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(L - R): Slayer, Anthrax, Metallica, Megadeth
How 1986 Became The Epicenter Of A New Metal Sound: Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, And The Albums That Defined Thrash Metal
Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax are today known as the four horsemen of thrash metal, and three albums released in 1986 shaped metal forever
Thrash's takeover of heavy metal wasn't complete in the mid-1980s, but its dominance and influence on the genre can be traced to the events of one triumphant and tragic year: 1986.
An aggressive collision of punk rock energy with a generation's worth of hard rock riffs, thrash metal had already been peeling the paint off underground rock clubs in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York for a few years when the powder keg exploded with a trio of albums that laid the template for the next decade-plus of metal: Metallica's Master of Puppets, Megadeth's Peace Sells … but Who's Buying?, and Slayer's Reign in Blood.
"Eighty-six is kind of like [the] tipping point for thrash," says Albert Mudrian, founder and editor in chief of Decibel magazine. "I recognize '86 as the crowning year for that style, but at the same time, just the beginning of the end in a way."
By 1986, the classic thrash metal bands had fully formed identities reflected in the albums they released that year. In Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time, published in 2017, Peace Sells … but Who's Buying? ranked No. 8; Reign in Blood was No. 6; and Master of Puppets was No. 2. Anthrax's Among the Living, which came out in March of the following year, wasn't far behind at No. 20.
The Big Four of Thrash, as a journalist dubbed them in the '80s, were also charting on the Billboard Top 200, with Master of Puppets, the most successful thrash album from the class of '86, reaching the top 30 and eventually earning six-times platinum sales. While their contemporaries hung out on the chart's lower rungs, Megadeth's Peace Sells … but Who's Buying? would reach platinum, and the albums from Slayer and Anthrax were both certified Gold for half a million albums shipped.
Only a year earlier, record label bidding wars were heating up in the thrash metal scene. Metallica were the first band to sign with a major label, joining the Elektra Records roster in 1984. "Things were brewing — you could tell thrash metal was the next thing up to bat," says founding Megadeth bassist David Ellefson. "Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Quiet Riot, WASP, [all] the Sunset Strip bands were already enjoying their heyday, and our generation was the next thing to come up the ranks."
Michael Alago, the Elektra rep who signed Metallica, set his sights on signing Megadeth next. During a whirlwind week in New York, he took Ellefson and frontman Dave Mustaine to see Metallica open for Ozzy Osbourne at the Meadowlands and whisked them to clubs like CBGB and the Limelight. Megadeth signed with Capitol Records for Peace Sells … but Who's Buying?, but Metallica had paved the way for the thrash signing blitz.
"Metallica's trajectory was so huge. They carved such a wide path for all of us," Ellefson says. "And they were the model: independent to major label, land a huge, major tour like they did with Ozzy, play the arenas."
Released in March 1986, Master of Puppets put Metallica on a much larger stage than their first two albums, Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning. As Mudrian says, the band was "a fully formed machine" by then, a tight and relentless juggernaut that moved easily from neck-breaking headbangers like "Battery" and "Damage, Inc." to the epic, anthemic title track and the progressive instrumental "Orion." "It's insane," Mudrian says. "The pace of their evolution was just faster."
Metallica wasn't playing all the typical industry games at the time, though. They weren't on radio or television — they wouldn't even put out a promotional video for MTV until "One," the breakthrough single from 1988's … And Justice For All that introduced them to mainstream success. But the opening slot on the Ozzy tour was about as plum a gig as an up-and-coming metal band could land.
"The fact that Metallica got that slot on the Ozzy tour in early '86, that definitely exposed this new music to a massive mainstream audience," says Scott Ian of Anthrax. "Playing arenas with Ozzy [wasn't] so much the passing of the torch, but it's, 'Hey everyone, check this out, look how cool this is.'"
"There was a mystique around them because they didn't have videos," Mudrian says. "Everybody kind of knew that they were essentially the biggest band out of that group of bands, but it felt like they were kind of operating on their own plane."
