Metal History: Thrash Metal Part 7: Recent Events

August 15, 2017 — Leave a comment

I first started working on this series about four years ago. It has been through many revisions, rewrites, and re-visitations since then.

But here’s the thing: metal history doesn’t stop!

So let us consider this coverage of more “recent” events (since 2010 or so) as a bonus.

For my money, the thrash metal band that has enjoyed the most sustained level of second-wind success the past few years is Overkill.

Metal’s favorite New Jersey-ans release a new album almost every other year, and their tried-and-true high-octane tunes have benefited from modern production standards (i.e., nice and loud!). 2010’s Ironbound was the first of these. And it isn’t just a new generation of young metalheads embracing them either. Overkill’s peers in other bands have also given them many well-deserved horns up.

The new tunes are helped by what can only be described as a relentless touring schedule. Bobby Blitz and company seem perpetually in the studio or on the road, outworking even many other bands 30 years their junior. Thanks to them, neon green is now a metal color (along with black and red, of course)! Someone commented on a previous section here that Ellsworth hasn’t lost any of his vocal intensity even at his age.

Having recently saw Overkill on tour with Kreator, that person is correct. The band was athletic in its showmanship, and seemed like that rowdy party of guys at the bar who only grow louder and happier the more they drink! Meanwhile Kreator, enjoying a renaissance of their own, occupy the other end of the bar, drinking heavily and angrily, giving off a vibe of such intensity that it looks like they may start a fight at any moment. And they probably have!

So may God continue to bless Overkill…the mean, green, killing machine!

Same to Kreator, the terror of totalitarians everywhere!

Since the premature death of Cliff Burton in 1986, thrash metal had been spared another major tragic death of one of its own. But on May 2nd, 2013, that 27-year respite came to an end with the death of Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman.

Hanneman’s health had started to unwind in 2011, when he received a spider bite in a friend’s hot tub. Slayer’s good friend Gary Holt filled in for tour dates in the meantime, but it turned out the illness from the spider bite (“necrotizing fasciitis”) was only the tip of the iceberg. He didn’t seem to be recovering, and Jeff’s bandmates were worried. I remember seeing a visibly upset Kerry King speaking with an interviewer about fan reaction to the illness. I don’t recall his exact words, but essentially…although he appreciated fans’ attempts to lift spirits by saying things like “that’s such a fucking brutal metal disease for a member of Slayer,” the condition was in fact pretty serious.

Officially, the cause of Jeff Hanneman’s death was liver failure/alcohol-related cirrhosis, although it meant little to those who had grown up on the Slayer anthems he wrote: “Angel of Death,” “Raining Blood,” “War Ensemble,” etc. I believe Hanneman’s final writing credit for Slayer is “Piano Wire,” from 2015’s Repentless–with Gary Holt now an official member of Slayer. Talk about a bittersweet way to get a gig.

Fellow metalheads and bands were quick to offer their condolences and praise for Jeff’s work, especially at the Revolver Golden Gods outdoor ceremony that was going on at the same time.

“His playing had a huge influence on Carcass.” – Jeff Walker

“I’d put him up there with Tony Iommi, in a lot of ways.” – Corey Taylor

“He wrote some of the best riffs of all time. He impacted music in such a way that an entire genre will never be the same.” – Alex Skolnick

Deciding to replace a key member of a band is a big decision that has a real danger of going badly. Not only does the replacement have to be able to know and play the material, but ideally they’d also have to know the spirit of the composing and playing that made the band’s style in the first place.

Well, that’s what Voivod did when they decided to recruit guitarist and mega-fan Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain, a guy who learned how to play guitar from listening to the band’s records. He’s as close to a Piggy replacement as they could reasonably get.

“Voivod’s been my favorite band since I was 11 years old…I realized I don’t want to copy Piggy. Piggy’s unique…I can only be the Voivod fan I am doing my best to write Voivod music that I can.” – Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain

With 2013’s Target Earth representing Mongrain’s first full-album credit with his heroes, the band now turns to an early 2018 double album release, with their fans eagerly waiting…

Speaking of Voivod fans, imagine this…you’re looking for new music that sounds like your favorite band, and you see a few album covers with band logos on your music station of choice that make you double-take and think, “Could it be…?”

Alas, it’s not Voivod–it’s a newer band called Vektor, and they designed their logo and artwork as homage to the Canadian legends. Their music too is cut from the same cloth, and Vektor is doing progressive thrash quite proud indeed. They even got to open for their heroes on a 2016 tour. Hopefully not too many fans purchased incorrect band logo shirts by mistake…

One of the ways you can tell if a subgenre is truly successful or not is if new, younger bands are still creating it in a vibrant way. Optimally, they’d be inspired by the subgenre’s existing heavyweights, and in addition they hopefully also appreciate what they listened to back in the day when it was new. Fortunately for thrash fans, there a number of acts eager to keep the thrash flame burning. These groups benefit from decades’ worth of quality thrashing for inspiration, modern production standards, and their opening-act suitability for the bigger thrash bands.

Case in point is Warbringer, who opened for that same Kreator and Overkill show I talked about above. Good choice, as they veer towards that side of the thrash spectrum anyway.

Just as the original wave of thrash metal bands went in slightly different directions depending on their geographic location, so it is with their proteges as well. If Warbringer seems sonically closest to the Teutonic bands, then Municipal Waste (Richmond, Virginia, USA) is much closer to the East Coast crossover-style of Anthrax, Nuclear Assault, and S.O.D.

Artists rough representation of their concerts below.

It can be tough for longtime thrash fans to appreciate what the newer bands are doing. We can be a strange bunch, pining for a time like metal’s late-80s heyday while decrying new acts that embrace that spirit of song as “copycats” at best. I wasn’t there for the genre’s golden years, but I love the old bands and the new bands both.

