Thrashtalgia in the heavy metal heritage market

Some recent research I’ve been doing on metal’s discursive ‘death’ in the 1990s has coincided with the release and promotional whirlwind of Metallica’s latest album (which I unapologetically love, by the way) in ways that have made me consider a few different questions surrounding traditionalism, longevity and nostalgia within metal markets. The fact remains that my love for Hetfield will never fade, let’s get that out of the way first. If I could make an entire blog post about his adventures in fashion I would. Yet Metallica and many of their 80s thrash peers remain intriguing examples of bands which emerged from an initial ‘outsider’ position to achieve substantial international success, and outlast the glam metal market which they and the wider thrash metal scene were initially rebelling against. The ongoing valorisation of thrash’s ‘traditional’ acts suggests that approaches to thrash authenticity are still firmly rooted in decades past. Which leads me to a few questions – why are the 1980s still given such significant subcultural capital within discussions of thrash metal? And does this then mean that modern thrash acts can only ever be referential nostalgia to the ‘glory days’, playing the Blackened riff for all eternity?

james hoodie

Het couture (source)

I’m not interested in talking about whether Metallica’s success meant they turned their back on thrash, and indeed metal, post-Black Album, because frankly, I’m sick of that argument and I already spend too much of my time wearily defending my favourite dads. Rather I am particularly interested in the heritage market for thrash itself, and what thrash metal nostalgia – or thrashtalgia – can tell us, as scholars and fans, about the ways in which metal scenes in the 21st century articulate and romanticise their own traditions. I see this thrashtalgia unfolding at two key levels – first, the continued capital which accompanies 1980s thrash acts, particularly the Big 4 represented by Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax, even as their own styles drifted away from thrash. The established audience and market presence for these bands ensures their ongoing valorisation, which in turn enables their continued accumulation of fans. Second, the modern thrash movement, or neothrash, or New Wave of Thrash Metal, or whatever you like, of the 21st century allows for the mobilisation of thrash metal’s traditions into new contexts. Such extenuations may nonetheless represent a romanticised borrowing which negates the nuances and politics of thrash’s foundations – or maybe, and perhaps more likely, I’m being a puritanical bore about a subgenre that was ostensibly near dead before I was even born.

Much of my thinking on thrashtalgia, and metal heritage and ‘traditionalism’ generally, comes from Andy Brown’s presentation at the Modern Heavy Metal conference in 2015, where he called into question the idea of metal’s ‘mainstream’, where change, innovation and the capacity for ‘newness’ has been tied to the formation and demise of music mainstreams (2015:454). One of the quandaries Brown raises is the possibility that thrash didn’t mainstream ‘enough’ to allow the next cycle of musical innovation to commence (Brown, 2015:454). The outcome of this, on one hand, is what Kahn-Harris calls a ‘crisis of abundance’ (2015 – see also his 2013 posts on Souciant) which he suggests means that scenes can stagnate as a result of constant reiterations of sameness or the ‘competent generic nature’ of albums (2015:435). On the other hand, it might also call into question how innovation in metal subgenres is met when it does appear. Fierce boundaries of what constitutes thrash might then be responsible for the continued recycling of its central features, and moreover, the refusal to look beyond its foundations for examples of canonical work. Of Loudwire’s ‘10 best thrash metal albums NOT released by the Big 4’, for example, only two of the featured albums were released post-1989 – Suicidal Tendencies’ Lights, Camera, Revolution (1990) and Dark Angel’s Time Does Not Heal (1991). Apparently, then, no quality thrash albums were released in the 23 years between the list’s most recent entry, and its date of publication in 2014. Argue amongst yourselves as to what these criminally overlooked albums are (my vote is for Mantic Ritual’s Executioner).

