25 @ 25: Testament, 'The Legacy'
A little behind the times then, an undeniable classic now
By early 1987 a great deal of the innovation in thrash metal had already been accomplished. Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, and Bonded By Blood laid the groundwork, while subsequent albums like Master of Puppets, Reign in Blood, Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?, Seven Churches, Among the Living, Feel the Fire, Pleasure to Kill, and Sentence of Death expanded the nascent genre’s boundaries and broke new ground for metal in general. So when more new bands cropped up that year, signed by major labels in the hopes that they’d become the next Metallica, it had already seemed like no one was going to bring anything else particularly new to thrash metal.
25 years ago Berkeley, California band Testament did feel a little behind the rest of the thrash metal wave when they released their debut album The Legacy. Had it come out in 1984 it would have been heralded as a masterpiece, but instead it arrived amidst modest acclaim, receiving nowhere near as effusive as the praise that greeted the early work of Metallica and Slayer. And stylistically there was indeed a total “been there, done that” vibe to The Legacy, the riffs clearly indebted to Metallica and Exodus, those big, crunching, palm-muted chords that helped make the Bay Area thrash sound the way it was.
That said, what Testament brought to thrash that no one aside from Metallica did as well was a sense of melody. The music was plenty fast, the riffs as pulverizing as the next band’s, but underneath it all was a hookiness that few bands could ever match, thanks to three crucial band members. Founding guitarist Eric Peterson had a brilliant, Hetfield-esque knack for contagious rhythm riffs, and The Legacy is loaded with them. Lead guitarist Alex Skolnick was only 16 when he joined the band, and 18 when the album came out, and on that record he had already proven he was a virtuoso talent, his fluid, mellifluous leads already much more advanced than the Kirk Hammetts of the world. And then there was gigantic, gregarious Chuck Billy. Billy - who replaced Steve Souza when he abandoned the band to join Exodus - possessed one hell of a voice, capable of effective snarls, Tom Araya style screams, and best of all, a tremendous talent for injecting vocal melodies into a song where you wouldn’t expect any to appear. If the more vocally limited Souza had stuck with Testament, it’s fair to say the band wouldn’t have made anywhere near as big an impact as they did with Billy at the helm.
The aggression is the first thing you notice upon hearing The Legacy, starting with the ferocious “Over the Wall”, but the deeper into it you go, the more prominent the melodies become. The speed of “The Haunting” is offset by a wicked, old-school metal riff in the chorus, not to mention that peculiar main riff that skitters around like a bug. The vicious “Burnt Offerings” practically blindsides you with its vocal and guitar hook, popping up after brutal, dank verses. The charismatic Billy is all over “Raging Waters”, showing tremendous vocal range, the first example of that authoritative way he’d employ vocal melodies on the next three albums. “Do or Die” and especially “Alone in the Dark”, meanwhile, bring the most memorable melodic choruses on the record, hooks that remain in your head long after first hearing them.
Make no mistake, though, when it comes to full-on thrash The Legacy is second to none, as “Over the Wall”, “First Strike is Deadly”, and “C.O.T.L.O.D.” show Testament was capable of some awe-inspiring moments of pure physicality. All the while, though, their early mastery of dynamics pervades even the most straightforward-seeming tracks, and that set them apart from the rest of their peers. If I have one gripe to this day, it’s that the production by Alex Perialas is far too weak for an album full of songs as massive as these nine are. Still, it remains one of several high water marks for Bay Area thrash. Accessible without compromising the band’s core thrash sound one bit, The Legacy attracted enough of an audience to make the album that followed, 1988’s excellent The New Order, Testament’s big breakthrough. Although The New Order remains my own personal favorite Testament album, they wouldn’t have ever reached the heights they did in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s were it not for the initial impression The Legacy left in 1987.