The Bay Area was such a great place for metal, in fact, that it beckoned Metallica to move here from L.A., and it produced not one, but two subgenres of metal: thrash and death metal.
The Bay Area thrash scene might not have had the media attention L.A.’s glam scene received -- probably because its participants weren't as photogenic -- but it produced the kind of true metal that real headbangers seek out. Bay Area metal was fast, technical and aggressive, and its impact can be heard more prominently in today’s metal bands than any of the poofy-haired Aerosmith ripoffs from SoCal.
Five of the Bay Area's metal bands stick out as particularly influential. For those unfamiliar with the Bay Area’s metal history, this list isn't meant to inspire the purchase of a denim vest and crude drawings of the group’s logos on the back with a Sharpie. This list is to give these thrashers the props they deserve.
Of course Metallica is first on this list. Whatever you think of their later entrance into pop music, Metallica's first four albums are high water marks for heavy metal. Their first LP Kill 'Em All was released while the band was living in El Cerrito, and for many headbangers around the world it would be their introduction to Bay Area thrash.
There are dozens of songs from Metallica's early days that demonstrate their power at such an early age, so let's start with the first track from Kill 'Em All, "Hit The Lights." The song has melody, dynamics, and the use of echo and churning half-time rhythm in the chorus. It's also contains Kirk Hammett's exemplary solo work, groundbreaking in its own right; while Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman of Slayer re-wrote the book on guitar solos, turning them into exercises in technical ability ("Let's see how many notes I can hit before I throw in a dive bomb!"), Hammett managed to stay referential to the work of guitar heroes like Uli Jon Roth and even Jimi Hendrix -- but he played with breakneck speed to keep up with the tempo demands of thrash.
When music nerds talk about thrash, they usually reference "The Big Four”: Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth. But if a fifth band could be added, it would certainly be Exodus. Founded in 1980 by Hammett (before he joined Metallica) and drummer Tom Hunting, Exodus eventually found its stride with the additions of singer Paul Baloff and guitar shredder Gary Holt, who would become the group's mastermind over its next three decades of existence. (Holt would later join Slayer, replacing Oakland-born guitarist Hanneman after his untimely death in 2013.)
When it came to sound, Exodus shared more with Slayer than their Bay Area brethren Metallica, and that continues to be true to this day (they would later add touches of Pantera to the mix as well). But their debut album Bonded By Blood is a stone-cold thrash classic, and if it had been released the same year as Kill 'Em All, as intended, it's almost certain that Exodus would've seen similar success.
Sadly, the album was held up by the record label, and was marred by the reverb-laden production so common on early '80s metal records -- which is probably why the band re-recorded it in 2008 as Let There Be Blood with third singer Rob Dukes at the helm. (Exodus recently reunited with their second and longest-running frontman, Steve "Zetro" Souza.) But tracks like "A Lesson In Violence" have a undeniable power, owing in no small part to the vocal work of Baloff. Sadly, Baloff was struck down by a stroke in 2002, which led to his death at the age of 41.
There's long been a common misconception that the subgenre of death metal was started by the Florida band Death. Yet it was El Sobrante's Possessed whose 1984 demo Death Metal would not only enter the phrase into the metal lexicon -- it would come to literally define the music, described as an "extreme subgenre of heavy metal" by Wikipedia. Possessed's songs were extreme indeed -- punishingly fast, full of rapid-fire riffs, blasting drum beats and guttural vocals, and lyrics about the evilest of evil themes: violence and Satan.
Despite having the distinct honor of inspiring a new subgenre with Death Metal and the LP Seven Churches, by the band's second album they had dropped their signature sound, thereby alienating fans. It wouldn't be long after the second LP that the band would break up. Guitarist Larry LaLonde would go on to play with Primus, while singer/bassist Jeff Becerra became paralyzed from the waist down in a shooting incident. But Possessed's status as death metal progenitors continued to garner the band a following, inspiring the wheelchair-bound Becerra to start playing shows as Possessed with new members. The obvious pick for a highlight track would be one of their hits -- "The Exorcist" or "Death Metal" -- but we're going with another jam off Seven Churches, "Satan's Curse," which is more representative of the death metal that was to come.
Update: Becerra reached out to KQED after this article was published to explain the issue with the second Possessed album, Beyond The Gates:
"How the story goes is that Carl (producer/ex-Rods) f--ed up the final mix so that the sound suffered and differed greatly from how we originally mixed it, which was MUCH heavier, with the guitars a LOT more distorted. But in the end BTG is still probably the best written and one of the most liked of our albums. This is the album where we gave Larry his first opportunity to write some of the songs and also gave us a chance to put something more into our music.
"In fact we sold more copies of the second album than the first and to this day it is a favorite of many Possessed fans. And to be honest today I am playing to larger audiences than ever and getting a lot of requests for Beyond The Gates material."
In 1982, four Filipino kids from Concord who were barely in their teens started a band in the vein of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) that had made its way overseas. The following year, Death Angel went into the studio to record their first demo, Heavy Metal Insanity -- a rough-around-the-edges debut from a group of kids who weren't even old enough to drive to a gig.
Death Angel then added a singer, former roadie Mark Osegueda, and a chance meeting with Metallica's Hammett led to the legendary shredder recording their demo Kill As One. That resulted in a record deal with Engima Records, the release of landmark thrash albums The Ultra-Violence and Frolic Through The Park, and the band touring the globe before they were old enough to legally drink. Almost 30 years later, the band is still playing with Osegueda at the mic and founding member Rob Cavestany still on lead guitar.
Though the band's track "Thrashers," an ode to metal music and its fans, would be apt, we instead present the video for "Voracious Souls," which was reportedly banned from MTV for its lyrical content and was shot right here in the Bay Area.
Last but not least is Testament, who started performing in Berkeley under the moniker The Legacy back in 1983. When singer Chuck Billy joined the group in 1986, the band changed their name, upped their game and became one of the scene's best groups.
Testament is another band that still plays today, and has managed to keep a large, dedicated following thanks to their consistent output. Lead guitarist and songwriter Alex Skolnick, a student of Joe Satriani, filled each Testament album with furious, head-banging songs, but he managed to sneak in actual melodies as well. As for a representative track, "Practice What You Preach" off the 1989 album of the same name is packed so full of killer riffs it should be declared lethal. But we're going with "Over the Wall," from their first album, 1987's The Legacy. Not only was it filmed on Alcatraz Island, it also shows Testament as a bunch of young, pimply-faced thrashers.
There are plenty other bands worth noting from the Bay Area metal scene -- sadly, we couldn't include other amazing thrash bands such as Vio-Lence or crossover groups like Attitude Adjustment -- and feel free to add your favorites below in the comments.
Thank you to Brian Lew for use of his photos, more of which can be seen in his book Murder In The Front Row. Also, thanks to Jon "Quitty" Quittner for giving the "Hessian Obsession" umlaut of approval on this list.