Up until the 1980s, thrash didn’t exist as a genre. Bands like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest may occasionally have gotten fast and furious in the ’70s, but it wasn’t until the turn of the decade that a new wave of bands took what they’d been doing and elevated it to a whole new level. Of all the headbangers to have ever waved the flag, these are the 10 thrash metal bands that have punched the hardest.
Other than the US, few countries have contributed quite so much to the thrash metal scene as Germany. Case in point, Sodom. They didn’t release a full album until 1986, but they were pioneering the movement all the way back in 1981. All in all, they’ve released 14 albums, influencing an entire generation with their uniquely guttural brand of metal. The only thing stopping them from enjoying a higher position on our list is their occasional, and very unadvised, forays into hair metal – rarely a good move for anyone, but particularly bad news for a band that would otherwise be one of the finest proto-death metal bands of all time.
Overkill began life as a punk band but eventually found their calling after falling under the influence of Motörhead, Judas Priest, and Riot. Four decades and 16 studio albums later, they’re widely regarded as one of the most successful East Coast thrash metal bands of all time. Some people have criticized them for being long on no-frills thrash but short on song-crafting talents – anyone who’s heard the multi-layered, compellingly complex album Horrorscope knows differently. Consistently excellent, they’re still banging out first-rate albums to this day, having sold a whopping 16 million albums in total.
Next up is another German band, Kreator. As one of the Teutonic Big 4, the band have been one of the leading figures in Germany’s thrash metal scene since the 1980s, influencing and shaping an entire generation with their brutal sound. They’ve not always been the most consistent of bands, but after deviating from the straight and narrow in the 1990s, they rebounded in the 2000s with a devastating string of successes. Named as one of the best thrash metal bands of all time by gemtracks.com, they’ve sold over 20 million albums over their 39-year career, with another due for release next year.
The first of the “Big Four” to make our list is Anthrax. Based on their first five albums alone, they’d deserve a far higher place on our list. With albums like Spreading the Disease and Among the Living, they set the template for thrash metal, shaping the sound of the entire genre and influencing countless other bands that followed in their wake The problem is, their love for cartoonish satire and surf shorts eventually led to their reputation taking a beating. They recovered their stride in the 2000s, but there’s no forgiving some of their ’90s output.
When lead vocalist Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza dumped Testament for Exodus, it could have all been over for the Bay Area thrashers. But after a brief falter, they came back fighting with Chuck Bill, a man whose primal barks and leathery vocals fit perfectly with the crushing talents of guitarists Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson, drummer Gene Hoglan, and bassist Steve Di Giorgio. Their technical wizardry and controlled savagery have helped them sell over 14 million albums worldwide.
According to Spin, the only band that has come close to matching Slayer’s balance of unmitigated rage and technical brilliance are Sepultura. Formed in 1984 by brothers Max and Igor Cavalera, they’ve flirted with everything from hardcore punk to world music and industrial metal, developing a reputation as one of the most technically astute bands on the scene. Since coming to prominence as part of the second wave of thrash metal acts in the late 1980s, they’ve released fifteen studio albums and sold over 20 million units worldwide.
As Loudwire says, Dave Mustaine may be one of the most polarizing figures in metal, but it’s a fool who underestimates his contribution to thrash. After his dismissal from Metallica, he picked himself up, dusted himself off, and started again with Megadeth, a band whose dauntingly brilliant back catalog far ellipses any controversial headlines he’s generated along the way. They’re certainly not the most consistent band around, but there’s no denying the face-melting brilliance of albums like Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? and Rust in Peace.
In 1985, Exodus released Bonded By Blood, an album that could easily compete with any offering from the Big Four. Even if they’d laid down their guitars at the point and never released a single thing again, their contribution to thrash would still be enough to earn them a place among our list of the best thrash metal bands of all time. Fortunately, they didn’t, and they’ve been proudly waving the banner ever since. Their uncompromising sound and sporadic output may have deprived them of a place among the Big Four, but there’s no denying their influence.
Slayer are exactly the kind of band your mother always warned you about. During their peak, they made every other band sound like choirboys. Their satanic lyrics, terrifying image, and devastating brand of hardcore metal were as far removed from the mainstream as any band has ever got while still shifting over 20 million albums. After over three decades of touring, the band finally disbanded in November 2019. Thrash hasn’t been the same since.
Despite some close competition from Slayer, the top spot has to go to Metallica. They may have changed direction more times than thrash purists would like, but ultimately, no band that gave us Master of Puppets could ever be anything other than No.1. Metallica didn’t just perfect thrash in the 80s, they invented it, adding enough ferocity and violence to heavy metal and hard rock to create something entirely new. With 125 million album sales behind them, they’re one of the biggest bands in the world, and very rightly so.