Celtic Frost: To Mega Therion
We arrive at ’85 with Celtic Frost’s “To Mega Therion”, an absolute classic of 1st wave black metal, and easily the band’s greatest moment, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Of course, when compared to a lot of other 1st wave records, “TMT” certainly had a far more polished production on the whole, with an overall sound that’s nowhere near as raw as, say, what Bathory was doing at the time, or even just as dirty as the band’s own debut, the previous year’s “Morbid Tales”. But, while “Therion” may not have been the most influential 1st wave classic, at least not when considered in terms of impact on the sound of the 2nd wave, it’s still an essential regardless, with its amazingly wild, energetic solos, iconic, infectiously crunchy riffs, killer, razor-sharp guitar tone, dynamic, unpredictable, genuinely intelligent songwriting whose tempos range all the way from dread laden, doom metal-ish crawls to sudden, intense outbursts of thrash-style speed and all points inbetween, and Tom Warrior’s epically apocalyptic lyrics, gruff, harsh vocals, and iconic, constipated-sounding grunts.
And within all of these elements there is absolutely an infusion of, yes, an incredibly evil, black-ish vibe (and I’m not talking about the show), which should’ve been a dead giveaway from simply glancing at the album’s amazing, nakedly blasphemous coverart by the man, the myth, H.R. Giger himself (if Alien ever gave you nightmares as a child (or an adult), you have him to thank), which, along the tasteful, avant-garde touchs like operatic female vocals, eerie, ambient soundscapes, or the occasional orchestral section, which foreshadows the way extreme bands would experiment with symphonic elements the following decade, all show that Frost had a brain to go along with all of their gut-level musical extremity. And all of this is even more impressive an achievement considering how relatively “polished” a sound the album has, showing that you don’t need to sound like crap to also sound evil, a lesson I wish more of the band’s musical offspring would’ve taken to heart, but regardless, on its own merits, “To Mega Therion” is an absolute, stone cold classic of 80’s metal, and my personal favorite album of its particular year, which, as you’ll soon see, is definitely saying something.
Megadeth: Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good!
Next up we have Megadeth’s “Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good!”, the debut album from a band that is Metallica’s (literal) red-headed stepchild, having been born from sheer spite when Dave Mustaine was replaced by Kirk Hammett as that group’s lead guitarist, due to his possession of a temper as firey as the curly moptop on his head, as well as a propensity for hitting the bottle way too much for his bandmates’ collective comfort (and when you drink too much to be a member of Alcoholica in the 80’s, you know you have a problem). Fortunately, those problems lead to the existence of Megadeth, and by extension “Killing”, which is a nasty, scrappy little slice of early thrash, the record that set the style for the rest of the band’s early releases, and, despite its late status as the last of the debuts from the “Big 4” of thrash, it’s still the best of the lot as far as I’m concerned, seeing as it came out at a time when the genre was better established as a distinctive style of metal.
I mean, Mustaine’s bratty, snarling vocals, the musicianship & songwriting’s particularly wrenching, technical spin on thrash, and the incredibly frantic, hyperactive solos (better than Hammett’s, but I don’t know many people who would debate that)? It’s all right here in the beginning, baby, and while not as sophisticated in composition as some of their later records, all the elements that made Megadeth, well, Megadeth are all still undeniably present here, helping to distinguish their style from the more epic, progressive-leaning compositions of Mustaine’s former group (who also heard “The Four Horsemen”, the tune that Dave originally write for them, re-done here as the significantly faster “Mechanix”, just for a little extra bit of nose-tweaking spite on his part). Not that I don’t personally prefer early Metallica to early ‘deth, but Mustaine’s band had its own niche that it filled well, as he (sort of) outgrew the chip the size of Atlas’s sphere on his shoulder in order for Megadeth to become one of the biggest metal bands in history, and it all started right here with “Killing”; not bad for sloppy seconds, eh (I keed Dave, I keed)?
Stormtroopers of Death: Speak English or Die
The various sweaty misfits that created the incredibly ugly, chaotic brand of rock we now know as hardcore punk were always somewhat of an influence on the relentlessly intense nature of thrash metal to one degree or another, but Stormtroopers of Death were the ones to combine the two sounds to a greater degree on the first real classic record of the crossover style, back when thrash was still sort of in its infancy, making their early expansion of the genre all the more impressive (they weren’t necessarily the first crossover band, mind you, but the metal community doesn’t seem to care that much about D.R.I.’s early stuff, so I’m not gonna write about them; deal). Anyway, S.O.D. came about when Charlie Benante & Scott Ian of Anthrax had finished recording “Spreading the Disease”, had some studio time left over, and, sensing an opportunity, called up former bandmate Dan Lilker and Billy Milano (of fellow crosssover pioneers Nuclear Assault), practiced some songs, and recorded “Speak English” in three days tops (makes you wonder why Metallica has to take so long these days to put out new stuff, eh?).
At any rate, the record’s rushed, seat-of-its-pants production only ended up adding to the incredibly frantic nature of the overall experience, with its abrupt, violent tempo changes, fusion of chaotic, relentlessly energetic songwriting with unbelievably catchy, aggressive riffage, Milano’s sloppy, aggressive shouting, the deliberately abrasive, unabashedly offensive lyrics, almost comically short, sub-3 minute songs (there’s a reason this record is less than half an hour with over 20 tracks, ya know), Benante’s trailblazing use of blastbeats, and the overall caffeine-addled sense of hyperactivity all combining to acheive a sort of idiot-savant genius to the record, which is probably better than anything Anthrax has ever done anyway; not bad for a rush job, am I right? Now, do the Milano mosh!
