Thrash can be a funny one. In one respect it was a harder, faster, heavier version of its heavy metal forbears. The lyrics covered heavier subjects. References to love and relationships were ditched. This urgent music stood on a soap box and assumed the coming apocalypse was nigh. A certain level of musicianship was demanded to play at speed, but with more precision than the aggressive punk that gave it spirit. Many artists exhibited an almost neoclassical flare in their soloing, instrumentals looked to prog and classical music for inspiration. There was sobriety behind this frantic music.
But on the other hand, thrash artists and fans had fun. They cracked a beer, grabbed a skateboard and headed to a mate’s house for the weekend. This was party music. The speed, the aggression, the bouncy rhythms, this is music to dance to, to move to, to drink beer to. Testament, a second division US thrash band, embodied this duality perfectly. Destruction, the runner up of Teutonic thrash, are also arguably the most pronounced example of fun in European thrash.
Testament’s debut ‘The Legacy’ of 1986 is a joy to listen to. In one sense it does a very good job of typifying American thrash as it was at the time of its release. There is a pronounced sense of the epic maintained throughout the length and breadth of certain tracks, rather than just an extended neoclassical intro leading into a more basic punk track. This is reminiscent of the direction Metallica were being dragged in by Cliff Burton. Sure play fast, sure play heavy, but don’t forget that heavy metal of the 1970s was also extremely ambitious music at times, there was high fidelity in musicianship, of composition, this was not just hard pop music, this was becoming a form of neo-classical rock music.
‘Legacy’ walks this line. There is joy in what Testament do as well as a flare for the heavy. Vocals again typify the trash of the time. A harsh punk rasp is the default setting of Chuck Billy’s voice, but not so harsh that it cannot carry a surprisingly coherent tune, with the occasional banshee scream, reminiscent of Slayer for instance.
With that in mind it leads to the only real criticism one can make of this album. In ticking all the boxes well, it does not go too far in any particular direction, which means in 1986 when this was released we heard nothing new, nothing that we could not already get from other artists going further in one direction or the other. Megadeth were fun, Slayer were hard, Metallica were melodic, Testament easily stand up to the best work of these artists, but ‘The Legacy’ remains a mere summary of the work of their contemporaries. A highly competent and fun summary, but if you desire more of one particular element you must go elsewhere.
Destruction offer a more primitive brand of ‘fun thrash’ outlined above. Their 1986 offering ‘Eternal Devastation’ offers a range of flavours and styles for the discerning listener. There is highly primitive punky thrash numbers, there are power metal flourishes throughout, and the more straight up riffs that would make up an Exodus or Slayer album.
However, Destruction have a problem with variety, especially on this album. I hate to deal in the superficial, but the production on this album really holds the music back. The guitars are thin and tinny, the drums are weak, the bass is almost none existent. That, combined with the fact that Destruction rarely change tempo, and when they do the power is just not present to lend more weight to slower passages, makes for a tiresome affair at times. I cannot help but think that these shortcomings pushed these musicians into playing as fast as they could for as long as possible. The vocals are an interesting one. The charming broken English that makes up much underground metal at this time is present in spades, as is a noticeable German accent. The half rasp half sung passages occasionally give way to a banshee scream, but this often strikes at unexpected points or seemingly at random, unlike Tom Arya’s wails perfectly placed to accent the intensity.
Enough of the flaws however. There is much to love in ‘Infernal Overkill’. The solos are incredibly capable; many of the riffs are almost catchy. When Destruction get really frantic you could almost call it technical thrash. The drums may not be particularly complex, nor the time signatures, but it is apparent less than two minutes into opener ‘Curse the Gods’ the Mike Sifringer’s guitars are really carrying this music. He does a remarkably good job considering they were a three piece with little else to compensate for this lack of counterpoint in the solos and riffs. And this leads me to my final point regarding their work. Whatever shortcomings this music has, it is extremely fun. Destruction play lively bouncy thrash music, the accented vocals with poor English comes across as charming rather than hammy, and even if they rarely change tempo or intensity, there seems to be an unstoppable enjoyment that Destruction take in playing this music that one simply cannot help but get carried along by it.
With that in mind it is pretty clear what I would take to be the superior release. ‘The Legacy’ may not be the most original thrash album of the time, but it remains a well-crafted and engaging release all these years later. And there is some intangible component to Testament’s playing that simply sounds like these musicians had a great deal of fun in the process. That is not to say that other artists were not also enjoying what they did at the time, but it really shows in this music, equally for Destruction. But ‘Eternal Devastation’ is held back by production values more suited to primitive black metal than hard hitting thrash. And although many of the riffs are well crafted and extremely busy, the lack of variation in speed and timbre does little to mitigate these failings. There is only so much a well-produced album can do to cover up bad composition, just as there is only so far that good writing can go to cover up bad production. Both releases come highly recommended however, if for nothing else than for rediscovering joy in this otherwise brutal, extreme music.