Metal Mania: The return of the kings - Page 2

Bay Area thrash is on the comeback as Exodus and Testament rouse new fans with new recordings

While they retained the pummeling tempos that defined the thrash idiom, they drew heavily on the progressive leanings of lead guitar player Alex Skolnick, a prodigy who joined the band when he was just 16. Their third album, Practice What You Preach (Megaforce) was extremely well-received, with the title track garnering video plays on MTV throughout 1989.

When interviewed by phone, Billy is quick to point to two catalysts for the music's early success. The first was its combative nature, which pitted ascetic thrashers against their mortal enemies, the so-called posers. Groups sought out ever more extreme tempos and tunings in order to alienate the hair-sprayed acolytes of glam metal, whose temple was located on Los Angeles's Sunset Strip. Beyond distinguishing themselves from their gussied-up foils in Mötley Crüe, bands strove to out-do each other: "It was all friendly competition, the desire to be bigger and do better," explains Billy.

Flynn sums up the impact of Testament and Exodus memorably: "If it wasn't for those bands, there wouldn't be a Machine Head. When I was a kid, Exodus was my favorite band of all time. Bonded by Blood was like my life. I once punched some kid in the face for saying that Gary Holt sucked."

In addition to Vio-lence, local outfits like Death Angel and Forbidden released classic albums during this period, taking advantage of a record industry shopping spree that was triggered by the success of the Big Four — Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer — during the years 1988 to 1990. This success had its consequences as the towering reputation of those four groups began to overshadow the lesser-known acts that had helped pioneer the thrash idiom. The slight sticks with Holt to this day: "We were one of the first thrash metal bands ever, and it certainly sucks when you hear people referring to the 'Big Four' and you're left out, considered by some to be a 'second-tier' band."


For Exodus and Testament, things would get much worse before getting better. As the airwaves clogged with one metal band after another, the genre's countercultural status began to erode. Diagnosing the problem, Holt recalls the beginning of the music's slow implosion: "I've always thought metal needed a common enemy. It became a parody of itself." On Jan. 11, 1992, Nirvana's Nevermind (DGC) hit No. 1 on the Billboard's album sales chart, neatly coinciding with Capitol Records's decision to drop Exodus from its lineup, and ushering in a long winter for metal in America. Exodus broke up. Testament sustained itself by touring in Europe, where, as Billy explains, "they didn't have that grunge thing, so it's been all metal, all the way." Faced with uninterested record executives and a fan base that was buying flannel, thrash retreated into the underground.

Financial struggles were soon compounded by medical woes. In 1999, Testament guitarist James Murphy was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Although he made a full recovery, Murphy was forced to rely on a number of local fundraisers to afford treatment. In 2001, lightning struck twice, and Billy developed a rare form of cancer known as germ cell seminoma, which also necessitated extensive and expensive treatment. In August 2001, San Francisco's dormant thrash community banded together for "Thrash of the Titans," a benefit concert to raise money for Billy and Death frontman Chuck Schuldiner, another metal god battling cancer (Schuldiner passed away in December of that year). The concert showcased reunions by Exodus, Death Angel, and Legacy, the pre-Billy incarnation of Testament.

As the metal community united around its stricken heroes, old grudges were put aside, and the two bands began making tentative comeback plans.

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