Perhaps no era of metal takes more undeserved flak than the age of “sell out” thrash. For the purposes of this article, I mean roughly the period of time between 1991 — the genre’s commercial peak, the year of Sepultura’s Arise, Metallica’s the Black Album — and the rise of nü-metal.
These two events are inextricably linked, since Anthrax’s collaboration with Public Enemy on “Bring the Noise” was also released in 1991. Therefore in the minds of many, the most critically indefensible permutation of metal stems directly from thrash’s success and subsequent overreach.
This is a too-easy narrative. It feels comfortable to chalk up this often confused and ultimately mixed bag of music on raw greed. That story is a natural recursion to the “selling out” that hardcore punk warned against, and a vindication of DIY values at the expense of using label money to try on new creative identities.
In reality, while many thrash bands released pretty cluttered, unfocused albums during this time period, there are more than enough diamonds in the rough to justify sifting through them. While some of these bands actively chased Metallica’s success and found moments of pop perfection in the process, others used the expanded space provided by the compact disc format and relatively flush (at least compared to what would come later) budgets to bend their songs in new directions.
While this period as a whole probably deserves a more in-depth feature than this, for now here’s a sample: five masterpieces from the age of commercial thrash.
Overkill – “80 Cycles”
Overkill’s Necroshine album comes from the band’s often overlooked run of albums on CMC records featuring guitarists Joe Comeau and Sebastian Marino. Their tenth album, it is the last time that guitar duo played with Bobby Blitz and D. D. Verni; It is also the end of the band’s tenure at CMC. Vague hints of industrial and an emphasis on the band’s creepy-crawly atmospheric tendencies suggest they might have been listening to a little Rob Zombie. His solo debut Hellbilly Deluxe had been released the previous year and made a ton of cash.
For better or for worse (just kidding, always for the better) Overkill can’t help but be Overkill, and “80 Cycles” comes across as bluesy cock rock with thrash swagger, expertly crafted. Every song Overkill made during this period was about this good. I call it proof that Blitz, Verni, and co never let trends change the band’s core identity, even in spite of themselves.
Testament – “Electric Crown”
Testament have finally started adding “Electric Crown” back into their live sets. The first proper song on The Ritual, their flirtation with mainstream success, it’s a pretty straightforward number by Testament standards. Chuck Billy’s voice sounds hypnotic and relatively restrained, almost wasted on the stomping number. The real standout here, though, is Alex Skolnick, whose piercing melodic guitar licks totally elevate the tune. His solo beginning at 2:05 might be one of his finest compositional moments in Testament’s discography. Sadly, Skolnick left the band not long after, and follow-ups Low and Demonic are interesting enough but could use some of his melodic sensibility.
Voivod – “Le Pont Noir”
Canadain technical thrash maestros Voivod flirted with mainstream appeal on their seventh album, 1991’s Angel Rat, and paid the price for it. Original Bassist Blacky left just before the album dropped, and the band shed many of their longtime fans without adding many new ones. So of course, they abandoned the polished approach, courted Blacky back in, restored the “blower” tone to prominence, and returned to their roots ASAP, right?
Nope! 1995’s the Outer Limits sounds even more refined than Angel Rat, thanks in part to session bassist Pierre St-Jean, features an out-and-out rock opener (“Fix My Heart”) and a Pink Floyd cover (“The Nile Song”). Sure, it also sports the band’s longest and possibly most progressive song, “Jack Luminous”, but overall The Outer Limits is even more accessible than Angel Rat was. The standout here is “Le Pont Noir”, a moody experiment in Pixies-ish loud-soft dynamics, and maybe vocalist Snake Bélanger’s most pristine vocal performance. He left the band not long after this record. One guesses they will probably never play “Le Pont Noir” live.
Megadeth – “Trust”
I recall someone once saying “Even when Dave Mustaine is singing about nukes, he’s really just singing about himself.” A valid critique, which is why it’s kind of refreshing to just hear him whine about relationship problems on “Trust”. The opening track from 1997’s underrated Cryptic Writings is Mustaine’s highest-charting song to date. While its bass-and-drums intro is an obvious attempt to rewrite the opening of “Enter Sandman,” Nick Menza and Dave Ellefson give it their all. Kudos also go to Ellefson’s backing vocal hit right before the bridge. That little “So much!” adds a sense of desperation and drama that hearkens back to this same lineup’s masterful work on Rust in Peace. It’s effective enough that Megadeth still often open sets with “Trust”.
Anthrax – “Only”
Here’s all you need to know about “Only”. When Anthrax toured in 2011 they made returning vocalist Joey Belladonna sing it. There’s video. It’s not great. For those who don’t know and don’t want to read between the lines: Belladonna was not in the band when they recorded “Only.” John Bush was. Released in 1993, The Sound of White Noise was the New York thrash outfit’s first and best record with Bush, largely thanks to the power of “Only.” Memorable, melodic, powerful and instantly recognizable, the song represents the union of pop songwriting and thrash musicianship at its apex.
If every band on this list could pump out songs like “Only” regularly, this era of metal would be remembered fondly. Sadly, that was obviously not the case, but this is as good a moment as any to stump for Bush. While the band didn’t write their best material overall with him, he remains a singularly recognizable vocalist. I think he delivered the Belladonna material better than Belladonna did. He’s back in Armored Saint now, and their reunited live performances are powerhouses. Maybe they should play “only” since Anthrax hasn’t in seven years.