Retro Review: Testament - The Legacy (Atlantic/Nuclear Blast)

Testament contemplates getting a restraining order against Marc Hanson.
Release Date: 
21 Apr 1987 (All day)

Every discussion of the ‘Big Four’ eventually leads to the question of who would be number five if another  band was to be included, and the majority would likely be in favoUr of Testament – with the unspoken subtext that maybe they should actually replace one of the acts in the Big 4, but that’s a can of worms I dare not pop the lid from.

Released in 1987 The Legacy is a ferocious entrance into the burgeoning Bay Area thrash scene. While we’re all familiar with the scooped punch of Metallica’s guitar sound, the guitars on The Legacy have a certain cutting quality to them. Like getting punched, but with a barbwire covered fist. Over The Wall kicks off the album abruptly and violently with no concern about your feelings at all, Its tight unison riffing likely raised the bar for heaviness back then, but in addition to that, Testament brought a new level of musicianship to the table. Thanks in part to lead guitarist and virtuoso Alex Skolnick who, barely out of high school, had the technique and phrasing sensibilities of players well beyond his years.

A student of Joe Satriani, Alex Skolnick was awkwardly shy and introverted, a trait that was exacerbated by the suffocating, hippie culture of Berkley, California. He found refuge in metal which, at the time, was an outlet that encouraged his individuality and accepted him for the social misfit that he was. Ironically, he would eventually leave the metal scene for much of the same reasons he left the restrictive, social conformity of Berkley. His explorations into jazz and bookwormish nature began to create a friction and disconnect with the more blunt nature of his partying band mates. He left the band in 1993 and after one album with Florida metallers Savatage, and a brief one off with Ozzy Osbourne, he eventually moved to New York to devote all his energies into Jazz studies, and while most rock/metal players who explore jazz only seem to meet it halfway, never quite getting beyond fusion, Skolnick may be the first to truly make a full transition. His approach to jazz is so authentic that I’m led to believe the natural silver streak in his hair may be a result of fetal cannibalism... his twin being a 65-year-old bebop Boehm. He’s not just balancing between metal and jazz in a sort of sonic straddle. He’s a musical split personality; a pure jazz guitar player when he is wearing the jazz hat, and a pure metal guitar player when the occasion calls for it. Add to that, he is a literary enthusiast, and may be the only rock star to pen his memoir without a ghost writer. Thankfully he returned to Testament in 2005 and seems to have struck a balance between all of his other pursuits.

Back to the album:  The Haunting begins with an eerie, atonal stacatto riff that builds momentum until kicking into to full-on thrash mode. The atmosphere of this track helps to further set Testament apart from the rest – combining evil, occult lyrics similar to that of Slayer, but delivered with less chaos and more focus. The result is a dark and menacing track made even more sinister by the calculated delivery. Not enough can be said about founder, and only original member, Eric Peterson’s rhythm playing. His precise palm mutes and aggressive attack easily places him in the same class as Hetfield, Mustaine, and Ian. A great example of this is can be heard after the clean intro of Burnt Offerings when the entire band drops out except the guitars. It's as if he's saying, 'Seriously, you have to hear this riff without any of that other stuff … It’s awesome'. The real standout track on this album is First Strike Is Deadly. It starts with a frantic drum pattern courtesy of Louie Clemente leading into some massive guitar riffing. This tune may have been written in 1987, but I dare anyone to say it’s not heavy as shit - even by today’s standards. It’s the kind of song you want to have playing in your ear buds right before happening upon a lady getting her purse stolen by a couple of thugs. When the cops show up, they will be confused as to why you have a huge grin on your face and why they need to use dental records to identify the perpetrators.

The album isn’t without its faults. The production is pretty rough with some level fluctuations between songs, and the young Chuck Billy, (who hadn’t yet found his voice) was in a situation where he had to sing vocal lines written by their former vocalist Steve ‘Zetro’ Sousa (Exodus, Hatriot). The struggle seems most apparent on Alone in the Dark, a song with very Zetro-esque phrasings. Also, there are a couple of moments on the disc that sound a bit awkward; sections of songs that feel as if they’re straining to make the transition from traditional metal to thrash and falling just a bit short. Those quibbles are easily overlooked if you listen in context: A young band with no recording budget in a genre that’s still very much in infancy. All that aside, one can confidently call this album a classic and a must have for any metal fan worth their salt. For thrash-metal fans, if you don’t own this, either buy it, or turn in your membership card.

It’s important to look at the overall impact Testament made on the Bay Area thrash scene -- It's tangible. One might even argue that they deserve more credit for the survival of the scene than any of the big four. Why? Ask yourself this question: have you ever played drums in Slayer? If you answered ‘yes’, then by default you have played drums in Testament. While other thrash bands were either becoming huge megastars, or fizzling into oblivion, Testament was holding down the fort with an almost stubborn tyranny of will. Their setbacks and perpetual lineup changes (over fifteen and counting) created a certain kinetic element to the scene. They were a gravitational presence, pulling in rogue thrash musicians, sending them through the Testament dervish, then spinning them back into the scene with a little more experience under their bullet belts. If not for their constant churning of the scene, it could have very well stagnated. Even Chuck Billy’s illness can be credited for a lot of positive events in the metal community. Although, when the doctor informed him he had cancer I very much doubt the first thing that popped in his head was, ‘Finally ... a reason to get Death Angel back together’, but the Thrash of the Titans benefit show was what set those wheels in motion.  It’s also worthy to note that besides being a charismatic vocalist in one of the greatest metal bands ever, and unsurpassed in the world of mic-stand air guitar players, Chuck Billy is also a full blooded Native American who’s never abandoned that connection to his heritage. 

For three decades Testament has fought an uphill battle, and like many bands that hang around for that long, they have their questionable releases; the experimental album or the attempt at commercial success, but even on their more lacklustre offerings, there was still an identifiable thread that ran through each release that was firmly tethered to their beginnings. And even now, while they still find themselves replacing members (Greg Christian out, Steve Digiorgio in), they’re actually seeing some of the most success they’ve ever had, thanks to their brilliant, well received Dark Roots of Earth (Nuclear Blast) released in 2012. The title of their debut may have initiated a cosmic trajectory down a predestinated path and at this moment they are currently in the process of writing their 12th studio album. They seem to be performing as strong as ever and enjoying some well earned recognition. It only took them thirty years, but it seems they are finally hitting their stride. And if this were to end all of a sudden ... they can rest easy in the knowledge that they have secured their Legacy