Another Testament, So to Speak

My last post wandered a bit, and got off track from where it began, but it’s a track I’m okay with, so today I’m going to stay on said track and continue to discuss Bay Area thrash metal titans Testament.

When their third album (1989’s Practice What You Preach) began to take off, gaining the band a wider audience, Testament’s management rushed the band to get another album out (I’ve read that they were given 3 months), and the resulting work, Souls of Black (1990), is a quality album (it is a Testament album, after all), but the rush-job shows.  A few of the songs seem to be less-than fully formed, and the production is noticeably lackluster (especially after the crystal-clear sound of Practice, which allowed every instrument to be heard).  I actually didn’t hear this album in its entirety until a couple of years ago, but I must say it’s a worthy entry in the Testament catalog.  The worst Testament song is still better than most other metal songs.

Souls of Black did bring a change in the band’s logo, which became a common thing for metal bands to do around this time, and which is a subject that will be explored here sooner or later, as I find it to be an interesting topic.  It also contains the band’s second ballad (“The Legacy”), which was one of the albums’ two singles (along with the title track).  By the time 1990 came around, many thrash metal bands were slowing things down a bit and simplifying their music, much to the chagrin of Metalheads everywhere.  This is a subject that continues to chap my ass to this day; why should a band not be allowed to change things up stylistically?  Very few bands can pull off sounding the same on every album (the Ramones, AC/DC, and Motörhead are the only three that come to mind), and I can’t imagine being in a band and playing the same song over and over again.  At any rate, Souls of Black was far from the most dramatic change that Testament would undergo.  Their fifth album, 1992’s The Ritual, was the beginning of the end for the “classic era” of Testament.

“Souls of Black” from Souls of Black (1990)

“The Legacy” from Souls of Black (1990)

The Ritual is the band’s slowest, cleanest-sounding, and dare I say, “lightest” album, and it seems at first listen to have been crafted largely to gain radio and MTV airplay [(Testament, along with many other thrash bands, changed things up a bit after the mega-success of Metallica’s “Black Album” (which made it okay for the Rest Of the World to like metal)].  It is probably Testament’s most accessible album to the non-metal fan, containing another ballad (the hauntingly beautiful “Return to Serenity”), along with more actual singing than any other Testament album.  I like it, and I think the only thing it lacks is more “punch” in the production.  Album opener “Electric Crown” (which was one of two singles, along with “Return to Serenity”) is easily one of my favorite Testament songs.

“Return to Serenity” from The Ritual (1992)

“Electric Crown” from The Ritual (1992)

Shortly after this album, lead guitarist Alex Skolnick and drummer Louie Clemente left the band due to creative differences, and the remaining members recruited a couple of veteran metal musicians (death metal guitar guru James Murphy and former Anthrax drum technician John Tempesta, the latter of whom has played drums for a ridiculous number of bands) and proceeded to record their heaviest album up to that point, 1994’s Low.

From the very first note of Low, it’s clear that what you are about to hear is a very different version of Testament.  Chuck Billy’s vocals are in a much lower range throughout most of the album, many of the songs groove rather than thrash, and melody became a rare bird without the presence of Alex Skolnick, but for this Metalhead, Low is a high point in the band’s discography.  Highlights here are the pummeling 1-2 opening salvo of “Low” and “Legions (In Hiding)” (the latter a grim tale of the horrors of child abuse), along with this album’s ballad “Trail of Tears” (another grim tale, this time relating the horrors of the forced march by the United States government of thousands of Native American Indians in the early-to-mid 1830s), and the almost-death-metal explosion of “Dog Faced Gods”.

“Low” from Low (1994)

“Trail of Tears” from Low (1994) – Alex Skolnick’s absence notwithstanding, the soloing on this song is beautiful.

“Dog Faced Gods” from Low (1994)

Following the release of Low, original bass player Greg Christian (who is severely underrated in the pantheon of metal bass players), John Tempesta, and James Murphy left the band, and a variety of people went through the ranks for touring purposes.  Rhythm guitarist Eric Peterson (the only remaining original member) and Chuck Billy briefly considered changing the name of the band to Dog Faced Gods, and began writing music which took a much heavier direction.  They ultimately disbanded for a brief period in 1996 before reforming (and continuing with the Testament moniker) with bass player Derek Ramirez (who, for a very brief period in 1983, pulled double duty in the band as lead vocalist and second guitarist) and drummer extraordinaire Gene Hoglan (a.k.a. “The Atomic Clock”).  The album that arose from this union (1997’s Demonic) would prove to be a challenge for many Testament fans to accept, and I myself had trouble understanding what I was hearing upon its initial release.

 Demonic is arguably the heaviest, angriest, and strangest-sounding Testament album to date. Melody?  Gone.  Solos?  Out the door (though Peterson did lay down a bit of lead work).  Clean singing?  Like it never happened.  This beast is all chugging riffs, syncopated beats, and deathly growls.  It confused the hell out of me for a long time, but in the years since its release, I have grown to appreciate and sincerely enjoy Demonic.  It’s not my favorite Testament album by a long shot, but it’s a solid release.  1997 wasn’t a great year for metal, but I’d call it one of the best metal albums of the year.

“Demonic Refusal” from Demonic (1997)

The year 1999 brought another album (The Gathering), recorded by yet another lineup.  James Murphy rejoined the band on guitar, and two of the most proficient metal musicians alive rounded out the lineup (fretless bass wizard Steve DiGiorgio and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo).  The Gathering was something of a return to form for Testament; melody and soloing returned, and Billy dialed back the growling just the tiniest bit and started using his singing voice again (“True Believer”).  It is an ass kicking, beastly, brutal motherfucker of an album, and it gets more recognition in the band’s live sets than either of the two albums that preceded it.  In fact, 4 songs from this album are featured on the band’s 2013 double live album The Dark Roots of Thrash, while no songs from the four albums prior to it are featured.

The Gathering also features the two songs which inspired me to start writing the first part of this piece a couple of days ago.  Remember how this whole thing started out as a discussion of  the social awareness of thrash metal?  Yeah, I barely remember that myself.  Anyway, two songs on this album are stern and angry reminders about the fragility of the planet we call home – “3 Days in Darkness” and “Fall of Sipledome,” the latter of which is about the melting of the polar ice caps.

“D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)” from The Gathering (1999) – If this doesn’t make you bang your head, you might be dead.

“Fall of Sipledome” from The Gathering (1999)

The period following The Gathering is fraught with life-threatening illness and more lineup changes (including the return of some familiar names), but my ass hurts from sitting for so long, and I have errands to run, so I will dive into that another time.  Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to stay heavy!

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