Megadeth, meanwhile, had an ace to play that would set them apart from the pack: the mid-tempo, politically charged "Peace Sells," which had been going over well with fans at shows before the band recorded it. The song came together in the band's south-central Los Angeles rehearsal space, where Ellefson and Mustaine slept most nights when they couldn't find anywhere else to crash. Mustaine worked out the opening bass line and showed it to Ellefson, and the band finished the song in two hours at rehearsal that night.
Ian remembers thinking "Peace Sells" was unlike anything the Big Four bands had released to that point. "I was definitely jealous of that track," he recalls. "And what a lyric! I mean, just the whole concept — 'Peace sells, but who's buying' — it's so smart. We were a bunch of f*cking kids, and Mustaine came up with that when he was, what, 22? He's not just writing about axes and cleavers and the devil and Satan and blood. He came up with something super smart in that song, and what a hook."
MTV agreed. Not only did the video for "Peace Sells" enter rotation (albeit late at night), but the network also cribbed the opening bass lick for the theme music to their MTV News spots. "I remember we had the TV on in the background and [lead guitarist] Chris Poland was doing the dishes," Ellefson says. "And out of nowhere they said, 'MTV News' [hums bassline]. And Chris goes, 'Holy sht, was that our song?' And I go, 'Fck, I think it was!' We started to hear it more and more, and eventually that 'Peace Sells' bass intro became synonymous with MTV News."
By the spring of '86, Slayer had wrapped sessions for its third album, the brutal Reign in Blood, at Hit City West in mid-city LA with their new producer and label head, Rick Rubin of Def Jam Records. In his first rock production role, Rubin established the template he would use to reinvent artists like The Cult and Danzig: straightforward arrangements and bone-dry production.
"We really didn't know to what extent the impact was going to be," says drummer Dave Lombardo. "We were just doing what we loved and recording the songs that we were creating, and Rick Rubin was helping us mold this music in a direction that we weren't really accustomed to. I believe that Rick was really good at trimming the fat in music. Whatever's not necessary, it shouldn't be there."
Rubin's work didn't compromise Slayer's intensity; if anything, he sharpened the band's attack. His influence resulted in shorter songs and a total runtime under 30 minutes, meaning the entire album fit on one side of a cassette. They simply repeated the entire 10-track set on side B. Only two songs — the opener "Angel of Death" and closer "Raining Blood" — exceed four minutes in length, and the shortest, "Necrophobic," is barely a minute and a half long.
"Hell Awaits  was such a statement because it really was at the furthest boundaries of extreme in metal at the time," Ian says. "I remember one of my initial reactions to [Reign in Blood] after listening to it all the way through, I'm like, 'Where's side two?' Of course I f*cking loved it, but I thought there was going to be another 20 minutes of it."
Slayer is fortunate it was released at all. Columbia Records, Def Jam's distribution partner, refused to ship it after hearing "Angel of Death," a song about the crimes of infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. After a six-month delay, Geffen Records stepped in to distribute the album. The band later celebrated Reign in Blood on tour in 2004 with full-album performances culminating in the band being drenched in fake blood that rained from the lighting rig during "Raining Blood."
After Metallica completed their dates with Ozzy, they headed to Europe with Anthrax and Metal Church for the next leg of the Damage, Inc. Tour. Although Anthrax was technically touring their Island Records debut Spreading the Disease, soon-to-be-classics from Among the Living such as "I Am the Law" and "Caught in a Mosh" were popping up in their sets.
"We knew when we were just playing them as a band in our room that we had stepped into a really, really big pile of sh*t because of how excited we were playing those songs and just knowing how the crowd would react," Ian says. "Once we put those in front of a crowd … we were right. We had something special."
