The Bay Area of San Francisco. Not only home to the Golden Gate Bridge, the infamous Alcatraz island and taking in cities Oakland and San Jose but also the beacon of the US thrash movement that included Metallica. With its roots stemming as far back as 1979 – and it is not forgotten as to the East Coast contribution of Anthrax and Overkill and their contributions but thrash metal and its commercial rocket launch began on the west and in sunny California. The Bay Area Strikes Back tour is more than a mouth watering – and unique – prospect, three bands all key to the scene that have their own histories but are all so interconnected and while there will be many times that they have shared stages at festivals but this is the first time that Testament, Exodus and Death Angel have toured together.
Like other shows on the tour, Manchester is sold out. And Slayer may have ridden off into the sunset but their name adorns many a t-shirt or battle jacket, thrash is alive and kicking – speaking of which – the pit looks lairy even before a single band takes the stage. The audience is a wide cross section, while there are the craggy faces of old schoolers and those around at the time; hardly whispered anecdotes of “proper stage diving” and broken bones but the amount of youngsters that were not even in nappies during thrash’s hey day is encouraging and shows that the genre has transgressed generations.
Formed in 1982, Death Angel initially caught attention because their original drummer was 14 years old as they blew out metal’s brains out with their debut The Ultra-Violence back in 1987. Having their fair share of hard times, Death Angel might have navigated around the 1990s on the strength of their 1990 Act III album which saw them pushing the boundaries. A devastating bus crash put paid to their momentum and a 15 year hiatus before returning with their still stunning The Art Of Dying album in 2005 and Death Angel has continued to release excellent albums ever since. Bathed in purple light and the colour scheme on latest record Humaicide, Death Angel show that from the off, they are not messing around. Vocalist Mark Osegueda is a ball of energy from the outset, whether it is a scissor leap from any object on the stage or that massive mane of his being flailed, staying still seems an unlikely option. Guitarists Rob Cavestany and Ted Aguilar are perched either side of the stage throwing down the riffs. Giving some attention to that debut, both Mistress Of Pain and Voracious Souls still sound as devastating and raw before being flung back into the present day with Aggressor from the latest album. It is only following The Dream Calls For Blood that Osegueda speaks and thanks the crowd for being so loyal and packing the house out in the name of thrash metal on a Sunday evening. The crowd bawl back that it is in fact Saturday, even drummer Will Carroll practically crawls over his kit trying to get his lead singer’s attention. “What am I, a fucking calendar?” quips Osegueda before getting back to business with The Evil Divide cut The Moth. While Seemingly Endless Time has the crowd singing back, it is the closing Thrown To The Wolves that ends their set on a brutal high. Death Angel came, they saw and they definitely conquered.
“How are you motherfuckers doing, Manchester?!”. And that is Exodus all over – as subtle as finding a bloodied claw hammer in your cornflakes. Taking thrash at its core, that blend of punk and NWOBHM, Exodus were always the snottier and punkier of the bunch; a high end riff fest that was a smash and grab and not staying around to get caught. To add to the occasion, there is a bona fide star on the stage in the form of the homecoming of Gary Holt following his stint with Slayer filling in for the sadly departed Jeff Hanneman. Let’s face it, was there anyone else that could have actually done the job? Holt is welcomed like a returning hero but adulation can wait as Exodus opens with the crushing statement in Body Harvest from latest Blood In, Blood Out that sees an explosion of bodies over the barrier. Exodus’ debut Bonded By Blood maintains its reputation as a legendary album and 35 years on it still remains as vital – if not more – as Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All. Holt has in the past modestly refused to accept any credit for the invention of thrash and despite the likelihood of some truth in it, Holt did speak of how proud he was of Bonded and that “not every band gets to make a classic”. With a celebration of the scene, it makes sense to cull a fair few songs from it, And Then There Were None and Piranha still sound as hacksaw on bone as they did back then. Fabulous Disaster is a riot and the Rob Dukes era does not get ignored, that Jack Gibson bass rumble introducing the speed sledgehammer of Deathamphetamine. Look up “precision” and it is possible that drummer Tom Hunting’s name will be sat alongside, that man is a total machine and along with Holt’s break neck headbanging threatens to dislodge his head from his shoulders. Guitarists Lee Altus and Gary Holt continuously swap sides of the stage with Zetro stalking in between and eyeballing the maniacs at the barrier. The whole idea of “moshing” and the sense of the “pit” in fact the whole thrash culture is summed up in one song – The Toxic Waltz – and suitably the audience complies with pits breaking out in all corners of the venue. Closing with Strike Of The Beast from Bonded By Blood, Exodus prove once more why the “big four” should have been five and it is in the hearts and minds of thrash aficionados. Exodus never disappoint and thrash would be nothing without them.