The eulogising of the 1980s as thrash’s ‘golden age’ then has some big-time implications for traditional acts themselves, and the younger bands which have taken up the thrash mantle. In the first instance, thrash’s ‘Big 4’ of Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax are venerated as metal legends and seen to represent a ‘traditionalist genre’ of thrash (Brown, 2015:458), held in opposition to the supposed market proliferation of new (or nu!) ‘trend’ music – despite consistently outselling most metal acts. In 2016, for example, Metallica accounted for five of the top ten best-selling metal albums that year – of those five, four were over twenty five years old (Megadeth’s Dystopia came in at number 9). The heritage industry that accompanies the ‘Big 4’ has been further materialised through the concert tour, live album and film which documented the four bands performing together for the first time in 2010. The cultural capital of the Big 4 is unequivocal – all four bands, and Metallica in particular, have had enormous worldwide success, solidifying their position as some of metal’s most recognisable acts. Yet the continued veneration of 1980s thrash has also benefited bands such as Exodus, Overkill, Testament, Kreator and Death Angel, all of whom continue to tour globally and release new material (Kreator’s newest album Gods of Violence just debuted at number one in Germany!) . Established thrash bands thus continue to have a significant market share and loyal audience, even as their music has shifted away from their earlier sound. Where, then, does that leave the new wave of thrash? And how might this allow us to think about the possibilities of simultaneous fluidity and rigidity in thrash’s boundaries?

In my ramblings here I want to consider how the success of the 1980s thrash bands which allowed them to move beyond their foundations (albeit in not always warmly-received ways…) also creates a romanticised nostalgia for the early thrash scene that they emerged from – a nostalgia which is repeatedly drawn upon by the New Wave of Thrash Metal. Thrash maintains some of metal’s most time-honoured narratives – rebellion, masculinity, brutality, authenticity. Thrash scenes have acted as sites for sharp anti-establishment political commentary, and have just as regularly been contexts for narratives about drunkenness, violence and destruction. One of the challenges for modern thrash acts, I would suggest, has been the extent to which these legacies have permeated the music itself, and whether such influences act as restrictions. The New Wave of Thrash is filled with loving nostalgia materialised through items which pay homage to Anthrax’s colourful print days – such as Philly Byrne’s excellent pineapple pants. Such neothrash also sees a plethora of self-referencing thrash songs about thrash – Disintegrator’s ‘Thrash is my Girlfriend’ remains one of my favourite tracks to come out of the Australian scene. Thrash then very much has a role to play in contemporary metalscapes, albeit in ways which are continually drawn back to its foundations. I rarely see a recommendation for any new band which doesn’t come with the proviso that they sound like ‘early Slayer’ or ‘KEA-era Metallica’ – which does make me consider how strongly thrash discourses are tethered to the earliest days of the scene, and the limitations this places on bands therein.

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Philly of Gama Bomb (source)

The veneration of 1980s thrash, and its performative homages within the New Wave of Thrash Metal, can offer insights into the ways in which thrash metal might act as a heritage market. Moreover, however, the position of thrash in its current context can also tell us much about the ways in which metal fans and academics alike articulate and imagine metal’s histories. I think ultimately, what I want to open up here is a discussion of the troubles that can emerge in consistently seeing metal scenes in reference to their historical precedents. There is a limitation imposed upon bands by affirming ‘original’ scenes as the source of authentic frameworks, which might be resultant in the crisis of abundance that Kahn-Harris refers to. Moreover, our thrash-tinted glasses might also be complicit in a nostalgic romanticisation which overlooks the nuances and complexities of those early days, and also ignores the creative possibilities of thrash as it continues to evolve. Nevertheless, thrash has provided us with some of metal’s most important personalities, conflicts and histories – in the interest of full disclosure, I am writing this the same day as Dave Mustaine took to the stage to accept a 2017 Grammy whilst the ‘Master of Puppets’ riff played. Nostalgia for the glory days of the Metallica/Megadeth rivalry? I’ll take it.

Works cited:

Brown, A. (2015). “Metal for the masses”: Or, will metal ever be mainstream again? (And why we should want it to be…) in Toni-Matti Karjalainen and Kimi Kärki (Eds) Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices and Cultures (pp.454-464). Helsinki: Aalto University.

Kahn-Harris, K. (2015). Landfill Metal: The ironies of mediocrity in Toni-Matti Karjalainen and Kimi Kärki (Eds) Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices and Cultures (pp.434-444). Helsinki: Aalto University.