The 1980s were a sacred time for heavy metal. Bolstered by the tape-trading scene and the advent of MTV, this new school of sonic antagonism came into its own amid technological advantages that the occult-leaning hard rockers dominant in the prior decade could only dream of. While nonstop fear campaigns by way of parental and church groups proved that there was indeed no such thing as bad press, the genre bore fruit and multiplied at a level that no one could have ever anticipated.
While fertile ground gave root to countless legendary records, the sad fact is that for every Master Of Puppets there were ten overlooked albums of incredible quality that just didn’t catch on the same way. Some of these were flashes in the proverbial pan that had their moment in the sun for a second before becoming lost to the sands of time, others were masterpieces from legacy acts that unfortunately came out during career downturns. Regardless of the reason behind their absence in the overarching conversation about heavy metal classics, these ten under-appreciated gems have only grown finer with age and are ready for rediscovery.
Head Of David – Dustbowl
Although he is best known for his groundbreaking work with Godflesh and early Napalm Death, Justin Broadrick’s contributions to midlands extreme metal powerhouse Head Of David serves as the missing link between those two storied chapters of his life. Although the band’s earliest output was an exercise in outright brutality, Head Of David’s sophomore lp Dustbowl took a decidedly restrained approach to industrial rock that followed in the sonic footsteps of menacing noise rock gods Big Black (whose frontman, Steve Albini, produced the record). Although the band never got their proper due during their existence, Head Of David became a cult phenomenon of sorts when Fear Factory covered the Dustbowl track “Dog Day Sunrise” on their legendary Demanufacture album in 1995.
Satan – Court In The Act
Even though their name caused some controversy at the time, Newcastle upon Tyne band Satan had far more going on for them than simply pushing buttons. While the band’s early notoriety came from the inclusion of Blitzkreig’s charismatic vocalist Brian Ross behind the mic, what makes Court In The Act really stand out is the dynamic guitar interplay between Steve Ramsey and Russ Tippins. It’s a formula that would be mimicked time and again throughout the development of thrash, and Satan drew the blueprint.
Flotsam and Jetsam – No Place For Disgrace
When bass player and primary lyricist Jason Newsted left the band to join Metallica, it could have spelled the end for Phoenix thrash titans Flotsam and Jetsam. Instead, it thrust the group into the national spotlight for a brief and brilliant second. Although their debut album was already held in the highest regard by heavy metal connoisseurs, Flotsam and Jetsam’s sophomore effort proved to be a level up in every possible regard. There is a melodic sensibility at the core of No Place For Disgrace that is not dissimilar from Iron Maiden or Judas Priest; serving as a counterbalance to the band’s more aggressive tendencies. An undersung American thrash masterpiece from one of the most talented bands to ever grace the genre.
Wrathchild America – Climbin’ The Walls
If ever a band was supposed to take the world by storm but didn’t, it was Wrathchild America. After slugging it out in the underground for the better part of a decade, the band secured a major label deal with Atlantic Records; who released their debut album Climbin’ The Walls in 1989. While the rest of their peers were speeding up, Wrathchild America set themselves apart from the rest of the pack by keeping their gravitational center at a heavy mid-tempo groove. Filled to the brim with earth-shattering riffs and complex rhythms, Climbin’ The Walls is an incredibly dense album without a single weak point (and that includes their shockingly loyal cover of Pink Floyd’s “Time”.
Paradox – Heresy
Although heady cerebral undertakings might not always be what you are looking for from a thrash record, the marriage of study and raw talent that it took for Paradox to pull off something like Heresy is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Thematically centered on the Albigensian Crusade, these Teutonic heavyweights combined machine-gun drumming and riffs that straddle the line between Iron Maiden and Slayer with the character-driven lyrics that are bloody enough to make George R.R. Martin blush. Although Heresy brought the band a degree of international acclaim, Paradox went dormant for a decade starting in 1991. Public attention had moved elsewhere by the time they started up again.
Slaughter – Strappado
While the American glam metal band with the same name might have gotten all of the press, Toronto’s proto-death metal maniacs Slaughters get all of the glory. While their early demos are spectacular works of pure thrash, Slaughter’s sound became a full-bodied behemoth after Death frontman Chuck Schuldiner briefly joined their ranks. Although he doesn’t play on the record, Schuldiner’s influence is apparent on the band’s 1987 full-length debut, Strappado. Sonically ambitious in terms of pure aggression, the fingerprints of this album can be seen all over nearly every raging death metal album from the next decade onward. Much like Possessed’s seminal Seven Churches album, Strappado is an essential bridge between ‘80s thrash and the darkness to come.
Annihilator – Alice In Hell
Given the dizzying number of albums in their discography, Canadian juggernauts Annihilator are easily one of thrash metal’s most prolific and steadfast institutions. On their 1989 debut album Alice In Hell, the band let loose an onslaught of palatably technical brutality at dizzying speeds, bolstered by the rabid howls of legendary Vancouver hardcore band D.O.A. ‘s frontman Randy Rampage. Much of the credit for Alice in Hell’s controlled violence goes to visionary guitarist Jeff Waters, who remains the only constant in Annihilator’s ever-shifting lineup. Not content to simply shred, Waters acts as principal songwriter and lyricist. Rampage stepped away from the band for a decade following Alice In Hell, leaving Waters and company in a seemingly endless search for a suitable replacement. Sadly, much of Annihilator’s fire had been extinguished by the time Rampage finally rejoined the band.
Black Sabbath – Headless Cross
Although he’ll never be a household name in quite the same way as some of his bandmates, long-suffering Black Sabbath frontman Tony Martin stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Ozzy and Dio on their best days. Released in 1989, Headless Cross is the crown jewel of his tenure with the band. The perfect marriage of propulsive Heaven and Hell-era riffs, ethereal ‘80s synths, and possibly the most fiery drumwork in the history of the band; it’s all held together by Martin’s dynamic voice. An incredible achievement that is painfully overshadowed by other components of the Black Sabbath catalog, Headless Cross is prime for rediscovery.
Dark Angel – Leave Scars
Known among fans and peers as ‘The LA Caffeine Machine’ due to their unparalleled musical intensity, Dark Angel’s most commercially successful album is an underappreciated gem to this very day. Marking the first appearances of vocalist Ron Rinehart and bassist Mike Gonzalez, Leave Scars finds the band operating at the height of their ferocity and technical dexterity. Largely composed by virtuoso drummer Gene Holgan, laser-fast time signature changes and constant guitar acrobatics make Dark Angel a more prog-oriented band than most of their contemporaries at times. Intimidating as the sheer mathematics of the songwriting can be, the rabid savagery with which the group attacks the material will surely appeal to the most brutish headbangers among us.
Girlschool – Demolition
While “the female Motorhead” might be a term of endearment, London rockers Girlschool are no gender-centric novelty. Sure, the mentorship and full-throated endorsement of heavy metal statesman Lemmy Kilmister might have helped open a few doors, but a record as ferociously catchy as their 1980 debut LP Demolition stands high on its own. Coupled with an impeccable sense of melody, Girlschool’s relentless vitriol and speed put them near the head of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal pack, and nobody was particularly surprised when the album reached number 28 on the UK Album Chart at the time. Although they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their contemporaries in Iron Maiden and Def Leppard for several years, personnel and stylistic changes toward the middle of the decade signaled Girlschool’s commercial downturn. They might not have become superstars, but any serious metalhead will tell you that Demolition belongs in every headbanger’s record collection.