Film

How Thrash Metal Became Bonded by Blood, Denim, and the Bay Bridge

Silas Valentino
Alex Skolnick of Testament in Murder in the Front Row (2019) Photo by © Harald Oimoen (IMDB)

Documentary Murder in the Front Row examines the birth, wild life, and eventual plateau of thrash metal in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story
Adam Dubin

Bonded By Blood

20 April 2019

Other


A documentary on thrash metal, at the end of the day, is really just a Metallica documentary. The band's first few albums not only raised the tempo on how fast one could feasibly shred but the music remains as benchmarks for this sub-genre of heavy metal. Furthermore, most of the band members in Metallica relocated to the Bay Area in the 1980s when thrash was born, where it burgeoned and, like any renaissance, where it eventually burned out.

Around halfway into the new documentary Murder in the Front Row, a comprehensive analysis of thrash metal's Bay Area upbringing, the members of Metallica recall touring Europe for their first time following the release of their 1983 debut Kill 'Em All.

"We put the scene on the map," guitarist Kirk Hammett shares while drummer Lars Ulrich gleams that they were "flying the flag for San Francisco."

As the documentary firmly lays out through dozens of interviews with metal veterans, the arrival of Metallica to the East Bay (by decree of original bassist Cliff Burton) was when thrash metal bloomed. Soon after, the Berkeley club Ruthie's Inn became the de facto venue for hosting local and touring acts. Bands began encouraging each other to play louder, faster. Then the buzz brought in the record company suits who searched for the best (or perhaps most marketable) band to promote.

Photo by © Harald Oimoen (IMDB)

They found their band in Metallica. And from these humble origins, Metallica became the global metal act recognized by your grandmother and baby brother alike.

Thrash metal is fairly simple to comprehend. You either love it or loathe it. Which means a documentary on thrash's renaissance during the 1980s in the San Francisco Bay Area will either be perfect for that Testament fan in every family or perceived simply as a glorification of noise pollution.

Murder in the Front Row takes its name from the first song on the first album by Exodus: "Bonded by Blood". This title in and of itself could have served as the documentary's name for how it captures this tightly-knit community of headbangers. They were united in their love of loud albums from 1970s heavy rock bands like UFO and most had a physical attachment to denim. They lived together, bred together and, as the documentary depicts, some died before reaching their 30s.

Director Adam Dubin was able to recapture some of the youthful excitement in his subjects as they discussed rich characters from the past, including the "metal mom" from Pinole, California: Debbie Abono. Abono managed the band Possessed as a spirited 60-something-year-old. (Google her name to see a smiling, silver-haired woman posing with some baby-faced Metallica members.) Upwards of 50 subjects were interviewed to resuscitate the bygone '80s scene.

Dubin is no stranger to the scene, having directed Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters" video and the documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica Parts 1 & 2, among other works such as the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)" and "No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn" music videos. He's a skilled director in tackling massive and sprawling subjects. But when the documentary follows members of Exodus as they pay tribute to the grave of singer Paul Baloff, who died in 2002, the film dips too deep into melodramatic antics and loses its grounding. The filmmakers also chose to omit the reason why Dave Mustaine was fired from Metallica (alcoholism) which was an odd oversight.

The merits in Murder in the Front Row lie in the decadent detail revealed by these musicians. When Slayer first came to town, they played Ruthie's while wearing eye liner makeup and were promptly roasted for it. If you were a new band playing for this audience and you didn't have the chops (or worse, you were a poser) then the audience's reaction was a to simply turn their backs to the stage and fold their arms in protest.

Thrash metal's zenith moment was perhaps Metallica's performance in Oakland at Bill Graham's Day on the Green in 1985. This was a hallowed Bay Area tradition where the biggest acts in music performed -- Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, David Bowie and U2 to name a few.

Being that this was a big stage both literally and figuratively, Metallica chose to do what they do best: play loud. Cliff Burton's bass intro for "For Whom the Bell Tolls" continues to inspire folks to pick up the 4-string. The band also decided to do as they do and trashed their green room which, for famed concert promoter Bill Graham, was a personal insult.

Metallica singer James Hetfield details in the documentary how Graham called him the next day to scold the young musician. Graham told him how he knew Keith Moon and other hard partiers of the day, and while they earned a reputation for living wild, they didn't live long.

Hetfield explains how this early-morning chat with Graham was a wake-up call. Not much later, Metallica were earning Grammy nominations, maturing as thrash metal waned.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.