It’s incredible how mass tastes in music can change so quickly. 1991 was a year of absolute sea change in this regard, and metal wasn’t immune. Some would argue that the genre came of age in the 1990s, giving rise to a beautiful time of rich experimentation. In mainstream rock, 80s synths and big hair were out; grunge and plaid were in. For metal, thrash, British, and other “classic” metal were out (temporarily), and more extreme/advanced subgenres like death metal, black metal, and prog metal were in.
So, what exactly happened to thrash?
Basically, at some point all the major bands decided to try a new sound. It was as if they all got together in a secret meeting and agreed upon it. The “new sound” was different for each band, as they all went in different directions musically starting in the 90s. The only thing they all had in common was that the new sound was definitely NOT thrash in many cases.
The group responsible for the biggest and most noticeable shift was Metallica.
In 1991, Metallica released a self-titled record. Nicknamed “The Black Album,” it became an absolute blockbuster in every sense of the word–in fact, it’s one of the top-selling albums of all time (around 14 million sold at last count). The black album took a big step away from Metallica’s established thrash sound towards more traditional hard rock.
What followed Metallica’s explosive mainstream success is truly one of the stupidest non-issues in the genre. Critics and fans either loved “The Black Album” or hated it.
The haters, in addition to just plain not liking the new, non-thrash sound, didn’t like the idea that their top 40-obsessed significant others now knew a Metallica song (most likely “Enter Sandman” or “Nothing Else Matters”). Therefore, Metallica had “sold out” and inspired other thrash groups to follow their lead to keep up and thus spelled the end of metal as we know it, the apocalypse, doom, horror, mediocrity, etc.
Those on the other side of the argument basically say, “I like ‘Enter Sandman!’ It’s great! Shut up and move out of your parents’ basements.”
You make the call. But the amount of fan angst over the switch ought to be old news by now.
“Yeah, sure, we sold out…every damn night of the tour!” is a quote generally attributed to drummer Lars Ulrich. He was correct on that one, at least.
Metallica aside, other major thrash bands struck out broadly into new waters for them. Megadeth tried its hand at more radio-friendly, riff-centered songs, while Testament went off to explore death metal.
Thrash heavyweights Slayer kept some thrash elements for its 90s output, but added more of a hardcore/punk flavor in some cases. Tom Araya and company did alright for themselves, but they weren’t nearly as prolific during this time as they were during the 80s, and their 1998 effort “Diabolus in Musica” was widely panned for experimenting with the nu-metal sound that was popular at the time.
Over in Deutschland, Kreator and Destruction’s output took a big hit due to creative differences, financial trouble, and poorly-received experiments. Celtic Frost broke up.
Anthrax meanwhile, tried a crossover hit with Public Enemy called “Bring the Noise,” something the band (and particularly guitarist Scott Ian in particular) had always wanted to try. As usual, fan reaction to a new sound was mixed, with some who appreciated the seminal mashup and others saying it has aged horribly and was only a flash in the pan. Again, you make the call.
One band that never really had the “sellout” label attached to it was Pantera. This is ironic because even though the aggressive, hard-partying quartet scored some legitimate hits in the 90s, they did so while developing their sound in an even heavier, more groove-oriented direction. They are responsible for some of the heaviest music to appear on a #1 record in the United States, and their 1994 album ‘Far Beyond Driven’ did exactly that.
And finally there was Sepultura of Brazil, working on the transition from being a “pretty good but still standard” thrash band to a world-class metal outfit that incorporated tribal influences from their homeland. By 1993, that process was complete. Rhythmically and instrumentally, Max Cavalera and his band proudly displayed their Brazilian heritage on new anthems like “Refuse/Resist” that year.
Thrash metal fans who had come of age in the 80s likely wouldn’t have recognized their favorite bands’ music in the 90s. Talented musicians almost always go through phases in their careers where they branch out and experiment a bit, and fans may or may not go along for the ride. Of course, there’s always plenty of incentive for them to return to form, as we’ll discuss in the final part of the history of thrash metal–part 6 of 6, next time.
Written by Matt P