Talkin' Thrash

A new documentary tells the loud, sweaty tale of full-contact heavy metal.

Get Thrashed thrash metal Slayer Megadeth Anthrax Metallica Overkill heavy metal Rick Ernst MTV The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, One Key Plaza, downtown 3 p.m. Wednesday, August 15; Free admission; 216-515-8444
Megadeth's Dave Mustaine was once Metallica's lead shredder. - Kevin Hodapp
Kevin Hodapp
Megadeth's Dave Mustaine was once Metallica's lead shredder.
"Thrash was the pinnacle of metal," says filmmaker and rabid thrasher Rick Ernst. "It was the fastest, heaviest, coolest stuff you could find."

Ernst's documentary, Get Thrashed, is currently making its way through the film-festival circuit. A New York screening sold out, and a San Francisco showing had headbangers lined up around the block. Ernst, a former intern for MTV's Headbanger's Ball, has perfect timing. After years on the scrap heap, thrash is experiencing a full-blown revival, featuring new-school shredders like Trivium, SSS, and Mastery.

Employing a wealth of vintage live footage and still photos, Get Thrashed traces the music's influence and history, including its resurgence. In addition to the movement's biggest bands, Ernst interviews record executives, photographers, DJs, and musicians from such groups as Overkill, Killswitch Engage, and Cleveland's Chimaira.

Thrash's story, as told by Ernst, goes something like this:

Back in 1981, heavy metal was no longer heavy enough, plain and simple. Eleven years after Black Sabbath rocked so hard that the music needed a new name, metalheads like Ernst were starving for something faster and far more extreme.

As a result, longhairs in Southern California -- dudes raised on Sabbath, Deep Purple, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden -- started cross-pollinating sounds. They fused the progressive grandeur of Diamond Head and Angel Witch (key players in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal), and the visceral hardcore punk of bands like Black Flag and TSOL. This is the phenomenon that essentially produced thrash's "big four" -- Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth.

These bands rejected rock glitz, providing a harsh alternative to the party-hearty pop metal of Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi. While Crüe shouted at the devil and Van Halen ran with the devil, half the thrash bands sang about worshiping the devil.

But the music wasn't all Satanic shtick: Even though Metallica and Megadeth went straight from high school to the clubs, their hardcore background led them to write incendiary if somewhat vague political rants like "Ride the Lightning" and "Peace Sells."

Unlike classic metalheads, thrash fans embraced punk's love for chaotic slam dancing. Seats were obsolete, and shows were a full-contact sport. With violent headbanging as a mere warm-up, longhairs went bonkers, climbing on stage, spazzing out, and diving back into a maelstrom of sweat, hair, and shoulder-to-shoulder flesh.

"Thrash was the perfect mix," explains Ernst, calling from his Long Island home. "Guys could growl a little bit, but they could sing. And it was a mix of heavy, brutal riffing, but also these beautiful guitar solos and double-bass drums."

Songs became longer and faster. Fret-work grew as complicated as classical guitar compositions. Rapid-fire double bass evolved into an athletic new pastime.

Thrash's popularity spread like a Dave Mustaine solo in the early to mid-'80s. Metallica, then featuring lead-guitarist Dave Mustaine, moved north, from SoCal to the Bay Area, where Exodus was perfecting a more direct speed-metal assault. (Speed metal was fast, but thrash's multimovement epics were even faster, harder, and more difficult to play.)

After a nasty split with Metallica, Mustaine formed Megadeth, and San Francisco became a thrash hotbed, with zines, clubs, and radio fanning the flames of the new metal. Testament joined the party, and Slayer ventured north for gigs.

In 1985, Metallica signed to Megaforce, an East Coast label. And the latest in West Coast sonic violence caught the ears of tristate bands like Anthrax, Overkill, and Whiplash.

1986 was a hell of a year for the new hellions: The big four all had major-label deals. After the March release of Master of Puppets, Metallica opened an arena tour for Ozzy and never looked back. Megadeth, meanwhile, dropped Peace Sells . . . but Who's Buying?, a pinnacle for the band's Sabbath-style jazz-blues hybrid.

In October, Slayer released Reign in Blood. Produced by Rick Rubin, the disc pushed the band's blood-soaked imagery to the edge. "It's kind of an era-ending [record]," Slayer's Kerry King said of the album in a 1990 interview with Thrash magazine. "The end of the first era of thrash. Where do you go from there?"

Where it went is arenas and stadiums. Although the music peaked artistically in 1990, it exploded commercially with 1990's Clash of the Titans tour. Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth -- all supporting new albums -- shared the bill, rotating as headliners.

"Clash of the Titans was the end," recalls Ernst. "I remember seeing it at Madison Square Garden, and I couldn't believe that we were there with 20,000 people, watching these bands that we had grown up seeing in small clubs. At the end of that tour, things changed musically."

Influenced by thrash's speed and naked aggression, metal splintered into death metal, grunge, nü metal, rap metal, black metal, stoner rock, and dozens of other micro-genres over the 1990s. Thrash was suddenly as uncool as tight acid-washed jeans.

"If you look at 1997 to 2002, there was a lot of nü metal, and a lot of those rap-metal bands like Korn were afraid to say that their influences were Slayer," says Ernst. "You look at anyone playing heavy guitar in any genre, whether it's Lamb of God or Nickelback -- I guarantee you they were listening to Megadeth or Anthrax at some point."

In the last five years, however, simpler forms of metal have once again led to tunes that are more complex, harder, and faster. New thrash bands are packing clubs and playing arenas. Hailing from Florida, Trivium sounds like a machine programmed to simulate Master of Puppets. Decked out in leather and denim, Virginia's Municipal Waste are as vital as anything from 1986.

Ozzfest, once a showcase for rap-metal bands like Disturbed and Crazy Town, now whips up some of the country's most massive mosh pits every summer.

After years of neglect, thrash is getting its due. Ernst says it's about time. "I think that thrash metal is a form of metal that's just as important as punk or hardcore or any other form of music," says Ernst. "It's back, and bigger and better, and I knew it all along. You can't kill thrash."

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