The Lesser Six
American Thrash During the Late 1980s
by: Johnathan A. Carbon
"The Big Four" is a name given to four American bands widely heralded as the founders of thrash metal. The Big Four included three bands from California (Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica) and one band from New York (Anthrax). They represent early innovators, as well the most successful thrash bands of the 1980s. The phrase is also being used to promote a gargantuan series of one-off concerts in Europe and the United States.

The adjective "Big" implies a distinction against similar acts from the same time and era. It is not hard to imagine the countless other bands who were operating and making albums during this American renaissance. A knowledge of bands outside the Big Four is to immerse yourself in contemporary history. While "big" denotes popularity and subsequent legacies, the word has little to do with quality. This is not to say anyone from the Big Four were bad; rather, that other albums outside of the circle were just as good.

I am not writing to you today to discuss the true formation of thrash metal. Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax all released albums early and strong enough to be considered forerunners for the style. The popularity of each band added undeniable elements for the style's later development. What I am here today is to discuss the wave of American thrash bands which missed the cutoff point to be included in the Big Four. The ones that started two or three years too late. Whether by cruel twists of fate or devious acts of destiny, these bands never made it to the big dance. While these six bands are recognized by the underground community, they will never get a giant concert in Bulgaria. These are "The Lesser Six". The partially sung. The second string. The absent from the pages of the great metal textbook.

I have chosen to concentrate on one album form each respected entry, despite some bands being able to fill multiple entries. Perhaps if the colloquium is amended to the Super Six, Great Eight or Terrific Twelve, these bands could finally receive the recognition deserved. Until then, these Lesser Six will rest on a pedestal only slightly lower than their bigger siblings.

Exodus - _Bonded by Blood_ (1985)
San Francisco, California

Many times the question arises: "If one of the Big Four would befall some accident, who would be suitable for replacement?" This classic argument and hypothetical situation usually leads its participants to two Bay Area thrash bands: Testament and Exodus. Exodus was formed by Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett. However, Hammett would only create the band in 1980 and record a three song demo before moving onto Metallica in 1983. The band's debut _Bonded by Blood_ would have none of Hammett's contributions, but soars through thrash clouds regardless. The MVP for this album goes to lead singer Paul Baloff for his off the wall vocal styles. If Exodus' music was the convergence of multiple sharks, then Baloff's voice would be the wild screams of its victims. Exodus is wilder than Testament with the energy of a child doing backflips on a hotel bed.

Whiplash - _Power and Pain_ (1985)
Passaic, New Jersey

What Whiplash lacks in album sales makes up for in heart, energy and a healthy fraternization with the NYC crossover thrash sound. Whiplash was formed in upper counties of New Jersey in the mid '80s. Their first album, _Power and Pain_ was recorded in Brooklyn with members of Agnostic Front sharing backing vocals. The development of thrash on the East Coast is almost impossible to divorce from the crossover sound happening at the same time. _Power and Pain_ is loud, fast and unapologetic. The vocals are spit out between punches to the face, and are mixed with spit blood and bits of teeth. _Power and Pain_ chews concrete and defecates large architecturally sound office buildings. Playing heavy metal as if it were a race, Whiplash crafted a mini-classic complete with electric and unforgettable album art.

Flotsam and Jetsam - _Doomsday of the Deceiver_ (1986)
Phoenix, Arizona

Flotsam and Jetsam are foreigners. Arizona has never been a wasteland for music; however, this desert city never gained as much "metal" prominence as its California counterparts. In fact, later Flotsam and Jetsam albums were recorded either in California or Texas. For this reason, Flotsam and Jetsam are foreigners stranded in a seas of sand. _Doomsday of the Deceiver_ reflects this insular and isolated nature pushing forth with complex ferocity. _Doomsday_ is, in part, memorable for bass contribution by Jason Newsted. A short time after _Doomsday_'s release, Newsted left the band to replace departed bassist Cliff Burton in Metallica. However, Flotsam's follow-up _No Place for Disgrace_ is another solid entry into the band's growing repertoire. In 1987, Flotsam joined Megadeth on a European tour. Flotsam has always been an oddball in the thrash scene. Separated from the rest, they still managed to push, evolve and stand as valuable contributors to the growing sound.

