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Rank and File

Rank And File: Testament

Testament hold a special place in my heart solely due to the fact that they were my first thrash metal band outside of The Big Four. I fell in love with the title track from Practice What You Preach somewhere around the age of fourteen, and the rest is history. Testament are also a band that don’t have an overly lengthy discography considering they’ve been going strong for more than thirty years. Line-up changes, stylistic experiments, and industry trends did make for a lot of evolution, which kept everything interesting at the very least. Even if it’s an album that I didn’t particularly care for, there’s nothing they have ever put out that is downright awful.

What I think I love most about Testament is that they have such a mean, threatening attitude that still manages to convey true thoughts and, at times, even emotion. Hell, Chuck Billy looks absolutely menacing, but I’ve seen him live twice and I feel like he’s really just a big huggable teddy-bear. Both times I saw them was opening for Slayer, and I as much as I love Slayer, I think Skolnick and co. outperformed them both times. As a band, Testament still has amazing stage presence, and I don’t see them stopping any time soon. But focusing on the albums themselves, I’m here to take a closer look at how they stack up against one another.

11) Brotherhood Of The Snake (2016)

Not absolutely atrocious, but my beef here is the fact that I had such high hopes for Brotherhood Of The Snake and was greatly underwhelmed. The hype for this record and the title track’s burning fury made this seem like it was going to absolutely shred. Boy was I wrong! Besides the fact that it’s way overcooked and produced to death, the songs themselves don’t really go anywhere. Some of them are also cringy as fuck regarding the lyrics; “the stakes are high and so am I.” Give me a break! Also, what the hell is with Chuck’s fascination in gambling here? One of the worst albums that Gene Hoglan ever appeared on.

Final Grade: D

 

10) The Ritual (1992)

The worst part about The Ritual is that it’s a giant tease. The first two tracks make it seem so promising; “Electric Crown” and “So Many Lies” are both killer songs with hooks for days. Beyond that, it literally boils down to a couple of standout spots, and the rest of it is as dry as the Sahara Desert. Picture the calmer, melodic approach Testament took with the previous record Souls Of Black, except it’s even calmer and hollowed out to the point that the songs feel empty. It’s also heavily built on rock ‘n roll riffs and really doesn’t fit what I’d call a thrash record. This isn’t what hurts it since I’m a rock ‘n roll junkie, but it certainly didn’t help either, which to me was a waste of experimentation. Also, it’s overly long. The reason for all of this? I think the band entered with far too much caution; so next time someone says “you can never be too safe,” tell them to think again!

Final Grade: C-

9) Demonic (1997)

I have to give Demonic some credit because it was one of the albums that helped make death metal vocals digestible for me. Although the riffing isn’t really what I’d call death metal, the vocals are mostly growled with short bursts of grunt-like singing such as on “John Doe.” On the musical side of things, it mostly extracts the groovy template that dominated Low. The outcome? A decent release with some bangers such as “Murky Waters” and the terrifying “The Burning Times” (my favorite track). Others like “Jun-Jun” certainly deliver, but for the most part, for every good song, there’s one that’s flat out boring. At least the title greatly matches the music.

Final Grade: C+

8) The Gathering (1999)

The Gathering is a bit of a weird one for me. It does have one of my favorite songs by the band – “D.N.R.,” which they opened with the first time I saw them. The drumming here is above and beyond, thanks to my favorite drummer Dave Lombardo being behind the kit. Plus it has a tightened down surface to it that none of the three records preceding it had; so on paper this should be perfect, right? Well, it is overall a worthwhile listen and I do get a fair amount of enjoyment from it. The issue is that the songs themselves don’t have the hooks or the blistering songwriting that other Testament records had. When starting this, it’s always like beginning a thrill ride. After about six or seven songs, I find myself satisfied and just waiting for the end. Good album, not exceptional.

Final Grade: B-

7) Low (1994)

Almost every thrash metal band incorporated groove metal at least somewhere within the run of their career in the ‘90s. Some were brilliant, others disasters. Testament’s stab at it with Low went pretty well despite Skolnick being absent. This was also where Chuck Billy started to experiment with growls as a regular feature. Quite a weird combo, but one run of “Hail Mary” will show how stellar the groove truly is, and man oh man is there some tremendous bass work here! It isn’t all as monstrous as that, because immediately following we get a very clean ballad with super soft vocals known as “Trail Of Tears,” and it’s crafted beautifully. Beyond this, the start/stop rhythm approach carries the weight, serving as a fun release.

Final Grade: B

6) Dark Roots Of Earth (2012)

Unlike the disc that followed it, Dark Roots Of Earth was everything that it was hyped up to be, and the images it paints could not match the album art any better. Testament took a similar approach here as its predecessor, but it dialed back the complexity, and Alex Skolnick focused more on straightforward thrash riffs which reflected their earlier days. This, combined with crushing death metal leaks made for songs like “Native Blood” and “True American Hate,” two of the most ferocious songs on the disc. The drumming techniques reflect this more than anything. “Rise Up” has become a newer-age live anthem with its powerful chants, and from front to back this is loaded with gold. If you’re not as familiar with the newer Testament records, I suggest starting with this one seeing that it’s probably the most accessible.