No-one could argue that Testament has two tough acts to follow but it is not about that, as vocalist Chuck Billy later mentions, thrash and the Bay Area scene is a brotherhood, they are touring with their friends. On the other hand, Testament simply put no foot wrong for their entire set and if no-one already knew that this band was a metal monolith then they surely did after a breathtaking 90 minutes. No band deserved to survive any more or less through those difficult 1990s but Testament do warrant a special mention in this regard; they never stopped and even embraced a more death metal edge. Testament are the catalyst for the thrash renaissance and a major part of the reason why everyone is taking part in this celebration. And not under the best circumstances either, a benefit concert for Chuck Billy and Death Metal trailblazer, the late Chuck Schuldiner under the Thrash Of The Titans banner back in 2001 following their diagnosis for cancer brought the thrash elite out in force in one common cause. While Testament has continued through the previous decades, it re-engaged a movement bringing other bands to the fore once again. Releases might have been a series of compilations and re-recordings since 1999’s The Gathering but that movement was building and culminated in the critically acclaimed The Formation Of Damnation in 2008 that saw Testament returning to their sound – just updated for the 21st century – and have continued to release solid albums since then with Dark Roots Of The Earth in 2013 and 2017’s Brotherhood Of The Snake. And of course, Testament have a new record – Titans Of Creation – out in the next month. Before any of that, it is instrumental Eerie Inhabitants from 1988’s The New Order that brings the band to the stage before kicking into the title track itself and a timely reminder that despite its age, this album is still one of the greats of the scene and never becomes tiresome. The Haunting – one of only two songs from their 1987 debut The Legacy throws down some serious guitar duelling between Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson before heading back to The New Order with a pulverising The Preacher.
The band are on top form; Alex Skolnick is in a permanent state of happiness and never stops smiling throughout jumping on the risers to wield his solos in that guitar-in-the-air style of his while Eric Peterson is a mass of hair nailing down some riff crunching and solos himself. Despite both guitarists pretty much maintaining their respective sides of the stage, they are totally in sync with each other with bassist Steve Di Giorgio being fluid in moving around. Chuck Billy’s roar never fails to deliver and it is always amusing to see the man and his guitar mic (which now lights up!) while ‘sharing’ on the solos. We do not see much of man mountain drummer Gene Hoglan behind that monster kit of his but his stickmanship is enviable and one of the most dynamic in metal. Dark Roots of The Earth does herald a grouping up of material for the next five songs across the last two albums and his works really well in keeping the tone that tittle track being followed by Last Stand For Independence and Throne Of Thorns. Billy goes into a speech as to the fact that the thrash being a brotherhood which signals two tunes from Brotherhood Of The Snake, the title track and a ripping The Pale King while the brutal Fall Of Sipledome goes back in time to 1999’s The Gathering and is dedicated to drummer Gene Hoglan. With a new album not yet out, it is always something of a decision whether to play a lot of new material and Testament do manage to keep the right balance of the “celebration” keeping new songs to what has been released so far, first single Night Of The Witch and then Chuck Billy then asks his audience to bear with them, that the song is new to them and the only premiered-the-day-before Children Of The Next Level. Bar the ones in the pit, it is interesting to see many of the crowd standing transfixed and taking in the new tune as a guide to what the new album will sound like. Following Practice What You Preach, Chuck Billy talks for another moment and thanks the security for handling the great many crowd surfers that go over the barrier. There is then a curious moment, a hand written note which had popped up a few times saying “sign my CD” gets spotted by the band. “Are you serious? You want us to stop the show to sign a CD?” asks Chuck Billy and while he seems determined not to, his band mates are up for it and they do indeed sign a CD for whoever had the sign. Testament then once again relay their thanks for the security before going into a blistering thrash onslaught of Over The Wall. Ending on The New Order barnstormer Disciples Of The Watch and Testament’s set could not find a better ending.
With a three decade span discography, it must be a nightmare to put a set list together but it was wise to relate to classic material at the the heart of that celebration rather than overload an audience with new material from a record not even released yet. All in all Testament were on fire – as were all of the bands – and whether this thrash extravaganza would ever happen again….many hoped as they stepped out into the Manchester night.