Testament - _The Legacy_ (1987)
Berkley, California

In an alternate world, Testament would be either Metallica or Megadeth. Conversely _The Legacy_ would be an undisputed classic worthy of lucrative album sales. This, of course, is not true -- except for the part about the uncontested classic. Testament is the product of poor timing. Testament was formed in 1983, at the same time Metallica released _Kill 'Em All_. _The Legacy_ would not be released for another four years. Testament's rise to prominence was dwarfed by Metallica's eventual release of _...And Justice for All_. In another dimension, _The Legacy_ could be _Master of Puppets_ given the right amount of mastering, finances for production and album art. Listen, it is not that I dislike the floating skull head amid stone windows, it is just I think you can do better. _The Legacy_ is a top down classic full of dynamic changes, building tension and furious release. In an alternate dimension, "Burnt Offerings" would be chanted by thousands of voices within a stadium.

Overkill - _Years of Decay_ (1989)
Old Bridge Township, New Jersey

Overkill would be Iron Maiden if Iron Maiden was from Jersey, less successful and obsessed with neon green. This comparison is slightly unfair, as Overkill was moderately successful during the better part of the 1980s. Overkill supported Anthrax on their 1987 European tour, and were featured regularly on MTV's Headbangers Ball. Given they were from Jersey, the crossover thrash sound hangs heavy on _Years of Decay_ . The pronounced bass, strained vocals and middle finger aesthetics of "I Hate" sneer at audiences and give them reason to down beers and pound their fists in the air. One could easily pick an Overkill album from the '80s and be pleased. In fact, Overkill during their "green logo" phase was consistent and at their very best. Over time, the songs became longer and more complex, while still retaining the outcast aesthetic. Overkill's 1989 release _Years of Decay_ brought their crafted thrash to its most logical zenith. At nearly one hour, _Years of Decay_ was the longest Overkill album at the time, only to be usurped by their 2010 release _ Ironbound_. Thrash is good, but thrash which passes the seven minute mark is excellent.

Dark Angel - _Time Does Not Heal_ (1991)
Los Angeles, California

For a good point in time, I only listened to Dark Angel's 1986 _Darkness Descends_. In an earlier draft of this article, I compared some of the Lesser Six in terms of sound, style and imagery to their Big Four counterparts. Slayer was an easy comparison for Dark Angel, as the blurred speed and death influence on _Darkness Descends_ was a good match to _Reign in Blood_. It wasn't until very recently that I came across their last album _Time Does Not Heal_. The famous sticker on the album read "9 songs, 67 minutes, 246 riffs!" This stab at promotion would be lame if it did not work 100%. _Time Does Not Heal_ is a masterpiece of progressive thrash. _Darkness Descends_ is good, but _Time Does Not Heal_ is transcendental in terms of musicianship, songwriting and sheer force. The album cover is also so bizarre it could be studied and analyzed like a mid-period Rembrandt for its narrative depth. How did this ordinary girl end up in Dark Angel's neon dungeon?

These six albums do not represent any definitive second tier. If anything, this article is intended to cast light on the complexities of history. Like with art and literature, music cannot be relegated to a finite set of bands without large gray areas. I did not even have a chance to discuss thrash in its formations in Germany, South America and Canada, nor the formative years from speed metal and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Those are, of course, subjects for other articles with equally catchy names (The Teutonic Three, The South American Death Squad, The Thrash Mounties, The Primordial Few).

The Big Four does exist with a surprising amount of authenticity. This is of course to say they exist along side of other bands, in a network of equally talented musicians. Thrash is the style of extreme metal with ties closest to the mainstream. It is also the wildest, with traditions and aesthetics reaching far back into heavy metal's history.

(article submitted 3/6/2011)


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