The tour wound through the British Isles and then crossed over to the Scandinavian Peninsula for three shows before hitting mainland Europe. But they never made it past Stockholm, Sweden. On the morning of September 27, just before 7 a.m., their tour bus skidded off the road, killing Cliff Burton, the Metallica bassist who helped steer the band into the adventurous melodies and textures of songs like "Orion." The tour, at least for the moment, was done.
"We all went home [but] I went straight to San Francisco," Ian says. "I was actually staying with James [Hetfield, Metallica singer/guitarist] in his little apartment. Every day we would go out to Kirk [Hammett, Metallica lead guitarist]'s house. He was still living with his mom in the East Bay and we would just hang out and drink beer and shoot the sh*t and talk. They were able to just hang out and tell stories and move forward."
Within a couple of months, Metallica was ready to plug in again. They recruited Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newstead and returned to the road, where they would stay through 1987. Megadeth would, too, after hooking up with Alice Cooper, who was newly sober and back to playing arenas in support of Constrictor. Anthrax finished tracking Among the Living prior to resuming the Metallica tour. And Slayer teamed up with NYC thrash band Overkill for a U.S. tour of their own.
Metal was quickly evolving due to the influence of thrash. Slayer's lineage led straight to death metal, which began popping up in '87 and '88 and continued to push the genre to new extremes. The influence of Megadeth, Mudrian argues, skipped a generation but surfaced in a big way with metalcore bands in the 2000s. Metallica, of course, went on to recreate hard rock in its image with 1991's Black album, which sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and gave them the widest influence of all the thrash bands.
The Big Four finally appeared on the same bill together in 2010 in a series of concerts in Europe and the US. Any lingering animosities and jealousies were laid to rest — Mustaine, who Metallica fired before recording Kill 'Em All, jammed onstage with his former bandmates, and the bands gave their legions of fans the concert bill they always wanted to see.
"Thrash metal was always this counterculture style of metal, and it has survived strictly on the merit of our fans," Ellefson says. "As much as we've all gone to the Grammys and we've got multiple platinum albums and we've done these big tours, the real success is that our fans made us who we are. And even when mainstream media came and went, the fans kept us alive.
"I think that's telling for the staying power of our genre," he adds. "As I look at the Big Four plaque on my wall with 85,000 fans in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2010 — that wasn't [due to] one or two hit records and a smash on MTV. That's not, like, just a bunch of really great numbers on Spotify. That's a groundswell of, at that time, 30 years of growing something."
Photo: Kelly Samson, Gallery Photography
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Brian Rasic/Getty Images
5 Revealing Facts About Metallica's 'St. Anger': 20 Years On, The Controversial Album Sounds Better Than You Think
Get beyond the snark about the snare sound and the lack of guitar solos, and 'St. Anger' sounds like a refreshing mid-career reset for the heavy metal lifers.
Since its release in 2003, there's been a consistent (pingy) drumbeat of chatter about Metallica's St. Anger.
The quixotic snare sound — which bassist and producer Bob Rock claimed he spent about 15 minutes crafting — is central to the St. Anger discourse; a Google search for "metallica st. anger snare" yields about 661,000 results. As for why the eight-time GRAMMY winners uncharacteristically nixed guitar solos? That question yields millions of hits.
Then there's the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster, one of the most uncomfortably revealing portraits of a rock band engulfed in a mid-life crisis. Memorable moments abound, but for one scene alone — drummer Lars Ulrich's Middle Earth-looking dad hearing a take, and telling his son to "delete that" — the film is a must-watch.
Given the controversial status St. Anger has accrued, it may seem like the metal community may want to, well, delete it. While your mileage may vary, this hotly debated album shouldn't be consigned to any internet-snark dustbin.
Listening with the benefit of temporal distance, tracks like "Frantic," "Some Kind of Monster" and "The Unnamed Feeling" sound raw and alive — perhaps of their time, given its adjacency to then-ascendant nü metal. Ultimately, they conjure the sensation of a reset, rather than a capitulation to trends.
