After the 1990s, which saw the rise of experimentation away from thrash metal with varying degrees of success, the genre was due for another sea change. New sounds were cropping up everywhere in the music world (not all of them good by any means), and in the midst of it all the old thrash guards felt compelled to rediscover their original brazen sound. Just as all good things must come to an end, so must all bad things as well.
If it seemed as if the major thrash bands all got together in a secret meeting at the dawn of the 90s and agreed to drop thrash for a while, then they must have reconvened at the dawn of the new millennium and said to one another, “We done here? Got all the experimentation out of our system? By a show of devil horns, who votes we go back to thrash?….Good.”
To me, the band that kicked off the thrash metal revival of the 2000s was Slayer, who crafted one of their career-finest songs on their 20th anniversary as a band in 2001. A major hit for headbangers everywhere, that song was “Disciple,” and the album God Hates Us All. Slayer had never really left–guitarist Kerry King was back, taking shots at one of his favorite topics: religious hypocrisy.
“I definitely wanted to put more realism in it, more depth,” he explained. “God Hates Us All isn’t an anti-Christian line as much as it’s an idea I think a lot of people can relate to on a daily basis. One day you’re living your life, and then you’re hit by a car or your dog dies, so you feel like, ‘God really hates me today.'”
Tom Araya clarified to Sam Dunn, “God doesn’t hate….it’s just a great fucking title.”
And yet, the song and album’s release infamously coincided with the defining event of the millennium thus far: September 11, 2001.
Overnight, the world seemed to become an even more dangerous and intense place. It seemed there were new ways of viewing what it meant to be a hero, what it meant to be at war, what it meant to live life with meaning and purpose. It seemed that the dark world so often depicted in heavy metal’s lyrics and images had arrived in reality, now a part of life for millions of people. It was a truly global event. Metal was more relevant and meaningful than ever.
How to respond to this new world?
Across the Atlantic in Germany, the Teutonic thrash giants responded by going on a creative tear.
Kreator’s solution was…a violent revolution
Destruction’s solution was…to thrash till death
Sodom’s solution was…to load up the M-16s.
Every other year between them, the German bands released a very good album that cheered the spirits of old-school thrashers. This run has continued up to today and likely beyond. Kreator, Destruction, Tankard and Sodom revived the spirit of Teutonic thrash and have created some of the most underrated metal on earth since the turn of the millennium. Improved, loud, clean production techniques have ensured the bands’ vitality among both old-school thrashers and new fans–a worthwhile endeavor if there ever was one.
But the budding thrash rally nearly short-circuited before it got off the ground, as a series of tragic events threatened to derail it only a couple of years later.
Metallica initially missed the boat when they put out St. Anger in 2003. Like the rest of the band’s 1990s output, the album wasn’t thrash metal at all. Unfortunately for everybody involved in its production and release, the gap between expectations and reality was simply too massive for most of their fans. There was particularly harsh criticism over the lack of guitar solos and the tinny, garage-like sound of Lars’ drums (even if a number of the riffs were at least decent). Essentially many of the traits fans loved about Metallica both from their thrash days and their hard rock days were missing, leading to its poor reception.
From my standpoint, opinions largely haven’t changed since then. Over the years, St. Anger has become considered Exhibit A for “most disappointing metal album.” Bear in mind that we metalheads are just as prone to hyperbole as anyone else, and it’s helpful to remember that Metallica was at its most dysfunctional period personally during this time. If anyone has watched the whole uncomfortable situation in the Some Kind of Monster documentary, then you know it seems like a miracle they were able to record anything at all!
Hardly an auspicious welcome for the band’s new bassist, Senor Roberto Trujillo! (For those who don’t know, he’s the guy who’s always stomping around onstage like Godzilla, usually with a jersey on).
“It was the fact that there were no real songs. That’s because the guy that writes the songs couldn’t do it because of where he was personally. So what St. Anger became was what the band could do at that point. And it’s exactly that. It was riffs strung together.” – Bob Rock, producer
Luckily, Metallica would both get and seize their chance to redeem themselves..
Dave Mustaine of Megadeth was dealing with problems of his own around the same time.
Most urgent of these would be falling asleep with his left arm hooked over the back of a chair at a rehab center in Texas…and waking up to find he couldn’t move that arm or hand at all.
Did I mention it was his left hand, his fretboard hand?
The rehab process from this injury was painfully slow, even more so when you’re trying to kick an addiction to painkillers at the same time.
“Imagine what it’s like to spend hours on end with a pair of tweezers between your fingers, trying to rearrange a pile of carpenter’s nails. I would sit at a desk and work out–literally–with a clothespin. Squeeze…release. Squeeze…release.” – Dave Mustaine
Around this time, Dangerous Dave felt compelled to become a Christian, and that story is told in his biography. Essentially, it seems the faith gave him the hope he needed to clean himself up, return home to his wife and kids, and get Megadeth back on track.
“Thing is, when you’re driven to succeed, as I certainly was, and start working to the degree where nothing else matters, you totally lose sight of what’s important. That’s what happened to me. And in the end, if you care enough, you find yourself in rehab, spouting the Serenity Prayer over and over. Or some version of it, anyway, which at its core is simply this: ‘Fuck it.'” – Dave Mustaine
With Glen and Shawn Drover joining him in a re-vamped lineup, Megadeth’s material returned to form starting with 2004’s The System Has Failed…through 2007’s United Abominations…and 2009’s Endgame. This was when I discovered Megadeth too, in high school, and I remember each successive album getting metalheads more and more fired up.
