Dark Roots of Earth
posted on 8/2012 By:
Getting old is a bitch. Aging sucks. It’s the same for individuals, businesses, and yes, bands. Skills and speed wither; your competitors catch up and start biting into your market share; young lions crash the party with a greater fire and supplant your perch. Any number of other problems can reveal exactly how fragile that throne is, the one you worked so hard to claim. Adapt or die, as the old adage states. Merely surviving will not maintain that surging lead that you have always had over your competition.
Unless, that is, you provide a product so excellent that your peers can never quite reach it. This is where a band can take theories of supply and demand and flip them on their side. Thrash groups are a dime a dozen, flooding the metal shores since the 80s, but a small elite group has been able to maintain (or reclaim) their rightful places on top since they were teenagers. We’ve already seen Kreator and Overkill do such this year, proving to the upstarts that a surge of youthful fire and anger is no match for an eternal flame. And now Testament is making their own statement, with their second excellent album in four years, that they have no intention of ever giving up their spot to some pesky whippersnappers.
Much like how Bobby Blitz has enhanced his snarl and snide attitude in his 50s, the Testament fellers have found a way to subtly acknowledge the aging process in their music while keeping their resurgence alive and well. In 2008, had Testament attempted to make The Formation of Damnation as brutal and unrelenting as The Gathering, it likely would have fell a bit on its face (pure speculation), or at least shorthanded the triumphant return of Alex Skolnick. Instead, they mixed their bludgeoning attack with a welcome return of melody and the addition of progressive hints. Some surprisingly mature lyrics (“Afterlife”) were met with hey-we’re-old-men-and-we’re-having-fun-with-it-so-fuck-off tunes (“Henchmen Ride”). The results were spectacular. The band knows that they can still be dead serious, or goof around a little. Life is too short to not have some fun, as Chuck Billy’s own battle with cancer undoubtedly told him, and a new, fresh, and utterly revived era of Testament had kicked down the gates.
Dark Roots of Earth is the natural progression of this. It takes the brutal-melodic mix of Formation and enhances the melodic side, really giving focus to the Skolnick solo sections while also harkening back to albums such as Practice What You Preach and The Ritual (but more consistent overall than the latter). As if to emphasize the association with that era even more, the band even saw fit to include their first “ballad” track in ages, the haunting yet hooky “Cold Embrace.” Mixed with Andy Sneap’s killer production job and a few new aspects (Gene Hoglan’s occasional blast beat), the band rides their momentum by referencing their entire career. That and being generally fucking awesome. Mostly that, actually.
And that’s just it right there: Testament 2012 might actually be the most charismatic version of the band we’ve ever heard. Skolnick is still an absolute master, Gene Hoglan does his usual masterful chameleon job while adding his own flairs and variations, and Chuck Billy… well, Chuck is still the fucking king. The man sounds as alive as ever, bringing back even more of his old approach than on Formation, and transforming the occasionally generic lyrical theme into pure, simple fun. “Rise Up” would be nonsense in the hands of a lesser band, but they make it into a great opener, a bit silly or not. (Besides, if you told Chuck that the song was silly, he’d probably just smile and agree.) Same goes for the Pantera- or Lamb of God-ish lyrics in single “True American Hate.” Without Chuck’s gushing personality it might be a tad derpish. Instead, it’s a scorcher which also happens to include some of the album’s thickest brutality and one freakishly well-written solo section.
Speaking of that, it’s these solo sections and instrumental breaks that really tie these jams together. Much of the “regular” song sections – intros, verses and choruses – are made up of rather standard Eric Peterson riffage – not much in the way of originality, but still plenty vicious. But the instrumental breaks often bring on a more complex musicianship, highlighted by some of Hoglan’s best work here and of course Skolnick’s fretboard acrobatics. Testament has long excelled at such techniques, but they really stand out on Dark Roots, leading one to believe that Skolnick had a larger role in the songwriting process this time (which it was reported he did). The result is that all of the songs are elevated even if some of the frameworks may be familiar. And when a song is already fresh, in the cases of the mega fun “Native Blood” or the brooding title track, this extra level of compositional prowess pushes the music over the top. Hell, “Throne Of Thorns” gets downright proggy in its multiple layers, coming damn close to being one of the only “epic” songs the band has ever penned.
Dark Roots is also a deceptively efficient album, clocking in at over 50 minutes but seemingly passing by in half of that time. That could be because at any moment someone in the band is doing something awesome, or just a credit to the overall quality of the songs. It’s most likely the latter, but this wouldn’t come through as well without the former. The catchy chorus in “A Day In The Death” wouldn’t be as effective without Chuck’s voice; the soft verses of “Cold Embrace” wouldn’t work without Greg Christian’s moving bass line; and the ball-busting drive of closer “Last Stand For Independence” wouldn’t have a chance to take hold without Hoglan’s ride cymbal wonkery and general mastery of his craft. A great thrash metal record has something cool around every corner. Testament understood that in the 80s, the 90s, the aughties, and now in the whateverthefuckties this new decade will be referred to later on.
Overall, Dark Roots of Earth might not quite reach the new classic status of its predecessor, but it’s an untamed beast in its own right. Honestly, I could see Testament fans being divided on which one is actually better, a (ahem) testament to the band’s complete and total resurgence. The album is chock full of great new thrash songs, which is what the band enjoys playing and their fans enjoy hearing, and often makes a glorious dip into the past. So for Testament, and their few true peers (colleagues), getting old is not such a bitch, merely a new adventure and set of experiences through which to filter some continually excellent heavy metal music. The year of thrash continues, brought to you almost exclusively by the 45-and-older crowd.
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