By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Three legendary the thrash-metal bands who survived catching COVID on tour together last year bring their “The Bay Strikes Back” show to Oakland as Testament, Exodus and Death Angel share the Fox Theater stage Saturday.

READ MORE: 'The Long Good-Bye'; New Hope In The Battle Against Alzheimer’s Disease

It was during the European leg of The Bay Strikes Back Tour in February and March of 2020 when members of all three bands and their crews were exposed to the coronavirus, with many testing positive upon their return and Death Angel drummer Will Carroll ending up hospitalized during a terrifying brush with mortality.

While Carroll has successfully recovered and played several live and livestreamed shows with the band in the year and a half since, COVID is still having an impact on all three bands’ touring plans. The delta variant surge led the planned North American leg of The Bay Strikes Back Tour to be postponed until next spring, though all three groups performed at Aftershock 2021 in Sacramento last month. This sold-out show at the Fox Theater two days after Thanksgiving marks the only other scheduled date from the tour that was not pushed back.

Still rightfully revered by many as one of thrash metal’s touchstone bands, Testament has carried the torch for Bay Area headbangers for over three decades. Founded in the East Bay town of Alameda by guitarist Eric Peterson using the moniker Legacy in 1983, the band crafted a sound that touched on newer British metal bands like Venom, Motorhead and Iron Maiden while also following the lead of new Bay Area residents Metallica (Peterson had a cassette of the band’s first No Life Til Leather demo).

After a some initial turnover in members, the group settled into its quintet line-up with drummer Luis Clemente, second guitarist Alex Skolnick and singer Steve “Zetro” Souza. The band was soon opening for such thrash notables as Slayer and Laaz Rockit and recorded a demo that garnered them even more notoriety.

But just as things began to happen, Souza suddenly departed to take a job fronting the more established Bay Area thrash band Exodus (he would sing on that band’s most commercially successful efforts Pleasures of the Flesh and Fabulous Disaster in the late ’80s).

However, Souza suggested friend Chuck Billy as a replacement, pushing the band towards what would become the seminal line-up of Testament. After signing with Megaforce label head John Zazula and changing their name, the band released their 1987 debut The Legacy and established themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the international metal scene. Their follow-up efforts The New Order in 1988 and the next year’s Practice What You Preach would further refine their sophisticated high-octane sound and progressively more political lyrics.

The band faced challenges as grunge rose to become the dominant form of heavy music in the early ’90s as Testament soldiered through line-up shifts and a hiatus late in the decade. The historic 2001 Thrash of the Titans benefit for Billy and Death founder Chuck Schuldiner (both men were undergoing cancer treatment at the time) brought together a who’s who of thrash metal greats from the Bay Area and elsewhere for a full day of music served as a catalyst, spurring the reunion of the potent early line-up of Testament.

Though it took a number of years for the group to release new material, the band’s 2008 album The Formation of Damnation would be hailed as one of their best ever, topping numerous year-end lists and reaffirming Testament’s position in the world of metal. Since then, the group has maintained a steady touring and recording regimen, issuing The Dark Roots of Earth in 2012 followed by 2016’s acclaimed Brotherhood of the Snake. Praised as another enervating dose of the band’s trademark thrash, songs like “The Pale King” and the title track are propelled by a monstrous performance behind the drum kit by Gene Hoglan (the return of bassist Steve Di Giorgio to the fold didn’t hurt).

While the band had said it intended to take less time between albums, the writing process for their next album along with an extended break from the studio to participate in a leg Slayer’s farewell tour in 2018 would push back the recording. Titans of Creation had the misfortune of being released right after the coronavirus pandemic essentially shut down live music for an extended period in April of 2020, but the albums was still praised as one of the top metal albums of the year. Expect a solid dose of tunes from the band’s acclaimed latest effort along with classics from throughout their career when they top the thrash-metal triple bill at the Fox Theater Saturday.

