As a young Metalhead growing up in rural southern Indiana, most of my friends and other classmates didn’t understand the music I listened to, or the t-shirts I wore. Some of them thought I was dumb. Some of them thought I was a pothead. A few of them even went so far as to call me a “devil worshipper” and attempted to point out “satanic” lyrics and imagery in the music that I listened to, and that they did not. True story: in sixth grade, a girl in my class told me that if you played a certain Anthrax song backward (she conveniently could not remember which one), you would hear a voice declare that “devil worshipping is fun”. That’s the kind of horseshit I had to put up with.
What very few of my friends and classmates realized (and what many people still don’t realize) is that a significant number of thrash metal songs are very socially forward-thinking. Songs about racial inequality, environmental issues, political corruption, depression, drug abuse, nuclear war (and war in general), and the corruption of organized religion often co-exist on the same albums with songs about zombies, S&M dominatrices, Stephen King books, comic books, H.P. Lovecraft short stories, and being a heavy metal band. People who are unfamiliar with the music will often form an opinion about it based on the name of the band alone. Judging a book, and all that.
A quick primer for the uninitiated: thrash metal is a sub-genre of heavy metal that developed in the very late 1970s and early 1980s, when young bands who hungered for something faster and heavier began to combine the melodic and (often) virtuosic elements of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (i.e., Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Raven, etc.) with the aggressive and often stripped down elements of hardcore punk (i.e., the Misfits, Discharge, Bad Brains, etc.). Musically, thrash metal is usually marked by fast, aggressive tempos, palm-muted riffing, and double-bass drumming. The vocals cover a wide range of styles, from guttural shouting to melodic, high register singing.
The best-known thrash metal bands from the 1980s, often designated “The Big 4” (a title based on album and concert ticket sales more than anything else), are Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. Other notable 1980s thrash bands include Testament, Overkill, Exodus, Nuclear Assault, Sacred Reich, Death Angel, and on their earliest releases, Quebec’s greatest export, Voivod. All the bands listed (and many more) will eventually be covered on this blog, but today, I’m going to focus on my personal favorite thrash metal band, which just happens to be one of the most consistently socially aware bands of the genre. I also believe they have been one of the most consistently high-quality bands of the genre, and I will go so far as to say that they have yet to release a bad song. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Testament.
Testament formed in Berkley, California in 1983, originally calling themselves Legacy. When vocalist Steve “Zetro” Souza left the band to join Exodus in 1986, Chuck Billy took over vocal duties, and the band changed their name to Testament. Their first album, The Legacy, was released in 1987, and is a fast, heavy, dark album, highlighted by modern-day crowd favorites such as “Over the Wall” and “First Strike is Deadly” (the latter of which I almost used for the name of this blog). Lyrical themes on the album don’t stray far from more traditional heavy metal fare, with stories about a ship lost at sea, encounters with demons and other mythical creatures, and prophecies of war. It was on the band’s second album (and my personal favorite Testament album), 1988’s The New Order, that the lyrics began to touch on more “real-world” topics.
“Over the Wall” from The Legacy (1987)
While just as heavy musically as The Legacy, the 1988 release found the band expanding their melodic sound, as lead guitarist Alex Skolnick was quickly developing into one of the most gifted guitar players in thrash metal, if not in all of heavy metal (Skolnick has since gone on to play in jazz bands, and has been a touring member of the virtuosic supergroup The Trans-Siberian Orchestra). Lyrically, the songs showed some signs of growth as well, as they began to discuss the environment (on the title track) and destruction by nuclear war (the utterly awesome album-closer “Day of Reckoning”). If the sophomore release indicated a new found maturity, their third album in as many years, 1989’s Practice What You Preach, found the band all grown up, and very nearly made them a household name.
“A Day of Reckoning” from The New Order (1988)
Practice What You Preach covers a wide range of subject matter, from government corruption to environmental devastation, and from hypocrisy to the merits of living life on your own terms. Musically, the band slowed things down a bit from the previous two albums (although “Nightmare (Coming Back to You)” is very up-tempo and in-your-face), but the virtuosity continued to develop, notably here in rhythm guitarist (and founding member) Eric Peterson, and in bassist Greg Christian. Closing instrumental “Confusion Fusion” is simultaneously as tight as a duck’s ass and as loose as the cast of Jersey Shore.
“Practice What You Preach” from Practice What You Preach (1989)
The album also showed a softer side of Testament, featuring the band’s first ballad, appropriately titled “The Ballad”. The video for this song (as well as the title track) received pretty heavy rotation on MTV, back when that was a real channel, and the song is a showcase for the vocal abilities of Chuck Billy. The album was well-received critically, but a lot of fans at the time disliked the slower tempos, and the fact that there was a ballad (the horror!). I admit that I can count myself among those fans. I didn’t care much at all for Practice What You Preach when I first heard it, but I finally purchased my own copy a few years ago, and it immediately kicked the shit out of me and rubbed my face in it. It is an amazing album, top to bottom, and is a testament (I make no apologies for my pun) to the power and abilities of this amazing and often-overlooked thrash metal band.
“The Ballad” from Practice What You Preach (1989)
I have to make dinner now, so I will continue the saga of Testament another time (hopefully later in the week). It is a tale of perseverance, and overcoming adversity. It is a tale that contains many characters. And perhaps most of all, it is a tale of kicking ass, and of staying heavy, always.