I don’t know what you think of when you hear the term “heavy metal” or more specifically “Christian metal.” Do you think of spandex or goat heads? Hairspray and makeup or the devil? Fortunately for the bands in this list, none of those things are really the issue. I started getting in underground music somewhere around 1988. (Yes, I’m old.) I started out listening to mainstream Christian rock like Petra and Russ Taff, then got into heavier stuff like Whitecross, Sacred Warrior and Jerusalem. And then . . . my musical world changed forever. I discovered thrash.
1. Vengeance (AKA Vengeance Rising) – Human Sacrifice
I was tuning into my local Christian radio station in Oklahoma City one night. They used to have this nightly show where they played heavier stuff—metal, punk, and later on hardcore too. As I was listening one night, the scariest, heaviest, weirdest sounding ‘music’ I’d ever heard came on. My first thought was, “There has to be some sort of mistake—there’s no way this is Christian music!” Luckily for me, I was wrong. And my listening tastes were changed forever. This was the heaviest thing ever released in the Christian scene—probably still to this day. From the gnarly cover art depicting the arms of Jesus on the cross, to the scripture-filled lyrics, this was thrash metal that was through and through all about Jesus. Weird? For sure. But there’s no denying the immense amount of talent and skill this band exemplified. Sadly, the original lineup only recorded 2 albums. Vocalist Roger Martinez tried to carry on after 4/5 of the band left to form bluesy metal outfit Die Happy. Martinez recorded 2 more albums with a different lineup each time, and then shocked everyone by renouncing the faith and becoming a Satanist. Don’t let any of that rule out how fantastic an album Human Sacrifice actually is.
2. Believer – Extraction from Mortality
Whereas Vengeance took an approach of sheer brutal heaviness, combined with a unique fascination for bluesy guitar licks, Believer added a progressive element to the genre heretofore unheard. The thing I always loved about Extraction for Mortality, the Pennsylvania band’s debut, was how each song had a unique intro. The main portion of each song was speed unrestrained, but the intros were incredibly creative and showed another side of the band. Subsequent releases from Believer delved deeper into progressive metal, such that recent releases aren’t even in the thrash subgenre. But Extraction is a stunning example of musicianship and a textbook thrash release.
3. Tourniquet – Stop the Bleeding
Tourniquet are well-known in the speed metal/thrash genre as masters of the medical dictionary. Drummer/founding member/principle songwriter Ted Kirkpatrick’s day job was a salesperson for medical supplies and his knowledge in that field made its way into the terminology of the albums, more often than not as metaphors for Christian spirituality in some way. Stop the Bleeding features lengthy songs with multiple movements, and combination of high-pitched squeals not too unlike King Diamond or the more modern Three Inches of Blood, as well as deeper, thrashy growls characteristic of thrash. Tourniquet were unique in the thrash field not only vocally, but in the way they structured songs—classical influences, particularly Mozart, Bach and Beethoven—were readily recognizable in the band’s sound.
4. Deliverance – Deliverance
Apparently I have a penchant for debut albums from thrash bands, as this list contains yet another debut. Deliverance had first appeared on the scene in the first California Metal compilation with 2 tracks. Their debut dropped in 1989 and featured a different take on thrash than did fellow Californians, Vengeance, despite having shared guitarist Glenn Rodgers at times. While just as fast and heavy, Deliverance emphasized melodic guitar leads and clean singing (not too unlike Geoff Tate of Queensryche) over death growls and brutal riffs. Their lyrics were thought-provoking, and while evangelistic, they also challenged hypocrisy in the church on tracks like “No Time” and “No Love” both of which featured incredible melodic thrashy breakdowns.
5. Sacrament – Testimony of Apocalypse
The second Pennsylvania band on our list, Sacrament was either the first Christian death metal, OR the heaviest thrash metal band, and critics and fans are disagreed about which. Testimony of Apocalypse precedes Mortification’s debut by almost a year, and features blastbeats and technical riffs that hint at death metal, even if one argues it doesn’t go all the way. Lyrics, as so many good Christian bands of the time, focused largely on end time prophecies and the need to turn to Christ before time runs out. If a secular death metal fan of the old school variety was looking for Christian bands to compete with Death, Obituary or early Entombed, this is probably where I’d start them out. Their sophomore release Haunts of Violence took a different approach, venturing into technical thrash, a la Coroner, also coinciding with a change in vocalist.
