1986: The Year Thrash Metal Exploded, Thanks to Three Now-Classic Albums
The Big Three of ’86: Master of Puppets, Peace Sells ... But Who's Buying? and Reign in Blood
Album covers, from left: Elektra, Capitol, Def Jam; background: Mathew Tucciarone
Thirty years. Has it been that long? That’s often the first reaction you get when you mention that three of the most important albums in the history of metal, Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Slayer’s Reign in Blood, and Megadeth’s Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying?, all came out in 1986, three decades ago.
They often say that you don’t know you’re living history when you’re going through it. Slayer guitarist Kerry King tells L.A. Weekly, “People ask if we knew we were making what everyone would consider to be the great thrash album of all time, and we were like, ‘No, dude, that was the next 10 songs!’ To this day it was the next 10, just like our new album is the next 12. We never stepped out of the box and thought about it like that.”
Nevertheless, all three of these albums represented a sizable shift in the metal landscape, and would indeed change the music forever. In Guitar World, former Anthrax guitarist Danny Spitz recalled, “You just knew something big was about to happen. Master of Puppets was the changing of the guard.”
These bands all originated in Southern California and, like a square peg in a round hole, clearly didn’t fit in with what was going on when Ratt and Mötley Crüe were all the rage. Metallica moved up to San Francisco in disgust (and at the behest of their new bassist, Cliff Burton) and never came back, but Slayer and Megadeth continued to carve out their own niche, and on some level probably enjoyed the fact that they were thumbing their nose at what was then the L.A. metal status quo.
It was a brave new world where metal now had the ferocity, speed and political awareness of punk, and was also moving into experimental directions with epic songs, odd time signatures and unorthodox riffs that didn’t follow traditional musical rules. Although Metallica and Megadeth were wildly ambitious, all three of these bands prided themselves on having no consideration of major commercial success at the time, at least not at first. (While Megadeth embraced MTV and making videos early, Metallica and Slayer refused to make a video until 1988 and 1990, respectively, and there were literally only two U.S. radio stations that would play anything from Metallica at the time.)
These bands came along at the right time, giving metal the good, swift kick in the ass it needed. The kings of metal like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were starting to get stale, and a virulent new development in Los Angeles, the hair bands, had taken over like a rapidly spreading disease. If punk was a reaction against the bloated rock clichés of the ’70s, the thrash bands were a reaction against the Aqua Net and mascara of the Sunset Strip.
These albums have several common denominators. They’re all strong pieces of work that are consistently good from beginning to end; the songwriting and production for each band took a big leap forward from their previous efforts; they all hold up remarkably well — and together, they built an incredible foundation for the future of metal that still stands strong today.
Metallica today: James Hetfield, left, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, Robert Trujillo
Not long after the completion of the Ride the Lightning tour, Metallica wrote the Master of Puppets album in about eight weeks in the summer of 1985 at the house they shared in El Cerrito in the East Bay. “There’s a spark or impulsiveness that happens when you’re in your 20s,” Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich told Rolling Stone. “Nowadays, it takes me eight weeks just to drive down to the studio. ... How the fuck do you write a record like Master of Puppets in eight weeks?”
As Kirk Hammett recalled to writer Mick Wall in Guitar World, “We were firing on all cylinders and the songs just kept coming, so we really seized the moment. The cohesiveness from one track to the next made perfect sense to us. It was almost as if the album created itself.”
Where so many thrash bands were obsessed with being as fast and as brutal as possible, Metallica understood the importance of writing good songs, and having color and dynamics in their tunes. It was the Puppets album where, as Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian puts it, the band “found themselves as songwriters.” As former Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland says, “It’s like they became Metallica with that album.”
Metallica had already gotten a lot of flak from the hardcore fans for having a ballad, "Fade to Black," on their previous album, Ride the Lightning. But instead of limiting themselves to appease their fans, the band would continue to move in more progressive directions with longer songs, another moody ballad in "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" and an epic instrumental, "Orion." Burton also nicely showcased his bass chops and compositional gifts on "Damage, Inc.," borrowing liberally from Bach for the song’s instrumental intro.
