C O L U M N S
Tales from the Jugular
The German Front --A Broad History of Their Thrash Metal
There are so many pioneers and leaders out of the country that it is really difficult to mass in one volume. I'm praying to the metal Gods that at some point well spoken scribe Martin Popoff will spend a decade writing the Bible Of German Metal. Just imagine a country that has carried the torch for forty years, supporting heavy music in its many varieties year after year and giving birth to so many pioneers. Power and speed metal could almost be directly linked to Helloween and its debut "Walls Of Jericho". How about the hard rock-metal calibration of Accept and Scorpions and their influence still today? Look at the symphonic explosion led by Blind Guardian. How about the birth of "modern power metal" with Rage, Grave Digger and Running Wild's catalogue? The list is seemingly endless with the amount of talent and extraordinary perseverance to keep pushing that heavy load, that metallic beast that just refuses to hibernate.
In this installment of "Tales From The Jugular" I am going to introduce the first of a series of chapters showcasing the broad history of Germany's many faces. This column focuses on German thrash metal and its huge impact on the global environment. In the early 80s America was considered the founder of Bay Area thrash, a culmination of fast punk and the heavy metal sounds of the New Wave. The US has a fab four consisting of Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica and Slayer and few can argue that those four led the charge for a US evolution of metal. The thrash scene boomed at this time and spawned hundreds upon hundreds of acts honing their skills to be the next Metallica. Of course many stayed in the garage, never to see the spotlight stage shared by the mighty four. Many bands like Testament, Overkill and Exodus led the middle tiers and was widely considered the "blue collar" class of thrash. With those events happening on American soil it easily spilled across the seas to Germany...and snowballed from there.
Other than the US I don't believe any other country had an explosion of thrash and speed like Germany. Perhaps the iron rule during World War II or the Communist era is to blame? Germany was divided into East and West with East Germany primarily behind the Eastern Bloc with close ties to the USSR as late as '92. Imagine the frustration and rebellion building all of those years...thrash metal really is a means to an end, an expression of rage and rebellion tucked into a wall of aggressive sound. Whatever cause, the country, both East and West, embraced heavy music and showed a thrash metal movement equalled only by the US sound. Accept is looked upon as being the first creator of German thrash, with high flyer "Fast As A Shark" (from "Restless And Wild") in 1982. Udo's rough vocals, quick double-bass attack and furious string assault is the prelude to what would be a decade of ironclad thrash sounds. Historically you could look at 1984 as the first real start headlined by Germany's very own top tier acts. Many would consider the "pioneers" of German thrash as the big three of Sodom, Kreator and Destruction with Kreator being the band that has had the most success through twenty-five years. By 1984 all three of those acts had singles or full lengths out as well as touring in Europe. I'm sure this is a direct result of Metallica's big push in '83 with "Kill 'Em All" followed by '84's blockbuster "Ride The Lightning".
A closer look at 1984:
· Sodom: "In The Sign Of Evil" is more of an EP at six real tracks and an intro and outro throwaway. This is raw speed metal with growling vocals by Tom Angelripper (Thomas Such) but possesses an almost Motorhead meets thrash appeal.
· Kreator: "Endless Pain" is a technical masterpiece featuring tons of twin melody, an almost robotic engineering mix rampant with speed and vocal angst.
· Destruction: "Sentence Of Death" is probably the mess of the three but still delivers a speed metal wallop complete with Marcel Schirmer's screaming wail.
· Living Death: "Vengeance Of Hell" is the first of what I consider Germany's "blue collar" group, later followed by the likes of Tankard, Holy Moses and Accuser. This is speed-tech 101 with a Motorhead and Venom clang.
By 1985 the big three had stirred up the mix and influenced countless followers along with the US success of Metallica and Megadeth. By 1985 the new Germans were starting to practice the thrash sound, perhaps before now simply following along with huge acts like Scorpions and Accept and striking up hard rock chords and clean vocals. The new kids were starting to show up at the clubs and the movement really started to come together. At this point from a label standpoint only Noise (Kreator) and SPV Steamhammer (Destruction, Iron Angel, Sodom) were in the mix with underground stint Earthshaker focusing on Living Death stuff. Musically the style was still extremely raw, with both production and vocal stylings just manic in approach and delivery. The lyrics were predominantely in English but being Germans we still hear plenty of broken English (a trait often found with big acts like Accept and Scorpions).
