As hard as it is to believe, American Thrash Metal has hit middle age. Where does that leave the scene as a whole? Alive, well and stronger than ever.
Think about the biggest bands to come from the scene in the ’80s. Now, consider the fact that a stunningly large number of them are not only still around but have created some of the most incendiary material of their careers in the last decade alone. (Need proof? Listen to what Overkill, Testament, Sacred Reich and Vicious Rumors – to name but a few – have put out in the last handful of years. Case closed.)
Flotsam and Jetsam is another band that falls in the “still relevant” category. Since its legendary 1986 debut, Doomsday For The Deceiver, the Phoenix-born band has rarely slowed down, pumping out an additional 13 studio albums despite frequent personnel changes, labor woes, financial struggles and everything else that would have killed a lesser band years ago. (In fact, there was even a very strange time in the early 2000s when the band’s line-up included nobody from its current incarnation.) These days, long-serving members Eric “AK” Knutson (vocals – and the only member to appear on every F&J album) and Michael Gilbert (guitar) are joined by guitarist Steve Conley (who’s been on every record since 2016’s eponymous effort), veteran journeyman drummer Ken K. Mary (who made his debut with F&J on 2019’s The End Of Chaos) and new bassist Bill Bodily.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that the vast majority of Thrash fans outside of F&J’s diehard contingent are most familiar with the band through its four-album major label run from 1988 to 1995. Of these albums, 1988’s No Place For Disgrace is the bonafide scene classic (“Hard On You” in particular still holds up like a motherfucker), while 1990’s excellent When The Storm Comes Down charged out of left field – and led to more than a few scratched heads – with esoteric musical arrangements and the cerebral lyrical mindfuckery of then-bassist Troy Gregory. Despite being solid and deeply impressive albums (and certainly ones that deserved to eclipse many of the Metal acts gaining widespread success at the time), 1992’s Cuatro and 1995’s commercial-leaning Drift ultimately failed to expand the band’s audience, leading it to return to the indie world to slug it out with varying degrees of success and recognition to this day.
Unfortunately, people like yours truly haven’t helped matters much. Drift was the last Flotsam and Jetsam I purchased, which really made little sense when considering that the band blew me away when it played New Jersey in support of 1997’s High. In hindsight, I suppose it was a matter of too many bands, too little time for me. Despite pumping out records every couple of years that I’m sure were great, the band somehow lost my attention along the way. I strongly suspect I wasn’t alone.
What a massive mistake that was, as the forthcoming Blood In The Water (AFM Records) will absolutely pummel anyone who’s been sleeping on experiencing the absolute monster this band evolved into since their higher-profile days. The biggest surprise to my ears is that Flotsam and Jetsam can now be best described as a Power Metal act, making a dramatic jump in style from the old days to this new album. (Perhaps this isn’t much of a shock to anyone out there who actually did the right thing and followed the band’s post-Drift trajectory, but I digress.) It only takes 18 seconds into the album’s opening title track to realize that Flotsam and Jetsam is tighter, meaner and more technically proficient than ever before. Although F&J has never been without great players, the skills and intensity on display throughout the song – and the 11 songs that follow, for that matter – are downright deadly. The interplay between Gilbert, Conley and Bodily is as ferocious as it is fascinating, prompting the listener to repeat tracks over and over to catch everything that flew by them the first dozen or so times. Their precision amidst such breakneck tempos is jaw-dropping.
Knutson’s vocal performance is equally stunning. Early F&J albums showcased a youthful set of pipes that cut through the speakers with frequent high-pitch wails. Thirty-five years later, the man’s voice is tougher and grittier without losing any of his trademark sense of melody. Most singers’ strengths begin to wane well before they hit their 50s, but this fucking guy? Not a chance. Listen to this album and hear the bar being raised. It is time for the Metal masses to acknowledge Knutson’s place among the greatest singers of the genre.
And then there’s Mary, who delivers a career-best performance that fuels Blood In The Water with expressive, fill-heavy drumming that is flashy without being gratuitous.
(By the way… although Mary has done quite a lot in his accomplished career behind the kit, this old Jersey boy writer’s mind will always know him best as the drummer on Fifth Angel’s “Midnight Love,” a.k.a the theme song for Howard Stern’s early-’90s show on WWOR-TV/Channel 9 in Secaucus!)
There’s no point in diving too deeply into song highlights, as there are no dips in energy and quality on Blood In The Water. However, a special nod must be given to the flawless “Walls,” a melodic Thrash masterpiece that serves as a template for how to create a Metal tune with equal parts fury and grace. (Hey, AFM Records: If this song is not released as a single, a boat’s gonna be missed.)
Much like the album cover’s depiction of the band’s monster mascot, Flotzilla, Flotsam and Jetsam has risen from the waters of obscurity and neglect to claim its rightful place at the top of the Thrash genre. Longevity can be a gift, and Flotsam and Jetsam’s time to lead this scene has finally come. This is not hyperbole; Blood In The Water is that damn good, and these guys – some of whom are dudes in their 50s who have been a part of American Thrash since Day One – remain one hell of a fantastic band.
Those of us who’ve foolishly looked the other way on this band for the past 25 years-plus are lucky that Knutson, Gilbert and crew kept the flame burning long enough for us to finally catch up to where they are now and take in what is easily the finest Metal album released so far this year.
EMAIL JOEL at firstname.lastname@example.org