The Formation Of Damnation
posted on 4/2008 By:
What a long strange trip it’s been for Testament to get to this point. It started back in 1999 with the release of The Gathering, a snarling beast of a thrash album that was regarded by many as their best in years, if not their entire career. The ever revolving lineup at that time included core members Chuck Billy (vocals) and Eric Peterson (guitar), along with guitar demigod James Murphy and the dream team rhythm section of bassist Steve DiGiorgio and drummer Dave Lombardo. In 2001, the band’s future was in serious doubt when Billy was diagnosed with cancer. However, this may have been the very thing that would save Testament.
The now-legendary "Thrash of the Titans" benefit concert was organized to assist Billy with his medical costs (some of the proceeds would also be donated to the cancer-stricken Chuck Schuldiner). It was here that the guitar tandem that had brought the band to prominence, Peterson and the long-departed Alex Skolnick, reunited to perform with The Legacy, the band which would eventually become Testament. This eventually led to the recording of First Strike, Still Deadly, a collection of rerecorded songs from Testament’s first two albums (The Legacy and The New Order), later that year. It would be nearly seven years before the band would enter a studio again.
Following the album’s release, the band went dormant as Billy continued his recovery. By 2003, the band began to play live again, with yet another revamped lineup. Then in 2005, it was announced that the band would embark on a 10-date European reunion tour of the original lineup. Following the tremendous fan response, this lineup began to work on new material, and following a couple of drummer changes that ended with Paul Bostaph behind the kit, The Formation of Damnation is upon us.
Normally, I wouldn’t give such a long history lesson for a band like Testament, but the context is important. In a recent review of the First Strike, Still Deadly reissue (published elsewhere), I first questioned the need to have done the album in the first place, as the material sounded as good the first time around as it did now (or “then,” as the case may be). Later, I referred to it as the ideal bridge between the past and the present. It was more of an offhand comment than anything, so imagine my surprise when I turned out to be right.
The band themselves have referred to this new album as combining the spirit of their early releases with the modern sound of The Gathering, which is basically what First Strike, Still Deadly was. The Formation of Damnation sounds just like it, but with new songs, of course. Not many bands could go 15 years between studio albums and make it sound like they were never apart, but that is exactly what Testament has done here. “More Than Meets the Eye” and “The Evil Has Landed” deliver a 1-2 (or 2-3 if you count the intro track “For the Glory of . . . “) punch of new old school, from the structure and fretwork to Chuck Billy’s two-tone vocals. Before you know it, the title track is stomping on your face, showing that the heavier influences which affected Demonic and The Gathering have not been forgotten.
Now, by saying that this new album sounds just like their old albums may make it seem like I’m saying that the album sounds dated and stale. Nothing could be further from the truth. Remember, I said that the old stuff sounded as good in its original form as it did rerecorded; you can listen to The Legacy today and it still sounds as fresh as it did back then. In that respect, Testament is timeless. They have never strayed far from their core sound or tried to be anything that they aren’t. Even when asked if they would ever consider remastering their back catalog, the band was dismissive, stating that the albums sound exactly the way they wanted them to, so there is no need.
Now, the album does stumble a bit with “Dangers of the Faithless,” but I’m not convinced that it’s a bad track. Besides, it's negligible, and even forgotten, once “The Persecuted Won’t Forget” follows it up, along with the thundering “Henchmen Ride” and the anti-war anthem “Killing Season” (does anybody else find it amusing that they released this song just two months after Death Angel released an album with the same title?) The greatness just keeps going through “Leave Me Forever” and the unfortunate end to the album after a mere 50 minutes.
With the release of The Formation of Damnation, the resurrection of the Bay Area thrash scene is complete. First, it was Exodus, then Death Angel, and now Testament (although they never really went away.) In between, we had a short-lived Vio-lence reunion; Forbidden reformed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Forbidden Evil, with talks of a new studio album starting to surface; even Heathen and Laaz Rockit are looking to release new stuff – and that’s just the veterans. There are so many newer bands coming up here (Dekapitator, Hatchet, Zombie Holocaust, and Devastator among them) that it’s like 1987 all over again.
