Monday, 16 April 2012

Testament - Complete Studio Albums Review

Hailing from the famed Bay Area of California in the mid eighties, Testament originally spawned from Hell's depths as 'The Legacy' before the superior name was selected. They also had a couple of different vocalists before Chuck Billy joined - one being Steve Souza, who later went on to grace most of the Exodus albums with his Bon-Scott-Meets-Thrash take on vocals. Of course Billy's voice has become a symbol of the band having been present on every album, and one of the most distinctive in metal - I haven't heard anyone else who sounds like him, whether he's yelling, growling, or singing (depening on which track you're listening to). The other consistent factor in Testament has been Eric Peterson, who I feel is somewhat underrated despite being one of the best riff-writers on the scene, someone who can write powerful metal whilst periodically and selectively combining elements of great melody (he's also been the driving force behind black metal/thrash band DragonLord). Having established themselves within a few albums as one of the most respected bands in thrash, the band survived the difficult nineties period as thrash effectively died (albeit temporarily) by exploring various horizons within the 'confines' (term used very loosely) of metal. There was a painfully long break from studio recording between 1999 until 2008 (although they remained hard workers on the live circuits), bouts of people coming and going from the group, and cancer (which Billy thankfully survived), but - with a new album (Dark Roots of Earth) on the way in the next few months - on they battle carrying the flag of thrash on deservedly proud shoulders.
The Legacy (1987) Opting for a reflection of their origins in the album's title, their debut is a great example of thrash in its peak - aggressive, almost messy riffing accompanied by Chuck Billy's near yelling style creates a maelstrom of violent aural pleasure. Relatively short and sweet (unlike many of today's mammoth running times) the album has a consistent quality that makes it a great listen. Aside from the inherent aggression though was a notable level of occasionally surprising melody injected here and there, adding a little variety and suggesting there was more to the band than many thrash acts at the time. Testament had announced their arrival on the scene and their debut disc remains an enjoyable listen to this day, and a fine example of what was happening in metal at the time (i.e. thrash ruled). Highlights include the immortal 'Apocalyptic City', and the explosive opener 'Over The Wall'.

The New Order (1988) Sparing little time to relax the second album follows neatly in the pawprints of the first, boasting a similar sound though possibly more refined this time around. Again the disc grants listeners a consistent thrash assault, with breathers in periodic instrumental sections that celebrate the weird, though these bits don't entirely work in my opinion. Nevertheless, The New Order again gave us many bonafide Testament classic tracks and another great album. By this point their reputation was cemented and if I recall correctly I think this also may have been the era when the press considered the band to be a contender for expanding the 'Big Four' to 'Five', something that never officially happened for whatever that's worth (well they could have been on that recent Big Four tour for one thing, but that's another story). One surprising cover appearing on the CD that was not on the original vinyl is a groovy version of 'Nobody's Fault' originally penned by Aerosmith. Highlights of the second album include almost every track, but if I had to pick it would be 'Trial By Fire', the no-sh*t stormer 'Into The Pit', and the double attack of 'Disciples of the Watch' and 'The Preacher'. One can't f**k with stuff this good.

Practice What You Preach (1989) Shifting gear somewhat the third album is generally quite slower than the preceding two, with a quieter guitar sound and groove replacing aggression. I still have mixed feelings about this approach to this day, but admittedly it's a fairly enjoyable listen. It also introduced the idea of Testament expanding the boundaries of thrash metal (as had Metallica) with softer material, most notably 'The Ballad': corny title but nice combination of melody and mounting pace nonetheless. Testament were clearly not a band who were going to leave the goal posts in the same place for every release. Highlights include the aforementioned 'The Ballad', the title track, and 'Envy Life'.
Souls of Black (1990) Refusing to reduce their non-stop work ethic (four albums in four years in unheard of nowadays) the band pumped out their fourth outing just as they were supporting the now legendary 'Clash of the Titans' tour with Slayer and Megadeth (plus Suicidal Tendencies opening the show), a spectacle I had the privilege of witnessing at Birmingham's NEC at the time. Ironically as thrash had reached its peak, the show also unwittingly symbolised the end of an era as the whole scene began a slide into decline. Souls of Black seems to divide fans - I personally love the loud, raw guitar sound, however, the material is admittedly less consistent than before (probably a symptom of them having to push this release out too quickly for its own good). Great tracks are broken up with misfires such as the title track, the album intro, and 'Absence of Light', but there is worthy material here even if the album has possibly not worn as well as the first few. Highlights include 'Seven Days of May', 'The Legacy' and 'Falling Fast'.