One of the pioneering thrash-metal outfits to emerge in the Bay Area, Exodus has been delivering its signature neck-snapping riffs for over four decades. The group was formed in 1979 in Richmond by guitarist Kirk Hammett and drummer Tom Hunting, several years before Los Angeles transplants Metallica poached Hammett to replace troubled guitar player Dave Mustaine in 1983.

The band went through a number of line-up changes before the quintet — now led by guitarist and principal songwriter Gary Holt — recorded its seminal debut Bonded By Blood with original vocalist Paul Baloff in 1984. Powered by such brutal mosh-pit anthems as “And Then There Were None,”  “Strike of the Beast” and the pulverizing title track, the recording would have been one of the first salvos of the growing Bay Area thrash-metal movement if the album’s release hadn’t been delayed by business issues until the spring of 1985.

Still, thanks to underground success of the raw recording and the band’s growing reputation for ferocious live shows, Exodus was soon being courted by major labels trying to tap into the emerging popularity of thrash. The band would part ways with Baloff after the Bonded By Blood tour, replacing him with Steve “Zetro” Souza, the singer who had made his name fronting Legacy (see above).

Signed to Sony/Combat Records, Exodus hit its commercial peak with 1987’s Pleasures of the Flesh and Fabulous Disaster two years later, continuing to set the bar for sonic brutality high while earning a broader audience thanks to MTV airplay of the hit “The Toxic Waltz” from the latter album.

The group would hit a rough patch after moving to Capitol Records for 1989’s Impact is Imminent following the departure of Hunting. Holt would put Exodus on hiatus in the early ’90s after issuing the slower, more experimental Force of Habit in 1992, but the band reunited with Baloff and new bassist Jack Gibson later in the decade for a live album and periodic touring. It wasn’t until after Baloff passed away in 2002 from a stroke that Souza would return to the fold, recording 2004’s Tempo of the Damned before a sudden and acrimonious split from Exodus that same year.

READ MORE: Returning Thanksgiving Travelers Encounter Few Delays At Local Airports

The band spent much of the next decade producing new albums featuring more intricate thrash epics with new singer Rob Dukes and former Heathen guitarist Lee Altus, who performed on several acclaimed albums including a re-recording of Bonded By Blood entitled Let There Be Blood in 2008. While the busy Holt has split his time since early 2011 filling in onstage for ailing Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman (who sadly two years later), Exodus has remained his main passion.

In 2014, the band made surprise announcement that it had parted ways with Dukes after a decade and Souza would be returning to Exodus once again. Though some fans expressed skepticism over the change, their Nuclear Blast Records release Blood In, Blood Out in 2014 was widely hailed as a punishing return to form.

Exodus maintained a busy touring schedule since that album was released, despite the fact that Holt was busy for a solid stretch of 2018 and 2019 with Slayer’s global farewell tour. Still, the band managed to write enough new songs to enter the studio to record their latest effort (and first album in seven years) Persona Non Grata during late summer of 2020 at Hunting’s home studio near Lake Almanor.

While the band had planned to release the album sooner, another health issue besides the pandemic would force them to change plans. Last spring, Hunting announced that he had been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the stomach. In addition to a regimen of chemotherapy to treat the cancer, this summer he was forced to undergo a full gastrectomy and spent several months recovering from that operation and adjusting to living life without a stomach.

Hunting was happily able to return to the stage for Exodus’ appearance at Aftershock in Sacramento last month. Persona Non Grata finally saw release last week to reviews that have hailed the band for delivering such a brutal feast of riffs more than 40 years after the band was founded.

Opening the sold-out show Saturday will be equally iconic local metal institution Death Angel. With roots dating back to the primordial days of the Bay Area thrash-metal revolution during the early ’80s, the group has long been a representative of one of San Francisco’s most indelible musical movements.

