When it came to the original thrash scene from the 1980s, it was not all about the so-called ‘Big Four’. While debate will continue to rage as to whether it should have been four or five or ten bands that set the scene alight, it’s a perennial discussion that is best left until the pubs re-open. Of course, there is no dispute that Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth earned their loftier status with their commercial success but the movement was driven by a huge cast of dozens of bands the world over. Not every name was instantly recognisable, and that may have once been the case for Sacred Reich, but it should not be underestimated as to what they brought to the thrash movement and along with Testament and Death Angel (amongst others) has been credited with leading the ‘second wave’ of thrash metal.
Formed in 1985 in Phoenix, Arizona, the earliest incarnation of Sacred Reich featured a number of members for the first year but the early stable line up was Phil Rind on bass and vocals, Jason Rainey on guitars, Jeff Martinek on guitars and Greg Hall on drums. Martinek was replaced by Wiley Arnett in 1986 and it is this line up that recorded Ignorance, Surf Nicaragua and The American Way. Their first recorded output was the legendary Draining You Of Life demo from 1986 and the band signed to Metal Blade who released the song Ignorance on volume eight of the label’s famous compilation series Metal Massacre in 1987. Sacred Reich’s professional pre-reformation recorded output – four albums and an EP – only spanned a nine year period with the band splitting in 2000 – their last album Heal being released in 1996. The band reformed in 2006 for the purpose of playing at selected festivals but despite fans clamouring for new material, Sacred Reich at the time signalled no intention of releasing a new album. In 2019, however – some 23 years after their last release – it was announced that the foursome were indeed recording new music which was released the same year – the critically acclaimed Awakening.
Ignorance was originally released in October 1987. Produced by the band and Bill Metoyer, it has been said that it is an album that mirrors Slayer’s early works musically. A bold statement maybe but it is one that does hold up when set against the fury that this album unashamedly dishes out. With Phil Rind’s interest in hardcore punk and socio-political issues, Ignorance does represent an element of purity in what the thrash movement was all about, and considering that some of the songs were written when the band were mid-teens, the unbridled anger that can come from that period in someone’s life also showed a maturity way beyond their years. Sonically, the album could have been better but on the other hand, this is one of Ignorance‘s charms and actually adds to the atmosphere that it creates, but there can be zero argument as to the precision the band employs or their performance which at times is just jaw dropping; Sacred Reich had their influences but they were not aping anyone else’s sound – there was originality to it. Lyrically, while politics or social justice were hardly rare within thrash, Sacred Reich managed to deliver their messages with both class and style and without necessarily looking for throats to ram it down. Ignorance is a punch to the gut, the ears and the conscience.
While some thrash acts followed Metallica’s Ride The Lightning lead with acoustic intros before the chaos began, Sacred Reich cared nothing for that in opening with Death Squad, delivering a minute and 35 seconds of one of the most solid intros in thrash metal. Like taking the climb to the top of a rollercoaster, reaching the apex and then the ride proper begins. Ignorance is a relentless journey, a pure thrash attack but a lot of ground is covered in its nine tracks and nothing is wasted. The album is not without nuance, the solo in Death Squad, the instrumental Layed To Rest and the number of gear changes showed that Sacred Reich were more substance than style. The musicians cannot be faulted, how Rind keeps up with the vocals – check Victims Of Demise – is anyone’s guess, Greg Hall’s drumming is so on point it is ridiculous and the guitar partnership of Rainey and Arnett simply slays throughout. Ignorance may be 34 years old but its power remains undimmed by time and is still an impressive listen.
The EP is hardly a new idea and while in the modern age and ever changing musical landscape the debate is ‘albums versus EPs’, Back in the day, though, an EP was an “in between” release, a band throwing out some new material either for the hell of it or what did not fit onto an album or just to fill a gap and whet appetites for the next record. Surf Nicaragua arrived nine days shy of a full year following their debut album. Some EPs even had the power to be as iconic as albums and Surf Nicaragua does this, and even the artwork is instantly recognisable adorning t-shirts even when the band lay dormant.
As an EP, it probably confounds younger audiences but it does what EPs set out to do with new songs, covers, live tracks and that ‘odds ‘n’ sods’ approach and the fact that it did not quite sound like Sacred Reich’s debut probably should have been no surprise. Surf Nicaragua is the sound of a band that was definitely growing in confidence, proud to wear its influences on its sleeve and at the same time, have some fun. This seemingly created a contradiction in that Sacred Reich injected some humour into the proceedings but for all intents and purposes, the song Surf Nicaragua is satire. The song is something of a punked up pit-starter though and often features as the closing tune at Sacred Reich’s live shows, the intro of birds tweeting and then the cartoon-like sound of a bomb dropping heaves into a classic Sacred Reich guitar riff. It is the mid-section instrumental which seamlessly switches gears into The Sufaris’ Wipe Out as well as the Hawaii Five-O theme tune before reverting back to some crunchy guitar and then picks up the speed for the final verse. One Nation was a new song and while it has its thrash heart, is more mid-tempo. The sole cover is a faithful rendition of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs and ending the studio work with the thrash-tastic Draining You Of Life.
