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Bay Area thrash metal, or "Bay Area thrash", referred to a steady following of heavy metal bands in the 1980s who formed and gained international status in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. Along with South Florida, the scene was widely attributed as a starting point of American thrash metal and death metal.
The earliest documented roots of the Bay Area thrash scene date back to the formation of Exodus in 1980. By the time the group recorded their full length album 4 years later, five different guitarists or bassists had already passed through the line-up, with some going on to join or form bands that were equally relevant to the area's burgeoning metal scene. In November 1982, Exodus opened a show at San Francisco's Old Waldorf venue for Metallica, a then-relatively unknown (and unsigned) band from Southern California who were recently discovered by Brian Slagel and had appeared on the first volume of his Metal Massacre compilation. Exodus (who were also unsigned at this time) had distributed an untitled demo the same year with a line-up that included guitarist Kirk Hammett.
Although Metallica had initially formed in Los Angeles, it wasn't until their February 1983 relocation to the East Bay area that Cliff Burton and Kirk Hammett joined as bassist and lead guitarist, sealing the band's first, formative line-up. The group (which then consisted of Burton, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Dave Mustaine) had moved into a Carlson Blvd. house in El Cerrito, near Albany Hill, which had been rented by Mark Whitaker, then-manager of Exodus. After Mustaine was removed from the line-up that same year, then-Exodus guitarist Hammett would replace him following Whitaker's recommendation; in turn, Mustaine would move back to Los Angeles to form Megadeth.
Metallica's signing to Megaforce Records, the release of their first album and the songwriting process and rehearsals for Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets had all taken place while the group resided at Whitaker's El Cerrito home.
Burton and Hammett's friendship with other local acts, notably Oakland's Exodus and Testament, and later, San Francisco's Death Angel – among others – strongly vitalized the scene, leading to intensive touring and tape trading that would cross borders and seas, and eventually graduate to record signings.
El Sobrante's Possessed would bring a turning point to the genre with 1985's Seven Churches, regarded as the first album to cross over from thrash metal to death metal for the largely "growling vocals" and subject matter dealing with horror and the occult. In addition to the inspiration of black metal, it would predate other albums, such as Los Angeles-based Slayer's Reign in Blood and Death's San Francisco Bay Area-written and rehearsed Scream Bloody Gore, which had also been regarded as influential to thrash and death metal.
Members from Possessed had also maintained a strong network with other integral musicians of the Bay Area thrash scene: vocalist Jeff Becerra and then-guitarist Larry LaLonde had played in a short-lived speed metal band called Blizzard, which featured former Exodus bassist Carlton Melson and Desecration guitarist Danny Boland (then-Possessed drummer Mike Sus and former Possessed bassist Bob Yost had also played in Desecration, a death/thrash band active between 1985 and 1989). Former Exodus bassist Geoff Andrews co-founded Possessed before Becerra replaced him in 1983, taking over both vocal and bass duties.
After Possessed's first disbanding, LaLonde went on to join Blind Illusion, which featured former Exodus members Evan McCaskey and Tim Agnello, then-Heathen members Marc Biedermann and Dave Godfrey, and Blizzard drummer Mike Miner. Blind Illusion co-founder Les Claypool (who was a high school friend of Kirk Hammett at Richmond's DeAnza High School) would unsuccessfully audition as Metallica's bassist in 1986 after Burton's bus accident death in Sweden.
Heavy metal in Southern California had spanned back to the 1970s, and in the 1980s, was the home base of Slayer and Megadeth, two of thrash's "big four". However, from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s, glam metal had been the pervading and popular subgenre within the boundaries of the Los Angeles scene.
Notwithstanding, both Slayer and Megadeth would receive recognition early in their duration by playing at Bay Area venues, including Berkeley's Ruthie's Inn with Exodus between 1984–85, a time in which current Slayer guitarist Kerry King had played alongside Mustaine in Megadeth. Oakland native Jeff Hanneman was a founding Slayer member; Paul Bostaph (formerly of Forbidden, and later Exodus and Testament) had been Slayer's full-time drummer for the balance of the 1990s. Similarly, drummer Dave Lombardo played on Testament's The Gathering album before returning to Slayer in 2004.