Final Grade: A-

5) Souls Of Black (1990)

While still a heavy record, this is probably the most calm Testament album save for The Ritual. Most of Souls Of Black’s focus is on melody, with the occasional speed induced chugging popping in here and there. “Face In The Sky” is a great example of it, and I love how the record opener leads into this one. Others like the title track take a bouncier approach with the bass being very prominent, laying out most of the make-up here. I love the similes used to call out government corruption in the sense of black souls. And then you have the ballad “The Legacy,” one of the most soothing songs the band ever made. Mostly this is a one sided release with a few surprises, and although it isn’t their best, I still think it’s a very solid spin.

Final Grade: A-

4) The Formation Of Damnation (2008)

This is easily the best Testament record of the newer era. The Formation Of Damnation is a clear reaction to real life, real events, and real struggles. “The Evil Has Landed,” their livid, ear punching song about the 9/11 attacks, contains some of the most dense riffs while still maintaining a catchy chorus and powerful verses, all topped with the strongest solo on the album. This is one of my favorite Testament tracks of all time. The title track borders on death metal, and other songs like “Afterlife” and “F.E.A.R.” bring in a bit more melody, touching on vague subjects of life after death and the fake reality of being scared. The vocal build-up to the end of “F.E.A.R.” is absolutely stellar, as is this entire record. I think the band wrote a lot of this from their personal feelings, caking it with a smooth production and superb songwriting. The level of intricacy on the fret-board impresses me every spin.

Final Grade: A-

3) The Legacy (1987)

For such a raw and messy album, Testament’s debut The Legacy is pieced together exceptionally. Chuck Billy’s vocals are all over the place between rough, spat bursts flying in at an intense speed, shrieking falsettos, and actual melodic singing. Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson fire away with fast-picked palm mutes one second, and are crawling up the fret-board left and right another second. The rhythms themselves get pretty chaotic; but that stops nothing. The furious and eerie “Raging Waters,” the melodic yet unsettling “Alone In The Dark,” and the speed-tastic fire of “Do Or Die,” are some of the best songs this band has ever put out. The weird progressions in “Burnt Offerings” leading into the sophisticated “Raging Waters” is more than what a debut should be able to pull off. And then out of nowhere you have the a monster known as “C.O.T.L.O.D.” (Curse Of The Legions Of Death), an absolute ear-fuck full of vicious vocals. How they could capture all of this into a messy format at the first go is beyond me. Themes of demons, witches, the occult, etc. take the wheel, which would die down some after this record. What a debut!

Final Grade: A

2) The New Order (1988)

Take everything we know about The Legacy, and sand it down/clean it up for The New Order. Gone is the recklessness, but what remains is the fury of the makers’ hands. Thanks to the better production, you can actually hear Greg Christian’s miraculous basslines. The live staple “Trial By Fire” utilizes this for the purpose of suspense, and kit-master Louie Clemente’s ability to carry those lines is stellar. Numbers like “Disciples Of The Watch” and the title track will bring in some of the chaotic fun that the debut record encapsulated; it’s just less raw. With that, this disc would see the end of Chuck Billy’s higher shrieks, as they’re used far less but can still be found in “The Preacher.” The Aerosmith classic “Nobody’s Fault” utilizes this to the extreme, and since they picked one of the Boston rock group’s heaviest songs, it worked. Lastly, this is where Testament would first introduce cleaner guitars which made their way into a lot of the intros. See the instrumental “Hypnosis” and the closing softee “Musical Death (A Dirge)” for greater elaboration. Absolute banger of a sophomore.

Final Grade: A

1) Practice What You Preach (1989)

While this is just the smallest hair above The New Order, it wins simply because the songwriting is stronger. Practice What You Preach hasn’t a single hookless moment, putting it up there with Rust In Peace, The Years Of Decay, Among The Living, etc. The bass and guitars now team up to create more intricate layers, starting immediately with the title track. The suspense is bumped up a notch, found to be most prevalent in “Pelerious Nation” and “Greenhouse Effect” (how about that “our only hope!” part?). Practice also focuses on the issues facing the world, and the horrid outcomes that are imminent when not taken by the horns. Thanks to this, the record has an even higher feeling of impending doom than The Legacy did. The noodling passages on album closer “Confusion Fusion,” as well as the haunting tone and gang chorus in “Time Is Coming” really showcase this. “Envy Life” is caked with such a thick atmosphere, also being the first one to feature Chuck growling. Think this is too much to take in yet? It isn’t over. The inclusion of a ballad known as “The Ballad” (I know, not the most creative name) as well as a throat punching speed-thrasher called “Nightmare (Coming Back To You)” vary this even more. Finally, “Blessed In Contempt” and “Sins Of Omission” hone in on guitar melodies and allow Alex and Eric to shine brighter than ever. Every moment on this is stand-out. Every song is loaded with hooks. Most importantly, everything still remains consistent despite the different approaches. No lesser word than legendary would be fitting to describe it.

Final Grade: A+

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