On the initial release of Surf Nicaragua in 1988, the two live tracks Ignorance and Death Squad were only intended for the CD version of the EP but a printing error saw both appear on all formats and while the songs are rough around the edges, the energy is palpable, they really do demonstrate what Sacred Reich can do in the live arena.
Younger thrash fans might not necessarily ‘get’ what Surf Nicaragua was all about, it was a slight detour using a format the way that it was intended and reaching outside of the album format to deliver some extra tunes and to show different sides of the band. As it stands, Surf Nicaragua does remain a classic record that has not lost its power in the slightest.
It was 1990 that Sacred Reich rolled out what would be their second album, The American Way. 1990 was a pivotal year with Slayer releasing Seasons In The Abyss, Megadeth with the technical pizazz of Rust In Peace and it was also the same year that Pantera unleashed Cowboys From Hell.
Maybe Sacred Reich already had a whiff of musical change or maybe they just had progressed that much in a short space of time that it was right to delve deeper so as not to be pigeonholed. Whichever it was, The American Way hardly sounded like their Ignorance debut and therein lies the rub. On the one hand, Sacred Reich were accused of abandoning thrash and having “dollar signs” in their eyes and it is true that the title track cut through into the mainstream leading to heavy MTV rotation. On the other hand, Sacred Reich are a smart and talented band, their debut was written when they were teenagers, The American Way showed song writing chops and maturity plus change was afoot, maybe they just wanted to be ahead of the curve. To write off The American Way just because it was not like its predecessor seemed to lay heavier on fans wanting more of the same of a band that did want to move forward. In fairness, Ignorance was such a monumental thrash release and its successor is a totally different vibe and for some, that was too much.
The American Way may not be a thrash album per se but is it heavy? Indeed it is but it is more groove orientated, mid tempo with short bursts of speed ergo creating a more textured piece of work. Taken from a more open minded perspective, this was Sacred Reich branching out and looking at the next phase of their musical career while still maintaining an identity. The album hits hard in the lyrical department with its eyes on social issues and The American Way is as relevant today as it was 31 years ago. Other subjects being pollution and where moral standards and teenage suicide was being blamed on music, Whose To Blame? flipped that on to the parents. Sacred Reich did not hold back
The American Way may be more mid tempo but it is hardly short of riffs or solos and Crimes Of Humanity has some terrific double kick drums on its lead in, Rind’s bass being front and centre while the guitar sneaks in to build up to a chalk face riff. The one song that remains divisive even to this day is the album closer 31 Flavours. Devoid of any metal whatsoever, it’s a funked up jam that basically name checks bands from Metallica to N.W.A. and is an ode to musical open mindedness, that there was more to music than metal. To some and considering what came next as to music, 31 Flavours seemed somewhat prophetic in its outlook with rap and dance becoming hybrids with metal only a short few years later. The song no doubt had fans from across the board totally flummoxed, it is a brave move, for sure and one which is mentioned by fans and detractors of The American Way.
Sacred Reich proved that they were not an “off the peg” thrash band and had more to give. The American Way is an album that is more about the groove than it is thrash but three decades on still stands tall as a band spreading their wings, holding their influences dear but looking for a bit more – and is still a top notch record as a result.
All three records remain essential not just in Sacred Reich’s own timeline but thrash and the development of a music that was heading into the unknown with its golden years behind it. In a sense, both Ignorance and The American Way do bookend this. With Surf Nicaragua taking a fun detour, this 1980s collection is really spanning a width that few other bands actually managed.
Ignorance, Surf Nicaragua and The American Way have been reissued previously but the band has chosen to reissue them again in a bid to not have fans ripped off by overpriced second hand copies of out of print albums. As such, these reissues are just the albums, there is no mass of extra material – although Ignorance does feature what appears to be an extra track, the Metal Massacre VIII version of Ignorance, but this has appeared on practically every reissue. There is no remastering – apart from the sound on Ignorance and Surf Nicaragua being a tad louder, these reissues are literally just the albums. However, vinyl junkies do get a good deal as there are a plethora of colourful editions of all the albums making these seriously future collectibles. All editions are available for purchase now directly from Metal Blade’s webstore.