A closer look at 1985:
· Destruction: "Infernal Overkill"
· Iron Angel: "Hellish Crossfire"
· Living Death: "Metal Revolution"
· Avenger: "Prayer Of Steel"
1986 is THE YEAR of the uprising, the prime-time of German thrash when every kid knew the big three and had the backpatch to prove it. Denim and leather is running wild as more labels join in (Atom H, West Virginia, Disaster, etc.) and SPV and Noise hunt up every new act in town and sign them to thrash deals. It is the year of big crooked logos! Also '86 shows some thrash elements rubbing into the traditional metal sound. Helloween releases "Walls Of Jericho" with a speed metal intensity that would please thrash fans but incorporate a high pitched falsetto voice in Kai Hansen, similar to what Anthrax did by this point with the soaring operatic voice of Joey Belladonna. Rage, formed from the ashes of Avenger, releases "Reign Of Fear" to a faster speed metal pace backed by Peavey Wagner's high pitched vocals. A ton of German metal is released by this point skirting the line between traditional and speed, a great blend that helped incorporate the thrash audiences. The first female thrash vocalist appears with Holy Moses debut "Queen Of Siam" via front lady Sabina Classen.
A closer look at 1986:
· Sodom: "Obsessed By Cruelty" (SPV)
· Kreator: "Pleasure To Kill" (Noise)
· Destruction: "Eternal Devastation" (SPV)
· Deathrow: "Riders Of Doom" (Noise)
· Exumer: "Possessed By Fire" (SPV)
· Holy Moses: "Queen Of Siam" (Aaargh)
· Iron Angel: "Winds Of War" (SPV)
· Tankard: "Zombie Attack" (SPV)
· Angel Dust: "Into The Dark Past" (Disaster)
Many feel that some of the best material from Germany came in 1987. Arguably Sodom's best album, "Persecution Mania", hit the store shelves that year and showed some considerable improvement. The band utilized famed producer Harris Johns (Helloween) for the record and changed their sound from more black metal orientation to a technical speed metal thrill highlighted by new guitarist Frank Godznik. A perfect example of German pride in motion would be the last cut, "Bombenhagel", which has the country's anthem played via guitar lead. Longtime thrash mainstay Accuser released the first of many with "The Conviction" as well as underground hit "Death Squad" from Darkness. Vendetta went to expand the thrash sound with tons of complex twin guitar arrangements and what would amount to the fastest guitar on record thus far. On a side note popular act Running Wild, a group that played speed metal ala Helloween and Rage, landed an opening gig in Europe for Motley Crue's "Theatre Of Pain" tour.
A closer look at 1987:
· Sodom: "Persecution Mania"
· Destruction: "Mad Butcher"
· Accuser: "The Conviction"
· Assassin: "The Upcoming Terror"
· Deathrow: "Raging Steel"
· Holy Moses: "Finished With The Dogs"
· Mekong Delta" "Mekong Delta"
· Living Death: "Protected From Reality"
· Tankard: "Chemical Invasion"
· Vendetta: "Go and Live, Stay And Die"
· Violent Force: "Malevolent Assault Of Tomorrow"
· Darknesss: "Death Squad"
1988 was the year that German thrash became affluent in America. Kreator, the leader of German thrash, releases historic landmark "Extreme Aggression" for major label Epic. The legendary album was produced by Randy Burns (Megadeth) and was recorded in Los Angeles. The group went on to tour North America with Suicidal Tendencies as well as receiving MTV airplay with single "Betrayer". This was a major footstep for not only the band but also German thrash as a whole. One of metal's brightest stars would also emerge from Krefeld, West Germany in the form of Blind Guardian. The band actually began circulation as Lucifer's Heritage before the name change in '87. In 1988 the group released the rather thrashy gallop "Battalions Of Fear" for No Remorse (later Virgin). This album as well as follow-up "Follow The Blind" are far more of a speed metal development than actual thrash but is vastly different from the group's 90s material which incorporated symphonic arrangements and Queen-like orchestra choirs.
A closer look at 1988:
· Destruction: "Release From Agony"
· Deathrow: "Deception Ignored"
· Despair: "History Of Fate"
· Exumer: "Rising From The Sea"
· Grinder: "Dawn For The Living"
· Protector: "Golem"
· Tankard: "Mornign After"
· Vendetta: "Brain Damage"
· Accuser: "Experimental Error"
· Darkness: "Defenders Of Justice"
· Blind Guardian: "Battalions Of Fear"
· Risk: "The Daily Horror News"
A closer look at 1989:
· Sodom: "Agent Orange"
· Kreator: "Extreme Aggression"
· Accuser: "Who Dominates Who"
· Assassin: "Interstellar Experience"
· Grinder: "Dead End"
· Holy Moses: " The New Machine Of Lichtenstein"
· Living Death: "World Neuroses"
· Protector: "Urm The Mad"
· Risk: "Hell's Animals"
The decade ends with three top tier bands and another twenty or or so that are the "blue collar" acts. Those acts were all fronted by actual labels and toured all over Europe. By 1990 big European fests had started, highlighted by the mother of all, Wacken Open Air fest in Germany. Bands like Rage, Running Wild and Blind Guardian have helped merge the speed metal velocity and high pitched vocals with a good grip of chaotic thrash movement. While certainly not to be classified as thrash, the groups help to create some wonderful dynamics that really started to influence the thrash acts to add more depth to a sound that had started to become stale. The early 90s showed that most of the top tier bands had improved on their sound in much the same ways that American bands had started to mature. You could look at Kreator's "Endless Pain" in '84 and see a huge difference by "Coma Of Souls" in 1990. The band became "modernized" by tightening the production values, slowing down to become less maniacal in delivery and for the most part emphasizing more lyrical content that wasn't quite as horrific. Bands like Risk, Pyracanda and Despair were steeped in thrash tradition but still possessed a power metal authority. Acts like Rage, Grave Digger, Gamma Ray and even Accept had a furious metallic vision but still merged faster cuts with choice groove oriented tracks that pleased fans as far as Sodom to clean and well polished groups like Helloween.
