Humanity needed thrash, but it wasn’t enough for restive, imaginative human ears. Something more complicated, unbounded, intriguing had to be invented, something that would worship one single deity, called “experimentation”. Therefore, progressive (or technical) thrash came into life, making “technicalities” a priority as opposed to “speed”, shining light to unknown territories and testing the limits (and patience) of the curious, eager to hear audience.
This is my list of the top-10 prog thrash albums in chronological order, concentrating on the golden era of the genre, when the carpet for many bands to follow was laid. Of course, I do not claim that it’s 100% correct, since each thrash/prog maniac could easily make his own list, according to his personal preferences (a group of ten maniacs would certainly produce ten different lists). Anyway, that’s why I love metal in general; no-one agrees with all the others.
by Alex Nikolaidis
1. Watchtower – "Energetic Disassembly" (Zombo Records, 1985)
A proper list in no way should exclude Watchtower, as these Texans from Austin are the true founders of the genre. They initially set the landmarks of prog thrash in 1985, releasing “Energetic Disassembly”, the first album that featured more complicated and intricate structure. However, it was proved to be rather simple compared to its successor “Control and Resistance”, released 4 years later. Needless to say that Jason McMaster’s high-pitched vocals created a whole “school” of vocalists. In a few words, Watchtower mean “Rush meet thrash”.
2. Blind Illusion – "The Sane Asylum" (Combat Records, 1988)
“The Sane Asylum” by Blind Illusion is a rough diamond, combining Bay area thrash with 70s prog. The progressive roots of the band are obvious in many songs, which feature a unique twofold nature of Bay area thrash harshness and rock melodies of the previous decade. Therefore, guitar solos and exceptional bass patterns have a prominent role in certain parts, while production contributes to the overall retro feeling of the album.
3. Dark Angel – "Leave Scars" (Combat Records, 1989)
Dark Angel is a band of the traditional American thrash metal scene. However, in their third album they showed us their aggressive aspect of the previous records using more complex song structure and more technically advanced riffs. “Leave Scars” excels for its heavy, solid, rhythm guitar work that devastates sensitive human ears.
4. Coroner – "No More Color" (Noise Records, 1989)
Coroner had already revealed their high technical standards since their early demos. However, in their third album they officially entered into the realms of progressive thrash. “No More Color” remains a milestone, showcasing Tommy Baron’s skillful guitar work, with frequent musical changes and leading solos. The whole band operates like a Swiss clock mechanism of high precision, offering 34 minutes of high quality thrash.
5. Toxik – "Think This" (1989)
When Toxik decided to move away from the insane, in-your-face thrash attack of “World Circus”, they released a prog gem called “Think This”, two years later. Actually, this album is one of the most “difficult-to-hear” for the poor human ear, after Watchtower’s “Control and Resistance” of course. Highly technical riffs from Josh Christian and John Donnelly have a prominent role everywhere, building a multi-level, labyrinthine maze without end. Besides its complex, technical character, “Think This” is distinguished for its melodies as well; even a ballad is present in this weird structure, showcasing Toxik’s open-mindedness.
6. Watchtower – "Control and Resistance" (Noise Records, 1989)
The second Watchtower’s album justified the absolute definition of the term “progressive”. Continuous tempo and key changes constitute a pleasant time and space anomaly, an intricate experimentation that actually only in jazz jamming it could seen before. Ron Jarzombek’s and Doug Keyser’s guitar and bass respectively follow seemingly chaotic, distinct patterns, but in absolute correlation with each other, an interplay that –supported by sometimes free drumming- actually constitutes the sonic form of constantly generating fractals. New vocalist Alan Tecchio performed on the same pattern as his predecessor. Watchtower released two records only, but their influence on many bands that followed is huge.
7. Sadus – "Swallowed in Black" (1990)
Sadus is one of the fastest thrash bands out there. “Swallowed in Black” has extremely fast riffs, maintaining the aggressive and brutal image of its predecessor, but under a more technical approach. Therefore, riffing and drumming become complex, Darren Travis’s hoarse vocals look distinctively to death metal, while Steve DiGiorgio’s performance on bass, one of the best bassists of the American scene, is absolutely sick.
8. Megadeth – "Rust in Peace" (Capitol Records, 1990)
Megadeth were never a truly progressive band. However, “Rust in Peace” is included in many lists due to the numerous technicalities and tempo changes found here. Mustain reached the top of his musicianship, composing memorable songs full of technical and frenzy riffs, while Marty Friedman had a crucial contribution with his masterful performance on guitar solos. “Rust in Peace” remains probably the most widely recognizable prog thrash album, even almost 3 decades after its release.
9. Heathen – "Victims of Deception" (Roadrunner Records, 1991)
Heathen reached the peak of their creativity and composing ability in their second album. Released in 1991, “Victims of Deception” involves a huge amount of complex riffs, tempo changes and harmonies by the great guitarist duo of Lee Altus and Doug Piercy. Despite its noteworthy technicality in rhythmic riffing, the album also has a strong, appealing melodic aspect due to the magnificent guitar solos that enrich the whole progressiveness. “Victims of Deception” will always remain a cornerstone of the technical thrash scene.
10. Coroner – "Mental Vortex" (Noise Records, 1991)
Coroner built a strong base with “No More Color”, aiming at making a further step into the unknown. This step came into existence two years later through “Mental Vortex”, where they experimented more with complex song structures, different tempos and melodies. The even changed the sound of their previous albums, adopting an industrial approach (remember: tech thrash has no boundaries).
As I mentioned in the introduction, this list reflects my personal preferences only. Hence, many great bands are omitted, like Voivod, Artillery, Aspid, Forbidden, Defiance, Metallica, Annihilator and many others, that would certainly fit in my top-20 catalogue.
Most bands of the list didn’t release anything new since the middle of 90s, or they were on hiatus for many years. Thrash became out of fashion, but returned afterwards. Regarding the second “phase” of the genre, one band occurred to make something truly innovative. Vektor, combining black metal shrieking vocals, highly progressive and addictive riffing and sci-fi lyrical themes, have formed their own identity, easily recognizable from all the others. Having released three masterpieces (“Black Future” in 2009, “Outer Isolation” in 2011 and “Terminal Redux” in 2016), they reached perfection, smiled at her ironically and continued their astral journey, holding the future of thrash in their hands.