Testament, Overkill, Flotsam and Jetsam House of Blues February 6, 2013
When it comes to '80s thrash metal, there are the Big Four -- Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax -- and there's everybody else. For a good while there, it looked as if "everybody else" might not survive the grunge- and rap-obsessed '90s, but a revival of interest in speed-metal over the past decade has helped to breathe new life into the small handful of bands still active from thrash's beer-soaked heyday, leading to a flood of new albums and new tours like the one that rumbled into House of Blues on Wednesday night.
Bay Area thrash legends Testament have taken full advantage of the genre's resurgence, landing spots on some high-profile U.S. tours of late and scoring their highest Billboard chart debut ever with last year's Dark Roots of Earth album. The band has parlayed those successes into a headlining trek of their very own, the Dark Roots of Thrash tour, alongside a couple of speed-metal's most whiplash-inducing survivors.
For headbangers who were there back in the day as well as those of us who wish we'd been, the tour's stop in Houston was a tough gig to miss, weeknight or no.
After an opening set from tragically named modern Australian thrashers 4ARM, Arizona metal lifers Flotsam and Jetsam kicked off the night's brutal nostalgia. Probably still best known to casual metal fans as the band bassist Jason Newstead played in before joining Metallica, Flotsam had a rough go of it early in the decade, with local luminary James Rivera even stepping in for the band's departed singer Eric A. Knudson for a time.
Knudson is now back in the fold, which is good news for fans, because Flotsam's thrash epics just wouldn't sound the same without him. The vocalist's anguished wailing highlighted the mildly progressive ballad portions of songs like "Escape From Within" on Wednesday, each time giving way to whipping speed-metal riffs and fills.
Such dynamics were largely eschewed by the next band up, New Jersey's aptly named thrash godfathers Overkill. Since 1980, the group has favored punky, histrionic speed metal, and they deployed enough chainsaw guitar riffs on Wednesday to slay an entire rainforest of trees.
Despite the encroachment of old age, the men of Overkill were in alarmingly good shape. How is it, exactly, that lead singer Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth came to be so ripped more than a decade after suffering a stroke? When his shirt came off, the shredded shrieker looked like he could still steal your girlfriend if he wanted to.
He damn near stole the show, too. Ellsworth's ear-piercing vocals led the way on newer, hyper-speed cuts like "Electric Rattlesnake" and "Ironbound" that went over like gangbusters with the headbangers in attendance. Classic cuts like "Rotten to the Core" and "Fuck You" whipped up explosive mosh pits in the middle of the floor as fans gave in to the blistering riffs pouring off of guitarist Dave Linsk's strings. Lit from the stage by blinding strobes, it was quite a sight to see.
"I love coming to Texas," said Ellsworth in his endearingly thick Jersey accent. "You people are badass."
Judging from the crowd's response to the band, that feeling appeared to be mutual. Testament had their work cut out for them following Overkill, but had a few factors in their favor going in. The first was the band's impressive, two-tiered stage set, dressed with a massive backdrop of the incredible artwork from Dark Roots.
Atop a towering drum riser sat another advantage: noted metal ringer Gene Hoglan, who has played with everyone from Death to Deathklok over the years. Hoglan's infuriatingly fluid playing style makes everything he does look effortless, and it was hard to keep my eyes off of him for the bulk of the band's set.
Testament's third and final advantage was the talent of guitarist Alex Skolnick, surely one of the most underrated metal axe-slingers of all time. Skolnick's playing contains a good bit more soul than the terrorizing leads of many of his thrash contemporaries, and they lent a humanizing touch to the band's inhuman battery.
Testament proved to be no nostalgia act during its set, with the new ragers "Native Blood" and "Dark Roots of the Earth" touching off wave after wave of crowd-surfers and circle-pitters. Still, singer Chuck Billy couldn't help but do a little reminiscing about good times long gone in Houston, where the band shot many of its music videos back in the day.
After Billy recalled a brutal hangover that kept him sweating through the shoot for "Practice What You Preach," the audience worked up a sweat of its own, sending hair flying in time to Hoglan's merciless pounding.
Though never quite as successful commercially as their bigger brethren in Metallica and Slayer, Testament looked and sounded more driven and energized than either of those bands on Wednesday, and their new material compared quite favorably to the old stuff like "Into the Pit."
It was nice to see the group taking advantage of thrash metal's strange second life not only to get back out on tour, but to produce some timely, resonant and pulverizing new tunage, as well. If you missed out, don't fret -- these metal survivors don't appear to have any intention of going away anytime soon.
Personal Bias: Heavy fucking metal, dude.
The Crowd: Scruffy longhairs and the brave women who love them.
Overheard In the Crowd: "They better play some fuckin' old shit."
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Random Notebook Dump: Seriously, how does Bobby Ellsworth do it? The guy has a damn V-line at age 53!