Exodus: Bonded by Blood
While Metallica was obviously the first major thrash band to unleash a debut album with the release of “Kill ‘Em All” in 1983, they certainly weren’t the first group in the sub-genre to actually exist, as fellow Bay Area act Exodus first formed their unholy alliance all the way back in 1979, before “Metal Militia” was even just a twinkle in James Hetfield’s young eye; Kirk Hammett was even one of their founding members, too! Of course, he’d jump to what would become a much bigger metal ship eventually, and, while his former band would take longer to make their worldwide breakthrough, playing shows and building a large, fanatically loyal fanbase in the San Fran area first, they eventually hit it big with “Bonded by Blood”, which set the tempo (of the damned?) for the rest of their career, and, barring a lengthy drought in records during the 90’s, set them up to be one of the most reliable thrash acts out there (certainly moreso than their “brother” band in the Bay Area, let me tell you).
Anyway, as for “Blood” itself, it’s relentlessly driven by Gary Holt’s killer riffage, the unstoppably infectious overall energy of the music, and frontman Paul Baloff’s one-of-a-kind vocals that go heavy on the high-pitched, ear-splitting shrieks, which, while not the most pleasant to listen to, and they certainly haven’t aged the best in the past 30-something years with their almost ridiculously reverb-heavy production style, in the end, they kind of add to the record’s rough-and-tumble charm. And, while the impact of “Blood” might have been muted slightly by the unfortunate delay of its release due to certain technical difficulties in its production, it still helped to establish thrash as a separate, legitimate style of metal, and is arguably the most significant record from the genre from ’85, which was, as far as I’m concerned, the first all-around classic year for the style (but more on that soon). It’s a shame that Baloff was fired from the band shortly afterward, and never recorded another studio album with Exodus (or with any other band, sadly) before his untimely death at age 41. But then again, this one recording was enough to make him a metal legend with a completely unblemished record, so why mess with perfection?
Possessed: Seven Churches
The blanket classification that we now know as “extreme” metal definitely existed before ’85, all the way back to the breakthroughs of Venom and all of the 1st wave black metal bands they subsequently inspired, but, despite the undeniable impact those groups had on the genre as a whole, we still really didn’t have anything close to death metal at the time, and wouldn’t, until San Francisco’s Possessed let loose their unholy debut, “Seven Churches”, unto the world, laying the foundation for a brand new style, and helping to change metal forever in the process.
Of course, it’s not an entirely original-sounding record in terms of its influences (is there really such a thing, anyway?), as it does have similarities to the aforementioned Venom & company, as well as to the band’s thrash peers in the Bay Area, with “Churches”‘ fairly heavy reliance on intense, up-tempo songwriting, and its overwhelmingly hellish, Satanic lyrical matter (as opposed to the gorier subjects many of the band’s spiritual successors would generally focus on instead), but Possessed still put their own trail-blazing spin on things with their music having less of a raw sound to it, as the band puts more of an emphasis on pure brutality here, with a fairly gnarly, meaty overall production, generally heavier riffage and an emphasis on tremolo-driven guitarwork, and the raspy, proto-Schuldiner-y howl of frontman Jeff Becerra, which, while not the growling of some stereotypical modern Cookie Monster, still absolutely works in the record’s favor, as well as helping to prep the world for the more guttural vocalists that would follow in his footsteps.
Of course, Possessed are certainly nowhere near the most iconic or best representative band in the history of death metal, as this was the only true classic record they ever released, and they sadly broke up shortly after recording ’86’s somewhat underwhelming “Beyond the Gates” (although the band has confirmed that their third album will finally be released this spring!!!), and obviously, “Seven Churches” isn’t the most brutal-sounding death metal album any more by a long shot, but for ’85, this was as good as it got. I mean, it has a song called “Death Metal” on it, and Chuck Schuldiner himself cited Possessed as an influence on his style, and if that isn’t as death metal as it gets, I don’t know what is.
Other Notable Metal Records From ’85:
Besides all of the classic records I already covered here, ’85 is also notable for being the year that saw a couple more early doom metal trailblazers in the forms of Pentagram’s “Relentless” , Saint Vitus’s “Hallow’s Victim”, and Trouble’s “The Skull”, as well as some more 1st wave black metal with Venom’s “Possessed” (which wasn’t as good as the Possessed, haha), and Bathory’s aptly-titled sophomore effort “The Return”, and the (unfortunate) continued rise of glam metal with Bon Jovi’s “7800° Fahrenheit”, Ratt’s “Invasion of Your Privacy”, and Mötley Crüe’s “Theatre of Pain”, but the real metal movement that ruled the year had to be the thrashers, with ’85 being the first all-around classic year for the genre, and the real beginning of its individual “golden age”, as, in addition to the release of the debuts of such genre icons as Dark Angel, Destruction, Kreator, and Overkill, we also saw such classic records as Carnivore’s self-titled debut (featuring a pre-Type O Negative Peter Steele on vocals!), Anthrax’s aforementioned sophomore effort “Spreading the Disease”, and Slayer’s “Hell Awaits”, which was, as far as I’m concerned, the true arrival of the metal legends as a musical force to be reckoned with, and one that we WILL reckon with in this project, very, very soon…