The International, Knoxville, TN
April 24, 2015
I had never been to Knoxville, Tennessee before. I hadn’t seen Testament or Exodus in more than five years. Sooo, I decided to kill two birds with one stone by ditching work on a fine spring Friday, hopping in the car and driving 500 miles to Knoxville. Additional incentive to attend this gig came from the fact that my longtime friend Kragen Lum was going to be filling in for Gary Holt on guitar in Exodus at this show, given Holt’s conflicting Slayer obligations. This was to be one of just seven U.S. shows where Kragen played (he’s done it on Exodus tours of Europe before, but this marked his first time in the U.S.), so Jen and I would not have missed it for the world.
The International isn’t a bad venue. Located a mere 15-minute walk from the University of Tennessee campus (albeit on the wrong side of the railroad tracks) and with abundant cheap parking nearby, The International is an old warehouse/factory that has recently been repurposed as a music hall. It’s no frills and nothing fancy, just a big open room that probably holds, I dunno, maybe 700 people. Large stage, no backstage area at all, decent acoustics. The place surely was not packed tonight, but there was a decent turnout from a definitely older crowd representing a Knoxville scene that likely doesn’t get many touring metal bands rolling through town. Beer prices were reasonable, just 5 bucks for the good stuff (albeit none on draft), so I sipped on a Newcastle and waited for the festivities to commence.
Given their middle position on the bill (openers were metalcore-leaning Victory Records band Shattered Sun from south Texas), Exodus might have been expected to get roughly 45 minutes of playing time. Not so. Thanks to a generous arrangement with the headliner and hustling onstage before their designated starting time, Exodus told me later that they’ve been consistently playing exactly 67-minute sets on this tour (they hastened to correct me when I said they had played 70 minutes). That’s enough time for a full 12 songs spanning various eras of the band’s extensive discography. Their stage looked great, with a huge Exodus backdrop that made the logo look like it was on fire when the orange and red lights shone directly on it. Large scrims covering the amps on either side of the stage were festooned with the cheery ‘Blood In Blood Out’ cover artwork, you know, the zombie gnawing off its own arm. And Exodus were granted enough use of Testament’s lights to have a pretty high-powered visual spectacle to accompany the music. But the music is the most important thing, and tonight the music was pretty special.
Exodus hit the stage with a potent one-two punch of “Black 13” and “Blood In Blood Out,” both culled from their latest album and both highly convincing, especially the latter which has the sort of youthful energy and infectious power that should cement its place in the Exodus live arsenal forevermore. Speaking of youthful energy, Exodus brought a high-intensity attack to the stage, with vocalist Steve “Zetro” Souza and hulking Russian guitarist Lee Altus (clad in black Heathen logo shirt) expertly working the crowd, making eye contact with people in the front rows and being in constant motion. For his part, Zetro looked like he had never been gone from Exodus, whether he was spitting out the lyrics or pumping up the crowd with positive energy in between songs. He’s just an excellent frontman. Meanwhile, Altus was damn near a mainstay front and center under the white lights, long black hair flailing and maniacal grinning facial expressions in full deployment. I don’t remember him being this captivating a force on stage last time I saw Exodus, but hey, it’s been a long time. As for Kragen Lum, he showed not a twinge of intimidation or awe at his surroundings, even though it was only his second night substituting for Gary Holt on this tour (he also filled in on bass guitar for the show in Toronto that bassist Jack Gibson had been unable to make). Instead, Lum buckled down and played guitar with laser-beam precision and ferocity, while also managing to bang his head, move about the stage a good bit, engage the crowd (even smiling when he saw me two rows back, directly in front of him), and contribute backing gang-shouted vocals. Yeah, I’m biased, but Lum looked and sounded like he belonged on that stage.
