Compiling a list of the greatest thrash albums is no easy task. With so many worthy contenders, it’s quite a challenge to narrow the options down to ten. After much contemplation, the task is complete. The following records represent the finest thrash metal has to offer.
EXODUS – BONDED BY BLOOD
The music of Exodus was groundbreaking. Their mission was simple. Play fast, heavy and embrace an inner love for pure metal. In the process, Exodus helped create a new genre. The excitement of these early years are forever immortalized on Bonded by Blood.
The songs on this classic debut have a genuineness that is infectious. Much of this enthusiasm stemmed from vocalist Paul Baloff. Although he would only record a single album, the Ultimate Revenge concert video captured his colorful stage banter as the band promoted Bonded by Blood.
Viewing this vintage performance confirms that Baloff is deserving of his esteem in the metal community. More than a unique voice, Baloff brought a personality and presence to Exodus that no other singer has been able to replicate.
Of course there is more to the video than Paul Baloff. The tandem of Gary Holt and Rick Hunolt trade off blistering solos with ease. As Tom Hunting and Rob McKillop whip the tempo into high gear, the band rips through “Piranha” and “Strike of the Beast.” The rest of Bonded by Blood is just as relentless. It is a historic record that was instrumental in the development of thrash metal.
NUCLEAR ASSAULT – SURVIVE
“It will clean out your ears like a Q-Tip from hell.” So boasts the mutant hype sticker attached to the cover of Nuclear Assault’s Survive. Never has an album been described with such accuracy.
Formed by Dan Lilker upon leaving Anthrax, Nuclear Assault offered a faster, more abrasive take on thrash. Beginning with their Brain Death EP, Nuclear Assault proved that metal could be pushed to extremes while still producing memorable songs. This union of speed and melody was perfected with the release of Survive.
Album opener “Rise From the Ashes” paints a picture of surviving a nuclear holocaust. With a voice that sounds as if it were being slashed with razors, John Connelly sings, “Am I dreaming? / Am I alive? / The final war, I did survive.” Frantic yet melodic, the song is a soundtrack to nuclear devastation.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. After all, this was the band that once covered the “Mr. Softee Theme Song.” The album is closed out with a lighthearted romp through Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times.”
Survive is filled with thrash classics but “Brainwashed” is the most enduring song. It was a rallying cry for an alienated subculture. The burning question, “Why don’t you think for yourself?” resonated with thrashers trapped in a suburban culture of conformity. The lines, “Rarely hearing music you wanna hear/It has an effect after all these years,” was poignant and personal. Thankfully independent labels like Combat existed to ensure that the music we wanted to hear reached us.
FORBIDDEN – TWISTED INTO FORM
When writing Twisted Into Form, Forbidden faced the daunting task of following a highly successful debut. While Forbidden Evil contains their signature song, “Chalice of Blood,” Twisted Into Form presents a significant step forward in their development as a band. Although songs are decidedly more melodic, the album remains as heavy as their previous effort. Significantly improved production values complete the sense that Twisted Into Form is the band’s finest hour.
When the vocals of Russ Anderson enter, it’s obvious this is no ordinary thrash band. His voice effortlessly hits high notes but it also maintains a distinct bite in lower registers that sit well with aggressive music. Anderson is a true singer in the tradition of metal’s greatest vocalists.
New guitarist Tim Calvert and Craig Locicero play with a natural chemistry that should have taken years to develop. Time and thoughtful attention have been put into guitar solos. Bursts of speed escalate into concise musical statements. Harmonized guitars intersect. It’s a reminder of what is possible when a guitarist’s knack for melody equals technical skill.
Elaborate instrumental passages could not be possible without a competent rhythm section. Bassist Matt Camacho locks tightly with the pummeling drumming of Paul Bostaph. After listening to Twisted Into Form, it’s clear why Slayer tapped into the ranks of Forbidden to replace Dave Lombardo.
As a bonus, pick up, Raw Evil: Live at the Dynamo. It contains an impossibly good thrash version of the Judas Priest epic, “Victim of Changes.” Recreating complex arrangements of metal legends is one thing. It’s an entirely different achievement to create your own enduring masterpiece. Following on the heels of this live EP, Twisted Into Form proved that Forbidden were fully capable of that challenge.
METAL CHURCH – BLESSING IN DISGUISE
It’s never easy for an established band to lose their lead singer. With two well-received albums under the belt, David Wayne was undisputedly the voice of Metal Church. The title of their third record may be a dig at their former singer, but for the remaining members of Metal Church, the arrival of vocalist Mike Howe must have truly felt like a blessing. With a revamped style and quantum leap forward in musicianship, Blessing in Disguise is the sound of a band reborn.