You’ve all seen a lot of 6/6/6 scores around here lately. Ironically, this marks my 6th such score. I’ve been taken to task in each prior instance, and I fully expect it to happen again. But, I truly believe that none before it – not Death Machine, not Rhapsody, not Witchery, not even Exodus - deserve it as much as Testament does for The Formation of Damnation. Listening to this even the first time was like listening to an old favorite. Everything just sounds so good, so right. It’s got the classic feel to please the older fans, but enough modern sensibilities to, theoretically, draw in younger fans as well. Just an amazing album that I can’t believe I get to listen to on a daily basis.
posted on 4/2008 By:
Such a dull ache since 1999, such a very, very long time to wait. So many great memories lie with my past listening and viewing experiences with this respected Bay Area thrash outfit that never quite ‘made it big time’. Considering the vast space in time between albums, most fans should be rejoicing on high for fresh material from a revitalized Testament with good reason. There are a lot of components for success realigned with this release; a new label, the returning of exceptionally talented guitarist Alex Skolnick and underrated bass virtuoso Greg Christian, as well as being their first full-length recording with drummer extraordinaire Paul Bostaph. But more than anything, this album reminds me of that intangible something that has made Testament unique enough to stand apart from their peers, but still makes them so elusively inaccessible to the greater mass audience, and it’s such a bittersweet song to hear.
The first thing that struck me about The Formation Of Damnation is its initial simplicity, to the point where it totally caught me off guard by how subdued it sounded. The songs are all very uncomplicated, and admirably it appears riff genius Eric Peterson managed to exorcise his extreme music demons through the Dragonlord project, since this is certainly not a black or death metal endeavor and features almost no traces of past experimenting with his interpretation of more brutal forms of music. However, and thankfully, things this time around also never really tap back into the bouncing, overtly commercial bubblegum thrash of Practice What You Preach despite being a ruthlessly catchy album, resulting in something falling somewhere between Souls Of Black and The Gathering, with hints of Low. This works to their advantage for the most part with one glaring exception, which I’ll get to shortly.
The second thing that hit me about …Damnation is how incredibly personal it is in lyrical stance, and how the music itself is mostly a direct reflection of the subject matter in the songs. Unlike the excellent Low, this is not a ferocious return to form from a band angrily reclaiming its place in the metal realm, but rather a smiling ‘glad to be back’ reconnection to their most faithful fans. While there’s nothing remotely lazy going on, there’s very little urgency to be heard here, and in a way it sounds almost relaxed through most of the CD. By ‘relaxed’ I don’t mean lethargic, there’s more of a jam feel to a lot of the material as if they all just kind of went with the flow as it came to them during the writing process, and didn’t over think or astringently calculate the music in an uptight way. Flawlessly produced by Eric and Chuck, with a crystalline mix by Andy Sneap, this definitely sounds like a Testament album, and an up-to-date one at that.
Unlike Exodus who seem to be getting even more aggressive with age, Testament have firmly affixed huge slower grooves this time around, highlighting Chuck Billy’s seemingly ageless and stunningly still-improving vocal performance. In fact, the rampaging title track is the only full throttle thrash/near-death metal assault to be heard, and even then the midsection slows to a classic breakdown for much of the song before ending forcefully. “The Persecuted Won’t Forget” is also a busily arranged high powered uptempo tune that brings forth one of the most massive grooves since the Souls Of Black title track, and “Henchmen Ride” sounds like a modernized combination of “The Preacher” and “Allegiance”. The entirely Alex Skolnick-penned “F.E.A.R” really impressed me by how smoothly it fits into Peterson’s riff style, and erases any doubt that Alex is still capable of pure metal songwriting, from the riffs right on through to the lyrics. What was a major surprise to me is how Eric has taken on a significant role as far as leads go, sturdily holding his own alongside his jazz-influenced guitar partner with no less than five solos that enrich the songs with his soulful timbre.