Before the 1989 dissolution of Desecration (which featured former members of Possessed), Concord drummer Chris Reifert had been a live guest musician at one of the band's shows. However, preceding this, Reifert had also been an acquaintance of Chuck Schuldiner, who relocated his band Death from Florida to Reifert's hometown in the Bay Area while building a line-up. Noticing the growth of the Northern California thrash scene, Schuldiner had earlier moved Death to the Bay Area in 1985 and briefly collaborated with drummer Eric Brecht, who recently exited Texas crossover thrash band D.R.I. and would eventually join Attitude Adjustment. However, it was the Schuldiner-Reifert pairing that would lead to Death's signing to Combat Records and release of the album Scream Bloody Gore, a debut regarded (alongside Possessed's Seven Churches) as one of the first releases to bridge the gap between thrash and death metal, as noted earlier. Both records had been produced by Randy Burns.
In 1987, shortly after the release of Scream Bloody Gore and Schuldiner's move back to Florida, Reifert would form his own endeavor, Autopsy, which has also been regarded as an early inspiration of the death metal genre. Autopsy's 1989 debut, Severed Survival, would feature bassist Steve DiGiorgio, founder of Antioch, California thrash metal band Sadus; Schuldiner had also met DiGiorgio while living in the Bay Area, who would play bass for Death on the albums Human and Individual Thought Patterns.
Reifert's legacy within the death metal genre would be further explored on the 1992 release of Acts of the Unspeakable, which featured bassist Josh Barohn, who also played bass on Effigy of the Forgotten, the 1991 debut album of pioneering New York death metal band Suffocation.
As different thrash metal scenes developed around the world throughout the 1980s, each had their own distinct style and influence.
Several early luminaries of the Bay Area scene borrowed heavily from the NWOBHM and early punk rock: Exodus guitarist Gary Wayne Holt mentioned discovering Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head, Angel Witch, Venom and Budgie on a KUSF radio show hosted by Ian Kallen and Ron Quintana. Hammett, Hetfield and Ulrich have also cited Venom and Budgie as important influences, in addition to punk acts like the Misfits, Charged GBH and Discharge. Albums that very much reflected this era and inspiration include Kill Em All and Bonded By Blood.
Other bands, such as Attitude Adjustment, took the hardcore punk influence to a greater extent, with the aforementioned group involving former musicians from Agnostic Front, D.R.I., and Murphy's Law during their line-up history, in addition to show dates at 924 Gilman, a Berkeley venue more oriented to hardcore punk than heavy metal music.
Attitude Adjustment's style, "crossover thrash", a grindcore precursor, would influence many bands of the latter subgenre, including chief innovator Napalm Death (of England), who would cover Attitude Adjustment's "Dope Fiend" and Hirax's "Hate, Fear, and Power" on an exclusive covers album (coincidentally, the Hirax track had featured Attitude Adjustment drummer Eric Brecht on the original 1986 recording). Hirax, while Orange County, CA-based, had many connections to bands of the Bay Area thrash scene, as the group had played at Ruthie's Inn, and in past line-ups, featured Paul Baloff (formerly of Exodus and Heathen) and Ron McGovney (Metallica's first bassist).
Long Island-born multi-instrumentalist Joe Satriani had relocated to Berkeley in 1978 to pursue a career teaching music; although he was mainly influenced by blues rock and had not specialized in heavy metal music initially, many of Satriani's students would go on to become progenital guitarists in the Bay Area metal scene, including Kirk Hammett of Metallica/Exodus, Larry LaLonde of Possessed, Alex Skolnick of Testament, Rick Hunolt of Exodus, Phil Kettner of Lääz Rockit and Geoff Tyson of T-Ride. Satriani would also produce Possessed's 1987 The Eyes of Horror EP.
Jeff Becerra of Possessed cites early Exodus, Venom and Motörhead as his inspirations, calling bassist/vocalist Lemmy his greatest of influences. Although Allmusic attributed Slayer as being a musical influence for 1985's Seven Churches, the first Slayer album Show No Mercy had not been released until December 1983, shortly after members of Possessed were already writing material for their demo and debut album. However, former Possessed member Brian Montana explained that guitarist Mike Torrao once wanted Possessed to have a "Slayer-type outfit" (which then consisted of make-up, leather, pentagrams and inverted crosses), something Montana rejected as being too derivative. Montana (who had played guitar on the first Possessed demo) also cited early Exodus as an influence, in addition to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani.