Metal Church knew that playing mid-tempo could be crushingly HEAVY. They let the music breathe. It’s organic and powerful. The whole time the drums could kick your chest in. With Howe confidently wailing beside new guitarist John Marshall, there was no question that Metal Church would survive the loss of key members.
This was a band that understood dynamics. “Badlands” seamlessly shifts between quiet, brooding verses and powerful choruses. “Anthem of the Estranged” prominently employs acoustic guitars and stretches out to the ten-minute mark. These songs exude confidence and ability.
Fans may be divided over which era was the golden age of Metal Church. There really is no need to choose. With Mike Howe officially back in the Metal Church camp it’s the perfect time to revisit or explore Blessing in Disguise.
WRATHCHILD AMERICA – CLIMBIN’ THE WALLS
It’s absolutely criminal that Wrathchild America never gained widespread name recognition. Despite writing a collection of peerless songs released on a major label, woefully few metal heads speak of Wrathchild America. Another band that didn’t play at hyper-speed, Wrathchild America were undeniably heavier than anything outside the thrash genre. Climbin’ the Walls deserves a spot in any thrash collection.
Memorable riffs galore fuel tales of murder, vampires, and being buried alive. Unusually solid production values give the songs extra impact. Just check out the 4-minute mark of “London After Midnight.” This is the type of creativity that sets the bar for other groups.
There’s even a spot cover of Pink Floyd’s “Time.” Though it’s a flawless recreation, this cover is the oddball on Climbin’ the Walls. The strength of Wrathchild America is their original compositions. There is not a single filler track on this perfectly executed album.
FLOTSAM AND JETSAM – NO PLACE FOR DISGRACE
Losing your bass player to Metallica doesn’t have to derail momentum. It’s a tacit confirmation that your band is of the highest caliber and gives increased attention on a national stage. Although Doomsday for the Deceiver was already a classic, No Place for Disgrace surpasses its predecessor. It’s a mature album that is rightly considered to be the group’s masterpiece.
The opening track alone guarantees Flotsam and Jetsam a place on this list. Intricate guitars open the piece and sets the tone for a musically engaging album. The intro is reminiscent of Priest or Maiden except the sound is heavier. Fast riffing in the verse confirm that this is a new breed of metal.
When the vocals enter it’s immediately clear that Eric A.K. is a legitimate singer. Heavy enough to front a thrash band, there is a melodic undertone to every word he utters. Backup vocals give the chorus an extra dose of aggression. When bright, chimey guitars usher in the bridge, the change is both dramatic and seamless. Lyrically, the suicide of a warrior who prefers death to dishonor, accounts for this sudden shift in mood. Tasteful guitars and a scream that resembles a young Halford take the band into the final verse. “No Place for Disgrace” is a true thrash epic.
The silly Elton John cover is good for a laugh. Thrashy guitars and the humorous metal twist, “It’s Saturday night and I want to MOSH,” make this cover memorable. Still, it would be a mistake to focus on an amusing jaunt through a pop hit. Although the song’s video earned the band attention on “Headbanger’s Ball,” it’s the original compositions that make No Place for Disgrace worth owning.
D.R.I. – THRASH ZONE
Perhaps more than any other band in the crossover movement, DRI embraced metal as their own. Early DRI was pure hardcore punk, but as the band progressed, songs grew longer and so did their hair. Crossover may have been the record that symbolically voiced the union of two genres, but by the end of the 80’s, DRI proudly announced where they stood with Thrash Zone.
The band always had interesting lyrics and this tradition is continued on Thrash Zone. “Thrashhard” describes the irresistible brutality of the pit. A memorable video for “Beneath the Wheel” took on the conformity dens of education, reminding us that “school’s a job but you don’t get paid.” Other songs tackled social issues like gun control and the plague of child abduction. It was refreshing to have a band explore topics not typically associated with metal.
The words were all delivered in Kurt Brecht’s trademark shout. On the follow-up to Thrash Zone, Brecht humorously boasts of being tone deaf. Regardless, his voice was the perfect complement to distorted guitars and brash rhythms. D.R.I. may not have been technical virtuosos, but Thrash Zone is a collection of memorable songs that will stay in your head for years to come.
SACRED REICH – SURF NICARAGUA
The ominous whistle of a falling bomb is the first sound one hears when dropping the needle on this Sacred Reich classic. The explosion is never heard. A quick roll of drums interrupts impact. Sacred Reich comes out raging. The drums kick the band into a frenzied pace. Phil Rind pounds the bass and yells,
“I KNOW A PLACE WHERE YOU’LL ALL GONNA GO,
THEY’LL PAY YOU TO KILL IF YOU’RE 18 YEARS OLD
FIRST YOU NEED A HAIRCUT, THEN SOME NEW CLOTHES
THEY’LL STICK YOU IN A JUNGLE TO PLAY GI JOE.”