December 8th, 2004 is a date that is ingrained in every metalheads psyche for what a lot of us know is a terrible reason–not least of which is that what happened that day should never have happened at all.
Diamond Darrell Abbott, by this time going the name “Dimebag” Darrell, was a guitar icon for a new generation of players and fans. One summer as a teenager, he locked himself in his room with the first two Ozzy Osbourne records and re-emerged in the fall as a different, dramatically improved player. Dime’s skill, playing profile and partying prowess had only grown throughout the 90s as Pantera’s career took off.
“We all improvised individually where we could and on the occasions when Dime decided to go off on one, it was always fucking awesome to behold from the other side of the stage…Sometimes I’d get goosebumps from some of the stuff he did. Dime’s playing never ceased to blow me away, so much so that I’d occasionally go over and give him a kiss!” – Rex Brown
Despite its talent and success, Pantera did not last long together into the new millennium. The usual suspects of tons of partying, money trouble, and hanging out with the same people for so many years took its toll. They were more or less done by the end of 2001, with singer and bassist Phil Anselmo and Rex Brown working on Down, and guitarist and drummer Dime and Vinnie Paul forming Damageplan.
On the December 8th, 2004 Damageplan show in Columbus, Dimebag Darrell was shot and killed onstage by an audience member. That same shooter killed and injured several others before being shot dead himself by police.
“The killer must not have been able to deal with the fact that Pantera had split up, so he decided to take his anger out on us, and he also had somehow in his delusion convinced himself that he had written our songs.” – Rex Brown
I wasn’t listening to metal at the time and only found out about the murder a couple of years later, when I played “Cowboys From Hell” on Guitar Hero. I had no idea that metal had just recently witnessed its own “John Lennon moment.”
Rex Brown dives right into that day and its aftermath in the prologue of his biography, Official Truth. Our beloved tradition of doing shots for Dime has its origins on his funeral day, where Rex and most other attendees simply needed to drink heavily just to get through it all. Drunk as he was, Eddie Van Halen managed to place one of his own guitars (from the cover of the first Van Halen record!) in the casket.
“I was one of the last to go through and see Dime’s body (my second time), and on this occasion I simply kissed him on the forehead. He was just so cold. Right then I emotionally checked out. Of course I was physically there, but mentally I was gone. I was just a shell and couldn’t feel anything.” – Rex Brown
Down and the other side bands continue, but chances are none of them will replace what Pantera meant in the hearts of fans.
“If he were still alive, I’d damn well know him, because of our love for each other…Dime will be remembered for fucking ever.” – Phil Anselmo
Another death occurred the following year that was not nearly as dramatic or highly reported, but just as sad, was Denis “Piggy” D’Amour from Voivod. Colon cancer claimed him at the age of 45 in 2005. He was absolutely essential to Voivod’s sound and appeal, and many fans wondered if the band could continue at all.
Some months after Piggy’s passing, the documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey came out, featuring an interview with him. As I watched the movie and let it change my life, I recall thinking that what Piggy was saying was interesting, but that he looked extremely tired and out of it. Little did I know that he was quite ill, near death really, during that conversation he had with Sam Dunn.
“Piggy was one of the most underrated guitar players in hard-rock music…he mathematically outsmarted the guitar and tuned it differently than anybody. He was a nice, gentle, absolute genius type of person. But when it came to the music, there was absolutely zero tolerance for fucking around. You do not make a mistake.” – Jason Newsted
Luckily Newstead and Piggy, who were bandmates by this time, were able to record most of his final guitar parts onto his laptop. A lot of them made it onto 2006’s Katorz album. It turned out Voivod was not calling it a day after all!
And yet, after all the deaths and injuries had passed there was still time to recognize thrash metal’s achievements.
Metallica made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, with James Hetfield’s acceptance speech famously “holding the door open” for Motorhead, Judas Priest, Rush, Deep Purple, and many others. It felt great knowing that “Master of Puppets,” which they played that night, would be officially considered rock royalty.
They showed up to the 25th Anniversary concerts as well, performing a couple of Metallica classics as well as sharing duets with mutual admirers like Ozzy Osbourne, Ray Davies, and Lou Reed (RIP).
As mentioned in Part 3, Testament revived its career after Chuck Billy fully recovered from cancer. 2008’s The Formation of Damnation was one of the best-received thrash metal albums of the decade, and saw Testament join Judas Priest, Motorhead, and Heaven and Hell on the Metal Masters Tour. Pretty good company, that. Best metal show I ever saw.
Testament take their time in between studio albums these days, but not as long as Anthrax, who took eight years between 2003 and 2011 for their next studio effort. As it turns out, they were revamping the Anthrax lineup by bringing back singer Joey Belladonna. By the time that happened, there were even bigger things on the horizon…the Big Four shows.
Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax made the giant sets happen. Backstage they all re-connected, and it wasn’t just between Dave Mustaine and the Metallica guys. Did you know Mustaine and Kerry King have attended quite a few football (Raiders) and hockey games since then after bonding over those sports?
To hear them tell it, while each band played its own set, you could glance to side-stage and see the guys from the other three bands all headbanging and horn-throwing. Even though Big Four are all living legends now, what matters is that at heart…they’re still fans.
What made the finale epic was when all four bands joined together for “Am I Evil,” the metal anthem that inspired them all so many years ago. They capped off a difficult decade with a show of strength and community as powerful as any foe, physical or spiritual.
Coming up in the finale of this series, we’ll see that in fact, the journey of thrash is not quite over…
Originally written by <a href=”” rel=”author”>Matt P</a> for www.headofmetal.com. Follow him on Twitter @headofmetal2012.
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