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Thrash metal, in my opinion, is the most misunderstood genre within the metal world. This owes itself not so much to which albums are deemed as legendary, but in how these legendary albums are regarded in contrast to the rest of the scene. There is naturally also the horrid concept of “The Big 4”, a purely media created concept by a bunch of hack journalists in the 80s that created artificial barriers for what is deemed pure thrash, but most of it circles around the opinions of better informed opinions at the innermost circles of its fan base. Through these widely believed dictums, a threshold is set by which one cancels out hybrid styles like death/thrash and power/thrash in an arbitrary manner, if one goes by the nature of the style’s early and mid era albums, and thus we have this illusion of parochial dogmatism that many believe that thrash metal has supposedly lived under since 1986.
The album that this all centers around just happens to be one of the greatest ever put together in this genre, namely Dark Angel’s crowning achievement “Darkness Descends”. It is both ambrosia to all who adore the fast paced, aggressive, grittily produced, formulaic, hyper rhythmic aspects of the style, and the absolute bane of those who wish the genre to be something slower, more polished, more progressive, and more melodic. It outclasses both its contemporary extreme thrash album “Reign In Blood” in rawness and memorable songwriting, while simultaneously building upon a similar model to the one that Slayer had built on their two earlier albums, and it also edges out its German competitor “Pleasure To Kill” in terms of stylistic consistency. It is such a definitive collection of vileness that it can’t help but be everyone’s point of reference in either setting the limits of thrash metal, or in decrying them.
The first thing to understand about this album is that it is a purified version of what is actually a highly varied style of playing. The largely melodic tendencies of the genre’s slightly older cousin speed metal are absent, along with the traditional verse/chorus format that it originally inherited from the NWOBHM. Sections are, instead, determined by rhythmic variations within the various riff sets and occasional breaks in the constancy of the drums’ blinding yet tight speed beats. The atmospheric devices employed through studio vocal and mixing effects as heard on Slayer’s and Bathory’s blackened offerings are mostly avoided, save a introductory swell of guitar noise to kick off the album’s classic title song, and a Steve Harris inspired bass intro on “Merciless Death” accompanied by a distant sounding collection of power chords that then suddenly thrust forward to reveal the great hammer of thrash ready to bludgeon the listener.
This purification of style further manifests itself to include all aspects of the sound, from the most basic fundamentals of the sound to the minutest detail of each guitar solo. The overall production is quite rough, though not really much lower in fidelity of sound than “Hell Awaits”. The guitars come off as distorted and dark, but defined and clear enough to someone who has been weaned off the mechanical nature of modern production practices. The drums are pretty loud in the mix, but balanced just enough to inflict a controlled sense of chaos and not harm the whole of the sound the way that the first edition of “Obsessed By Cruelty” was. The vocal work of Don Doty could be described as intense and extreme, but in a way that avoids both the guttural extremes being explored on “Seven Churches” and the sepulchral goblin-speak of the Bathory debut. At times he resembles Tom Araya, particularly when throwing in those well-timed banshee screams heard during the end of the choruses of “Merciless Death” and “Darkness Descends”, but also resembles the angry shouts Dave Mustaine became known not long before this.
One should not downplay the obvious skill that each instrumentalist brings to this fold either. Rightfully referred to by any and all who love the rapid double bass kick now popularly used by many black and death metal bands as The Atomic Clock, Gene Hoglan basically establishes his credentials here and holds insanely fast beats in perfect time for durations unheard of. No band at this point would have seriously tried to go on for 8 minutes plus in the manner he does on “Black Prophecies”. The lead guitar work on here is also impressive, not so much going for the fluttery feedback and waterfall chromatic scale style of Slayer, nor the formulaic styles of the other 3 in the Big 4, but instead a sort of agitated set of lead passages that work with the song rather than trying to rise above it. The bass work is also pretty prominent, bearing a little bit of similarity to Steve Harris at times, but mostly going for an active yet subdued roll similar to what Dave Ellefson contributed to “Peace Sells”.
The greatest misconception about this album is that it all sounds the same from start to finish, something that only an obtuse listener would conclude from a single sitting. There is a general constancy in the aggression factor and a lack of atmospheric nuance with a few notable exceptions, but within this purified beast there are many intricate outcomes. “Darkness Descends” and “Merciless Death” have fairly drawn out and epic intros that lead into fast paced thrashing sections, perhaps not as drawn out as what is heard on “Hell Awaits” or as theatrical as Possessed’s “The Exorcist”, but highly distinctive and highly memorable. “Black Prophecies” definitely is in the running for greatest epic thrash song, going through a highly varied series of pummeling riffs overtop a flowing line of bass drum triplets and fancy fills. ‘Death Is Certain (Life Is Not)” has a really catchy lead bridge right at the end of the album’s most intense solo that is guaranteed to induce humming along on your second listen. Basically all of these songs are highly intricate, though they rely on percussive and riff contrast rather than melodic development to achieve a sense of variety, which tends to be lost on some that are more inclined towards the mainstream tendencies of better known outfits.
Ultimately, the controversy that this album has caused is a reflection of both its uniqueness and its greatness. It is logical that this be treated as the standard by which thrash metal is measured, and decried by those who would like to see a more varied nature to this style of extreme music. It has a clearly defined identity that can not be mistaken for anything else and it’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull. It essentially gave birth to a whole wave of Bay Area bands who were in constant competition with each other to see who could pack more amazing riffs into a 40 to 60 minute duration, including it’s own creators on their final effort “Time Does Not Heal”. Nonetheless, it is folly to assume that because this album set some sort of standard that there is nothing left to do in this style. Taken to its logical conclusion, this ends up being the only thrash album to ever have existed if one insists nitpicking all of the extra elements that exist within both earlier albums that tended closer to the NWOBHM roots of the genre, as well as that of the later evolutionary steps the genre took before branching off into different extreme or melodic styles. Nonetheless, it is also a mistake to assume that stripping the essential characteristics that are on full display on this album can result in the style existing at all, as some fans of Metallica and Machine Head seem to believe. This album is thrash in its rawest form, it is meant to be enjoyed and played at maximum volume, not used as some sort of tool for pigeonholing a sub-genre of heavy metal.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on March 10, 2009.