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Ranking the Debut Albums of Thrash Metal's "Big Four"

I've been an obsessed hard rock & heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.

If you don't own these four albums, can you really call yourself a metal head?

If you don't own these four albums, can you really call yourself a metal head?

Long Live the Big Four!

The so-called "Big Four" of thrash metal—Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax—all burst out of the heavy metal underground during the insanely fertile period between 1983 and 1985. Thanks to college radio, demo-tape trading, and underground fanzines, each of these new bands was eagerly welcomed by hordes of hungry metal fans around the world, all looking for the next big thing in loud, fast, and obnoxious music.

The exact origin of the term "Big Four," as it applies to this particular quartet of bands, has been debated in metal circles for decades. Some say the term was coined because these were the first four acts to become well-known (and therefore the biggest selling) in the thrash metal movement. Others say it was because they were the first four thrash bands to sign deals with major record labels, back when that sort of thing was still considered a "positive" (haha).

Before signing with the big boys, however, each of the "Big Four" paid their dues in the indie-label minor leagues, releasing their debut albums on legendary underground labels like MegaForce, Metal Blade, and Combat Records. How do those four debut albums hold up today, nearly four (gulp) decades later? Here's how I rank them in order of preference.

1. Metallica, Kill 'Em All

Released: July 1983, MegaForce Records

Glory, majesty, bow down, all hail! Metallica's debut album Kill'Em All was a game-changer that hit the metal scene like a ten-megaton nuclear bomb in 1983, setting the template that nearly every thrash metal band would follow for the rest of the decade.

I can still vividly remember the first time I heard this album as a junior-high schooler in late '83 or early '84. I quickly realized that much of the so-called "metal" I'd been listening to at the time (i.e., Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Quiet Riot, etc.) didn't cut it anymore. There was a new sheriff in town!

In the years since, Kill'Em All has become one of the "go-to" records that I know by heart, backward and forwards. I seriously want a copy of this album buried with me when I die.

Recommended Cuts: "Hit The Lights," "Metal Militia," "Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)"

Fun Fact: When Elektra Records reissued KIll'Em All in 1988, the first pressing contained two extra tracks - covers of Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?" and Blitzkrieg's "Blitzkrieg," from the B-side of 1985's Creeping Death single.

2. Slayer, Show No Mercy

Released: December, 1983, Metal Blade Records

Los Angeles' mighty Slayer unleashed their flesh-ripping debut opus Show No Mercy in late '83. Legend has it that Slayer were inspired to increase the intensity of their Maiden/Priest inspired twin-guitar attack (and their cheesy-in-retrospect ultra-Satanic schtick) after hearing Metallica for the first time. Barely out of high school, Slayer was promptly snapped up by Brian Slagel's Metal Blade Records, where they became the label's "house band" for the next several years.

While most fans would probably agree that Slayer didn't truly find "their" sound till 1986's magnum opus Reign in Blood, their precision and overall homicidal vibe was already locked in place on Show No Mercy. This is one of those rare debut albums that has actually gotten better with age.

Recommended Cuts: "Evil Has No Boundaries," "Die By The Sword," "Black Magic"

Fun Fact: To pay for the recording of Show No Mercy, bassist/vocalist Tom Araya donated the savings from his day job as a respiratory therapist, and guitarist Kerry King borrowed the rest of the money from his father.

3. Megadeth, Killing Is My Business...and Business Is Good!

Released: June, 1985, Combat Records

The saga of guitarist/vocalist Dave Mustaine's sudden ouster from Metallica, just before recording commenced on the Kill'Em All album, has become heavy-music legend. One can only imagine how angry Dave must have been as he rode a Greyhound bus back to California from New York, with nothing to do but plot his revenge the entire way.

Upon his return to L.A., Dave promptly set about putting together a new band that would "out-metal" his old comrades, and he might have succeeded, if it weren't for his new combo's crippling dependence on toxic substances. That said, 1985's Killing Is My Business... (the last of the Big Four debuts to be released) is still an insanely intense, rawer-than-sushi exercise in pissed-off, cocaine-powered speed metal overkill.

Legend has it that more than half of this album's meager recording budget went up the band's noses, which might explain the clanky, hollow sound quality, but the album's sheer ferocity made it clear: Dave Mustaine was not going to go away quietly.

Recommended Cuts: "Skull Beneath the Skin," "Last Rites/Loved To Deth," "Rattlehead"

Fun Fact: Killing... featured a thrashed-up cover version of Nancy Sinatra's '60s chestnut "These Boots," which was removed from later printings after Lee Hazlewood, the original songwriter, raised objections to the foul-mouthed new lyrics improvised by Mustaine. (It was restored on subsequent reissues.)

4. Anthrax, Fistful of Metal

Released: January 1984, MegaForce Records

New York's Anthrax were the lone East Coast representatives of the Big Four, but their 1984 Fistful of Metal debut is an example of a band that wasn't quite ready for prime time yet. Don't get me wrong, Fistful of Metal is not without its cheesy charms, but it bears almost no resemblance to the sound that Anthrax eventually become known for. Subsequent efforts embraced the band's streetwise, punk rock influences, but Fistful is basically a hopped-up NWOBHM album, sounding like Iron Maiden's Killers being played at 78 speed.

Anthrax cleaned house shortly after Fistful's release, replacing their ill fitting, Rob Halford-inspired vocalist Neil Turbin and bassist Danny Lilker, and re-vamped their sound with new singer Joey Belladonna. Fistful may have put Anthrax on the map, but the follow-up Armed and Dangerous EP and Spreading the Disease (both released in '85) put them on the right path.

Recommended Cuts: "Metal Thrashing Mad,' "Howling Furies," "Deathrider"

Fun Fact: After being fired from Anthrax, bassist Dan Lilker went on to form Nuclear Assault. He would later reunite with Anthrax's Scott Ian and Charlie Benante in the Stormtroopers of Death side project.

"Am I Evil" by "The Big 4" Live in Bulgaria, 2010

In 2010, many a metalhead's wet dream was fulfilled when all of the Big Four bands played on the same bill for the first time ever at the Sonisphere Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria. Representatives of all four bands came together to jam on a show-stopping cover of Diamond Head's "Am I Evil" at the end of the concert. Several more Big Four shows happened over the next several years, leading to rumors of a full scale Big Four festival tour, which unfortunately never came to pass.

As of this writing, three of the Big Four are still going strong. Metallica will release their latest album, 72 Seasons, in 2023, to be followed by a typically massive tour. Megadeth released The Sick, The Dying...and the Dead! In 2022 and Anthrax's next album is due sometime in 2023.

Sadly, Slayer have taken their last bow. The final show of their "Final Campaign" farewell tour took place on November 30, 2019, at the L.A. Forum, but they left us an amazing catalog of metal to remember them by, and there's always hope for a reunion somewhere down the road!

© 2020 Keith Abt