The tall, redheaded rock god stood gleaming beneath a spotlight, gripping his V-shaped electric guitar onstage to shred a hornet’s nest of sound, weaving a wild, flowing stream of notes. With a well-furrowed brow, singer-guitarist Dave Mustaine leaned into his microphone to growl a simple message of unity: “Let me see your hands!”
The response across the concrete floor of the Long Beach Arena was the same as always: fans raising devil’s horns into the air, pounding their fists to the band’s machine-gun beats, launching manic crowd surfers from the mosh pits.
It was the night of Aug. 30, another sold-out show on the road for co-headliners Megadeth and Slayer, facing generations of fans in black T-shirts and tattoos, long curls and shaved heads — men, women and teens celebrating the eternal rage and lasting influence of thrash metal.
Out on the smoking patio was Alex Fuentes, 31, a fan from Dana Point having a beer. “I’ve been listening to this music for almost 20 years. It’s part of me. I wake up with this music, and I go to bed with this music,” Fuentes said. “You hear that power of guitars, drums, noise, it’s … insane, amazing.”
On Thursday, the current leg of the thrash originators tour lands at the Gibson Amphitheatre, with Anthrax stepping into the third slot (and taking over from Testament). This turns the Fall Jagermeister Music Tour into a reunion of 1991’s “Clash of the Titans,” a series of concerts that assembled the same three acts as a provocative show of force for a vibrant, fast-rising new metal genre.
“This time around we’ve been able to have a meeting of the minds,” said Mustaine, 49, backstage before Megadeth’s set. “This is a tour that is working. You’ve got so many tours that have cancelled this year — and we keep churning out ticket sales. This is what the fans want to see: good honest American heavy metal.”
The sound was birthed at the beginning of the ‘80s by Anthrax, Slayer and Metallica (whose original lineup included Mustaine), inspired by the previous decade’s new wave of British metal, but played with the speed of punk-rock. Thrash was further inspired as a reaction against the pop-metal and glam then dominating MTV and the Sunset Strip beneath a gloss of makeup and Aqua Net, and has turned out to be far more lasting.
The audience for thrash still includes metal lifers from the ‘80s and ‘90s, but at Long Beach they were pressed up against the barricades with many fans in their teens and 20s. “I look out and see these young faces, very young faces,” said Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman. “We’ve done something that went to the next generation and it’s probably going to go to another one.”
Rick Rubin, who produced Slayer’s career-defining “Reign in Blood” in 1986 and more recently Metallica’s “Death Magnetic,” compared thrash to the hard-rock purity of the Ramones. “There’s something timeless about extreme metal,” Rubin said. “The energy of the music speaks to the vitality of young people. It’s not old person’s music.”
Backstage before Slayer’s set, guitarist Kerry King chatted with Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, but soon began preparing for the night’s hour of intense head-banging. The ritual included braiding his beard, performing stretch exercises on his neck and back, followed by a half-hour warm-up on guitar.
“It gets a little more involved. Everything gets elevated because you’re older,” explained King, 46, who looks to an earlier generation of metal vets for clues on survival.
“When Dio passed, it made me think of how good he was until the day he stopped performing,” King said of the late metal crooner, Ronnie James Dio, dead this year at 67. “He wasn’t an acrobat or anything, but he sounded just like the records. He took pride in how good he presented himself.”
Slayer’s set at Long Beach opened with “World Painted Blood,” the violent title song from the quartet’s new album. At stage left, King head-banged aggressively, bending forward and back like a rodeo bull amid billowing white smoke and flashing lights.
Outside the venue, a pair of burly, bearded dudes in black religious T-shirts greeted fans with the banners: “Ask Me Why You Deserve Hell” and “For the Wages of Sin Is Death!” Their presence was a flashback to decades past, when heavy metal was the subject of protests and Congressional hearings. (Mustaine and Megadeth bassist David Ellefson are now church-going Christians.)
Journalists have frequently referred to Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax and Metallica as “the big four” of thrash metal. (Mustaine prefers “The Four Horsemen.”) Earlier this summer, Metallica invited the others on a stadium tour of seven dates across Eastern Europe, a gathering of thrash documented on next month’s DVD release of “The Big Four: Live From Sofia, Bulgaria,” climaxing with many of the players jamming Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil” together onstage.
“It’s one of those defining moments for me,” said Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, dialing up on his cellphone a picture of himself riffing beside Mustaine and Metallica’s James Hetfield. “If time could stop, and I could spend the rest of eternity doing this, I would never leave that stage.”
With the return of singer Joey Belladonna to Anthrax, the band’s classic mid-80s lineup is mostly whole again. The dates in Europe were cathartic and enjoyable, and even Mustaine found “closure” there, he said, after decades of bitterness after his firing from Metallica in 1983. Many of them hope to see a “Big Four” U.S. tour.
The positive effects of thrash are equally felt by fans. In the Long Beach Arena lobby, Russian-born Katiya Pavlova, 27, hoped to score a floor pass for the show. A student of applied mathematics at Caltech in Pasadena, she called thrash the ultimate study tool. “It’s pretty heavy, and when you’re studying a lot in math and physics, you tend to go crazy with all this stuff,” she explained with a grin. “This music helps you stay sane.”