It’s a political critique relatable to any longhaired thrasher. Ok, so the average metal fan probably wasn’t contemplating the merits of US involvement in Central America. Still, despite being fast, the song is catchy. At the conclusion of each chorus one can’t avoid shouting, “If you brought your surfboard you could SURF NICARAGUA.” With those two words the song relays its message. Our government is capable of questionable policies.
Metal can never take itself too serious. After a bit of riffing the band kicks into a rendition of “WIPEOUT” before the jam escalates into a heavy groove. This is one thing that sets Sacred Reich apart. They can groove.
Take “One Nation.” Over chugging guitars Phil Rind paints a picture of an ideal life free of racism, hate and war. It’s slow but heavy. Bursts of speed briefly appear but the groove always returns. Words of defiance and hope are shouted over shifting tempos. Sacred Reich would continue to explore this pattern on The American Way and find their identity as a band.
There’s a cover of “War Pigs,” followed by “Draining You of Life,” a re-recorded demo that represents the origins of the band. The EP is rounded out with live versions of “Ignorance” and “Death Squad,” from the first album. Surf Nicaragua manages to be both retrospective and contemporary while still offering a hint of what was yet to come. Technically, only an EP, Surf Nicaragua is the crowning jewel of the Sacred Reich canon.
TESTAMENT – THE NEW ORDER
Ominous sounds begin The New Order. A crackle of thunder introduces clean guitars. This is no sweet melody but a cautious foreboding. Before you process just how unsettling the music is, a fluid guitar solo adds another dimension. After big power hits introduce the band, Chuck Billy’s bark commands all attention. It’s mind-blowing thrash.
Alex Skolnick is the genre’s guitar hero. The band seems to know they have a unique talent on their hand. Several passages are reserved for tasteful shredding. “Trial By Fire” and “Disciples of the Watch” both evoke the haunting mood of “Eerie Inhabitants.” This recurring theme of doom is reprised and expanded on the two instrumentals that close each album side.
These sections work well because of the interesting chord voices of Eric Peterson. Unhindered by distortion, he creates quiet passages of light and shade that give the thrash numbers greater impact.
When things get heavy, they are HEAVY. Chuck knows how phrase lines for maximum impact and works well with backup vocals. When the band chants in unison, “INTO THE PIT,” it’s forceful and violent. It works on all levels.
The New Order is an album that makes you proud of the genre. It’s a bright spot to show just what is possible. Subsequent albums are classics in their own right but none recreate the magic of Testament’s sophomore record.
OVERKILL – THE YEARS OF DECAY
After a series of career-defining albums, Overkill topped them all with The Years of Decay. Feel the Fire, Taking Over, and Under the Influence had been uncompromising thrash with melody. To follow this successful run, Overkill expanded upon their winning formula. They pushed the boundaries of the genre without being mistaken for anything less than a loud and proud thrash band.
The Years of Decay is an incredibly well rounded album. There’s the slow doomy vibe of “Skullkrusher” with a funky intro entitled “Playing with Spiders.” Clean arpeggios open “Who Tends the Fire” before a reverse gallop creates a mix of classic metal and modern thrash. Even the faster songs weave in and out of a labyrinth of tempo changes.
The title track is a thrash ballad. Acoustic guitars set a mellow tone, but before long, distorted power chords transition the song from reflection to rage. No longer restrained, Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth screams his guts out. It’s a voice so distinctive, you immediately know it’s Blitz.
This may be the greatest incarnation of Overkill. Founder Rat Skates had bowed out a few years earlier and new drummer Sid Falk energized the group. Bobby Gustafson contributes riffs of a different caliber and the entire band is on a creative upswing. This is the music of seasoned veterans using their experience to make the statement of their careers.
It proved to be the end of an era. Something was lost when Gustafson departed. Though Horrorscope remains a fan favorite, the band evolved into a different beast. The special spark of a barebones trio beneath the shriek and whale of Blitz was gone, along with Gustafson’s irreplaceable style. The Years of Decay closed out the eighties with a mature album of ambitious aggression.
Want more thrash? Here are ten more albums that were considered for inclusion on this list!
Dark Angel – Leave Scars
Atrophy – Violent By Nature
Kreator- Extreme Aggression
Suicidal Tendencies – How Will I Laugh Tomorrow
Death Angel – The Ultra-Violence
Annihilator – Alison Hell
Violence – Eternal Nightmare
Voivod – Nothingface
Sepultura – Beneath the Remains
Sodom – Agent Orange