Today, St. Anger seems to hew less to the reputation it's engineered, and more to Rock's characterization of the thing: "To me, this album sounds like four guys in a garage getting together and writing rock songs. There was really no time to get amazing performances out of James. We liked the raw performances… we just did it, boom, and that was it."
To mark the 20th anniversary of St. Anger, here are five facts about the album.
Metallica Started The Album In An Old Army Barracks
By 2001, Metallica hadn't released an album of original material in almost five years, since 1997's Reload (a follow-up to the previous year's Load).
While these sessions ground to a halt due to personal upheaval and frontman James Hetfield heading to rehab — and the band later continued work at a new studio in San Rafael, California — this no-nonsense setting befitted the unvarnished quality of the music.
Bassist Jason Newsted Left The Band Early On
Newsted was the second bassist for Metallica, after the tragic 1986 death of Cliff Burton. Newsted's departure came the month they began St. Anger, which destabilized progress on the album.
"Due to private and personal reasons, and the physical damage that I have done to myself over the years while playing the music that I love, I must step away from the band," Newsted said in a statement. "This is the most difficult decision of my life, made in the best interest of my family, myself, and the continued growth of Metallica."
St. Anger Represented Intense Catharsis For James Hetfield
As Hetfield put it, St. Anger was a valve for which to release intense psychological pressure.
"There's a lot of passion in this. There's two years of condensed emotion in this," he told Metal Edge magazine at the time. "We've gone through a lot of personal changes, struggles, epiphanies, it's deep. It's so deep lyrically and musically… It's so hard to talk about, you really need to hear it."
Accordingly, St. Anger is nothing if not visceral — and two decades haven't sanded off those sharp edges.
As St. Anger's Recording Wound Down, Robert Trujillo Joined On Bass
While producer Bob Rock recorded the bass parts on St. Anger, his instrumental involvement
would prove to be transitional; Robert Trujillo joined Metallica on bass in February 2001.
Having played on all ensuing Metallica albums, 2008's Death Magnetic, 2016's Hardwired… to Self Destruct and 2023's 72 Seasons — all of which were warmly received by critics — Trujillo is now the longest-serving bassist in Metallica.
Critics Were Polarized, Then As With Now
Allmusic called it a "punishing, unflinching document of internal struggle"; Rolling Stone said "there's an authenticity to St. Anger's fury that none of the band's rap-metal followers can touch."
As for the band themselves, they've seemingly come to accept St. Anger, warts and all.
"There are things I would like to change on some of the records, but it gives them so much character that you can't change them," Hetfield said in 2017. "St. Anger could use a little less tin snare drum, but those things are what make those records part of our history."
Unflinching, daring and unpolished, St. Anger is one of the ultimate "line in the sand" albums in heavy music history. Whatever your perception of this ugly-duckling entry is, take its 20-year anniversary as an opportunity to revisit its fury with fresh ears.
Photo: Tim Saccenti
How Many GRAMMYs Have Metallica Won? Ahead Of New Album '72 Seasons': 6 Questions Answered
On their new album, '72 Seasons,' Metallica take inventory of their past while forging ahead into the future. Here are answers to six questions about the eight-time GRAMMY-winning band.
On their new album, 72 Seasons, Metallica circle the wagons and consolidate all the elements that make them… well, Metallica. Which, granted, many bands tend to do when they cross the four-decade mark. But for these eight-time GRAMMY winners, it's entirely a new look.
"There was this strange thing for many years in our band," drummer and co-founder Lars Ulrich told The New York Times in 2016. "We were in such a hurry to move forward, and in such a hurry to move away from certain perceptions about us, that we kept chasing something that we didn't really need to chase."
Much like its predecessors, 2008's Death Magnetic and 2016's Hardwired… To Self Destruct, 72 Seasons eschews any detours they've taken in the past. The songs sprawl; guitar solos are firmly back; there are no NWOBHM covers or symphonic collaborations. The title is backward-looking in a different way — a reference to the years between birth and age 18. And the ouroboros nature of 72 Seasons applies to the lyrics, too.
