Throughout the year, I've been looking back at some of the best thrash metal albums of 1986 -- the year thrash hit its zenith in popularity and creativity. When possible, I've tried to interview band members, producers and others associated with the original albums. I've also tried to time the blog posts to coincide with the 25th anniversary of each album's release, although accurate release dates from 25 years ago can be hard to come by.
This installment commemorates Nuclear Assault's debut album, Game Over. I was unable to find a specific release date for the album, but multiple sources list it as October 1986, so today seems like as good a day as any. Along with Anthrax and Overkill, Nuclear Assault were one of the leaders of the East Coast thrash scene. They also helped popularize the "crossover" thrash sound, which combined thrash metal's more intricate songwriting and structure with the pure speed and aggression of hardcore punk.
I recently spoke with Nuclear Assault bassist and founding member Dan Lilker about Game Over and his memories of the early thrash and crossover scenes in mid '80s New York. Lilker has built an impressive metal résumé over the past three decades. In addition to Nuclear Assault, Lilker was also a founding member of the aforementioned Anthrax, crossover pioneers S.O.D. and grindcore trailblazers Brutal Truth.
Tempe Carnivore: Game Over is considered one of the earliest and best crossover thrash albums. Considering the general disdain that punk fans and metal fans had for each other at the time, what made you think it would work?
Lilker: Well, the thing is, there had been bands from the punk side that had been crossing over before that, but they didn’t get as much press as metal bands did, ‘cause they didn’t have some dude at a label or something like that. I was pretty sure it would be taken well, because bands like C.O.C., Suicidal, Dr. Know, D.R.I., a lot of bands were crossing over to the metal side from that, and those are bands that we had enjoyed. Quite honestly, my favorite D.R.I. album is the first one. It’s just raw as fuck. The point being, there was certainly a precedent for that, it’s just that it had mostly been coming from the hardcore side, where, like I said, it wasn’t going to get as much attention as, like, the dude who was in S.O.D. and used to be in Anthrax putting out a record. That shit was already out there. It’s just that we might’ve had a higher profile.
Would you consider yourself a punk fan who got into metal or a metalhead who got into punk?
I was actually into the Ramones in junior high school before I was into Judas Priest, but I didn’t continue with punk then. From rock I went into metal, and from metal I went into thrash metal and intense metal. Then I got into hardcore, so kind of back into punk, but a more intense version of it. So I’m pretty much a metalhead who got into hardcore, but ironically enough, I was listening to Rocket to Russia before I even heard Motörhead. Who the fuck knows?
What were your audiences like when you first started? Did they skew more punk or metal?
It was a mix. It also depended on where you played. We would play at L’amour with metal bands and it would be mostly metal and then some of the punks that knew us would come down and see us. Or if we played CBGB, then it’s gonna be the polar opposite. It’s gonna be 90 percent hardcore kids who are also coming to see the other bands that are playing, and then some metalheads. Once we got established, it didn’t really matter where we played. We got a pretty even mix. We could play a place like the Ritz in the city, which was like neutral ground. They had metal shows and they had hardcore shows. When I say “neutral ground” I don’t mean there were wars whenever people played in other territories, I just meant that it wasn’t known as a place primarily for metal or punk, so you’d get everybody.
When you were recording Game Over, did you have any idea that thrash was going to hit as hard as it did? Had you heard Master of Puppets or any other albums from 1986 yet? Did they motivate or inspire you in any way?
Well, we were inspired by the whole genre, and a lot of hardcore and stuff, so yeah. Thrash was pretty well going by then. [Anthrax's debut album] Fistful of Metal had come out in January ’84, so this was a whole two years and a few months later. And the whole Bay Area stuff, it was going pretty good by then. I don’t know when we recorded the album what expectations we had either way, but we were pretty sure we weren’t just doing something where people would go “What the fuck is this?” Compared to other metal bands, we had a lot more of a hardcore influence, and yeah, there was S.O.D., but that was more contrived. With Nuclear Assault, it was more evolved that way, so besides the fact that we did have a lot more hardcore shit than a lot of other thrash metal bands, we were pretty sure we’d go down good.
How do you think Game Over stacks up to the rest of the Nuclear Assault catalog?
When I get asked in interviews “What’s your favorite Nuclear Assault album?” I can’t give them just one. I tell them Game Over and Handle With Care, for different reasons. Since we’re talking about Game Over, I’ll tell you why it’s not my absolute favorite record. I really like that record, because you always like your first record. It’s really exciting to finally get that fuckin’ record out, because you’ve had shit that you’ve written for years. As any musician will tell you, you’ve got your whole life to write your first record and then about a year and a half to write the next one. In general, I think we sound really raw and hungry. The only thing I’m not really crazy about on that record is I think the guitar sound is a little bit tinny-sounding. It’s not really overdriven enough. That’s the only drawback from it. Just to give you the other half of the answer, even though it’s not about this record, but with Handle With Care, I like that record a lot ‘cause it’s got really big production and it shows a band that had a good chemistry after touring together for years. But I guess that’s neither here nor there, since we’re talking about Game Over.
