support Xerath + Malefice
author EW date 30/11/12 venue Koko, London, UK

The 'Big 4' of thrash should always have been a 'Big 5' with the inclusion of Testament. There you go, my thoughts made clear on the matter. What the band didn't do that Anthrax did (aside from duet with Public Enemy and wear bermuda shorts) I don't know but combined with a refusal to die during the lean '90s unlike most of their contemporaries and a continuing ability to write worthy material to this day has seen the Californian's stock risen to the point where they can sell out the 1,400 capacity Koko (a superbly decorated late Victorian era converted theatre) on their own. Notably though this is the fourth club show I have seen of Testament's down the years and the third time the support line-up has been disappointingly weak for a band of their size and pulling power…

The Koko interior


The sound of Brits Xerath might as well have been designed to purposely rub me up the wrong way. Mixing orchestral synths pumped through as backing tracks to a wall of riffs that are part Strapping Young Lad groove and part Meshuggah discordancy, the mechanical nature of their riffs and monotone hoarse vocals of Richard Thomson feel at odds with the more organic nature of Testament's catalogue. In their 30 minute set the Candlelight act hammer through a setlist that is backed up by a fierce delivery as the sound system struggles to cope with the bands' more intricate moments (I noted when wandering upstairs how much clearer the riffs could be heard from there as opposed to the floor) but the general tone is clear for all to hear. Save for odd moments of guitar solos, Xerath promote a very rhythm heavy sound from which I struggle to detect great injections of hooks or melodies to grasp on to, but from watching the fret movements of both bassist and guitarist I have no doubt that the strategic aggression of "Machine Insurgency" and the likes is a comparatively tricky one to keep in check. By mixing these bass-heavy riffs with standard metal growls/shouts and a triggered drum attack Xerath lack nothing in terms of vigour and ploughed through as much material as possible in their time, albeit with little of the music lodging in the brain for any great length of time.

While most in the crowd probably don't feel as strongly as I do on the positives/negatives of mechanical song structures and performances, the muted reaction and almost total absence of crowd interaction through Xerath's set suggests a disenchantment with what was being offered. Add to that a stage show which featured little movement save for the headbanging of bassist Chris Clarke and one had the feeling this wasn't what many had to come to see. Still, Thomson offered the band's appreciations for the volume present considering their start time of 6.30 (all in aid of the venue's post-gig club night…) but much better was still to come…


Dale Butler of Malefice


Like Xerath before them Malefice hail from the southern counties of England but this time they propagate a melodic thrash/death concoction flecked with the breakdowns of hardcore all the while never really sounding a real thrash, death or hardcore band. This realisation, which dawned on me some time ago in relation to the number of bands taking elements from Swedish acts such as At the Gates, The Crown and Darkane, has clouded such bands ever since for it is rare one comes across as anything other than a lite-version of what such great bands ultimately were. With that in mind, Malefice are a hugely typical act of the modern era: the musical abilities are competent both on record and when reproduced live, their songs are powerful and hard-hitting with well-produced and clear albums, but ultimately they are devoid of any real identity or passion that will see them climb the slippery ladder of success.

Frontman Dale Butler is the centrepiece of the Malefice live show - muscles taught and masculine demeanour on show, he does his best to antagonise and exhilarate a crowd slowly awakening from their Xerath slumber as his bandmates unleash volleys of chugging riffs interspersed with huge bassy drop-downs which reverberated throughout the venue. I will admit to not being quite sure how such low ends were being produced by the band, whether through the PA or an onstage pedal, but either way it became as much a note of interest as the songs themselves. As the more animated of the two frontmen so far Butler carried a greater conviction with his songs and stronger ability to engage, whether that came in the form of goading more from the audience or by simply deploying more than a single tone of voice, and this presence was enough to mark Malefice as an improvement on Xerath before them. However, aside from an upbeat melodic feel to their final song, I'll be damned if there are any riffs on show that could hold a candle to what was about to come.


Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson of Testament


If the response for the support acts was muted and the venue under capacity, everything very quickly changed in anticipation of Testament. The sold out nature of the gig became apparent once Chuck Billy & co entered the stage and the opening of a seemingly incessant pit right in front of me sparked into the life with the sounds of "Rise Up", a very audience friendly track and the first of four to be aired from this year's "Dark Roots of Earth" LP. Of the American acts Testament are equalled only by Metallica and Megadeth in terms of song of musicianship and songwriting abilities within the boundaries of thrash, and as shown by what came next was a whirlwind of tracks culled from 6 of the band's 10 albums that displayed what a gulf in class there still is between these old dogs and the young pretenders before them.

Throughout their 90 minute set Chuck Billy kept his between song chats to a minimum, providing the usual thanks for attendance and introductions to songs that seemed to get better as the set progressed. On this note it is hard to know what defines the band best - whether it is the rabidly energetic "Disciples of the Watch" or "Into the Pit" (naturally the song that sends the pit fiends ballistic), the 'slower' more considered tracks like "Alone in the Dark" or the ferocious "D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)" - it felt very much like a band providing a true 'best of' setlist delivering it with considerable aplomb.

With respect to musical performance I hardly need eulogise on a guitar duo as talented as Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson, the physically frail looking Greg Christian on bass and current live drummer Mark Hernandez. Skolnick's return to the Testament fold in 2005 has given the band much of their identity and flourish back that was lacking before; the intricacies injected in the main riffs of "Practice What You Preach" and "The New Order" are far more mere trivial adornment. With a sound that for the most part was clear and defined save for select moments of quiet soloing I came away thinking there was little that could have been improved about such a showing. For a band with 30 years experience under their belt and to still be performing at these levels having never disbanded or 'gone soft', is a truly a testament to the quality of Testament. One of the best live performances of 2012 for this writer.


All photos taken by Teodora Dani. Click here for the full album.

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