A band like Havok (Denver, Colorado, USA), has taken on the challenge of sticking to thrash metal basics and managing to make it sound as vital and bloodthirsty as a new band can and should.

After an unfortunate parting of the ways with Max Cavalera, Sepultura carried on with a new vocalist, an American–Derrick Green. At this point, the guy has sung for Brazil’s finest for longer than Max and has no intention of calling it quits. At this point, most fans have made up their minds that they like him or they don’t. Count me personally among the former, although Sepultura’s ’87-’96 output remains their finest work.

Even without Max, the remaining members continue to hoist the band and its legacy upon their shoulders, refusing to let it die.

Here’s a taste from their latest…

Thrash veterans Exodus didn’t sit around and twiddle their thumbs either. After Paul Baloff shuffled off this mortal coil, vocalist Rob Dukes manned the pipes for almost 10 years beginning in 2005, followed by Steve Souza, who remains in that spot today (not his first rodeo with the band either). 2018 is circled on the band’s calendar for their next studio release–although now with the challenge of working around Gary Holt’s commitments with Slayer.

Somehow I think they’ll pleasantly surprise as always…

In addition to the younger generation of thrash metal bands, a mini-trend is emerging as veteran groups recruit new talent from other successful groups to inject a new vibrancy into touring and songwriting. Others may call it “poaching.”

East Coast thrash kings Anthrax hired fleet-fingered guitarist Jon Donais from American band Shadows Fall not long after Worship Music came out in 2011. Shadows Fall were on their way to calling it a day anyway, but with Joey Belladonna back in the swing of things and the original core group of Scott Ian, Frank Bello and Charlie Benante writing as well as ever, Jon Donais became “the new guy” in time for 2016’s For All Kings.

On a personal note, as a Shadows Fall fan going back to high school I couldn’t be happier for Jon Donais–even if his old band is more or less on hiatus as a side effect. Hearing him shred away on the below track based on The Dark Tower is a true gift from the metal gods.

Another bold career move came when Kiko Loureiro of Angra (Brazilia!) joined Megadeth to replace Chris Broderick on the six strings. Loureiro enjoys an even higher profile than Donais, employing his highly technical sweep and tapping skills for power metal audiences for many years before getting the call from Dave Mustaine.

Dangerous Dave spoke glowingly of Loureiro’s playing ability, and from seeing them on tour I can personally vouch that he has all the most legendary and complex Megadeth moments down with effortless ease. I’m sure he’ll tell you it took quite a bit of practice, but at this point I think Loureiro could play the “Tornado of Souls” solo behind his back.

Loureiro’s 2016 studio effort with Megadeth, Dystopia, became the band’s most highly-regarded work in years. The accompanying tour featured an Aliens-like stage set with plenty of smoke and flashing red emergency lights, and the band’s final bow was accompanied by Bible quotes on large screens as a reminder of Mustaine’s continued commitment to at least try to stay on the straight and narrow. He genuinely enjoys talking to fans on social media and regularly does both music-related and non-music related interviews. His level of interaction suggests that he views the millions of Megadeth fans around the world as his brothers in agape, and likely to many of us (including yours truly) he seems like that cool older brother that some of us never had.

Of course, as he’ll likely admit it can be very tough to consider everybody a brother…especially when you’re playing a show in Tokyo and get word that Chris Cornell of Soundgarden has passed away. You’re trying to give as meaningful a eulogy as you possibly can on this impromptu basis–after all, he was your friend and you are finding this out at the same time as word slowly drifts through the crowd…”Chris Cornell killed himself today.”

And some heckler just won’t let you talk. So what do you do? You tell him…

“Shut the fuck up, asshole.”

I think Jesus would have understood.

Anyway, Dystopia might have been the runaway favorite metal album of 2016 if not for another band finally emerging from the studio after 8 years. That other band he used to be in…?

Hard-Wired…to Self Destruct sprawled over 2 CDs and featured a similar level of acclaim from both the hardcore fans and “everybody else.”

But when Grammy time came, it was Megadeth who marched onstage to accept its first award of that kind in its career. Well-deserved. Of course, a few of us just won’t let the “Metallica vs Megadeth” thing die…

As a lot of us know, Metallica appeared with Lady Gaga to perform one of their new songs live on TV, only to have their collaboration disrupted by malfunctioning gear (“It sounded better that way anyway!” cry certain people). To hear Lars tell it backstage, “I haven’t seen James that angry in 20 years.” Yeah, shit happens…but can you imagine what the outcry would be if something ever went wrong with Beyonce’s gear?

Be that as it may…

In the Some Kind of Monster documentary, an interviewer asks Lars Ulrich if he thinks it’s possible for the band to retain the fire they had at the beginning–indicating her doubt about the answer. Lars looks off into the distance and says nothing, no doubt visualizing some unknown future shore. Over a decade after that bleakest of times in the Metallica camp, here we are…in a much better place than many of us thought, despite the missteps.

Thrash metal is in a pretty good spot right now. Despite their losses, the bands are all working, succeeding and at peace with themselves and each other. They have no trouble filling venues and inspiring new recruits. As thrash fans we should count our blessings now more than ever, as they all surely are. Long live thrash!

Thanks for reading and headbanging! I hope you’ll join me for my coverage of the other metal subgenres. Plenty more ahead.

History of Thrash Part 1: Early Influences
History of Thrash Part 2: The Big Four
History of Thrash Part 3: Beyond the Big Four
History of Thrash Part 4: Teutonic and Brazilian Thrash
History of Thrash Part 5: What Happened In the 90s?
History of Thrash Part 6: Rebirth

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