Before smashing through to the mainstream in the mid-to-late 1980s, thrash metal bands like Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax and Testament pummeled their way through the underground, gaining rabid cult followings due to their visceral live shows and down-to-earth attitudes.
Wrapped in cigarette-stained denim and creaking leather jackets, thrash was the perfect mix of punk rock attitude and breakneck tempos with the guitar-shredding chops and double kick-drum battery of heavy metal. All of this — and its often political and horror movie lyrical imagery — served as polar opposite to the popular, pretty-boy glam bands of the L.A. scene. Eventually, with its unlaced, white high-top sneaker, thrash gave those poseurs a much-needed kick to their spandexed asses and sent them cryin’ for mama to their home sweet homes.
Almost 30 years later, those highly influential bands all continue — each in their own way — to deliver the metal goods. And Wednesday night, three titans — Slayer, Megadeth and Testament — hit DU’s Magness Arena to pound eardrums and send fans into metal thrashing mad pits of adrenaline and sonic abandon.
Testament started out the evening with a powerful, but and unfortunately brief, set of tunes such as “The New Order,” “Trial by Fire” and the title track off its latest release, “The Formation of Damnation,” effectively spanning their storied career. During the latter, towering vocalist Chuck Billy — whose demonic growl is truly one of the unsung voices of metal — commanded the massive crowd on the floor to split down the middle. He then gave them these instructions: “When I say ‘go’ I want you motherfuckers on the right to kill those sons-a-bitches on the left. And I want you sons-a-bitches on the left to kill those motherfuckers on the right!” The result was a glorious black T-shirted, “Braveheart”-style battle scene that resulted in a giant, circling mosh pit fueled by the furious sounds of the legendary band.
Following this, Megadeth, led by Dave Mustaine on guitar and vocals, offered a set of highs and lows that included 1990’s “Rust in Piece” in its entirety. Openers “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” and “Hanger 18” are some of the strongest songs in their catalog. However, Mustaine didn’t quite have his patented snarl down yet and sounded a bit emasculated as he spit out the lyrics.
But Megadeth, ever the thinking man’s thrash band, was musically perfect: offering angular riffing, skewed time signatures and dizzying guitar solos swapped by Mustaine and Denver-native Chris Broderick, all carried by Dave Ellefson’s rolling bass lines.
Following strong album cuts like “Take No Prisoners” and “Five Magics,” the set tended to lag a bit. The band finished “Rust in Piece” and went into a few limp numbers, redeeming themselves only with “Headcrusher” from last year’s impressive “Endgame” and show closer, the classic “Peace Sells.”
The notoriously prickly Mustaine was surprisingly affable, offering frequent thanks to the crowd, leaving the stage with “You’ve been great, we’ve been Megadeth!”
Slayer, like the Ramones, Motorhead and AC/DC, are always distinctively themselves, and that’s the way their crazed fans want it. They are thrash metal perfection and this evening they were indeed perfect. Like a war machine, led by bassist/vocalist Tom Araya’s iconic scream, their speed metal is propelled by god-like drummer Dave Lombardo’s blinding fills and guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King’s grab-the-whammy-bar-and-go solos.
Opening with two newer songs, “World Painted Blood” and “Hate Worldwide,” the band then tore into the brutal “War Ensemble” to play their own 1990 album, “Seasons in the Abyss” through to the end. Highlights were the speedy “Blood Red,” the Ed Gein horror-show “Dead Skin Mask,” the chugging thrash of “Skeletons of Society” and the expansive title track.
Forget 11, Slayer’s amps go all the way to 666. And muddy Magness — not known for its great acoustics — did nothing to help them out sonically. Thankfully, earplugs helped out those listening to the band, and for fans in any of the three crazed pits, it didn’t really matter.
With little banter, the band immediately followed with some of their greatest tracks. Fans shouted along, banged their heads and pumped their fists to the blasphemous “South of Heaven” before being whipped to a frenzy by the 1-2-3 finale of “Raining Blood,” “Aggressive Perfector” and show closer, 1986’s brutal and harrowing “Angel of Death” — the be-all, end-all of the entire genre.
The streaks of gray in their long hair and beards may show signs of age, but it’s clear these bands have still got what it takes to kick some ass.
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