Lyrically, Puppets was practically a concept album; most of the lyrics dealt with manipulation, whether through drugs (the title track), religion ("Leper Messiah") or war ("Disposable Heroes"). As Ulrich told writer KJ Doughton in his book Metallica Unbound, “We’ve been observing the way people get fucked around, sometimes without even realizing it.”
Metallica returned to the same studio where they recorded Ride the Lightning, Sweet Silence in Copenhagen. As Flemming Rasmussen, who produced Ride and Puppets, told writer Joel McIver, “The dollar was so high at the time that they could get twice as much studio time in Copenhagen as they could get in the States.” (Metallica, who were big fans of Deep Purple, also were impressed that Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow recorded Difficult to Cure at Sweet Silence.)
Rasmussen tells L.A. Weekly that once Metallica had a major label deal with Elektra, “For the first time they could concentrate on the music and not worry about finances, and I think that gave them a lot of artistic freedom.”
Although the songs were written quickly, work in the studio went slowly, or in what the band jokingly called “Metalli-time.” Whenever the band recorded a new album, it would usually be a lengthy ordeal. “We’re the master procrastinators,” Hammett told McIver.
Production-wise, both Puppets and Reign in Blood would do away with reverb, making the sound more in-your-face. As reported in McIver's Cliff Burton biography To Live Is to Die, when Puppets was being mixed, the band said, “Just keep it dry and tight, as close to our live sound as possible.” This also could have been a bit of a reaction against the hair bands, which drenched their albums in reverb.
The band was certainly pleased with the end result, with Burton telling writer Doughton that Puppets was “the best thing we’ve ever done, period. You read bands saying that shit in magazines and it looks so fake, but that’s how I feel about Master. … We never got that far with something before.”
“We had a really good feeling when the album was finished,” Rasmussen says. “It’s like we perfected the path we went down with Ride and everybody was aiming at the same goal. Ride is still a very good album, but I think everything was upped a notch on Master.”
As to whether the album would be a success in the marketplace, even though it was wildly uncommercial for the time, Rasmussen continues, “We were hoping, but we couldn’t predict how it would go. And remember, we do albums for our own sake, not the listener.” Still, however the album would perform, Rasmussen did feel that Metallica would help change metal, and that eventually the world would catch on to what they were doing: “I felt we were paving some new paths for bands to follow.”
After Puppets was released on March 3, 1986, Metallica went on the road opening for Ozzy Osbourne. The album would go gold that November, several months after the tragic death of Burton in a freak bus accident. To date it has sold 6 million copies in the United States.
While no one could have predicted that Metallica would become the biggest metal band in the world, there was a sense at the time that the band was destined for bigger things, and it was clear they weren’t going to stay in the thrash metal underground much longer. As Ulrich told Mick Wall, “We wanted to make an album that left all that scene behind, not something with a label.”
When the thrash metal bands started having some success, it was a victory made even sweeter by the fact that the music was going out into the world without compromise. No attempt at hit singles, no attempts to soften or commercialize their sound.
Once Slayer signed with a major label, there were concerns that the band would compromise their sound, but as producer and Def Jam label boss Rick Rubin told writer D.X. Ferris in his 33 1/3 book on Reign in Blood, “Our goal was to make the most serious, hardcore, extreme and pure Slayer album we possibly could.” And that’s exactly what they did.
Rubin already had success with rap artists on Def Jam, the label he created in college. But he was also a big punk fan, and when a friend took him to see Slayer play in New York on the Hell Awaits tour, he was blown away. “They totally annihilated,” he recalled.
Slayer were among the most important bands that brought metal and punk together. Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman was a big punk fan and drummer Dave Lombardo took to the sound immediately, incorporating the speed and angst into his drumming style.
Kerry King, however, admits, “I hated it at first. In the early days, Jeff shaved his head and I hated that! Jeff was a revolutionary, but I didn’t get it yet. At that point, I was all about the riffs and the singers, and punk had neither! Punk just had angst, and it took me a while to figure that out.” As Hanneman explained in a 2004 documentary, The Early Days of Slayer, he loved the intensity and speed of punk but wanted to take it away from straightforward chord progressions and give it heavier and more intricate metal riffing.
