that birthed three of those four bands, Testament were the first of the second wave of Bay Area thrash. Taking the groundwork laid out by their mates in Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax and distilling it into an even sharper, more deadly point, the band absolutely exploded on this debut, taking what had gone before and crystallising it into a flawless sonic dagger. The twin guitars of Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick perfectly blended the former’s brute force with the latter’s devastating technical ability, while man-mountain singer Chuck Billy’s vocals on opener Over The Wall and Do Or Die are boiling screams of fierce anger. While the Big Five isn’t a thing, Testament still win as one of the most important bands in the genre’s history. One with a violent legacy that remains unimpeachable.
7. Kreator – Pleasure To Kill (1986)
Pleasure To Kill is like thrash being set on fire and then thrown down the stairs. At times, the frenzy of songs like Riot Of Violence and Ripping Corpse is almost exhausting. In a good way. In frontman Mille Petrozza’s whipping riffs and vocals that make surprisingly good use of a teenaged German accent, you can simply hear nuclear energy exploding throughout the Essen quartet’s second album. It is, indeed, a killer pleasure.
6. Anthrax – Among The Living (1987)
How many bangers can one album contain? Here, Anthrax serve up loads: Caught In A Mosh, Indians, I Am The Law, Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.), the title- track… They’d all turn up on your dream ’Thrax setlist. No surprise, then, that Among The Living was a massive breakthrough for the band, bringing them mainstream success as it confirmed the New Yorkers’ place in America’s thrash Big Four.
5. Exodus – Bonded By Blood (1985)
Gylve ‘Fenriz’ Nagell, drummer with Norwegian black metal legends Darkthrone, says that when black metal’s illegal activities made him feel under threat, he would have Bonded By Blood on his Walkman to “keep my blood up” in case of attack. Good choice. Aggressive, even by the Bay Area’s standards, it is a furious statement of brutality. Former guitarist Kirk Hammett may have wondered if he’d made the right choice when he heard it…
4. Metallica – Master Of Puppets (1986)
As if you need telling about Master Of Puppets. A complex labyrinth of riffs that somehow remains cohesive; a record breathtaking in scope and intelligence that still arrives in the form of a fist, ’Tallica’s final album before the death of Cliff Burton was a game-changer. From here on, everything would be different.
3. Megadeth – Rust In Peace (1990)
For Dave Mustaine, the road to Rust In Peace was a rocky one. With his addictions to smack, cocaine and booze causing him his own problems, the band were forced to scrap much of their 1988 touring plans owing to bassist and narcotic running-mate David Ellefson’s own sickness. Before this, during a show in Northern Ireland, having heard bootleg shirts were being sold for ‘The Cause’, he inadvertently dedicated a cover of Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK to the IRA, resulting in a riot and the band having to leave in an armoured bus. On top of that, a new line-up was called for.
But from this tumult grew Megadeth’s most successful and creative period, and a classic line-up was pulled together, with the addition of guitar whiz Marty Friedman and drummer Nick Menza. The Northern Irish incident, meanwhile, resulted in Rust In Peace’s opening rager Holy Wars… The Punishment Due, while on Tornado Of Souls and Hangar 18, the riffs seemed intent on breaking lesser bands’ fingers.
The album became Megadeth’s biggest to date. And while they would go on to sell more, they never again touched its red-hot technicality, vicious delivery, or the sense of a band making a record as a by-product of simply trying to hold it together. Masterful.
2. Metallica – Ride The Lightning (1984)
“Thrash implies a lack of arrangement, ability, songwriting, or any form of intelligence,” said Lars Ulrich to Kerrang! when discussing his band’s then-unheard second album in 1984. “There’s far more to us than thrashing.”
On Ride The Lightning, Metallica did indeed show the high regard in which they held arrangement, ability, songwriting and intelligence. But rather than separate themselves from the scene that had birthed them, they expanded its boundaries to accommodate a much broader horizon. It was, and remains, a true masterwork from a band with no shortage of creative fecundity, refusing to be hamstrung by anyone else’s vision.
Upon its release, it was clear the goalposts had shifted. Not only that, it set a precedent for Metallica remaining, not one step ahead, but on a different route entirely from their peers. It announced that they were different, as well as throwing down the gauntlet to everyone else to pull their socks up.
1. Slayer – Reign In Blood (1986)
It takes just 28 minutes and 58 seconds for Reign In Blood to tear the competition apart and gorily crown itself the ultimate thrash album. Even now, the intensity, fury, speed and gut-punching heft that explodes out of it is utterly devastating.
Recorded by producer Rick Rubin with the intention of bringing the aggressive guitars and Dave Lombardo’s machine-gun drums right to the fore, rather than having them heavily reverbed and spooky as on the band’s first two releases, the aural violence Slayer detonate is beyond heavy. The album’s short running time is a result of the band playing the songs with such anger at record label interference that they managed to reduce their duration in the process. It all adds to what is, effectively, a weapon in musical form.
But it wasn’t simply Slayer’s music that was heavy. Their entire attitude screamed bad vibes and controversy. Had the band got two shits to rub together, they might have thought twice about opening the album with a song about Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the first word of which is a blunt, yelled ‘Auschwitz’. As it was, though, neither the song’s author, Jeff Hanneman (who defended the lyrics saying, “We don’t need to tell you he’s a bad guy”), nor the man who had to sing it, Tom Araya, were in the least bit bothered about any backlash.
The rest of the album is no less aggro. It is like a rabid dog pulling on the end of its chain, frothing at the mouth, choking with anger. At times, you can’t actually make out the words Tom is singing on Necrophobic or the rapid-fire Jesus Saves, such is the speed of his delivery, while the ending of Raining Blood that closes the album is a disorientating blur.
“If you want a picture of the future,” wrote George Orwell in his book 1984, “imagine a boot stomping on a human face, forever.” If you want to know what that would sound like, here it is in 29 minutes and 10 tracks of the most aggressive, middle-fingered and thrilling music ever written. It is absolute perfection.
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