Sunday, December 19, 2010

Thrash Revival Reviled

There's sure a lot of love for old thrash lately. I can't turn around at a metal show without bumping into some 20 year old kid in a denim vest, covered in old school thrash patches. And who am I to judge, because I dressed like that 10 years ago when I first discovered Kreator, Sodom, and Dark Angel (this was 6 years after Ride the Lightning and Rust in Peace got my 14 year old self through school every day).

The biggest problem I have with the idea of thrash revivalism is that, well, I'm not sure thrash ever really went away. Sure, I remember as a teenager when the British magazine Metal Hammer would bag on bands like Overkill and Testament for being past their sell-by date. It left me with the impression back then that thrash was out, and bands like Fear Factory and Machine Head were the future.

If we could pinpoint a time when thrash "died," it would have to be 1991, after the release of Metallica's "black" album. The band who arguably created thrash and hammered it into a genuine musical movement made a significant statement by turning their backs on it in favor of mid-paced, chunky riffs. It was during this same period that slow Sabbath-influenced bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains became huge. At least in terms of chart success and critic's tastes, the breakneck tempos of thrash were out, while the metal underground was unquestionably conquered by death and grindcore.

In the wake of Metallica's defection (at the time, it was considered "creative maturation," and it paid very well), every major thrash band seemed pressured to change their sound. Megadeth went first with Countdown to Extinction, their own streamlined bid for mainstream appeal. Anthrax jumped from bandwagon to bandwagon, first with the grunge-friendly Sound of White Noise, then to a series of Panterwannabe albums. And so it went from the Bay Area to the German Rhineland; old thrash dogs had to quickly learn new tricks. It was a case of economic Darwinism: evolve or die.

But this was, at best, only half a decade of thrash being out of favour; when Slayer released Divine Intervention in 1994, it was still a huge deal. This era also marked the rise of Scandinavian black metal, of bands who revolted against the progressive and commercialized aspects of death metal for a primitive sound that was in no small way shaped by the earliest thrash albums.

In fact, a bunch of these Norwegian and Swedish dudes took a break from their main black metal acts to form bands like Guillotine, Infernö, and Aura Noir. That was the first time I heard about the retro-thrash genre, which revolved around lo-fi worship of early Destruction, Sodom, Kreator, and Bathory records. Thrash nostalgia had officially begun.

It wasn't long after that Patrik Jensen and three guys from At the Gates crafted the first Haunted record. Slayer, Dark Angel, and Testament were all name-dropped reverentially, and I don't think I'm alone in considering the Haunted as the rallying point for another wave of thrash revival. Unlike Infernö or Bewitched, which were side projects that could only be taken as seriously as their creators did (which was not very), the Haunted were a heavily promoted, critically-lauded band who took the retro-thrash template and upped the ante with stellar musicianship and a modernized sound. It wasn't long before similar bands like Carnal Forge and Corporation 187 were being signed to bigger labels in the wake of the Haunted's success, not to mention Jensen's own retro-thrashing Witchery.

And, inevitably, the bands who were the recipients of all this hero worship took it upon themselves to reinstate their place in the metal world. By the mid 2000s, Destruction, Exodus, and Death Angel reformed and released new albums. Kreator ditched the goth rock that they had been experimenting with the previous decade and went back to their blistering melodic thrash. Sodom, who never really went away or changed their direction, fell under the spotlight again. This era of reunions and comebacks is what I consider the third wave of thrash revivals.

Which brings us to bands like Toxic Holocaust, Merciless Death, Warbringer, and Skeleton Witch, who mark the fourth wave to cash in on the early days of bullet belts and spiked gauntlets. And after 15 years, I'm yelling "enough already". I don't think that my feelings are kneejerk contrariety either. Thrash revival has stripped the music that got me into metal of its magic; there are so many bands catering their sound and look to hesher nostalgia that all these new guys have taken on a Boyband-like interchangeability.

Or maybe I'm just waiting for those kids in Williamsburg to grow out of it so I can slip my old denim vest back on.