Slayer today: Tom Araya, left, Gary Holt, Paul Bostaph and Kerry King
As with Metallica and Master of Puppets, the Reign in Blood tunes came together quickly after the band came home to L.A. from the Hell Awaits tour in September 1985. Slayer had previously crafted epic songs in the six- and seven-minute range, but on Reign they cut the fat and got down to business, crafting an album that was a tight 28 minutes from beginning to end.
“Reign in Blood wasn’t always a 28-minute record,” King says with a laugh. “Dave was notorious for speeding up, so it evolved into a spot where ... it was faster than it was written.”
Another influence thrash metal took from punk was the lyrical content, which tended to be more rooted in the real world. On Reign in Blood, Slayer brought a chilling new reality to their music when they wrote about one of the most evil men who ever lived, the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
Written entirely by Hanneman, who was a World War II buff, the song "Angel of Death" matter-of-factly explained who Mengele was and the atrocities he committed. It wasn’t a pro-Nazi song, and Hanneman didn’t feel the need to explain that Mengele was a bad, evil guy (wasn’t that obvious?). But the heads of Def Jam's distributor, Columbia Records, were offended by the song and refused to put out the album, delaying its release until Geffen Records stepped in and agreed to distribute Reign in Blood that fall.
Reign in Blood was recorded in L.A. at the now-defunct studio Hit City West. As Rubin recalled, producing Slayer broadened his horizons as a producer. “It helped change the perception from me being viewed as a hip-hop producer to that of a music producer.”
Rubin realized that thrash metal was a new kind of music that needed a fresh approach in the studio. "That was my mission," he told Rolling Stone. "How do you get across the clarity and articulation and speed and energy?” Lombardo’s intense playing style was one of the most important components of Slayer’s sound, so Rubin made the drums louder in the mix, and he also eschewed reverb because “with their super fast articulation in a big room, the whole thing just turns into a blur, so you don’t get that crystal clarity. So much of what Slayer was about was this precision machinery.”
Indeed, engineer Andy Wallace, who went on to engineer the Nevermind album, marveled at how disciplined Slayer were in the studio. “I was amazed they could play that fast and that accurately," Wallace told author D.X. Ferris. "Dave was absolutely on top of his game. They were pretty consistent from take to take. It was not difficult getting good performances.” Wallace added that in keeping the album reverb-free, “The idea was to let you feel like you were in a boxing match and just kept getting punched in the face.”
While Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth all liked to party in their off time, when it came to recording in the studio, they were usually all business, especially considering how challenging thrash music is to play. (When Lombardo’s energy flagged, he would revive himself with Gatorade and candy instead of any illicit substances.)
Reign in Blood was released on Oct. 7, 1986, and while it took six years for the album to go platinum (a million copies), its influence and impact are clear today. Blood is still considered by many to be the best thrash album ever, and the band hit a new plateau in speed and intensity. (Before the dawn of grindcore, the Reign album also settled that Slayer were clearly the fastest band in thrash.)
Another common denominator thrash bands shared was anger. A lot of it. This was thoroughly pissed-off music, which gave a lot of troubled, disenfranchised kids growing up in the Reagan/Bush era an outlet for their rage. It was comforting for the fans to know that these bands were just as pissed off as they were, and as Jeff Hanneman said in an MTV interview, “If you’re living a nice lifestyle and you have no problems, you put on our record, you won’t get it.”
It was anger that drove Dave Mustaine to form Megadeth after he got kicked out of Metallica, and it would continue to fuel his music for years. As he recalled in Metallica Unbound, once Mustaine was on his own, he vowed to “kick Metallica’s ass,” and you could feel the hate that was driving him on the first ’Deth album, Killing Is My Business ... and Business Is Good!