Rhythmically, Christian and Bostaph are an unexpectedly tight combination. There’s a reason why Paul was a member of Slayer for so long, and why Gary Holt was thrilled to be able to record with him, because he’s very humbly turned out to be one of the most well-rounded drummers in the industry. His double-bass technique is exceptional as is his cymbal work, bringing a great deal of color and flair when it comes to highlighting riff crescendos and adding nuances that compliment the Testament style, while still allowing Greg to wind through the beats with a serpentine cadence. The two men sound fantastic in tandem, as if they’ve been recording with each other for years, and when taking the entire …Damnation picture into consideration, it’s hard to believe over fifteen different members have passed through and left since the band first formed. Astounding, really.
I should make it a point to say that even though I am a fanboy for Testament beyond any other bands I’ve ever known besides Slayer, they’re not without a flaw here and there. As catchy and memorable as the disc is, there is a noticeable sameness to many different songs, and personally, I have a problem I just can’t get over when it comes to the third track, “The Evil Has Landed”. The juxtaposition between the incredibly adhesive songwriting and off-kilter tempo clashes heavily with lyrics like ‘The sky began to fall, ripping opening a path up to heaven /time stopped to a crawl early morning September eleventh / see the flames on the river, terrorism sealed our fate / praying hands of a killer reciting a sermon of hate’. With all apologies, I just can’t see myself banging my head and throwing horns to this song at a show while singing along with a smile on my face. It just seems odd to have such heavy lyricism aligned with such a beautifully structured, classic metal tune that features so many stunning musical aspects (the drumming and tenacious groove, and the riffs running beneath the cascading solos). This is merely a personal issue I have, but I’ve also heard the same sentiments already echoed from those who’ve heard this song. This tune really hit the brakes for me, and it’s something I really have to get used to.
My reviewing partner may or may not agree that this was a hellacious album to write about for various reasons, because even though not everyone out there who loves thrash is a Testament fan, many of those who are moved by their music are affected deeply, and always have been. What I hear on The Formation Of Damnation is a direct connection with their past audience as if to say ‘We’re sorry it took so long, so this is all for you’, with the side hopes that the newer generation (post-The Gathering) will somehow pick up on it as well. It really feels like an apology for being gone for so long, and has qualities that seem to be aimed at reclaiming the same audience they amassed back when we first started ripping our jeans to shreds, and wearing Vision Streetwear.
By blending the old and new, Testament has somehow managed to gain a third life on Nuclear Blast, and with a younger, hungry audience now mingling with thrash dinosaurs like myself, they’ve put themselves in the perfect position to reinvent themselves and push more creative boundaries on their next albums if they so choose. Throw in an opening slot on what could turn out to be the greatest concert event in many years, and suddenly not only have Testament returned, healthy and refueled, but they’ve landed one of the sweetest gigs of their career along with a chance to make up for lost time by bringing thrash to a larger audience. It’s thrilling to have them back, and I can only hope The Formation Of Damnation doesn’t turn out to be their swansong, or see them go back to making this band a mere hobby. As a fan, I’m gushing over this album, but as a critic, there’s a part of me that wishes they’d taken a few more chances to dust their competition with some crazy shit, or at least finally write that one huge mass-appeal ‘money’ song that elevates them to levels that are still beyond their reach, and it’s a little frustrating.
Either way, this is a highly emotional reunion between a beloved legendary band and its faithful fans, and as I sit here with the booklet laying open with those familiar, estranged faces standing in front of a miserable looking San Francisco Bay, I can’t help but be swept away by it all. It didn’t hit too hard at first, but once it all sinks in properly it reminds me of a time when we all were much less jaded and critical, and really, isn’t that what a great album is supposed to do? Welcome back, guys, and please stay a while this time, would ya'?
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