ALBUM REVIEW: TESTAMENT – “DARK ROOTS OF EARTH”

Testament’s current lineup

by Ryan Meehan
 
Once again I am reminded by the sorry fact that I have massively fallen behind a lot of the new heavy metal music that was released this summer.  Today I take a look at the latest CD from Testament, entitled “Dark Roots of Earth”.  This record came out on July 31st, and it wasn’t until recently that I’ve had any time at all to get a hold of any new metal.  I would just like to preface this by saying I did not grow up listening to a lot of Testament.  In my mind, there was only room for so much technical metal at twelve years old so that part of my brain was pretty plugged up with Megadeth as you can imagine.  So you won’t hear me comparing this album to old Testament material, which is sort of a relief because I would bet that most bands that have been around the block as many times as they have would want their new music to be listened to on a clean palate.  There are a lot of metal purists that feel that since Testament is not one of the original four American thrash metal bands that they will always be second rate, which is total bullshit.  Those people are entitled to their opinion, but then you have to consider “What about Exodus?” as well as asking that same question about the many similar bands that emerged from that scene but did not achieve as much commercial success.  (or as much commercial success as thrash metal can acquire) 
 
Testament began in 1983 but did not become a part of the metal culture until the release of their first album “The Legacy” in 1987.  (That’s an awfully ballsy move for a band to call their first album that, the only thing that I can think if that would be more ballsy is if you were to call it “Greatest Hits” which I’m still waiting for someone to not only do but actually pull off)  Lead Singer Chuck Billy, guitarist Alex Skolnick and bassist Greg Christian have been staples of the band throughout many lineup changes, even though Greg and Alex have both left at certain points during the band’s existence.  They have experimented with death metal (1997’s “Demonic”) and other various styles of technical metal all over the map.

In the time since Testament has established themselves as one of the top ten thrash metal bands in all of history, the landscape of heavy music has changed.  Metallica’s bassist Cliff Burton, who had a once-in-a-lifetime talent when it came to his craft, was killed in a tragic bus accident.   Hair and glam metal finally disappeared much to the relief of people that had been fans of the genre just three years before.  We were lucky enough to see the fusion of rap and heavy metal evidenced by Public Enemy’s legendary duet with Anthrax, only to see it completely fucking bastardized by this band called Limp Bizkit from Jacksonville that essentially ruined everything.  Bands like Testament who remain together though this and many other changes within the genre have the luxury of picking certain elements of the new stuff that they like into the music that is their own.  They can decide that they appreciate the raspy but melodic vocals of A Chad Tribbett, but that there should probably not be an Asian guy who raps in their band.  And in no way am I saying that a band like Testament needs to do a lot of shopping around for their sound, they’re establish and people within the metal community have a great deal of respect for them.  So let’s take a brief look at the new piece of art entitled “Dark Roots of Earth” by Testament…

CD REVIEW:  TESTAMENT – “DARK ROOTS OF EARTH” ORD 07/31/2012
 
1.    “Rise Up”  9.2/10.0

Not only is this a great first song to introduce the album, it also has a lot of the elements of a great metal song:  A lot of pinch harmonics and palm muting, plenty of stop and go dynamics when it comes to the drumming, a great buildup during the bridge, and a killer solo.  Right away you’re sucked in and since this is the first Testament song I’ve heard in a while, it sort of pissed me off that I never listened to them as much as I probably should have.  This one has a very cool classic metal feel to it in that there is a chant (“When I say rise up…You say War” that can encourage audience participation, and nothing sells an artist more than if you can hear something on CD and say “I bet that song is awesome live.  Great way to get things going here.

2.    “Native Blood”  9.3/10.0

Much like on “Rise Up”, this track contains a great sing along moment.  The lyric in the chorus is “I’m warning this world…To stay out of my way…My voice’ll be heard…so loud…”  And it’s done just so that in those spaces where I put the ellipses there’s a killer guitar riff.  Even though the music couldn’t further from being classified as such, there’s a very punk rock feel to the lyrics…a sort of “I was here first, don’t fuck with me” type of attitude.  And whether it’s something that the artists believes in and may be in relation to his performance of the music (For example, if he’s saying that a lot of the classic metal bands such as Testament were the real deal and some of the bands nowadays are total shit) or if it’s implied sarcasm (For example, making fun of those who have a very intense anti-immigration stance and are very outspoken about that topic) doesn’t really matter because in the end it’s an awesome piece of music and that’s the only thing that counts.  Also utilizes a key change without sounding cheesy which is almost impossible to do. 

3.     “Dark Roots of Earth”  6.9/10.0
 
As with most title tracks, the lyrics of this song convey the message that they are conceptually trying to get across with the whole CD.  In this case, the message is:  There is shittiness in all of us.  In our society, there are certain people, places or things that if you were grading the whole world on its performance would drag the overall average way down.  In some instances, title tracks get a free pass from the listener AND the band.  The listener just assumes that since it’s the title track that it’s better and more high quality than it actually is, and the band can’t really keep it off the album because named the whole CD after that idea or a similar one.  In this case, I think that’s what happened because this song isn’t very exciting.  The middle of it gets more interesting when the double kick is really prevalent, but it’s not enough to save the fact that the melody is very predictable.  Not as many guitar harmonies on this one as there were on the first two. 
 
