Testament remain thrash metal’s purest, finest warriors on ‘Dark Roots of Earth’

Everyone keeps talking about the Big 4 of thrash. There has been so much talk and hype about it the past few years, it’s starting to get a little bit annoying. I acknowledge the meaning and significance of it all, even if it’s happening 10-15 years too late, way past the point where the majority of the bands are at their best. But OK, fine, sure. We salute you for trying.

But what bothers me the most about it is the other ’80s thrash bands that have not gotten their just due because they’ve once again been eclipsed by this gigantic parade of bloated self-importance. Metallica haven’t made a good record in 20 years. Megadeth have had an OK comeback musically, but they, too, haven’t done anything great in two decades. Anthrax have operated like a joke band much of the past decade, doing a lot of dumb shit, and only now with Joey Belladonna back in the fold and a really solid comeback record in tow have they finally risen above all the silliness. Slayer are the most consistent, trustworthy of the bunch, but even they’ve seen better days.

So what about the other thrash bands who made the ’80s wave of awesomeness such a pivotal time in heavy metal. Overkill remain a killing force, really have been largely consistent, and also have a pretty rad new album that crushes anything Metallica or Megadeth have done since the early ’90s. Exodus aren’t really as recognizable as the lineup they employed in their glory days, but they can still bring it. And perhaps the best of the bunch, Testament, really should have exploded in popularity when they emerged in the late 1980s, but the circumstances of metal over-saturation and the rise of grunge seemed to put an end to that. Had times been a little different, we might be talking about the Big 5, with these guys effectively killing stadiums too.

Testament have had their ups and downs, mostly due to lineup shifts, but they’ve been the ones who, when other thrash bands were reaching for accessibility, decided to get meaner and uglier. They didn’t wimp out or bow to pressure or change their philosophy. They remained metal to their core, and as a result, you can’t really go back and name any embarrassing moments from the band’s run. How can you knock honesty and integrity, even if all of their albums weren’t necessarily home runs? I trust these guys, and they’ve never let me down philosophically.

In 2008, with 4/5 of their classic lineup in tow, including lead guitarist and mad scientist Alex Skolnick, the band unleashed “The Formation of Damnation,” arguably the best late-career album of any of thrash’s old guard, an album that stands strong to this day. It was heavy, melodic, glorious, and right up there with their classic albums “The Legacy,” “New Order,” and “Practice What You Preach.” The record reignited the band creatively and forcibly interjected them back into the conversation about who’s the greatest thrash band of all time. Honestly, taking commercial success out as a factor, Testament have my vote. They always have, too.

Now, four years after their glorious return, we have their 10th studio effort “Dark Roots of Earth,” one of the year’s most anticipated metal albums and one most people expected would have dropped well before now. But the band apparently decided not to rush things and would not be satisfied until they had an album that satisfied them, and certainly you can’t knock them for that decision. The band — vocalist Chuck Billy, guitarists Eric Peterson and Skolnick, bassist Greg Christian, and drummer Gene Hoglan, replacing Paul Bostaph — has a formula that works for them, and through the years, they’ve refined it and roughed it up so that they not only maintained their artistic vision, but they also kept their edge. “Dark Roots” proves them remained very faithful to that model.

Now, with all that positivity aside, there are a few issues with the new record. The album feels divided into two halves, and I don’t know if that’s on purpose. The first four cuts sound like they were crafted for riotous live responses on the fest circuit. That’s to a fault. Opener “Rise Up” has some of the weakest lyrics ever on a Testament song, including the call-response chorus that feels forced. It’s fine to howl, “When I say, ‘Rise up,’ you say, ‘War!'” in a live setting, off the cuff. When it’s the chorus to a song, it sounds uncreative at best. It also initially dampened my enthusiasm for the record since it was the first cut out of the gate. “True American Hate” also sounds like something a weak, unseasoned, second-stage Ozzfest band would dream up to get meatheads into a frenzy. Testament are way, way smarter than these two songs, and the tracks have not grown on me in the least no matter how many times I hear them. “Native Blood” is decent and is a chance for Billy to pay homage to his heritage, and the title track is good, not great. But these first four cuts are the weakest on the album. Then things change.

Starting with “A Day in the Death,” shit gets real in a hurry. The Testament I grew up with and loved re-emerges, and the tempo and atmosphere get dangerous. The song opens with a sinister bassline and then evolves into a punchy thrasher with some of Billy’s most passionate vocals and lead lines that delve into power metal and prog rock exploration. “Cold Embrace” is the album epic at 7:53, and it might remind long-time listeners of “The Ballad.” It’s slower, more reflective, but definitely not without teeth. And, as you may guess, the song does blow up and show its rage, making proper use of every second. “Man Kills Mankind” is another scathing killer, with vocal patterns that sound like their classic material, really strong guitar work, and a bruising assault. “Throne of Thorns” has some clean sections that eventually find their way to chaos, and the guitar work sounds like classic ’80s-style heavy metal. Final cut “Last Stand for Independence” is anthemic and intelligent, making good for some of the early album cuts, and this is one that could really whip a crowd into a frenzy without pandering to the mouth breathers. This is a stand-up, fuck-all display of power that sticks with you long after it ends.

As noted, there are drawbacks to “Dark Roots,” and it’s not as strong as “Formation” from front to back. But there’s still some great material here that’ll put hair on your chest and leave your nerve endings tingling. Testament remain thrash metal’s finest institution, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for these career-long road warriors.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.testamentlegions.com/

To buy the album, go here: http://store.nuclearblastusa.com/Artist/Testament/10177

For more on the label, go here: http://www.nuclearblastusa.com/en/

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