Bay Area thrash is on the comeback as Exodus and Testament rouse new fans with new recordings
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. 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. The reinvigoration of Exodus was tragically put on hold in 2002 when original vocalist Paul Baloff suffered a stroke while riding his bike and lapsed into a coma, eventually being taken off life support at his family's request. While Holt was pained by the loss of his old friend and bandmate, he was determined to soldier on: "I felt like I still have something to prove, even if I don't. I still keep a chip on my shoulder."
Billy recovered fully in 2003, and Testament was offered a slot at a metal festival in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Reenlisting the participation of Skolnick, who had left the band to pursue his interest in jazz, Testament rediscovered the pleasures of touring for new audiences and found itself poised to regain some of its past glory. As Billy explains, "The whole music business is all about timing. The reunion show that brought people together again enabled people to put their problems aside, to do it for the music. The reason those bands weren't touring was that the climate of metal wasn't right.
"I think the bands like Shadows Fall, Trivium, and Chimaira all these bands making names for themselves by bringing back our style of music its perfect for a band like us," he continues.
By the time this article is published, Testament will have played two sold-out shows at the Independent, a triumphant homecoming in a city eager to acknowledge its extensive thrash history. On April 29, they will release their first album of new material in nine years, The Formation of Damnation, on Nuclear Blast, a label that is also the new home of Exodus, who released The Atrocity Exhibition ... Exhibit A in October 2007.
Billy describes the Testament release as a return to form, with more traditional thrash elements replacing the midtempo brutality that defined their '90s material. "We hadn't written a record that had lead guitar sections," he says. "We have Alex Skolnick back in the band it was feeling good, like it used to. I wanted to sing more, not do death metal vocals. I wanted it to be heavy, but have catchy melodies." The few tracks that Nuclear Blast has divulged to journalists confirm his analysis: they include scorching Skolnick shred and singing that is at times almost hooky.
The Atrocity Exhibition is a more modern-sounding recording, appropriating the blast beats and Byzantine song structures of death metal and continuing the trend established by the act's two other recent releases, 2004's Tempo of the Damned and 2005's Shovelheaded Kill Machine (both Nuclear Blast). This evolution has its detractors, much to Holt's frustration. "Some people want me to write Bonded by Blood over and over again," he says, "But I can't." Despite the protestations of the purists, Exodus's recent material is invariably successful at adapting the techniques and innovations of a new generation of metal without compromising the group's essential sound.
Both bands will continue to tour voraciously throughout the spring and summer, eager to win over new fans with their daunting chops and undimmed energy. According to Holt, their hard work on the road is already paying off. "It's a change for us to look out in the audience and see kids that are 17 or 18 years old," he says. "In the last five years we've been beating ourselves to death on tour and we've acquired a new audience. The old guys all have mortgages and their wives won't let them go to shows anymore." This time around, even the subprime lending crisis is unlikely to deter Exodus and Testament. Far from being nostalgia acts, the two bands have relied on their competitive natures to keep their music on the bleeding edge of metal, refusing to sacrifice even a lone beat-per-minute to old age. Buoyed by fans both old and new and revered by a rapidly expanding metal world eager to give them their due, the new order is bonded by the blood of the past but looking toward the future.