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Testament unleashes surprises while uniting Alamo City’s brotherhood of thrash

Testament, including guitarist Alex Skolnick (left), vocalist Chuck Billy (right) and drummer Gene Hoglan, headlined the Aztec Theatre on Saturday night in downtown San Antonio.

Currently celebrating 30 years since its debut album The Legacy, Testament has consistently marked its territory as one of the pioneers of thrash metal — lack of accompanying Big 4 moniker notwithstanding. In recent memory, that has proven true on land and sea. But the two-time alums of the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise put on the type of show Saturday night at the Aztec Theatre in downtown San Antonio that they not only hadn’t displayed on either of their 2017 cruise’s pair of performances two months ago (coverage here). Testament also exhibited the type of gig fans hadn’t seen in, well, however long recent memory suggests.

Touring in support of the Oct. 28 release of Brotherhood of the Snake, Testament unveiled five new tunes, a large number for a band’s most recent work when it possesses three decades of material. But that wasn’t all. While showing unwavering belief in its new songs, Testament dusted off tracks from the 1990s it hadn’t played in ages, let alone on the cruise. And lo and behold, all four instrumentalists enjoyed brief moment-in-the-spotlight solos Testament almost never employs.

It all resulted in a show that proved even more satisfying than Testament’s most recent visit to the Aztec nearly two years to the day with Exodus and Shattered Sun (coverage here). This time, Sepultura and Prong provided support with new deathcore Ohio band The Convalescence opening up.

Vocalist Chuck Billy, guitarists Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick, bassist Steve DiGiorgio and drummer Gene "The Atomic Clock" Hoglan played a 1-hour, 33-minute set mostly under a huge backdrop of the new album cover’s menacing image of snakes that would’ve scared the wits out of Samuel L. Jackson. A staircase flanked Hoglan’s kit, allowing the rest of the band to play, or sing, perched atop his setup, befitting of a group worthy of kings-of-thrash status (Big 4 identification . . . oh, never mind).

The title track to the latest disc set the tone for a riveting show that featured several unexpected songs. Testament revisited 1992’s "Electric Crown," stunned many to near silence with "Throne of Thorns" from 2012’s Dark Roots of Earth and brought back the title track to 1990’s Souls of Black. One of Testament’s heaviest tunes, new track "Centuries of Suffering," pulverized the Aztec on the fourth song of the night (see setlist in slideshow), helping to send the pits into a frenzy. Then suddenly, the band surprised again by giving Skolnick the stage to himself. Both of the band’s guitarists enjoyed a rare solo, with Skolnick receiving extra cheers for his partial riff of Eddie Van Halen’s "Eruption."

Traditional tunes "Into the Pit" and "The New Order" never disappoint, and this evening was no exception. After the former, Billy explained it’s a song the band realizes must always be incorporated into its live show. But then he said Testament pondered prior to the tour’s kickoff last Thursday in Albuquerque and Friday in Dallas what songs it should pull from its vault. Not only was the title track to 1994’s Low unveiled at that moment (cementing the fact Testament was going low long before Flo Rida), but Hoglan performed an effortless, yet all-too-brief, solo that introduced 1987’s "First Strike is Deadly."

DiGiorgio followed on the bass, his solo proving to be the longest of the four. It then gave way to another shocking choice in the Testament track that requires Spellcheck — instrumental "Urotsukidoji" (AXS footage below). The tune’s inclusion was an eyebrow-raiser not only because Testament rarely plays instrumentals but because three of the four instrumentalists — DiGiorgio, Hoglan and original guitarist Skolnick — didn’t play on the studio version, also found on Low. The choice was another indication that Peterson, who penned the majority of Brotherhood of the Snake and took part in 70000 Tons’ unforgettable All-Star jam (coverage here), tends to call the shots in the band (listen to AXS’ 2015 interview with him here).

Billy, who made sure to tell the crowd that most of the group’s videos in the 1980s and ’90s were filmed in Texas, also spoke with AXS about the new record shortly before its release (more here). Testament wasn’t shy about playing it live, with half of the album’s 10 songs finding their way on stage. "The Pale King" was a highlight, while Billy said "Seven Seals" was one of his favorites.

Testament was wise to give "D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)" and "3 Days in Darkness" a rest in favor of the aforementioned old and new tracks, even though those two are solid in their own right. That 1999 album, The Gathering, was still represented with "Eyes of Wrath." But "Legions of the Dead" may have resulted in at least one fan leaping from the balcony to join the pit below if it had been played instead.

When all was said and done, Testament had put on arguably its most diversified San Antonio performance ever. The band continues to fire on all cylinders while entertaining the masses of thrash. On land or sea.