In regards to heavy metal and image, Sadus co-founder Steve DiGiorgio explained:
For logos, many bands within the Bay Area scene had a more DIY-artistic approach compared to the older metal bands using an already established font. Conversely, professional illustrators (most notably Ed Repka on Beyond the Gates, Eternal Nightmare, Product of Society and Scream Bloody Gore) were sometimes utilized to design album art.
Lyrical topics generally dealt in themes like the occult, horror, death, witchcraft, warfare, destruction, violence, apocalypse, rebellion and tyranny. However, some groups took on subjects more relevant to the day. Metallica's "Master of Puppets", from the 1986 album of the same name, deals with the issues of hard drugs, with some phrases in the song being references to cocaine use. The crack-cocaine epidemic had been an active problem at that time for many large U.S. cities, and particularly affected the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dave Mustaine's association to the Bay Area scene was limited to his brief El Cerrito tenure with Metallica (in addition to the early Megadeth shows). However, the "Megadeth" namesake emanated from a pamphlet written by then-U.S. Senator Alan Cranston, a prominent politician from the South Bay. Cranston's text related to nuclear disarmament and the Cold War, two hot-button political issues during the 1980s which would become song topics on the 2nd Megadeth album, Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?
At live shows, members of Exodus were forward in their disdain for the hair and glam metal scene in Los Angeles, making the phrase "kill the posers" a common stage mantra; guitarist Gary Holt often recalled how both he and then-singer Paul Baloff would approach individuals wearing Ratt or Mötley Crüe t-shirts, cut the clothes up with pocket knives (either for or against the wearer's will) and then tied the mangled fabrics around their wrist as a "badge of honor." Despite Holt later conceding to being a Ratt fan himself (along with guitarist Lee Altus), he still criticized the image-driven mentality of glam metal, and described Exodus and other thrash metal bands as being more "based on musicianship, chops, songwriting and performance".
By the early 1990s, the scene had mostly died down, with many groups disbanding, going on hiatus or venturing to musical styles deemed more commercial or accessible at the time.
Oakland thrash metal band Vio-Lence would dissolve, leading guitarist Robb Flynn to form and front Machine Head, who would help popularize the groove metal genre. Flynn (who had also co-founded Forbidden) would be joined by drummer Chris Kontos (formerly of Attitude Adjustment) and later guitarist Phil Demmel, who played alongside Flynn in Vio-Lence.
Possessed would disband in 1989 after vocalist/bassist Becerra was shot by 2 street thieves and left paralyzed from the waist down. In addition, personal and creative conflicts within the band had been described by former members. Mike Torrao would reform Possessed the following year with a different line-up; however, the group would fold once again in 1993.
The 2008 documentary film Get Thrashed attributed thrash's disintegration to grunge's rise after the Clash of the Titans tour. While every band touring the 1990 European segment were veterans of 1980s thrash, a then-unknown Alice in Chains was the opening band on the North American segment in 1991. Death Angel were originally intended by promoters as the supporting act (for their album, Act III); however, in the previous year, a vehicle accident in Arizona left drummer Andy Galeon critically injured, and Geffen Records had dropped the group from their roster after a disagreement on who to replace him; subsequently, the band would dissolve. The same year, Geffen created a subsidiary label, DGC Records, which was responsible for signing Nirvana, who – along with Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden – epitomized the face of the Seattle grunge phenomena of the early 1990s. Nearly coinciding with Nevermind's No. 1 spot on the Billboards, Exodus would be dropped from Capitol Records and the group would go on hiatus the same year.
Despite line-up shifts and label changes, Testament managed to intercept thrash's slow period by touring Europe and building a new fan base abroad. Sadus bassist Steve DiGiorgio and Floridian guitarist James Murphy (both alums of Schuldiner's band Death) would join ranks with the band, in addition to former or session members of Forbidden, Exodus, and Slayer. However, Murphy would leave Testament after a brain tumor diagnosis in 1999. He had initially replaced founding guitarist Alex Skolnick, who had left Testament in 1993 to explore other musical styles.
