Article By: Brett Schacht ‡ Edited By: Leanne Ridgeway
Despite being only a stone’s throw from the genre’s heyday, 1994 was a pretty dismal year for thrash metal enthusiasts.
After the gold rush led by Metallica’s ‘Black Album‘, every thrash band worth its salt felt obligated to make a (cash)grab for the gold ring. Megadeth fared pretty well with the high octane 21st century metal of ‘Countdown to Extinction‘, Anthrax traded in for a whole new (yet amazingly still potent) sound that failed to net them any new fans or (sadly) respect, and Slayer just kept on being Slayer.
The unofficial 5th member of the Big 4, Testament always seemed to be just out of striking distance of mass appeal, even when the band created one of the best albums of their career with 1992’s ‘The Ritual’. Streamlined, powerful, and with tremendous songwriting efforts from both rhythm ace Eric Peterson and lead maestro Alex Skolnick, the band put their best forward, only to have the door slammed in their face again.
With the sub-par results still festering in their brains, the finger-pointing began, and Skolnick-already looking to expand his ever-broadening sonic palette- took his leave. Drummer Louis Clemente soon followed, and just like that, 2/5ths of the then-classic lineup was gone. Surprisingly, the band didn’t spend much time licking its wounds, and instead procuring the talents of guitarist James Murphy (Disincarnate, Obituary, Death) and drummer John Tempesta (Exodus) to keep the still-viable franchise at the top of its division.
Released in October 1994, ‘Low‘ sounded like classic Testament, but with a never-better production job courtesy of newcomer Garth Richardson that ratcheted up the brutish impact of the music magnificently. The full-on assault of lead track “Low” [official video below] shows in no small measure that the band had had enough of the music industry’s games and false promises. If the band was going down, it would be carried out on its shield.
Lead growler Chuck Billy turns in the best performance of his career thus far, his almost overpowering bellows crushingly heavy and direct (the lyric “Hey you piece of shit / Just leave the kids alone”, aimed at pedophile clergymen, remains a favorite). Murphy‘s wah-inflected solo quickly dispenses with the question of whether he would mesh well with the thrashier fare Testament dealt in, coming from the more atonally-friendly death metal scene.
“Legions (In Hiding)” continues the mid-paced devastation, a wicked octave-riff (a longtime device used by the band) serving as a way-station to string the listener along until another ripping solo by Murphy enforces the fact that this wasn’t a premature effort, the band was ready and able to move on from its earlier incarnation with nary a glance in the rearview mirror. Absolutely raging from the outset, “Hail Mary” strikes the perfect balance between catchiness and murderous intent, drum fills acting as punctuation AND narrative, furthering the song’s forward motion relentlessly.
The band’s flair for writing memorable, soul-stirring ballads hadn’t been diminished despite all the personnel changes, “Trail of Tears” featuring all the hallmarks of earlier triumphs. Chuck Billy delivers another multi-faceted, impassioned performance, while James Murphy traverses the fretboard effortlessly, the legato runs and bluesy phrasing in the quieter moments showing him as more than up to the challenge of filling the gigantic shoes of Skolnick, a fan favorite and focal point of much of the band’s previous output.
Groove is the name of the game in “P.C.”, a rebuke of out-of-control government intervention and overreach, both here and abroad. The suggestion of death metal that had been looming for some time in Testament‘s music is made explicit with the sonic destruction of “Dog Faced Gods”, Billy threatening to induce heart palpitations and aneurysms in listeners and himself alike. Like Iron Maiden’s ‘Powerslave‘ on steroids (in fact, several tracks sport an Egyptian flair), it showed that the band hadn’t lost a step since the “Practice What You Preach” and “The New Order” days, with its crack songwriting.
Instrumental “Urotsukidoji” is a slightly unusual detour for the band, bassist Greg Christian getting a rare chance to step out and flex his muscles a bit beyond providing counterpoint and support to the guitar work of his comrades. “Chasing Fear” and “Ride” are two more solid tracks, bringing us to the final song, another instrumental, this one entitled “Last Call”. This is a more subdued affair, however, a melancholy song giving us a chance to wind down from an album full of so much rage and heavy-duty musical calisthenics.
Consistently engaging and dependable, Testament has been a workhorse that has seen its share of difficult times. From numerous personnel changes and poor record company decisions in the late ’90s to the devastating news of Chuck Billy‘s cancer diagnosis (thankfully now in remission), the band has since returned to their winning ways. Now deep in the heart of a three-album streak of fantastic releases, Skolnick even returning to the fold in 2005, and more enthusiastic than ever to promote the band and tour, Testament is one of the rare bands who received a second lease on life and refused to squander it.
With an almost unbelievable history of nearly 35 years of thrash excellence in their back pockets, Testament continues to impress and improve with its dedication to its craft and fan base. Nothing has ever come easy to Testament, but through sheer force of will they’ve made their mark in a crowded genre, and their legacy is finally secure.