Thrash metal: a bunch of spotty, drunken kids in white hi-top sneakers and T-shirts with their own band’s name on it, making a 100mph racket while jacked on speed and cheap liquor, right? Absolutely. And that’s why it was so brilliant.
But even the most raging thrasher had a soft side, or if not a soft side, then a part of them that wanted to get played on MTV. That’s why pretty much every band from Metallica down dropped at least one epic power ballad at some point during their career, shifting from the usual thrash fare to singing about women, heartbreak and death. OK, mostly death.
We’ve rounded up 10 of these classic slow(er) jams as a reminder that thrash’s finest could dial it down when they wanted. Sure, none of these tracks are ever gonna be confused with Every Rose Has Its Thornbut they’ve still got the power to get those Zippos aloft.
The big daddy of thrash ballads. This stellar Ride The Lightning slow burner was either a brooding meditation on death or the sound of James Hetfield being really upset after someone nicked the band’s gear from outside a gig. Either way, it was a bolt from the blue when it landed in 1984 – suddenly every thrash band had permission to show off their sensitive side, even if metal’s primeval gatekeeper cried ‘Sell out!’ Good to see some things haven’t changed.
Seattle wasn’t always Grunge Central – Metal Church were repping the Rainy City’s thrash scene way before Nirvana ruined the keg party. The six-minute centerpiece of their second album, 1987’s The Dark, shifted from sparse, heat-haze atmospherics to razor-edged riffing, powered by the sandpaper-edged voice of singer David Wayne (RIP). MTV even gave it a few plays, though ultimately it didn’t break the band out of thrash’s C-list.
Flotsam & Jetsam – Escape From Within (1988)
Best known as The Band Who Lost Jason Newsted To Metallica, Flotsam & Jetsam were the archetypal thrash foot-soldiers. But this stately highlight of the Phoenix outfit’s second album No Place For Disgrace showed they were clued-up enough to notice the thrash ballad bandwagon as it trundled past and swiftly hop onboard, while Escape From Within‘s bleak, euthanasia-themed lyric beat the similarly inclined One to the punch by six months.
Megadeth – In My Darkest Hour (1988)
OK, it’s strictly not a ballad – it starts heavy and gets heavier. But in terms of pacing, atmosphere and sentiment, this towering standout from 1988’s So Far, So Good… So What! absolutely fits the bill. Partly Dave Mustaine’s tribute to fallen former Metallica bandmate Cliff Burton And partly a seething, self-pitying barrage aimed at Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield for not telling him the bassist had passed away, it’s as emotionally raw as thrash ever got.
Testament – The Ballad (1989)
1989’s big-budget Practice What You Preach was Testament’s shot at gaining promotion to the nascent Big Four. It didn’t pay off, but it did serve up this slice of maudlin majesty. Sure, that title couldn’t have been more on-the-nose, and yeah, it followed the Fade To Black template a little too closely, but its epic kick from stark rumination to blazing climax is absolutely inarguable. They’d mine the same seam with subsequent ballads such as The Legacy and Return To Serenitybut this was their first and best.
Overkill – The Years Of Decay (1989)
Who’da thunk the band who once released an EP titled Fuck You!!! would have ever shown off their sensitive sides? But the New York ragers Overkill did just that with their fourth album’s epic eight-minute title. Shrieker-in-chief Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth reigned in his paint-peeling vocals for a second, while soon-to-depart six-stringer Bobby Gustafson showed he was one of the era’s great under-rated guitarists. The crashing finale is as epic as anything thrash ever served up.
Onslaught – Welcome To Dying (1989)
Brit thrashers Onslaught had cycled through two singers in as many albums before they hit on powerhouse vocalist Steve Grimmett, a man who could hit notes his contemporaries would have struggled to reach with a cherry-picker. The towering cornerstone of their third album, In Search Of Sanityshowcased Grimmett’s staggering voice, but it was also a lesson in sustained dynamics, played out over 12 blockbusting minutes.
Artillery – Don’t Believe (1990)
European metal bands had a vicious edge their US counterparts mostly lacked, and semi-forgotten Danish snarlers Artillery were no exception. But with Don’t Believe, the Taastrup terrors turned in a textbook Euro-thrash ballad, shifting from Scandinavian solemnity to leather-jacketed velocity and back again. The definition of ‘cult classic’.
Death Angel – Room With A View (1990)
Bay area thrash pups Death Angel were all about 12 years old when they got started in the mid-80s, but they grew up fast. 1990’s Act III album was the work of a band straining as the scene’s self-imposed restrictions – never more so than on the mostly acoustic Room With A View, which saw guitarist Rob Cavestany and singer Mark Osegueda sharing vocals. The thrash metal More Than Wordspretty much.
Evil – In Memoriam (2011)
Proof it wasn’t just the 80s kids who had whole thrash ballad thing nailed. UK thrash revivalists Evile were blindsided by the unexpected death of bassist Mike Alexander in 2009 at the age of just 32. They paid tribute two years later via the heartfelt In Memoriam, which saw the Huddersfield horrors reign in the hair-whipping and heavy metal gurning. For a band who were mostly about the yuks, this was genuinely moving.