Thrash metal seemed like every parents' worst nightmare when it rose up from the West Coast in the mid-1980s. Bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth—along with a host of lesser-known bands like Exodus and Testament—stripped off the stadium-sized pomp of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and fused the fist-pumping, testosterone-fueled aggression of heavy metal with the speed of hardcore punk. The violent sound of thrash was matched by the bands' gnarly look, all biker denim and leather topped off with Satanic imagery and anarchy symbols. For its fans, thrash was a no-nonsense, populist alternative to the chart-topping pop metal of Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard, and Poison; for the rest of the world, it was a pimple on the ass of pop music that burst with the advent of grunge.
More than 20 years later, thrash is enjoying an unexpected revival. In the last few years, dozens of young bands, with members who weren't even born when Slayer's Reign in Blood was released, have resuscitated not just the sound but the appearance of classic first-wave thrash. They don't just cop riffs from Nuclear Assault and Overkill; judging from publicity photos for Warbringer, Evile, and Municipal Waste, they've also spent countless hours designing their authentic look, from vintage T-shirts all the way down to bullet belts and white high-tops. At the head of the class is Toxic Holocaust, a trio from Portland, Ore., headed by singer/guitarist Joel Grind.
"It was good, publicity-wise," Grind says of being lumped in with other nostalgic acts. "But we were ahead of the curve. A lot of people didn't know us before, but I've been doing this since high school. I'm not really against it—it's cool to see magazines cover that kind of music again."
Grind, 28, was in elementary school when he first heard Metallica, but the experience left a lasting impression.
"I know I got into it as a kid," he says. "I must have been 10 or 11."
Grind started Toxic Holocaust in the late 1990s, but the other original members drifted away over time. Grind kept the project going as a one-man band, recording two full-length albums (Evil Never Dies in 2003 and Hell on Earth in 2005) entirely by himself—guitar, bass, drums, vocals, production. Those drew the attention of stalwart metal label Relapse Records, which released Toxic Holocaust's third album, An Overdose of Death..., in 2008. Grind hired a session drummer for Overdose and has since added bassist Phil Zeller and drummer Nicky Belmore as full-time members.
"We started out as a full band," Grind says. "When everybody left, I had the drive to keep doing it regardless. We tour a lot, and we tour in a van. We don't have a tour bus. That can burn a lot of people out."
As much as Grind has welcomed the attention brought by the thrash revival, his personal taste runs back even further; he's less interested in classic California thrash than its European predecessors, cult bands like Hellhammer, Bathory, Celtic Frost, and Venom. That's reflected in Toxic Holocaust's old-school approach, which trades the sharp technical thrills of thrash for raw production and barreling grooves. The addition of a permanent drummer to the band has enhanced Grind's songwriting for the follow-up to Overdose.
"I used to demo with a drum machine, so it's cool to hear a live drummer do it in practice, because some parts need a little bit of that swing," he says. "I have some songs written, but with all these tours it's hard to get them down. I'll take some time off in December and early January to get those solid. The riffs need to be arranged, but it's pretty much in the same vein as what we've been doing. Maybe a little bit faster."