It's a Sunday night in late February, and the facade of Slim's is shrouded by the shadow of a monstrous black tour bus. Inside, middle-aged bikers rub shoulders with teenagers in skin-tight jeans and garish print hoodies. At the bar, tattooed hipsters vie for position against glowering heshers and balding suburban fathers in polo shirts. As New Orleans black metal band Goatwhore kicks into a crescendo, the masses teem, pumping their fists and offering devil-horn salutes. Song finished, vocalist Ben Falgoust gulps for air before raising the mic to his mouth: "Are you guys ready for Exodus!?"
The multitude roars. They are ready for Exodus; ready to rock out to a band that formed in San Francisco 28 years ago, before many of them were even born. They are ready to help write a new chapter in the bloodstained tome of American metal and ready to crank their iPods to 11. After the winter of the '90s, when the genre hibernated through grunge, boy bands and rap-rock, metal is back in bearlike force, packing halls across the nation and charting albums with astounding frequency. (Most recently Lamb of God's Sacrament (Epic) hit number eight on the Billboard charts in September 2007, and the Bay Area's Machine Head reached no. 54 with The Blackening [Roadrunner] last April.)
While it's true that some of this success is due to the work of our nation's talented young headbangers, it is the reinvigoration of the genre's veteran warriors that makes the renaissance so momentous. Almost three decades ago, the Bay Area witnessed the birth pangs of thrash metal: a frantic mixture of hardcore punk and the burgeoning new wave of British Heavy Metal that would come to define heavy music in America for much of the '80s. This generation of thrashers produced Metallica, who need no introduction, but it also produced a pair of massively influential bands that never quite garnered the spotlight they deserved: Exodus and Testament.
After years of strife, drug addiction, illness, and disregard, these two titans are both back on the road, promoting brand new albums to brand new fans with the same fury they mustered in their youth. As Exodus guitarist Gary Holt puts it over the phone while taking a well-earned respite from the road: "We're proving that the founding fathers still know how to do it better than anyone else."
Rob Flynn guitarist for the vintage Oakland thrash band Vio-lence and current frontman for local groove-metal crowd-pleasers Machine Head, who were recently nominated for a Grammy has witnessed the thrash revival from both sides of the stage. Speaking by phone from his tour bus, he lauds the two bands' success: "Exodus and Testament are appealing to an entirely new generation of kids, as they should." This appeal is the result of a national hunger for musical authenticity that both outfits are eager to sate. Similarities between Reagan- and George W. Bush-era politics have fueled a new wave of thrash polemics, and the bands' undiminished ability to slay from onstage has won them a new legion of supporters.
Exodus was the first of the two bands to coalesce. Holt joined forces with childhood friend Tom Hunting on drums and Kirk Hammet on guitar; Hammet would play on the band's early demos before leaving in 1983 to join Metallica. In 1985, the group released Bonded by Blood (Torrid), an incendiary full-length filled with breakneck tempos and anthemic, shout-along choruses, eminently deserving of its place on the short list of best metal albums.
Testament got off to a slower start, forming in 1983 under the name Legacy, which had to be scuttled after a jazz combo of the same name complained. Joined in 1986 by a man-mountain of a singer named Chuck Billy, the group released their debut, The Legacy in 1987 on Megaforce Records.