6. Seventh Angel – Lament for the Weary
Seventh Angel is the first band we’ve covered outside of the United States, hailing from England. Their stellar debut The Torment could just as easily been included here. It included straight-forward thrash, with a generous amount of acoustic interludes, a unique contribution to the field. But it was on their sophomore release where the band made its most profound impact. Lament for the Weary combines the speed and aggression of thrash, but intersperses slowed down, dark and doomy riffs in a way I’ve still never heard anywhere else. To my knowledge, no other band has combined doom metal (characterized by its slowness) and thrash metal (known for its break-neck speed) into a singular, cohesive sound. For this reason, it is one of the most original metal albums of all time, and one of my personal favorites!
7. Mortification – Mortification
Keeping up the international theme, Australia’s Mortification formed out of the ashes of speed metal band Lightforce. That previous band had toyed with speed and lots of time changes, but after changing some members and becoming a power trio, the newly-named Mortification raised the ante in almost every way—speed, heaviness, brutality. To many critics, this is the first label-released album in the death metal genre, played by Christians. Yet, there are many characteristics of thrash metal. While the band would get heavier on their next 2 releases and fully embrace the death metal genre, this debut is definitely one to seek out to find that rare combination of the speed of thrash and the brutality of death metal.
8. Detritus – Perpetual Defiance
Our second and final UK inclusion comes from Detritus. Their debut fuses speed metal and thrash in to a singular whole, reminiscent of early Megadeth, or perhaps more accurately cult faves Xentrix. Their sound, while containing all the clear marks of thrash—speed, growled/shouted vocals, tempo changes, in-your-face lyrics—somehow managed to sound different from all the other thrash bands at the time. Their sophomore effort If But for One is highly critically acclaimed as well.
9. The Crucified – The Crucified
This band from northern California started out playing punk rock, then hardcore punk and released 3 demos before their eponymous label debut. The Crucified exemplifies was is best known as “crossover thrash,” or simply a blend of thrash metal and hardcore punk. As such, the riffs are faster, but simpler than their thrash and death metal counterparts. Their influence on both metal and hardcore punk are immeasurable, as they, along with The Lead, from Florida had a huge impact on what was to come out of the Tooth & Nail/Solid State scene just a few years later. Coming from a hardcore background, the band were notorious about speaking their minds when confronting religious hypocrisy (they tackled both TV preachers and the pope all in the same song), or challenging non-believers (“When you wake up in hell, ask yourself—was your image worth it? Are you proud of yourself? You had a chance to receive, to be a believer, but you turned your back on God to be a crowd-pleaser.”)
10. Living Sacrifice – Living Sacrifice
I am fully aware that this is not the album that many of my readers would choose when selecting a Living Sacrifice album. Fans of the band are largely broken into 3 camps. Those who only like their material from Reborn and after; those who prefer their early material (like myself); and the few who actually like all of it. While LivSac probably endured the most successful evolutionary transformation of any Christian band that has ever existed . . . remember that this is an article about thrash metal. Right from the first notes of Living Sacrifice you know you are in for a ride. Most thrash bands would open their albums with long, elaborate intros that would build until you were ready for speed. Not this Arkansas band—from the first second, they were ripping into serious snare beats signifying a high BPM count. While some critics of the band complained they sounded too much like Slayer, other fans praised them for the comparison. The band only released one album in this style, as the next two went into full on death metal, and then the band reinvented themselves as a heavier-than-most metalcore band with each successive album becoming more and more progressive. Living Sacrifice, however, remains a thrash masterpiece.
Speed, heaviness, bold lyrics at the risk of cultural insensitivity? Check. This is thrash. What albums would you have included? Leave your suggestions in the comments.