Like your old band Anthrax, Nuclear Assault seemed to have a goofy, humorous side. What's the story behind songs like "Hang the Pope" and "Lesbians"?
We never bought the whole thing where metal bands had to have a serious image and were tough guys or anything like that. We were who we were as people, and we didn’t feel any need to mask that, whether we were doing anything else, doing interviews or playing music or anything like that. When it came to doing stuff – especially those songs that you mentioned – that was also an excuse to play really fast. I mean, we were influenced by hardcore and so were a lot of other bands, like Slayer, but they weren’t doing blasts and everything, so we figured that would be interesting, to throw in some really high-speed shit. As far as the non-seriousness of that compared to other songs, well, “Hang the Pope” is presented in a very humorous context, but it’s still a stance on anti-Catholicism, just presented humorously. “Lesbians,” on the other hand, is just completely stupid. Just nonsense. I probably wouldn’t write that song today, but that’s 25 years later, you know.
What happened with your early split with Anthrax? Obviously, you stayed friends with the guys and formed S.O.D. with Scott Ian and Charlie Benante shortly thereafter, but was there a rivalry there as well? Was Nuclear Assault an attempt to prove yourself to your former band, sort of like your own personal Megadeth?
Well, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder like Dave Mustaine has. I was asked to leave Anthrax, but that was mostly because I wasn’t getting along with the original singer. Even though I’d written like 75 percent of the first album and formed the band with Scott, when Neil [Turbin] said “I can’t deal with Danny anymore. It’s him or me,” they decided to hold onto him since the album was about to come out and they thought it made more sense to have a frontman. They didn’t want to have a big change in the front of the band, so I was asked to leave. But 10 months later, they threw Neil out. So sure, I was bummed for a while, but I could sit around and feel sorry for myself or I could form another band. I was getting a lot into hardcore then and I wanted to play something that was a little more intense. Anthrax is a great band, but there’s pretty much two dudes in that band who control the music and the lyrics, and the other people really just play it. If I’d stayed in that band, I probably wouldn’t have felt as satisfied creatively. I didn’t really feel the need to prove myself with Nuclear Assault. It was just making the most out of a situation, saying “OK, well now I can go back to square one and start a band and have a little more creative control."
Does the band have any plans to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Game Over this year, like playing it in its entirety at a few shows or something?
The thing with Nuclear Assault is, we do most of the stuff we can do in the summer, except for shit on weekends, due to peoples’ jobs. We just did a whole bunch of crap. We just went to Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Holland, Germany, all since the last week of July, and that’s because we can do a lot more stuff in the summer. It would’ve been cool. Twenty-five years is a nice fuckin’ milestone, for sure. I suppose the cool thing would’ve been to re-release it somehow with some kind of special packaging, but then we would’ve had to find some other shit to put on it. That would’ve been something that would’ve had to have been planned out a while back, as opposed to now. Unfortunately, there’s nothing really to commemorate it, except possibly what you’re doing. I suppose that counts, since you’re talking with me, but nothing that the band’s had planned or anything.
What is the current status of the band? Any news on a new album or tour?
Well, we have one more show this year – San Juan, Puerto Rico on November 12. That’s the kind of thing where [vocalist] John [Connelly] -- who has a strict Monday through Friday job, except for the summer – he’s gonna get down there Saturday morning, play the show Saturday night and go back Sunday and not miss any shit at work. As far as creating new material, I personally ain’t feelin’ it. I mean, we did a comeback record in 2005, and to be perfectly honest, I thought it was a bit of a dud. I don’t think it stood up to the Nuclear Assault stuff, you know, the kinda shit people expected from us. It taught me a lesson that, you know, don’t do a record unless you’re really sure you’re feeling it creatively and everything. I suppose we could try. Me and [Erik] Burke were talking – he plays in Brutal Truth too – and we’re like, maybe we should do a few bong hits, put on Bonded by Blood, have a few beers, then try to write some shit... So it’s one of those things, dude. I mean, it’s almost like we could just be lazy and play the old shit people wanna hear anyway. It’s schizophrenic with me, ‘cause me and Burke also play in Brutal Truth, and we have a new album coming out in, like, four fuckin’ days or something like that [note: Brutal Truth's End Time was released on Sept. 27 on Relapse Records, shortly after this interview], but we’ve also been a band that’s always been about exploring the next envelope of grindcore insanity, you know, where Nuclear Assault’s a band that was more just good, consistent thrash metal with some hardcore thrown in, but once we reached our kind of comfortable point, around The Plague and Survive, we just had our style, where with BT, we just do whatever the fuck we want and just change it up. So it’s kinda cool that I get to do one thing in one band with Nuclear, where you kinda just play stuff you know people wanna hear, but I’m not really feelin’ it right now to write a thrash record. But with Brutal Truth, we just keep on flying ahead and fucking with people.
Read about the other great thrash albums of 1986:
Part 1: Metallica - Master of Puppets
Part 2: Destruction - Eternal Devastation
Part 3: Flotsam and Jetsam - Doomsday for the Deceiver
Part 4: Slayer - Reign in Blood