Testament – Dark Roots of Earth Review

Testament // Dark Roots of Earth
Rating: 4.0/5.0 — Now officially part of the Big Four (you know the drill Dave)
Label: Nuclear Blast [EU | US]
Websites:  testamentlegions.com  |  myspace.com
Release Dates: EU: 2012.07.27 | SE: 2012.07.30 | US: 7.31.2012

In my not so humble opinion, Testament was always more worthy of inclusion in the so-called “Big Four” of thrash than most of the anointed ones. Slayer is obviously the Mack Daddy/Daddy Mack, but Metallica fell off the thrash index by ’91 and Megadeth and Anthrax had a lot of weak moments which should’ve resulted in leapfrogging by more worthy, equally groundbreaking acts. By contrast, Testament has remained remarkably stable and solid over their long career. Any doubts about their later era viability were annihilated with the monstrous The Formation of Damnation, and after a four-year wait, we get the much-anticipated follow-up Dark Roots of Earth. While retaining the… roots (sorry) of the Formation sound, this one finds the band spreading out the scope of their writing and the result is a much more varied, diverse effort. There’s ample heaviness and power, but also scads of melodic, pristine guitar-work and some interesting departures from the well-worn thrash sound. Dark Roots also heralds the return of drum overlord Gene Hoglan to fill in for the injured Paul Bostaph. With such a valuable piece returning to the machine, could this possibly be a failure? Nah. But it’s not without a few small issues that keep it partially rooted to the ground (I’m not really sorry) [STEEEL DRUUUHM! *shakes fist* AMG].

Opener “Rise Up” is pure, unadulterated Testament and has that classic New Order sound. The riffs from Alex and  Eric have that old crushing stomp, the solos are as fluid, slippery and technical as ever and Chuck Billy sounds bigger than Jesus. Even better is album standout “Native Blood,” which is a real rager and Chuck’s vocals never sounded better or more powerful. There’s a great black metal twist complete with blast beats that will surprise at first and it sounds killer. If this one doesn’t get your blood up, you’ve already been embalmed.

A different side of Testament shows up with the much more traditional metal styling of the title track. It’s a mid-tempo grinder that allows  Chuck room to flex the golden pipes in between growls and howls. It’s a nice blend of heavy and melodic and provides a quality change-up in dynamic. From there, it’s back to back thrashers “American Hate” and “A Day in the Death.” The former is a rabid track that could have been on Demonic; the latter is a more  typical stomper in line with “Practice With You Preach,” but it works well enough thanks to an enthusiastic performance from Chuck.

The boys try a ballad for the first time in a long time with “Cold Embrace” and it’s a lengthy one. At almost eight minutes, it packs some interesting twists and turns, features some flat-out amazing melodic riffing and soloing and Chuck brings his A-Game. However, it feels overlong and drags toward the back-end, despite the exquisite guitar-work. While “Man Kills Mankind” feels a bit routine, they close out well with the surprisingly traditional metal/epic metal of “Throne of Thorns” (which is more Jag Panzer than Testament at times) and the thrashing urgency of “Last Stand for Independence” (which shamelessly borrows the main riff from Destruction’s classic “Bestial Invasion” (pronounced “bass-tial In-way-shun”)).

Testament 2012With all the thoughtful, shifting moods and skillful tradeoffs between the heavy and melodic, I couldn’t shake the thought that THIS is what Metallica could have evolved into after the black album. In their prime, they were masters of building heavy from melodic and crafting songs with plenty of dynamic moods, but they choose to devolve into some kind of alternative rock monster and that makes me St. Angry.

So, while the inclusion of more pedestrian songs like “Man Kills Mankind” and the bout of Metallica-itis (inability to self-edit) they suffer during “Cold Embrace” leaves this ever so slightly below the greatness of Formation, there’s a pornucopia (way better than a cornucopia) of seriously worthwhile stuff here. Chuck has rarely sounded better or been more diverse in his delivery and naturally, Alex and Eric put on a guitar-tech clinic as Gene does what drum overlords do. Their collective musical talent is beyond reproach and this album allows them to show it off more than ever (even the songs I don’t love have great musical moments).

The production was helmed by mix-master Andy Sneap and the result is a big, powerful and loud sound. While it’s polished and “modern” in most respects, it doesn’t trouble me like such productions usually do. Sure, I wish every thrash album was as raw as Slaughter’s timeless Strappado, but this one works and the guitars feel powerful and oppressive.

Dark Roots of Earth is one of the shining moments in skull tank thrash this year and it’s a welcome return by the mighty Testament.  They show us a few new sides and aspects and wow us with musicality all the way through. That’s enough for me to act without U.N. cooperation and unilaterally elevate them into the “Big Four,” at the expense of the declining Megadeth. Here’s something Dave hasn’t heard in a while: pack your stuff, you’re out! Don’t worry, he’ll catch a therapy session with Lars,  have a good cry and be right as rain. ROOTS, BLOODY ROOTS!!!

[Addendum: The “deluxe version” of the album includes covers of Queen’s “Dragon Attack,” The Scorpions’ “Animal Magnetism” and Maiden’s “Powerslave.” The latter two are pretty killer. There’s also an extended version of “Throne of Thorns.”]

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