The Ritual (1992) At last giving themselves a bit more a break I think the band had time to reflect on direction as thrash was dying in the early nineties. What they returned with was a metal album less agressive, more polished, and possibly more skillfully executed. Many of the tracks have a great drum pace and the production overall is pleasing. Continuing with the idea of putting 'ballads' on their albums there is also the stellar 'Return to Serenity', which works well. The Ritual is a great album that often gets forgotten about as people are more inclined to remember the first few, and arguably this is one of their best. Highlights include 'Electric Crown', 'Return to Serenity', the pounding 'Agony', and the head-banging 'Let Go of My World'.

Low (1994) Hardening the music up a notch Low is a lovely album of well produced metal with an awesome guitar sound and some brilliant slices of music, again one of their best albums in my opinion. Testament managed to keep their 'legacy' (sorry) alive during the nineties with quality metal that kept their fanbase interested, proving that they didn't need 'thrash' itself (as a sub-genre) to be particularly thriving for them to survive. Ending with the unnecessary 'Last Call' there are plenty of pounding tracks to delight in on Low including the brash opening title piece, the sharp riff machine that is 'Hail Mary', 'P.C.' and the face ripping 'Ride'.
Demonic (1997) Unpredictably their '97 album opened with the near death metal-sounding 'Demonic Refusal', with growling vocals from Chuck Billy as if he was getting some long term hatred out of his system. However, the more downbeat direction of the album is less convincing and it seemed as if they were trying to be something else, possibly tapping into other metal territories in a bid to maintain credibility. It wasn't necessary for a band such as this, and whilst Demonic isn't a bad record it is, in my opinion, the least satisfying of everything the band have done to date - this is the album I'm least likely to revisit when picking a Testament CD to indulge. Highlights would include the aforementioned opener, along with 'Hatreds Rise'.

The Gathering (1999) Back to the Testament we know from the Low era though having the traces of occasional death metal leanings left in their blood, The Gathering featured a few personnel changes that resulted in a tight thrash offering, this being in no small measure due to the presence of one Dave Lombardo on drums, probably the best drummer in thrash. Having seemingly found solid ground and the sound which suits them most, it would unfortunately be a very long time before Testament were back in the studio for a proper album, though they did re-record some of their earlier tracks for a minor release (First Strike Still Deadly) to break up the time. Aside from a bit of a dull lag during the second half this is another strong disc from the Bay Area lads. Highlights of The Gathering include 'True Believer' and the brutal monster that is 'Legions of the Dead'.

The Formation of Damnation (2008) After the longest break of their career (though they were still touring as noted above) I thought we had seen the last of Testament studio albums, hypothesising that the band had used up all of their worthwhile ideas over the course of their first eight albums. Then Formation... appeared and all was well with the world again. Almost something of a reunion album it picked up most of the 'classic' members of the band from the earlier years to create the traditional Testament that we came to love; Formation... doesn't disappoint, though it certainly doesn't surprise either. What we get is a solid album of formidable, well executed thrash metal, not outstaying its welcome while proving that this band are still relevant and unique in sound. Highlights include the triple attack of 'More Than Meets The Eye', 'The Evil Has Landed' and the title track. Hopes are high for their next outing.

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