Into the Pit – Testament as a Big 4 Band

Let’s just kick this into high gear immediately with some thrash real talk. HOT TAKE: Anthrax sucks. Everyone just keep your pants on for that. Whenever a discussion of the Big 4 comes up, inevitably it becomes an argument about Anthrax. There’s no question that Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer should be there, but why Anthrax? Their sound at the time was wildly different than the other three. They went for a far more punk-infused take on traditional metal and establishing an early take on crossover while the other three went for a far darker tone often relying on extremely technical riffing and soloing. They just don’t quite fit. However, another Bay Area thrash band totally fits into the sound and blasts everything to pieces just like you’d want: Testament.

Testament started as many great thrash bands did: two guitar players forming the band in the Bay Area in 1983. Eric Peterson and his cousin formed under the name Legacy. The cousin eventually made way for guitarist Alex Skolnick, who also studied under Joe Satriani as did fellow thrashers Kirk Hammett and Exodus’ Rick Hunolt. The band recruited bassist Greg Christian and vocalist Steve Souza, who would eventually go on to front Exodus and make room for Chuck Billy. Eventually, drummer Louie Clemente joined and formed the classic Testament lineup that would put out their most classic thrash records. Skolnick and Clemente would leave the band during its more experimental phase in the 90s, though Skolnick would eventually return to the band after forming an acoustic jazz trio. Greg Christian would eventually leave the band prior to 1997’s Demonic though he, too, reunited with the band only to leave again in 2014. The band would also have a sort of revolving door with their second guitarist, bassist, and drummer spots that would include Slayer’s Paul Bostaph and Dave Lombardo, Exodus and White Zombie/Rob Zombie drummer John Tempesta, Death’s James Murphy, and Cradle of Filth’s Nicholas Barker.

But you didn’t come here for a history lesson. You came for rad tunes to beat up your friends too! Boy, are you in luck. These dudes can rip it. Most people reading this probably never really listened to Testament much. Up until a few years ago, I was in the same boat. Just going about my life listening to Master of Puppets convinced no other thrash band could do better despite not even attempting to find out. Not that I’m about to argue some did better than “MASTER…MASTER,” but there can be other good things in this world.

“Into the Pit” is classic thrash. Chugging riffs and constantly driving beats push everything forward and make want to jump up and slam dance as quickly as you can. Alex Skolnick’s racing solo after the chorus is equally classic. He scales! He sweeps! He taps! What can this man not do?!? On top of all that, the song is constantly changing feel and rhythm and gives it an even more chaotic feel. There’s a reason that 1988’s The New Order was their breakout album.

However, I would argue that the best example of their work was 1989’s Practice What You Preach. Much in the same vein as Master of Puppets, the album saw the band change from the original fantastical horror elements into more socio-political themes. With that change came higher production values that allowed the band to flourish and really show of their abilities as individual musicians and songwriters as a group. There’s much more focus on this album and the songs feel less lo-fi chaotic thrash and more like mature metal songs. The title track is a perfect example. You can hear the focus right off the bat. There’s still that thrash goodness of crazy riffing, but the whole track is held together much better than older albums.

Even after half the original band left (Skolnick and Clemente soon followed by Christian), the band was still churning out some seriously good metal. 1992’s The Ritual was more in a traditional metal vein, causing some rifts within the band. 1994’s Low, however, brought the band back into the thrash realm though more toward the Pantera groove angle. “Hail Mary” keeps the riffing in the groove world supported by a slightly slower tempo than one would expect from the band. Doesn’t detract from the other parts of the song including guitar solos. Chuck Billy also distorts his vocals, showing a marked difference from the previous 80s incarnation of the band.

The later 90s albums showed the band going into a more death metal direction with 1997’s Demonic and 1999’s The Gathering. Both are excellent examples of the band toying with their sound and taking it into a new direction, though The Gathering ends up being a mostly forgettable album. This goes in line with the 90s treating thrash bands fairly poorly as the entire subgenre took a backseat to death metal and saw reduced radio play.

“Alright, Pete,” you might be saying. “That’s all fine and good, but why is this somehow better than Anthrax?” I’m glad you asked, O Dearest of Readers. Let’s first address the obvious: the Big 4 of Thrash name is nothing more than a marketing ploy. While the term’s origins seem to be lost somewhere in annals of time, this is simply a name given to the original pioneers of the sound. They also happen to be the biggest sellers in the subgenre, including numerous platinum and gold records and millions upon millions of albums sold worldwide. Anthrax is on the lower end of those sales with only 4 gold records (Among the Living, State of Euphoria, Persistence of Time, and Sound of White Noise) and it’s more than Testament’s 0 gold records. But that’s a more artificial reason not to include Testament in that group. Any A&R worker in the 80s could have easily thrown Testament in the group and their record sales would have exploded.

