“The Big Four” is a name given to a group of four of the most popular and influential thrash metal groups, all of whom started in the United States in the 1980s: Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer. Between them, they have sold about 200 million albums worldwide, a true juggernaut. For many mainstream listeners, thrash metal performed by one of these groups is likely their first exposure to heavy metal of any kind. So many are their collective sales and accolades that some fans complain that they took attention away from other excellent, but lesser-known thrash bands (which is why I’m writing a separate section for those bands beyond the Big Four).
Bursting out of the Bay Area with its 1983 debut, “Kill Em All,” Metallica helped deflate the pomposity of 80s glam metal. Taking the influence of bands like GBH and adding a dose of speed and distortion, Metallica thrashed as hard as any of its other brother bands in the Big Four throughout the decade. They stood as something raw, primal and passionate but still accessible.
The band continued to collect praise from both critics and fans up through its 3rd album, “Master of Puppets,” its title track routinely ranked among the top metal songs ever written. However, tragedy struck when bassist Cliff Burton was killed as the band’s tour bus skidded on ice and overturned. Burton had been responsible for much of the band’s songwriting, and it was a deep loss. Many fans maintain that Metallica was never the same again; to this day debate persists about the different musical direction they took as the 1990s took off (but that’s another part). Nonetheless, Burton’s work on Metallica’s first three albums is a lasting testament. He will be missed.
For many years acting as the proverbial scrappy younger brother to Metallica, Megadeth made many contributions to quality thrash metal, beginning with frontman Dave Mustaine’s unceremonious departure from Metallica. It began a feud between the two bands that unfortunately spilled over into the fanbases for both of them, and to this day you can still make a message board light up by igniting a “Metallica vs. Megadeth” debate.
As can be seen from two of their most popular songs below (“Peace Sells” and “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due”), Mustaine’s brand of aggression was a tad more political than his former bands, and included more focus on war themes. In fact, I don’t think “Dangerous Dave” has ever written a happy song, but that’s okay–the fans like it that way.
A truly astounding guitar duo was formed when Dave Mustaine teamed up with guitarist Marty Friedman, who contributed many magnificent solos to Megadeth’s 1990 masterpiece, “Rust In Peace.” Both technically demanding and catchy, metalheads devoured it all in spades.
The only band of the Big Four to originate on the East Coast (New York, to be exact), Anthrax brought a little more edge from the local hardcore scene. They turned up the distortion a bit more and brought a little more urgency on the drumming. Original vocalist Neil Turbin recorded one album with Anthrax (“Metal Thrashing Mad”) before being replaced by Joey Belladonna (represented here by “Caught In A Mosh”). Both Turbin and Belladonna are the leather-lunged tenors, differentiating them from the snarls or growls that the other thrash bands were using.
Anthrax is sometimes considered the least well-regarded among the Big Four bands, but the fans have their pick.
By the mid-1980s, thrash metal was starting to get some attention (though not nearly as much as the hair bands they were competing with). But there was enough buzz and sales to make people sit up and take notice. The period from 1986 to 1990 is often dubbed “The Golden Age of Thrash” as bands cranked out masterpiece album after masterpiece album, a function of all the groups hitting the prime of their talent and creativity all at once. It was a period of astounding creativity in the now-burgeoning thrash underground.
Which brings us to the last of the Big Four, Slayer.
Without a doubt the most evil-sounding and looking of the thrash metal movement in the United States, Slayer was also one of the most influential. They are continually cited as a primary influence on death metal and other extreme subgenres, their trademark pentagram logo and anti-Christian lyrical content both terrifying and entrancing millions. Just listen to a song like “Hell Awaits”:
Over the years, Slayer have naturally been accused of Nazism and occult practices, even though frontman Tom Araya is a practicing Catholic. They have also written songs about serial killers, horror movies, and the Holocaust.
“I consider what we do to be art,” Tom Araya explains in “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey.” “And art is a reflection of society…and I guess, we’re just picking up all the dark ones! But evil’s everywhere, man, everyone’s got it…regardless of whatever you believe is right, everybody knows what’s wrong…it doesn’t matter what you believe.”
And in 1986, Slayer recorded its darkest, fastest, and most acclaimed reflection yet: “Reign In Blood,” its title track driving headbangers crazy to this very day. A true landmark for its time and still inspiring legions of bands to this day, it’s highly unlikely “Reign In Blood”’s impact on thrash (and metal as a whole) will be equalled by anyone else. Slayer have performed the album in its entirely on several occasions, and the grand finale, featured below, was a fitting send-off.
Written by Matt P