"Full speed or nothin'," founding vocalist and guitarist James Hetfield barks in lead single "Lux Æterna," a direct quote of "Motorbreath" from their 1983 debut album, Kill 'Em All. In "Room or Mirrors," he quotes "broken, beat and scarred" from Death Magnetic. Those 42 years together — approximately 168 seasons? — are clearly on these four men's minds.
With 72 Seasons tantalizingly close to release, take a look back, just as Metallica do on record — and find answers to six key facts about the world-dominating thrash titans.
Who Used To Be In Metallica?
The spirit of their early bassist, Cliff Burton, hangs heavy in the rearview; he died in a touring van accident in 1986, right as they hit a zenith with 1986's Master of Puppets.
In a spat that honestly deserves its own article, Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine was the original lead guitarist of Metallica; he's credited as a songwriter on a handful of songs on Kill 'Em All and their celebrated second album, 1984's Ride the Lightning.
Other past members include their original bassist, Ron McGovney, and mid-period bassist, Jason Newsted, who left the band in 2001 to focus on his band Echobrain.
How Many Albums Has Metallica Sold?
Metallica have sold more than 125 million albums worldwide — 67 million of those stateside.
At press time, their best-selling album is 1991's Metallica, or The Black Album — the one with indelible hits from "Enter Sandman" to "Nothing Else Matters" — with a whopping 17 million sales.
How Many GRAMMYs Has Metallica Won?
As of 2023, Metallica have won eight GRAMMYs and been nominated for 18.
In order, those eight wins were for…
Best Rock Performance ("One")
Best Metal Performance ("Stone Cold Crazy")
Best Rock Performance (Metallica*)
Best Metal Performance ("Better Than You")
Best Hard Rock Performance ("Whiskey in the Jar")
Best Rock Instrumental Performance ("The Call Of Ktulu")
Best Metal Performance ("St. Anger"),
Best Metal Performance ("My Apocalypse")
Check out Metallica's complete GRAMMY stats here!
What Is Metallica's Biggest Song?
By the standard of the Billboard Hot 100, Metallica's most successful song was "Until It Sleeps" from their 1996 album Load — their sole top 10 hit, which peaked at No. 10 and remained on the chart for 20 weeks.
(As per the Billboard 200, their most successful album is The Black Album, which peaked at No. 1, hung there for four weeks, and spent an incredible 706 weeks on the chart.)
Song-wise, though, a look at more granular Billboard categories provides a clearer picture.
"Master of Puppets" is their biggest track in the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart; it peaked at No. 5. It's also their most successful song in the Rock Digital Song Sales chart, at No. 2; Hot Rock Songs chart, also at No. 2; Hard Rock Digital Song Sales chart, Hard Rock Streaming Songs, and Hot Hard Rock Songs, all at No. 1; and Rock Streaming Songs chart, at No. 3.
As per the Rock & Alternative Airplay chart, "Lux Æterna" leads the pack, with a peak position of No. 2. And while one can go much deeper into the Billboard archives for further information — and factor in non-stateside success — it's clear "Master of Puppets" comes out on top.
Does Metallica Have A New Album?
They certainly do. As stated, 72 Seasons will be released April 14 via Blackened Recordings. It was teased via four singles: "Lux Æterna," "Screaming Suicide," "If Darkness Had a Son," and the title track.
Early reviews are strong: Rolling Stone called it "some of the deepest, hardest-hitting music of their career." Opined Consequence: "It's the sound of a band having fun, laying into a ton of riffs and embracing its own legacy as metal masters."
When Is Metallica Going On Tour?
Metallica will embark on the M72 world tour starting in late April. The trek, which stretches in 2024, will bring the foursome across Europe and North America.
Check here for their complete tour dates, and be sure to take a dive into 72 Seasons — the perfect impetus to consider the metal heroes' past, present and exceedingly bright future.