I think the main part of my argument is the sound. As with any overall genre or subgenre, there are a myriad of sounds inside thrash metal. You can have the more technical sounds like Megadeth, the more traditional sound like Metallica, or the darker sound like Slayer. However these all work together as there is an overall more serious tone, so those four bands work very well together, and Testament fits right in. It’s a very West Coast metal sound as these bands tend to veer toward the severe and the grave.

Then there’s Anthrax with its more accessible crossover sound. Don’t get me wrong, I do love me some crossover. It can be a lot of fun, and there’s something uniquely interesting about the melodies and rhythms those bands create. But in this Big 4 grouping, the band just really sticks out. There isn’t a similar meshing with Anthrax and the other 3 as there is with Testament. Crossover tends to take itself far less seriously than other subgenres, and Anthrax fully embraced it.

Just look at the video for “Madhouse”. You’ve got the band showing a stereotypical looking mental hospital while they’re playing in the middle of it and starting a mosh pit. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. It’s pretty fun! But it lacks that gravitas of the other four. In comparison, Testament’s first video for “Over the Wall” is far more severe.

Sure, it’s mostly the band playing the song live, but combined with images from the prison system, it fits more into the image of the other Big 4. It’s more of a political statement about the criminal justice system and the plight of the incarcerated, and the video reflects that idea. “Madhouse” might be trying to make a similar statement, but it gets lost in the imagery of the video and the levity of the song. It’s got these fun riffs and licks in the song, and there’s no denying that they sound crazy. But because they sound so intentionally over the top, any potential statement loses its gravity.

Am I cherry-picking here? Of course! That’s how arguments are made! And the opposite for both bands can be true. In the 90s, Testament went on an experimental kick by dipping its toes in traditional, groove, and death metal and straying a bit from its original Big 4 thrash-style sound. Scott Ian will also admit that Anthrax became far more serious as a band in the 90s, laying into a darker thrash sound and evolving from the original crossover sound. But the Big 4 of Thrash is rooted in the 80s sound. And in the 80s, Anthrax was party metal and Testament’s career reflected that of Metallica (in terms of their evolution of sound over the decade).

I’d just say look at the discography. In the 80s, Testament was making political statements and combining in fantastical horror elements. Anthrax was singing about how fun it was to thrash. If you took the biggest thrash albums of the decade with Master of Puppets, Reign in Blood, and Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying, Testament just makes a lot more sense. Practice What You Preach and the political statements they made with that record just fit in more than anything Anthrax made.

See for yourself! Hope you like the playlist. Thrash on.

Quick Thrash

Alien Weaponry –

We don’t get to talk much about New Zealand bands, which will now be immortalized as Kiwi thrash. Alien Weaponry makes some great almost-thrash groove from down under, and holy damn is it great. These guys just nail that sound with the incredible crunch of guitars and slamming bass and drums. The real kicker: these guys are in high school. Makes you really think about what you’re doing with your life, right?

“Kai Tangata” is the standout track here. Starts off with a great little string bending riff accompanied by deep, booming drums and cymbals and some serious bass booty. The best is that the entire song is written in Maori, the language of the native Maori people. It’s a very percussive language that’s great for that classic thrash group shout. This is the band’s first full length, so I’m super excited to see where these Kiwis go from here.

 

Traitor – Knee-Deep in the Dead

Hell yes, gimme some Eurothrash. These guys really lean into that second wave mid-80s sound with some modern twists of slightly distorted vocals and leaning hard into the group shouts which everyone loves anyway. There are also some great references on the record. “Predator (Skinned Alive)” is riddled with references to and quotes from Predator. “Nuke ‘Em All” is just a song about Duke Nukem. “Knee-Deep In The Dead” is the name of the first group of levels from the first person shooter DOOM. It’s simply fantastic material for a thrash metal band to dig into.

The whole album is chock full of that thrash goodness. Pick scraping with whammy bar dive bombs combined with both chugging palm muted riffs and the oh-so-tasty string skipping melodies. On “Mad Dictator,” all of these are combined with excellent bass work and both crashing and grooving drum sections underneath shouted vocals. It’s very on the nose and it’s very fun. It’s a great call back to the Eurothrash of yesteryear.

 

Positronic Brain – The Thrash of Khan

FINALLY some Trekkie thrash. The one-man blackened thrash project Positronic Brain is back for some more intergalactic action. In some ways, it reminds me of Vektor for obvious reasons, but Mike Taylor, the Spock behind it all, comes up with ways to put his own spin on things. He definitely lays heavy on the synths which is fairly uncommon for a thrash band. And it certainly feels spacey for reasons other than the lyrical content. There’s an epic quality that few bands or records attain. It also reminds me of Hoth at times with his melodic passages. Either way, please boldly go where thrash has never gone before.

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