The 2000s saw a major resurgence of thrash metal. Bands like Evile, Warbringer, Merciless Death, Municipal Waste, Avenger of Blood, Hatchet, Havok, Violator, Gama Bomb, Bonded by Blood and many others put out records on labels like Century Media, Earache, Metal Blade and Heavy Artillery. These bands were strongly rooted in the traditionalist, ’80s thrash sound, whether embracing Metallica/Exodus-style intricacy (Evile, Hatchet, Bonded by Blood) or a more primitive, punk-derived version (Avenger of Blood, Merciless Death, Municipal Waste). Their staccato riffs, relentless drumming, and hoarse, barking vocals all seemed like throwbacks, an impression solidified by their almost fetishistically old-school way of dressing—tight jeans, white high-top sneakers, bullet belts, denim vests adorned with buttons and patches promoting veteran thrash acts. This scene was highly controversial from the outset, as to many listeners, this music and those clothes, being played and worn by 19- and 20-year-olds, seemed as ersatz and hollow—as Sha Na Na‘s take on ’50s doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll.
Norwalk, California’s Fueled by Fire were an early flagship act for the retro thrash movement. Metal Blade reissued their initially self-released full-length debut, 2007’s Spread the Fire, and they seemed exciting at the time, raw enthusiasm more than making up for instrumental skills that maybe weren’t quite there yet. Sure, the guitarists could shred some—they proved it by opening the disc with an instrumental, “Ernest Goes to Hell”—but the songs were meta-thrash, all about the awesomeness of their chosen musical form. That was a bonehead move; it made the whole thing seem like an ironic exercise. The question of irony hovers over retro thrash, at least in part because some people aren’t sure how to take this music being revived by kids too young to have heard any of the genre’s canonical albums (Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning; Megadeth‘s Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?; Slayer‘s Reign in Blood; Exodus’s Bonded by Blood; etc., etc.) when they were new. And Latino kids, at that. Most of the retro thrash bands are made up of young Mexican and Central American immigrants, for no reason anybody can quite pinpoint. I asked a bunch of them about it a while ago, in an article for the Village Voice, and even they had no real, satisfactory answers. The music just spoke to them, and that was all they needed to know.
Anyway, the subgenre seems to have found its level. None of the bands took over the metal scene, and some have been dropped by their labels. Among this latter group is Fueled by Fire, who are currently operating independently and selling this CD through their MySpace page. It would be nice if they could get signed again, because Plunging Into Darkness is a vast improvement over Spread the Fire. It’s clearly the work of a band with lots of hard touring miles behind them, as well as a few membership shifts—most notably, vocalist Gio Herrera is gone, and current frontman Rick Rangel has shifted from bass to guitar. Rangel and lead guitarist Chris Monroy‘s riffs are fleet and slippery, and Monroy’s soloing has a taut energy that makes the high-speed shredding parts more palatable than they might otherwise be. Drummer Carlos Gutierrez drives the band mercilessly forward, keeping the music tight and aggressive. Lyrically, they’ve abandoned their earlier boneheaded metal-qua-metalness (“Thrash is Back,” “Metal Forever”) in favor of an apocalyptic worldview (“Unidentified Remains,” “Amongst the Dead,” “Mass Infestation,” “Sickness of Humanity,” the title track) that’s just as rote/traditional, but somehow not as corny.
Fueled by Fire are still a young band, and they’ve probably got a “mature” period ahead of them, if they can keep going. Whether that’ll be more like Megadeth’s early’90s output (Rust in Peace, Countdown to Extinction), Slayer’s don’t-fix-what-ain’t-broke approach, or Metallica’s boogie-rock albums remains to be seen. Of course, it’s also possible that they may not follow the path of their forefathers. No one can say. What’s important is that they get support right now. So if you want to hear retro thrash played well, buy Plunging Into Darkness. And if you’re reading this from your office at a metal label? Sign this band up. They’re talented and hard-working, and they both need and deserve your support.