Testament – Charting The Rise of a Top Second Wave West Coast Thrash Band

My project

The Hawk recently blogged about Exodus, and how they have a decent claim to being one of the first Thrash Metal bands ever – a crown that many people award to Metallica, but it’s not quite true. And it occurred then that on any Classic Heavy Metal site like this, it’s right and proper to give some space to bands other than the big guns – guys who may not have made it quite to the top of the tree, but who contributed plenty to making the scene what it was.

So with that in mind, here are Testament making their first appearance on Classic Metal Hawk. Testament may have followed a little behind, in the wake of people like Metallica and Exodus, but they certainly deserve honorable mention, as an early high quality 2nd wave West Coast thrash outfit – and one that is still going to this day. Let’s dive right in and look at how Testament contributed to peak 80s thrash.

Honestly, there’s not too much sense in covering the very beginning of Testament in much detail. Not out of any disrespect to them, but only because The Hawk feels like he’s covered that ground so many times before, with Slayer, Metallica and Exodus at a minimum.

Formed in the San Francisco Bay Area, West Coast USA? Check. Influenced by New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) bands, as well as a couple of early West Coast Pioneers? Check. Got together as kids and practiced in the garage, convinced they could do better and beat their own path? Check.

In that Exodus blog, we even covered how a young Kirk Hammett had guitar lessons in a local guitar store from a not-yet-legendary Joe Satriani. Well guess what? Early Testament axeman Alex Skolnick did that as well, also rarely exiting his bedroom as a kid due to his guitar practice obsession. Let’s take that as an excuse to shoehorn in some more Satriani.

Skolnick was only 16 when he joined the band, and only 18 when their first album came out. He’d started playing at age 9 and whilst he might not be the first thrash guitarist to trip of the lips, he was something of a prodigy. He set a lot of the musical direction for Testament before eventually walking out, tired of being constrained by playing only thrash. He played a good deal of jazz in his career after that, though he returned to Testament in later (non-classic heavy metal) years.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It’s 1983, and Testament come into being. They were known as Legacy at that time, though were forced to change names once they started recording. Legacy had already been bagged by some hotel covers band who went on to do the square root of nothing, but first come first served and all that.

Testament / Legacy were Eric Peterson and Derrick Ramirez on guitars, Steve Souza on vocals, Greg Christian on bass and Louie Clemente on drums. Before long, Skolnick had come in for Ramirez, and the West Coast thrash revolving door had seen Souza join Exodus, with Chuck Billy coming in on vocals.

That’s your classic lineup. They became Testament in 1987, and rekindled ‘The Legacy’ as the title of their debut album the same year. So as said, they were most definitely a ‘second wave’ thrash act – by 1987, the big boys like Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth had already made plenty of waves themselves.

That ploughed the road, and Testament were ready to take advantage. They’d written plenty of original material from day one, and ‘Over The Wall’, the best known number from ‘The Legacy’ got plenty of play on MTV’s Headbangers ball. It’s relatively unsophisticated early thrash, with average vocals and production values. But the band keep it tight and fast, and Skolnick’s early promise is obvious – check out those fast sweeps in the solo, recorded at 18!

That early exposure scored them support for luminaries such as Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer, in both Europe and North America. The next album, ‘The New Order’ (1988) follow ed a similar pattern. Good exposure for a couple of the best songs, like ‘Nobody’s Fault’ an Aerosmith cover given the thrash treatment.

Interesting story – ‘Nobody’s Fault’ didn’t actually appear on the album when Testament originally recorded it. They had to do the album in a hurry because of touring commitments, so bashed out 30-odd minutes of mosh-goodness in a short space of time. But nobody had bothered to check the recording contract, which specified that an album had to be a minimum of 40 minutes in length.

The record company duly sent it back, and that’s when the additional song was laid down, along with a couple of extended sections in other songs. So it’s lucky really that Megaforce Records didn’t have Slayer on their books at the time, or they might also have sent back ‘Reign in Blood’, famously clocking at in at a little under 29 minutes. The history books of metal turn on moments like that.

Anyway, album #2 (eventually) in the bag, Testament picked up their touring again, this time including some European Monsters of Rock shows alongside giants like Iron Maiden, KISS and Dave Lee Roth. (Maiden were touring their ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ breakthrough concept album in that year, so quite some company to keep.

Still on the up in the late 80s, Testament then released their 3 ‘defining’ albums, if we can put it that way. There was ‘Practise What You Preach’ (1989), ‘Souls of Back’ (1990) and ‘The Ritual’ (1992).

The first saw them ditch the occasional occult themes from the first couple of records, in favour of more social commentary, but still with a traditional thrash vibe. The vocals have come on a treat compared to the early material – Chuck Billy is now a singer as well as a shouter, which gives an occasional heavy metal vibe, complemented by the melodic guitar breaks. Skolnick’s soloing kicks ass more than ever, naturally.

‘Souls of Black’ was in the same vein musically, but this time was a springboard for them to join the Clash of The Titans European run with Slayer, Megadeth and Suicidal Tendencies. Committing to that tour meant that Testament had to finish the record in a rush again, which may explain some of the mixed reviews, but it certainly opened doors for them – after Clash of the Titans, it was a support slot for Judas Priest, opening on the ‘Painkiller‘ tour in North America.

‘The Ritual’ was a bit different. Released in 1992 in competition with the grunge wave (and we’ve already covered on here the battle to keep thrash relevant, which even affected the likes of Slayer in the 90s).

Testament responded to all that with some slower songs, a more considered and progressive approach and some longer songs. More heavy metal than thrash, though arguably that had been their direction anyway. They took longer over this album, rather than pumping it out quickly, as in the past. Alex Skolnick was said to have had more influence on the musical direction here, bringing his non-metal musical influences into play, and toning down the heaviness.

Skolnick dismissed that in an interview.

‘I guess if harmony, melody, dynamics and song structure equals not heavy, then I guess that’s right. They [Testament] didn’t have to do anything they didn’t want to. If anyone was restrained it was me. Obviously things were not working out.’

Alex Skolnick

As with any stylistic change of direction, some people liked it and others not, though commercially it did quite well, with the ‘Return to Serenity’ single hitting #22 in the US charts. Obviously, some would say that they got commercial success only by selling out, as Metallica had done before them. The Hawk is going to leave that one alone.

Again, Testament had come up with songs that opened doors for them though, this time scoring a support slot for Iron Maiden on the Fear of the Dark tour (Bruce Dickinson’s last before his own departure of course), also opening for Black Sabbath showcasing ‘Dehumanizer’ with Ronnie Dio back on vocal duties.

What is clear though, is that by now Skolnick was chafing against the thrash / heavy metal scene, and wanted to try something else. This lead to tensions in the band on a personal level, and sure enough, there was a split. Skolnick left in 1992 after a Halloween show to explore his other interests, shortly followed out of the door by drummer Louie Clemente.

That’s as far as we’re going to go on this early Testament biography. They went through transitions and later years, and at the time of writing this blog post are still going. So all of that deserves a post of its own. Suffice to say that in those first 10 years, Testament were a real integral part of the thrash scene, and had started to spread their wings a bit musically as well. Never quite a top, top band, but a pleasure to write about and listen to even now.

And with that in mind, let’s go back to the second album, the unapologetically thrashy ‘The New Order’ to play out, and another Headbangers’ Ball favourite – ‘Trial By Fire.’ Enjoy.

Testament – where do they rate in your thrash ranking? What are their best tracks? And did they really sell out in the 90s, or was that simply the logical direction of travel for them? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Leave a Comment


Company Name


Re-living the Greatest Heavy Metal Music In History