Hasta La Muerte

Vintage thrash metal is back with a vengeance, and it’s speaking Spanish

MySpace is a baffling labyrinth—it'll consume your whole day if you let it, and you'll usually come away depressed by what you hear and see. But click the right link, and you can be neck-deep in a wondrous new world before you realize what's happened. Or, in this case, a very old world that's somehow revived itself and gone bilingual.

For some reason, '80s-style thrash is making a major comeback in the metal underground, led by a wave of Latino-dominated bands from Southern California, Mexico and South America. These new disciples are hardcore, sporting the Metallica-circa-'83 look—denim vests, bullet belts, tight jeans—and generally paying heartfelt tribute to the old school in their band photos, logos and demo titles. Almost all these groups are unsigned, playing tiny shows with one another and maintaining a Net-based scene. Whereas their '80s counterparts mailed home-dubbed cassettes to a circuit of zine-writing pen pals, these bands all stream (often downloadable) music on their MySpace pages.

The movement's flagship act, if there is one, is Norwalk's Fueled by Fire. They're signed to Metal Blade (the label that first presented Metallica and Slayer to the world), and their sound is pure '80s mayhem: "Thrash Is Back" could be a lost Exodus track, as vocalist Giovanni Herrera barks out a tribute to mosh-pit mayhem. Their debut CD (Spread the Fire!) rages full-on from the opening instrumental "Ernest Goes to Hell" to the closing "Put to Death": precise, unrelenting and fast. The neo-thrash acts, despite occasional sonic crudity, outrace their forefathers with astonishing frequency—some of this stuff makes vintage Megadeth seem like midtempo balladry by comparison.

After encountering similar bands such as Infantry, Malicious Assault, Slaver, Death Hunter, Ubergehen, Commando Nuclear, Merciless Death, Witchaven, Violator and more, I started sending e-mails, trying to figure out just what had converted all these teenage and twentysomething Latinos to the music I was headbanging to in junior high.

Infantry, based in the Inland Empire's Hesperia, play in a primitive, pummeling style clearly influenced by such German bands as Sodom and Kreator as much as more technically accomplished American acts such as Megadeth or Exodus. Songs such as "Brutal Torment" and "Infantry" (from their Resurrect demo) roar by in a blur of thundering drums and lightning-fingered riffing. "We actually started off playing in a band that was more of an Iron Maiden-type sound," says guitarist Jerry Alvarez. "But I was drawn to the fast and aggressive sound of '80s thrash like Nuclear Assault, Possessed and Violence, and I showed it to the other members, and they loved it, too. So, slowly but surely, the band took another direction and ended up where it is now."

But Alvarez doesn't attach any special significance to his race vis à vis his musical tastes. "Everyone in the band is Mexican, so I guess you could say we're part of that 'scene,'" he says. "Some favorite underground bands of ours are Witchtrap from Colombia, Witchaven from the USA (who are good friends of ours), Violator from Brazil, and Strikemaster from Mexico. We really listen to and respect the 'new wave' of thrash bands. But to tell you the truth, we don't really know why thrash is so popular with Latinos. We never really think about race when it comes to thrash, but we have noticed there are a lot of Latinos in the thrash scene."

"Honestly, we never thought about it, until other people started to point it out," concurs Omar Cruz, drummer for fellow Californians Malicious Assault. "I can say we're a part of it, since three-fourths of the band is Mexican. It all started the same way for all of us—being into Metallica, Iron Maiden, Slayer and Megadeth—and eventually it led to our interest in faster and heavier thrash metal. Our interests all vary from '80s thrash/speed metal/death/punk/crossover. I have to credit Cesar Torres from Merciless Death: He was the one who showed me all the bands I listen to today."

Bogota, Colombia's Death Hunter make more complex, forward-looking music, but classicism has a tight grip on them, too. They add keyboards and highly intricate, almost Dream Theater-esque guitar solos to their crunching, mechanistic riff-fests, but thrash remains the skeleton of each song. Vocalist/lead guitarist Luis Jorge Saldarriaga has a theory as to why thrash has taken root in South America: "I think the interest comes from feelings of rage, and also unhappiness about certain things occurring in our countries that lead us to look for an aggressive type of music we can identify ourselves with that expresses something similar to what we feel. Tom Araya and Dave Lombardo [of Slayer; Araya is Chilean and Lombardo is Cuban] are two very good musicians that have been taken as role models for many people. Some people don't even know at first that they are Latinos, and when they find out, they are proud that a Latino can pull off a good band.

"There is also a big, important reason why we try to make our music sound retro in style," he continues. "We want to make the scene revive the old days, to try and maintain the scene and to strengthen it so that it doesn't die with time."

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