Formed in 1982 by a group of Filipino cousins living in Daly City, the band featuring Rob Cavestany (lead guitar, backing vocals), Dennis Pepa (lead vocals, bass), Gus Pepa (rhythm guitar), and Andy Galeon (drums) initially drew influence on Iron Maiden and other newer British metal bands just rising to prominence.

By the time cousin Mark Osegueda had taken over as lead singer in 1984, the young musicians were devout followers of the new thrash-metal sound championed by Bay Area icons Metallica and Exodus as well as SoCal counterparts Slayer and Megadeth (who Death Angel opened for with a show that marked Osegueda’s debut stage appearance). A demo produced by Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett would garner the quintet local radio airplay and a much wider fan base thanks to tape trading among rabid thrash-metal fans looking for the latest sounds.

Death Angel would score a deal with Enigma Records and released their pulverizing 1987 debut album The Ultra-Violence that exhibited a complex sound that belied the young band’s relative inexperience (Galeon was only 14 when they recorded the effort). A second album — Frolic in the Park — followed before the leading lights of the second wave of thrash metal had their contract acquired by Geffen Records.

The highly polished 1990 album Act III and major touring plans as the opening act on the huge Clash of the Titans Tour with Slayer, Megadeth and Exodus had the band poised for bigger things, but a touring van accident critically injured Galeon and left the band in limbo as he took a full year to recover. After Osegueda left to pursue a career outside of music, the band was dropped by the label and imploded.

The remaining members would continue making music, first working in a more alternative-rock direction as The Organization before bringing Osegueda back into the fold in 1998 to front the new group The Swarm. It wasn’t until Death Angel reunited for Thrash of the Titans, the legendary 2001 benefit concert for Testament singer Chuck Billy that also featured historic reunion performances by Bay Area bands Exodus, Heathen, Forbidden Evil and Vio-lence, that the group returned to full-time activity.

Releasing its first new effort in 14 years with The Art of Dying in 2004, Death Angel has remained a consistent presence on the international touring circuit ever since. While founding members Dennis Pepa and Galeon would depart near the end of the decade, the current line-up filled out by veteran drummer Will Carroll (formerly with Old Grandad, Hammers of Misfortune and Vicious Rumors) and bassist Damien Sisson (ex Scarecrow and Potential Threat) continues to tour heavily as one of the Bay Area’s leading ambassadors of thrash metal while putting out compelling new recordings to this day.

While the band limited touring activity in 2018 year to focus on writing and recording their forthcoming ninth studio album, they still managed to play a number of summer festivals and join fellow Bay Area greats Exodus and German thrashers Sodom for a run of winter dates. Death Angel also collaborated on a different kind of release, working with Oakland brewery Ale Industries to craft the band’s Caster of Shame IPA.

The group hit the road in the U.S. in 2019, playing a series of headlining shows with fellow thrash veterans Overkill and previewing some of the ferocious material from their newest Nuclear Blast offering Humanicide that came out at the end of May. Brimming with intense thrash workouts like the title tune, the brutal “I Came For Blood,” and the anthemic singalong tribute to their loyal fanbase “The Pack,” the latest effort shows Osegueda, Cavestany and company are still creating thrash metal of the highest order. That same year, the band was nominated for the first Grammy Award of its long career in recognition for the album.

The extended time it took for Carroll to recover from his near-death bout with COVID hasn’t slowed the band’s productivity. Already working on new material for their next effort, Death Angel also released the stripped-down, mostly acoustic digital EP Under Pressure that included a cover of the Queen classic along with a new song and re-recordings of a couple of earlier tunes. The band is also set to release The Bastard Tracks, a live show recorded and filmed at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco this past spring coming out on Black Friday as an audio recording and BluRay.

MORE NEWS: Bay Area Motorists Suffering From Gas Pump Sticker Shock As Prices Continue To Soar

Testament with Exodus and Death Angel
Saturday, Nov. 27, 6 p.m. $39.50 (sold out)
Fox Theater