Op-Ed: Testament are TOO GOOD for The Big Four!
Despite a nearly 40-year career, why aren’t thrash titans Testament in The Big Four? To me, the answer is obvious: Testament are TOO GOOD for The Big Four!
Unlike their Big Four thrash brethren, Testament are still releasing killer albums in 2020. Can the same thing be said for Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth or Anthrax? These bands may be referred to as The Big Four, but they’re also the Bloody Inconsistent Four when it comes to their full discographies.
With their final tour drawing to a close last year, new music was obviously not in the cards for Slayer. But when has “new” ever been an appropriate word to describe the musical output of these formulaic thrashers anyway? Every Slayer album since 1994 has merely been more of the same, the only changes being different production values and a noticeable decrease in their musical innovation over time. How many aimless, fret-wanky Kerry King solos does one person need in their record collection? Certainly not 12 albums’ worth.
Then you’ve got the band who changed too much: I’m looking at you, Anthrax. Sometimes they got it spot on. “Bring the Noise,” their early ‘90s rap-metal hybrid collab with Public Enemy, was a genre-smashing, mosh-inducing success. But 2003’s We’ve Come For You All was downright alienating, an album so soft and lacking in energy you could mistake some songs for Nickleback. [Your MetalSucks editors do not agree with this assessment of the John Bush era! But to each their own. -Ed.]
Undoubtedly, it’s hard for a band to evolve musically whilst still maintaining the characteristics that fans know and love them for. Even Megadeth, easily the most interesting band of the Big Four, have released disappointing material, the stunted chugging on United Abominations certainly living up to the “abomination” part.
Then we come to the band who raked in $68 million dollars last year. What did Metallica do to earn that? Surely, a killer new album? Alas, no, the last semi-decent thing Metallica released was a beer. Since 1996, Metallica have felt more like a brand than a band anyway, their merchandise efforts becoming far more prolific than their music: Metallica Monopoly, jigsaw puzzles, Christmas tree ornaments, a wetsuit, seven different designer watches and plastic baby utensils just a few of the delights on offer on the official Metallica online store, the most recent addition being some, err…topical Metallica-branded scrubs.
Sure, bashing Metallica is like shooting fish in a barrel. So let’s acknowledge that they took metal to the mainstream, became a household name and dealt with all the pressures which accompany that. Such pressure can be the enemy of creativity and innovation, the curse of being a big band. And the bigger you get, the harder it becomes to remain good. To the point, just because they’re the most successful thrash band doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best.
To me, Testament have more interesting riffs in one song than Metallica have written in their entire career. I can’t listen to Testament’s 1988 classic, The New Order, without shaking my head in disbelief that they’re not multi-million-selling, stadium-rocking juggernauts too. The synergy displayed between guitarists Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson alone is staggering, Skolnick’s leads soaring gracefully over Peterson’s infectious, biting riffs. But what’s a killer riff without immense drums to drive it home? Safe to say, the virtuosity of Skolnick and Peterson was tied together perfectly by the infectious grooves of sticksman Louie Clemente during the bands’ first decade. Since then, Testament have worked with some of the greatest drummers in metal: Dave Lombardo, Paul Bostaph and John Tempesta, before pairing up with super-drummer Gene Hoglan for a match made in air-drumming heaven. Then there’s the diverse vocal abilities of Chuck Billy, who evolves his style with every new record. Beginning his career with solid, cleaner thrash vocals, Billy has since developed one hell of a death growl and can seamlessly blend between the two techniques within the same song.
This absolute musical mastery should be celebrated far and wide…shouldn’t it?!
Perhaps that’s the point. In most metal genres, the flagship band — the ones who are the most successful — usually play dumbed-down, simplified versions of the style. Metallica don’t represent how original and exciting thrash metal can be; they represent how repetitive, anthemic and accessible it can be. With big budgets and bigger choruses, they inevitably became the poster boys of metal, while the harder, heavier, more intricate bands remain comparatively niche. Of course, there will always be a trickle down effect, where Metallica have acted as a gateway band for those who later get heavily into more underground music. Yet the gulf between billions of people yowling “Sad But True” in a stadium and one thousand people yelling “Practice What You Preach” in a 1,000-seater just seems too wide to me. Are most people simply not aware of how much Testament rule?
Testament have consistently put the truly dizzying musical heights of thrash on full display. Here is a band, brimming with talent, who have continued to hone their craft with every release. They began their career on a high note with The Legacy, a debut that showcased mature songwriting and Skolnick’s classy solos, which went far beyond the frenetic shredding of the likes of Kerry King. Next they kicked it up a notch with one of the best thrash albums to ever grace the earth — the aforementioned The New Order – which I still can’t listen to without headbanging like a maniac. The exceptionally moody follow-up, Practice What You Preach, is a personal favorite of mine, with Testament showing they aren’t afraid to venture into darker territory.
Even The Ritual, which some consider to be the low point in the Testament discography because of its commercial approach, still fucking slays. Featuring the greatest thrash ballad in the history of thrash ballads, “Return To Serenity,” this album shows that even when Testament aren’t at their heaviest they’re still pretty brilliant.
Skip forward to the last decade, and Testament released three absolutely belting records, all equally as masterful, heavy and innovative as their previous work. Titans of Creation has been on maximum rotation on my record player since its release in March. A standout aspect of that album for me is the dark subject matter of its lyrics, which see the band take an unflinching look at the Heaven’s Gate mass suicides and mental illness, adding further depth behind their unwavering musical aggression.
While The Big Four can’t be denied as the pioneers of thrash, I feel it’s time to start appreciating the bands who were phenomenal in the ‘80s and who are still genuinely phenomenal now. Not pedestal-placed superstars, just truly awesome musicians.
Who knows what to expect from a new Metallica record? A terrible snare sound? A jarring collab with Lou Reed? Zero guitar solos? Cringeworthy lyrics? With Testament, a band who have remained inspired and ingenious throughout their entire career, you can rest assured they won’t be putting out crap.
All hail Testament: the true kings of thrash!