Ranking The Talent and Skills of The Big Four

Dave Mustaine Photo by Aldara Zarraoa/Getty Images / Scott Ian: Jonas Rogowski, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons / James Hetfield Photo by Gina Wetzler/Getty Images / Tom Araya: Antje Naumann (AllSystemsRed), CC BY-SA 3.0, (Wikimedia Commons)
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The Big Four earn their namesake for a reason: few have influenced and spread heavy metal to the masses like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer.

Each of these bands is astoundingly influential, but if there was an effort to rank them based on skill, which of the Big Four bands would come out on top? Among Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth – which one features the most technical variety and finesse in their craft?

We revisited each band’s discography and broke down what each act provides stylistically and technically, ranking the Big Four bands in order of skill. Before you raise your pitchforks, in no way are we dissing anybody here – last place is still miles ahead of the competition.

Without further ado, here is our ranking of the Big Four.

4. Anthrax

Having formed in 1981, Anthrax has cemented itself as one of the pillars of thrash, all while offering a sound that’s quite unique compared to its Big Four counterparts.

Unlike the other bands in the Big Four, Anthrax’s sound is much more of the crossover thrash variety. Since the release of their debut LP, 1984’s Fistful of Metal, the band has continued to embrace the sonic flavors of thrash and hardcore. In each of their albums, Anthrax has delivered nothing short of exhilarating experiences, unleashing rush after rush of ripping thrash and hardcore beatdown rhythms.

This sound and consistent delivery are also why we’ve ranked them in “last place”; while the band doesn’t fail to provide us awesome tunes, they’ve done little over the decades to expand upon their artistic template. Instead, the band has kept it relatively safe throughout their career. All this to say, it’s ironic given that, of the Big Four, they are one of the more influential bands on modern metal (at least in terms of hardcore).

While there’s still room for Anthrax to grow in future releases, it’s undeniable how so much of modern music has embraced the band’s incredible brand of ripping, crushing thrash.

3. Metallica

Arguably the most “popular” pillar of the Big Four, given that your cousin who doesn’t listen to metal even knows who Metallica is.

Forming around the same time as Anthrax, Metallica has gone through startling growth over the course of its existence; when you go back to the ’80s, the band was purely thrash, and then come 1991’s The Black Album, they start to embrace more stereotypical rock elements. Since that record, the band has progressed forward in their career straddling a line between rock and thrash metal, providing moments of tenderness alongside blistering speed and aggression.

There’s a lot of variety to be heard in Metallica’s music, no debating that, but compared to other Big Four bands and even other modern thrash bands in general, there’s also a simplicity to them. Metallica still stands as an epic force that provides awesome tunes, but there’s a sonic punch of sorts missing from their material that was once present. There’s been a softening within the band that’s become more apparent ever since their shift into more conventional rock.

Culturally speaking, Metallica certainly stands as a prominent inspirational force, but even the more technical-savvy thrash bands are out playing them these days. Metallica rocks hard and sounds great, but they aren’t as dominant of a thrash force as they once used to be.

2. Megadeth

When playing in Metallica didn’t work out for Dave Mustaine, the guitarist went on to form his own titanic thrash metal band Megadeth. Whereas Megadeth has gone on to become one of the most iconic bands in heavy metal, they have not achieved a level of pop culture stardom like Mustaine’s former band.

However, a big difference between the two acts is the level of technical performance they each respectively provide. While Metallica has loosened up over the years, Megadeth has only built upon its thrash artistry, crafting more technically intricate and thrilling compositions with each release. There has been a consistent ferocity to Megadeth’s music over the decades – a sonic aggression that not only provides a variety of emotions, but is also presented through a plethora of exciting time signatures sifts, tones, and atmospheric blends.

Last year, the band released their 16th studio album, and for a band whose core sound is thrash metal, they’ve kept that sound refreshing all these years later. That’s because when you listen to most Megadeth albums, you get no filler, only killer. You get tight technical performances that are not only exciting to hear, but also catch you by surprise.

Of the Big Four bands, Megadeth is one of the two acts that has pushed themselves the most to be stylistically and technically intriguing; not that the others aren’t of course, but Megadeth has done a lot to change over the years, while never losing who they started out as.

1. Slayer

That same level of commitment goes double for Slayer. While they came about at the same time as Metallica and Anthrax, Slayer provided not only the most aggressive sound of the other Big Four bands but also remained the most extreme throughout the years.

When it comes to Slayer and the various rotations they’ve had among their lineup, the band was always comprised of absurdly talented musicians. From the proficient shredding of Kerry King to the tantalizing guitar work of Jeff Hanneman and Gary Holt, as well as the jaw-dropping technicality of drummers Dave Lombardo and Paul Bostaph, Slayer was always an act exuding brilliance. Even though the band embraced a core “evil” tone throughout their music, it’s remarkable how much sonic variety they brought into their material. While a lot of Slayer songs speed forth with all-out aggression, there are also stunning moments of technical surprises in the form of multiple atmospheric shifts and startling displays of tempo transitions within a given track.

For a thrash metal band that wants to really pummel the eardrums of their listeners, they also strived to keep things interesting; they not only challenged their fan base with their technical performances, but they clearly wanted to challenge themselves. And when it comes to their impact on modern metal, Slayer has found its sound pulled apart and applied to a tremendous plethora of thrash, death, and black metal bands.

Whereas Anthrax may have a specific major influence on one particular subgenre, bands across multiple genres owe thanks to these thrash metal legends. While it’s a shame that Slayer is retired, their incredible catalog still lives on, offering metalheads astounding thrills and technical depth.