Somewhat surprisingly, the band dipped into the Rob Dukes period not once but twice, for back-to-back renditions of two cuts from their ‘Exhibit A’ album, in the form of “Iconoclasm” and “Children of a Worthless God” (co-written by Altus, this one was always a favorite of mine). Both songs benefited from Souza’s more tuneful vocal style, and the latter received an extra dose of melody via clean vocals from drummer Tom Hunting (sporting a blue Golden State Warriors shirt). Wow, I never knew Hunting could sing, but he actually sounded really good on this tune. It was also a special treat to hear Exodus perform “Last Act of Defiance,” which took me back to my college days when ‘Fabulous Disaster’ ruled my CD player and I raged at the world through clenched teeth. Still, the biggest adrenaline rush of the night for me lay in those ‘Bonded by Blood’ classics, three of which were wisely scattered through the set. “A Lesson in Violence” came relatively early, the brilliant “Bonded by Blood” was about two-thirds of the way in, and the proceedings closed out with a devastating rendition of “Strike of the Beast” (complete with “wall of death” interlude – I didn’t know bands still did that). Couldn’t help but think about Kragen when they played these songs, and how cool it must be for him (having grown up as a fan worshiping ‘Bonded by Blood’) to be onstage playing these tracks with the band now. It was definitely cool for me, and I sang along, thrashed around, worked up a sweat and even had one of my earplugs knocked out by the overly exuberant drunk guy standing next to me. I could go on and on about this Exodus performance, but you get the point: They ruled. Hope I can see them again somewhere, some way, before this touring cycle ends, because Exodus is truly a band at the top of its game right now. Setlist: Black 13, Blood In Blood Out, Iconoclast, Children of a Worthless God, A Lesson in Violence, Salt the Wound, Last Act of Defiance, Blacklist, Bonded by Blood, War is My Shepherd, Toxic Waltz, Strike of the Beast.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a band at this level have as elaborate a stage production as Testament brought with them on this tour. There were the gigantic backdrops with the “apocalyptic city” motif and the mascot skull thing from the old ‘The Legacy’ album cover. There were lights out the wazoo: banks of lights on the floor; rotating lights at the front, back and sides of the stage; and plenty overhead lights too, all combining for some truly awesome visual effects. By far the best feature of the stage were the two large skull mascot guys (does this mascot have a name? if so, I never heard anyone use it), one flanking each side of the stage, perched high above the drum riser, each with malevolent glowing red eyes and the ability (at strategically selected moments) to spew compressed gas/smoke/CO2 from their mouths. Cool! As a band, Testament are nothing if not consummate professionals and highly skilled players. Drummer Gene Hoglan remains jaw-droppingly good, fully deserving of the “atomic clock” tag that Chuck Billy repeatedly bestowed on him tonight. I don’t tend to pay much attention to most metal drummers, but Hoglan puts on such a mesmerizing display that I could just and watch him for the entire gig. On the bass, Steve DiGiorgio brings the three-string fretless bass that makes him (as far as I know) utterly unique in the world of heavy metal bass guitarists. And the guitar tandem of Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson is beyond reproach, although sadly Skolnick’s leads were mostly inaudible to me tonight from my location directly in front of Peterson. Then there’s vocalist Chuck Billy, to this day a truly imposing figure with voice to match, and he doesn’t seem to have aged a day in the last two decades. I will say that his red, light-up microphone stand on which he plays air guitar is a bit silly, looking more like a cheap Mardi Gras toy than a device of heavy metal power, but that’s just me.
In contrast to Exodus, Testament are opting for a purely, exclusively old-school set this time around, consistently of a jumbled-up mix of all songs from ‘The Legacy’ and ‘The New Order’ (save the instrumentals and the “Nobody’s Fault” cover tune), plus the title track from ‘Practice What You Preach’ as an encore. I still get chills running down my spine every time I hear “Over the Wall,” and tonight was no different. “Into the Pit,” “The Haunting,” and “New Order” are longtime staples of the Testament set of which I never weary. And some of the deeper cuts (“C.O.T.L.O.D.,” “Raging Waters,” “Eerie Inhabitants,” “Trial by Fire”) sounded simply fantastic to these ears. I will say, though, that I’m not such a fan of these nostalgia tours where bands simply play their old classic albums in their entirety. Don’t get me wrong: I totally and completely love the old records. I know every note, every word, and every nuance of most of those songs, and they take me back to a time in my life when this music was all I had to get me through the darkness and confusion. But heavy metal music is alive and well today. There’s amazing new music coming out all the time. Testament has recorded many fantastic songs in the last 25 years, none of which we heard tonight. For my tastes, I’d much rather see a band do what Exodus did, mixing it up with songs from all different periods, rather than playing the old songs exclusively in what seems like more of a marketing gimmick to sell tickets than anything else.
None of this to suggest for even a half second that Testament were bad tonight. To the contrary, they were fantastic. The 85 minutes was gone in a flash and I relished every second of it (okay, maybe not the parts where the idiot shaved-head older guys with no teeth kept crowd-surfing and kicking people in the heads, including a direct hit on the nose of a young woman standing right in front of me that left her face a bloody mess as bouncers removed her from the premises during “Burnt Offerings” – way to keep it classy, Knoxville). Testament deserve every bit of success they’ve garnered over the years, and they are still delivering the goods at an extraordinarily high level. Setlist: Over the Wall, The Haunting, Burnt Offerings, Raging Waters, The Preacher, Do or Die, First Strike is Deadly, Day of Reckoning, Apocalyptic City, Eerie Inhabitants, New Order, Trial by Fire, Into the Pit, Alone in the Dark, C.O.T.L.O.D. Encores: Practice What You Preach, Disciples of the Watch. After the show, Jen and I had the opportunity to hang out on the Exodus bus for an hour and a half or so thanks to Kragen, before the traveling circus pulled up stakes for the long overnight drive to Jacksonville for a daytime festival tomorrow afternoon. The things that were said were private and not to be shared in a public review. I will say, though, that it was fascinating to see my musical heroes like Zetro, Altus, Hunting and (for a few minutes) Chuck Billy in their unguarded state, hanging out on the bus having a beer at the end of another long day on tour. The 15-year old version of me memorizing the lyrics to “A Lesson in Violence” never would have believed that the much older version of me would be sitting on that bus like a fly on the wall drinking a Heineken with the guys. It was definitely a moment. I will also say that everyone was kind to us and made us feel welcome, especially the visibly exhausted Zetro, who immediately said when Kragen introduced us, “I saw you singing all the words during the show.” “You saw that?” I replied, incredulous. “I see everything,” said Souza. A few minutes later Billy said he’d seen my Heathen baseball jersey during their set. Fascinating that in a crowd that large, the band members still notice you in the audience, even if you’re just a nondescript short-haired guy rockin’ out and having a good time. And I definitely did tonight, on both counts.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~