A closer look at 1990:
· Sodom: "Better Of Dead"
· Kreator: "Coma Of Souls"
· Destruction: "Cracked Brain"
· Despair: "Decay Of Humanity"
· Holy Moses: "World Chaos"
· Pyracanda: "Two Sides Of A Coin"
· Tankard: "The Meaning Of Life"
· Risk: "Dirty Surfaces"
A closer look at 1991:
· Accuser: "Double Talk"
· Grinder: "Nothing Is Sacred"
· Holy Moses: "Terminal Terror"
· Living Death: "Killing In Action"
· Protector: "A Shedding Of Skin"
· Reactor: "Rather Dead Than Dishonored"
A closer look at 1992:
· Sodom: "Tapping The Vein"
· Kreator: "Renewal"
· Accuser: "Repent"
· Deathrow: "Life Beyond"
· Despair: "Beyond All Reason"
· Holy Moses: "Reborn Dogs"
· Pyracanda: "Thorns"
· Tankard: "Stone Cold Sober"
It is really an interesting comparison to see where the big three of Germany go after the early 90s. Destruction goes on complete hiatus (break-up) during a tour for "Cracked Brain" in 1990. Kreator begins experimentation with "Renewal" using more industrial and death influences. The band would later change their style completely to a melodic alternative sound before fully embracing thrash metal again in 2001. Sodom suffered the most, completely falling apart due to drugs and alcohol. The remaining members pursue a punk direction that removes them from their "solid" fan base. On American soil this is mirrored as Metallica pursues commercial success with the "Black Album" before fully embracing an alt sound with "Load". Anthrax experiments with punk and rap before replacing vocalist Belladonna with John Bush. Megadeth tries a more hard rock approach with "Youthanasia" and "Cryptic Writings" but probably Slayer and Megadeth stayed the most "metal" out of all the top tier acts globally.
As the big acts regrouped, disbanded or alienated themselves from their former fanbase, the smaller underground bands fled through the doorway in hopes of global success. By the mid-90s power thrash became the dominating force and is still a viable candidate today. Groups like Capricorn formed from the ashes of Grinder and Headhunter emerged from the break-up of Destruction. Tankard, Holy Moses, Risk, Accuser and Deathrow continued releasing fast thrash albums that focused on more power metal aspects.
Highlights of the mid to late 90s:
· Capricorn: "Capricorn" is the debut album of these mid-pace German thrashers. The group features former members of Grinder and features a polished tight sound that is more like mid-era Overkill or Testament.
· Capricorn: "Inferno" - Great sophomore effort released in 1995. The group later disbanded with the vocalist joining another thrash act called Nemesis.
· Risk: "Reborn" - Excellent album that shows the thrash outfit shedding their "speed" to focus on a tight power sound, highlighted by eerie ballad "Lullaby".
· Brainstorm: "Hungry" is the debut record from one of modern Germany's premier bands. This is mid paced power thrash that shows off some falsetto vocals and a Vicious Rumors type of sound.
· Rage: "Ten Years In Rage" finally delivers a true thrash metal record from this legendary group.
· Pitt: "Carnival License" had a very unique style which combined 80s era German hard rock with the epic power metal stylings of Grave Digger and Rage but with a Teutonic thrash fury.
· Pitt: "Boneheads"
· Abraxas: "Tomorrow's World"
· Embargo: "The Red Tide" is a speed metal romp that takes into consideration both Helloween and Angel Dust but has a thrash metal manic feel.
· Headhunter: "Bizarre Gardening Accident"
· Headhunter: "Rebirth"
· Reactor: "Revelation"
· Reactor: "Farewell To Reality"
All of the above is just a spectrum of Germany's glorious thrash metal past. If you are a true metal collector I would highly recommend tracking down some of the underground gems out there that fell below the radar.
For reference purposes I would always recommend Bnrmetal, Metal-Archives and for purchases you can try Sentinel Steel or Sonic Age Records (utilize our Buying Metal section).
In future entries of this column you will see a focus on traditional metal and Germany's answer to post NWOBHM as well as a look at the power metal birth. I hope to wrap the column up at issue four with a brief look at where Germany is today in terms of global importance and overall exports.
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