Almost in tandem with grunge's receding vogue, and the increasing popularity of alternative rock, nu-metal, rap rock, rap music and boy bands, MTV's Headbangers Ball (which had showcased music videos of many Bay Area thrash groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s) would be taken off the air in 1995, limiting U.S. output of thrash (in addition to associated metal subgenres like death and black metal) to outlets such as radio shows, carrier current, mailorder, word of mouth or the internet.
Out of all bands from the Bay Area metal scene, Metallica managed not only to stay active (despite alcoholism, internal conflicts and a turnover of bassists) but also branch out to the mainstream, even while thrash metal and other 1980s metal styles began to shrink from the public eye. Metallica was the only "big 4 thrash group" not on the Clash of the Titans tour; instead, after the Titans event ended, the band teamed up with Guns N Roses and Faith No More on 2 consecutive tours in support of their self-titled 5th album, known colloquially as the Black Album. The record was considered a musical departure from their thrash metal days, showing a direction reared toward modern hard rock, and was attributed (along with Load and ReLoad) as alienating long-time fans. The April 2000 Napster file sharing lawsuits would bring the band further controversy from both the press and fans, considering the process of music trading was a factor in their early success. Since the beginning of the Soundscan era, the Black Album has held distinction as one of the best selling albums of all time; the accumulated Metallica discography currently makes the group the 3rd most financially successful heavy metal band of all time (after Led Zeppelin and AC/DC) and the best selling thrash metal band of all time. The band has sold a total of over 100 million records.
In August 2001, a small "reunion" of Bay Area thrash metal bands organized Thrash of the Titans, promoted to help Testament vocalist Chuck Billy, who had been diagnosed with cancer, as well as Death's Chuck Schuldiner, who was ailing from a brain tumor. Although Death was based in Orlando, Florida, Schuldiner had relocated the group to the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1980s while pooling a line-up.
The classic Vio-Lence line-up (minus Machine Head's Robb Flynn), Death Angel, Heathen, Forbidden (going under their original name, Forbidden Evil), Anthrax, Sadus, Stormtroopers of Death and Exodus were among the performers. Schuldiner would lose his battle with the cancer 4 months later, and Exodus' singer Paul Baloff died from a stroke the following year. However, Testament's singer, Chuck Billy survived cancer.
Death Angel and Heathen would reform and record new albums as a result of their reunions for the benefit concert, and Exodus, who had been on semi-hiatus at the time, asked 1980s era singer Steve Souza to rejoin the band after Baloff's death, also leading to a new album.
2008 would also be seen by many fans as a great year for Bay Area Thrash, with the releases of Death Angel's Killing Season and Testament's The Formation of Damnation. Blind Illusion, which had disbanded 1989, reconvened in 2009.
In addition to bringing to light many punk rock groups, the club was an early local venue for Metallica, Megadeth, Death, Slayer, Exodus, Possessed and Death Angel from 1983–1987. Cliff Burton had also been a regular in the audience. The club was eventually converted into a restaurant, Rountree's, in 2002. On December 31, 2006, the venue's original founder, Wes Robinson, died at age 77.
Prior and upon moving to California, the Texas-born Robinson was heavily involved in the jazz music collective, where he met musicians like Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane. Disillusioned by the commercialism of jazz in the 1970s, Robinson's focus soon moved to hardcore punk (which had just started in the East Bay at that time) and a small San Pablo Avenue club called Ruthie's Inn would be used to front these bands. By the 1980s, Robinson then became interested in the thrash metal and early death metal bands in the area, and would promote highly influential bands of those sub-genres as well. In a Berkeley Daily Planet op-ed, Robinson was remembered for focusing on "freshness and originality of the music and passion of its artists rather than the commercial appeal."
|Band||San Francisco Bay Area city:||Date of Formation||Notes|
|Attitude Adjustment||Walnut Creek, California||1983|||
|Blind Illusion||El Sobrante, California||1979/1980|||
|Death Angel||Concord, California||1982|||
|Epidemic||Palo Alto, California||1987|
|Lääz Rockit||Berkeley, California||1982|||
|Metallica||El Cerrito, California||1981; moved to the Bay Area in 1983.|||
|Mordred||San Francisco, California||1984|
|Possessed||El Sobrante, California||1983|
|Trauma||San Francisco, California||1981|