BOOK REVIEW: Contract in Blood by Ian Glasper

Front cover pic: Tony Mottram | Front cover design: Andy Pilkington

Contract in Blood: A History of UK Thrash Metal

Written by Ian Glasper

I’m starting this review of UK author/musician Ian Glasper’s latest book, Contract in Blood: A History of UK Thrash Metal, with a frank admission. I’m going to be repeating a few ideas I originally expressed elsewhere. That’s because the impending arrival of Contract in Blood got me all riled up, and I ended up writing a multi-part feature on old school UK thrash for Hellbound fairly recently. You’ll have to forgive me for reiterating a couple of points I’ve raised before. The rest, I promise, is all new noise.

Glasper’s written a couple of books exploring the history of UK punk rock which I’ve enjoyed immensely: namely, Burning Britain: The History of UK Punk 1980–1984, and The Day the Country Died: A History of Anarcho Punk 1980–1984. Both of those books featured a substantial number of band biographies filled with insider commentaries, and Contract in Blood sticks with that same winning formula.

Glasper’s books often look to the past and feature a hefty dose of nostalgia, but they’re not dry or dusty tomes. Instead, they are driven by the fiery DIY attitude that often underscores underground culture, and Contract in Blood is fuelled by that spirit too. What made Glasper’s previous books compelling is that he includes the expected success stories but also makes abundant room for overlooked and underrated bands. That approach works well for Contract in Blood too, and Glasper shines the spotlight on a host of obscure bands.

Old guard UK thrashers like Xentrix, Sabbat, or Onslaught might be cited as worthy warriors in this day and age, but back in thrash’s heyday, those bands (and their UK kin) were frequently tagged as also-rans in comparison to their burly cousins from the US, Europe, and South America. Plenty more-than-capable UK thrash bands actually existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, like the aforementioned, but it’s undeniable that few of them made an impact outside the UK and many never toured their own nation, let alone overseas.

You could certainly make the case that Satan-huggers Venom were a game-changing UK thrash act, but only if you think they belong in the thrash camp, rather than the speed or black metal emplacements. Glasper’s on the side of #teamthrash, and he honours Venom with pride of place, opening Contract in Blood with a lengthy unpacking of the band’s career.

Contract in Blood features a very long list of well-known and virtually unknown bands, but the book’s not a step-by-step or a strictly oral history. Rather, Glasper tackles the UK region by region (i.e the Northeast, the Midlands etc) and bands from those areas talk about their creative careers locally as well as wider UK happenings. That builds a multi-faceted picture of UK thrash, from a wide variety of sources, but not everyone’s perspective is included.

Some bands I expected to see are entirely missing from Contract in Blood, but to be fair to Glasper, he makes it clear in the book’s introduction that he couldn’t track everyone down, and some bands didn’t want to participate. In the end, Contract in Blood isn’t remotely short on content, and it features a wealth of subterranean bands who’ve had little coverage before now.

Essentially, Glasper sees UK thrash as being “misrepresented” by the press, “misunderstood” by record labels, and often “criminally ignored”. All of those are entirely valid points. But UK thrash hasn’t always done itself many favours. A lot of early UK thrash was horrendously produced, and some bands simply sounded fucking atrocious. Not to mention all those NWOBHM and punk bands who just blatantly changed their sound to try and cash-in on thrash’s cache.

Contract in Blood tackles those issues, and many others, making it a genuine warts-and-all tale. Good times, bad times, and indifferent and hostile audiences are all mentioned, often with blunt honesty that’s downright refreshing. Lots of criticisms of UK thrash are discussed. Like that fact that some bands sounded an awful lot like Metallica, Slayer, Testament, or Anthrax. It’s great to hear from groups like Xentrix and Slammer, who definitely had those charges hurled their way, respond to those criticisms and point out that they were unapologetically aiming for the creative highpoints those legendary bands set.

Some UK thrash bands desperately tried to adapt to suit the changing musical environment in the early 1990s, and there’s not a lot of glory to behold in those years. Again, that’s tackled with brutal honesty in Contract in Blood. Bands talk about disappointing their fanbases and feeling creatively lost and even bewildered as support for the UK thrash scene waned and collapsed.

Of course, doom and gloom isn’t Contract in Blood’s primary focus. The book is jam-packed with greasy-haired rivetheads having a fucking whale of a time, and it uncovers a lot of previously hidden and hilarious history along the way. Plenty of musicians offer thoughtful and often wry observations. Are all those observations 100% accurate? Well, who knows. But, as the old saying goes, never let the truth get in the way of a good story, right?

Point being, you get to read forthright tales from previously unsung bands like Drunken State, Atomkraft, or Ardkore. You get to hear about touring tensions, record label woes, and the inter-band squabbles that affected bands like Onslaught and Sabbat. Plus, Contract in Blood reveals the hurdles faced by bands like Toranaga, Deathwish, and Hydra Vein –– who never seemed to reap much reward, for all their obvious talents.

Even with the all-knowing and all-powerful internet at hand, it’s been hard to find out what really happened to promising bands like Holoslade, Amnesia, or Obliteration. But Contract in Blood remedies that situation. Fans of feral and unhinged UK thrash will be pleased to see write-ups on old school gnashers and smashers like Warfare, Arbitrater, Annihilator, and Metal Messiah. And, thankfully, Glasper ensures that Contract in Blood dedicates time and space to revered metal/punks like Sacrilege, English Dogs, and Hellbastard.

Simply having the opportunity to read healthy-sized bios of bands like Decimator, Virus, Re-Animator, or whoever, is hugely satisfying. And unearthing the histories of bands I’ve always been curious about (like D.A.M, Cerebral Fix, or Seventh Angel) is thrilling. Even goofier groups like Lawnmower Death, Metal Duck, and Acid Reign, who generally aren’t my thing, still proved to be really interesting to read about. However, not everything about Contract in Blood captured my attention, or proved to be illuminating.

Aside from a few contemporary crossover terrors, like SSS, I haven’t kept up with modern UK thrash. And reading about most of the present day bands in Contract in Blood didn’t really encourage me to remedy that issue. I fully admit that’s more of a reflection of my musical tastes than anything else. But, to my mind, the stories from UK thrash’s earlier years just felt more engaging and engrossing.

As mentioned, there are bands missing from Contract in Blood’s pages, but the book is still clearly the most comprehensive account of UK thrash metal ever published. If Glasper picked up a few of those stray bands for future reprints, Contract in Blood would likely be nigh on unbeatable.

There’s a trend in some music journalism circles to inject a sense of academic analysis into a book to somehow justify its existence. But Contract in Blood doesn’t offer a painstaking examination of the changing face of UK thrash’s cultural capital –– and that’s no bad thing.

Instead, Contract in Blood is a blood-and-guts tale of battlers and strugglers –– not a lifeless scholarly survey. The book features a gritty and down-to-earth narrative, reflecting the music it covers, and while Glasper mixes in his own perspectives, he doesn’t come across as a self-important know-it-all (more like a rabid fan, just like you and me).

Like the best UK thrash, Contract in Blood is rough-edged, packed with gusto, and delivered with plenty of passion. The book is overflowing with rowdy voices from thrash metal’s trenches, and Contract in Blood is chock-a-block full of the nerdgasmic minutiae and battered-and-bruised underdog tales that metal fans adore.

Best of all, Glasper digs deep on Contract in Blood, paying due respect and long overdue credit to a host of long-forgotten UK thrashers. Full marks to Glasper, and full marks to the bulk of the bands included in Contract in Blood. I couldn’t recommend the book highly enough.

Internationally published writer, columnist, and radio producer.