The ’80s had arrived. Disco was dead, and for many, new wave synth wasn’t cutting it. People hungered for a new sound. Before hip-hop would take shape in the region, thrash metal was born in the Bay Area. If you aren’t familiar with the Bay Area thrash metal scene, “Murder In The Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story“— based on photographer Brian Lew and metal bassist and photographer Harald Oimoen‘s semi-eponymous book— is a phenomenal, in-depth look at a genre of music that spawned such musical heavy-metal legends as Metallica, Slayer, Exodus, and Megadeth.
Skillfully directed by Adam Dubin (“A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica“) and narrated by comedian and metal-head Brian Posehn, the rockumentary contains interviews from almost every living major player from the Bay Area thrash metal movement— Metallica’s James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, Testament’s Alex Skolnick, Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine— and a whos-who of musicians from notable thrash bands such as Slayer, Anthrax, Suicidal Tendencies, Machine Head and more. An introductory course to thrash metal, “Murder In The Front Row” serves as a comprehensive retrospective for hardcore fans, and an endearing homage to the trailblazing artists that molded the scene. The film’s most substantial accomplishment, however, is editor Sean Fullan‘s ability to weave together unearthed memories—manifested in picture collages, old video clips, and sound bites— through impressive animation and Posehn’s predominantly consistent narration.
Affectionately known as the “Land of Misfit Toys,” this close-knit Bay Area youths in the early ‘80s would eventually find the sound they craved. A local metal station (KUSF) occasionally played UFO, whose guitarist, Phill Mogg, a young Kirk Hammett (formerly of Exodus, current guitarist of Metallica) idolized. UFO was part of the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM, coined by Kerrang! Magazine editor Geoff Barton), a genre that heavily influenced thrash metal.
Founders of the Bay Area thrash genre also found inspiration from Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led-Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, Scorpions, Ted Nugent, Budgie, and more. Abroad, faster-paced metal was wreaking havoc across Europe: Void, Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate, and Warhead, while the NWOBHM continued to blast through the speakers and headphones of budding Bay Area musicians, who also banged their heads to the sounds of Motörhead, Diamond Head, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Venom, Sweet Savage (the first wave of black metal), and more.
Unable to access the music to which they desired to listen to at most outlets, these young musicians found respite in The Record Vault, ground zero of the thrash scene in downtown San Francisco. A record shop and communal place where fans and musicians alike could congregate, the kids there rebelled against the mundanity of suburbia in the Reagan era with booze and music. Magazines like Kerrang!, Aardschok, Metal Mania and their pen-pal section of underground cassette-trading would help the thrash movement “virally” spread across the globe.
“Murder In The Front Row” is great at giving every major player of the scene their rightful due, fans, promoters, managers, and friends included. Rich Birch, a thrash ally who would walk around with a boom box blasting NWOBHM metal, is deftly depicted through Aaron Augenblick and Michael M. Wartella‘s animation. Another prominent figure of the movement was Wes Robinson, an early pioneer of Jazz promotion who later promoted thrash, appreciating its unique sound. Robinson, always focused on originality over commercialism, fought to ensure these bands received gigs, particularly at thrash mecca Ruthie’s Inn. It was at Ruthie’s where the infamous thrash anthem Bonded by Blood, the name of Exodus’ hugely influential album, was birthed. During a notorious Exodus concert, an angsty crowd smashed onstage bottles, eventually creating a literal bloodbath.
This seminal concert served as a warning to both the faint-of-heart and “poseurs,” or people who posed as authentic metalheads to fit in or impress others. The scene was rife with violence.
Dubinrespectfully pays tribute to the two of the fallen founding members of the movement. The sudden deaths of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton in 1986 (a tour bus accident in Europe) and Exodus frontman Paul Baloff in 2002 rocked the thrash metal community to its core. “Cliff represented the Bay Area. He represented a freedom. He represented a freakiness that I didn’t know so much, growing up in LA.” James Hetfield explained about his former bandmate. Dubin isn’t afraid of depicting the consequences of taking that rebellious mentality too far (Dave Mustaine‘s sudden departure from Metallica in the 80s before they released records thanks to his drug habit), yet, the primary theme throughout “Murder In The Front Row” remains camaraderie. Posehn‘s narration, although enthusiastic, is, at times, sporadic. However, the plethora of valuable interview content more than makes up for his occasionally infrequent presence. [B+]
Presented by SF IndieFest, “Murder In The Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story” premieres at the San Francisco DocFest on May 31 and June 4, 2019, at the Roxie Theater. Tickets are on sale now.