Megadeth in 1986: Chris Poland, left, Dave Mustaine, Gar Samuelson, Dave Ellefson
Dennis Keeley/Capitol Records
Post-Metallica, Mustaine took a much different musical turn with ’Deth, creating wild, twisty, technical riffs and unorthodox song structures with songs like "Wake Up Dead." “When I parted ways with Metallica, the last thing I wanted to do was sound remotely like them,” Mustaine tells L.A. Weekly. “Songs like 'Wake Up Dead' and 'Black Friday,' they’re really super, super difficult. Then you’ve got songs like 'Peace Sells' that are really quite simple, but they’re catchy as fuck.”
The anger was still there on Peace Sells, which was released on Sept. 19, 1986, but by this point Megadeth’s music had so much more to offer. What set this era of the band apart was the fact that guitarist Chris Poland and drummer Gar Samuelson were both jazz/fusion guys, an experiment that hadn’t been attempted in metal before.
As Mustaine wrote in his autobiography, Mustaine: A Life in Metal, “Both of them, particularly Chris, had joined the group with cynical intentions; they were jazz musicians to the core, hardly enamored of heavy metal, but saw Megadeth as an opportunity to escape the poverty and obscurity that most musicians endure.” At the same time, Mustaine said he accepted this because both musicians “really did bring something unique to the process.”
Poland would call the combination of thrash and jazz in the early Megadeth lineup “a wonderful accident.” The riffs were all written by Mustaine, but Poland feels what really opened up the band’s sound was Samuelson’s drumming, which really made the music swing. (Watching early Megadeth gigs on YouTube when the band had less skilled percussionists, the riffs are exactly the same, but you can clearly hear the difference Samuelson made with their sound.)
Peace Sells was produced by Randy Burns at the Music Grinder, another long-out-of-business recording studio; it was on Melrose Avenue. Burns engineered the first Suicidal Tendencies album, and he also produced Possessed’s Seven Churches, Death’s Scream Bloody Gore and many other metal and punk masterpieces. Burns would later call Peace Sells the best album he’d ever produced, and said he’d never worked with anyone as driven as Mustaine. “Randy was a nice guy, fun to work with,” Mustaine says. “He lent a punk edge to the production.”
There were other reasons ’Deth’s sound took a big step up, as Mustaine explains. “It’s no secret that half of the recording budget for Killing’s My Business was spent on drugs. That wasn’t my idea, of course; I wanted to make a good-sounding record. One of the best things about the second album was that [early manager] Jay Jones was gone. He was the cancer in the camp at the time. He introduced me to Gar and Chris, but he was also the guy that was bringing the drugs around all the time. When Peace Sells came around, we were already moving in another direction, and we really started coming into our own.”
As talented as this lineup of Megadeth was, it was too volatile to last. The band would eventually fall deeper into drugs, and both Poland and Samuelson, who were always considered a package deal, would be let go in 1987. Poland says what you hear on the first two ’Deth albums was only “a flicker” of what he and Samuelson were capable of as musicians.
For the album’s 25th anniversary, Lars Ulrich called Peace Sells an album that “does not have any aging issues. ... The music is as ferocious as ever.” Today Mustaine says, “Honestly, I’m surprised we survived it. Listening back to the music, it’s pretty mind-blowing that that was something that came out of my head. I’m proud of it, I’m really proud of it.”
Dave Mustaine today
Universal Music Enterprises/Tradecraft /T-Boy Records
It’s true that metal fans and writers can be prone to hyperbole. As Mustaine says, “There’s nothing more humorous to me” than the exaggerated language some writers use to describe their favorite bands. “The writer must have had a pocket thesaurus, then looked up the word 'rad' and how many different ways can you say it.”
But cutting through the hyperbole, what’s clear is these three albums all took metal to a new level, and their influence still holds strong after all these years. In addition to creating a brave new future for the music, Puppets, Reign and Peace Sells have stood the test of time. As Kirk Hammett told Guitar World, “If you released [Puppets] today, it would be right up there with all the newest releases in terms of sound, quality, production, concept. It’s still relevant. Even the things that James was writing about back then are still relevant. And you get the feeling it will all be relevant tomorrow.”
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