4.     “True American Hate”  8.4/10.0

This sounds like an old school East Coast hardcore track at times, but moves back to thrash pretty quickly.  I like the fact that it picks up the pace when after the disappointment of “Dark Roots of the Earth”, and I also dig what I believe is Chuck’s mockery of America showing their “true colors” of hatred.  There is a very wild tapping-based intro to the solo (sounds almost kind of Dragonforce) and I like how on this CD the solos aim for epic or legend status but don’t always reflect it with epic or legendary length.  This solo is a little bit longer than some of the other ones on the record but it’s so good you don’t even really notice, and it fades back into the third verse when the drums take a brief breather.  I definitely want to floor punch for a few rounds after hearing this shit. 
 
5.    “A Day in the Death of Mankind”  9.4/10.0
 
This is the point in the album where it becomes very evident that the bass guitar sounds amazing.  It’s very thrashy but it’s also very mathy, and anytime you can find those two things in the same area I’m usually nearby with a Gatorade ready to bang my head accordingly.  Probably my favorite cut on the album.  The beginning is put together very well and mobilizes the feel of the rest of the song successfully.  Not a lot to analyze here because this song is just simply fucking great. 

6.     “Cold Embrace”  5.8/10.0

Sometimes juxtaposition can be a bit of a motherfucker.  Riding high off of track five’s fast paced energy, the adrenaline level dips as the “ballad” of the record plays.  Although the main clean tone riff sounds pretty stock, I have to give them credit for at least really working the end of the phrases so it doesn’t come off sounding like Warrant’s “Blind Faith”.  But if you’re aiming that low, I’m usually not impressed.  They could have put a B side here instead of including something that seriously damages the momentum of the entire sequence.  And it’s way too long – This track times out at over eight minutes but feels like (insert amount of time it takes to get molested, including all of the therapy sessions). 

7.      “Man Kills Mankind”  8.7/10.0 

Lot of palm muting here, and a good hook.  This one also has kind of a sing-along chorus to it…with real easy to remember words that are also simple to understand.  There are parts of it that seem like they could be filler, but overall it comes together in an above average package.  This track contains the lyric:  “Some people live the lie, some people don’t…Some people turn their cheek…while others hate…” Lot of headbanging goodness here and it saved the CD from the throes of the atrocity that was the last song.  The drums on this song don’t sound like they would be easy to play, but if you can play it it sounds like it would be a blast.  Ends with a lot of sped up double kicks and it gets the job done. 
 
8.      “Throne of Thorns”  7.1/10.0
 
This track sounds like it might have been a good idea at first but something here doesn’t work for me.  Technically it’s a really heavy song with well written parts it just so happens that it doesn’t work and seems distant at times.  But someone else may like it for whatever reason and it’s not like it doesn’t belong on the record altogether so I’ll let it slide with a C minus.

9.       “Last Stand for Independence”   6.4/10.0
 
Let’s get one thing straight here:  I am not a fan of excess effects added to drumming.  Yes, I am a fucking huge Hall and Oates fan so that also conveniently means I’m a hypocrite, but I don’t like it at all.   There is a moment at the beginning of this song where all of the other instruments drop out and they use a flanger for second and I just want to stress that in my mind that’s completely unacceptable on a lot of different fronts.  Since metal is supposed to be devoid of things like that, I wasn’t a big fan of how that 4 second clip worked out for me.  But the song did pick up quite a bit and anytime I hear the phrase “burning flesh” I’m sold.  So sytle points aren’t there but it cranks out some seriously heavy chops. 
 
10.   “Dragon Attack”  8.9/10.0

This is the first cover song on the program, made famous by a band you may be familiar with called Queen.  It’s off of “The Game”, which is one of their lesser known full-lengths released in 1980.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhfzXZZSot0  The song mainly consists of this one great hook in E, which is very typical of a lot of Brian May’s work.  One of my favorite things about Queen is the fact that it’s not really as chock full of guitar as one might expect.  The power that comes from Queen’s guitar work is due to the fact that May only plays when it’s necessary.  In fact, Queen’s entire body of work is packed with fragments of songs where any of the instruments are just completely missing.  (For example, the amount of time it takes for the guitar to finally come in on “Another One Bites the Dust”, the same thing on “We Will Rock You” in addition to the complete absence of bass altogether, and several other tracks as well)  Testament’s version absolutely nails it down, with more of a metal feel to it.  With that metal feel it does add a little bit more guitar, but that’s to be expected. 

11.  Animal Magnetism”  (Scorpions Cover)  4.6/10.0

Every time I see this song title in print I’m worried that if I click on the phrase that it’s going to direct me to some video of three girls who didn’t pay enough attention in high school taking turns blowing a horse.  And in my defense, with the current state of the internet it’s hard to blame me for thinking that way.  For those of you that may not know, this is a cover of an old Scorpions song.  Personally, I’ve never gotten into a lot of Scorpions stuff because I think that not only are they one of the most overrated bands in the history of rock n’ roll, they are also not a metal band by the definition of the term.  For the record, when I went to look up the original song (which I’m not familiar with) on YouTube a lot of the results were figure skating videos that used the music of the Scorpions as background music.  There is no metal band on the face of this earth that would ever want their music set to the lamest “sport” ever dreamed up.  I don’t give a shit how you look at it, even if it’s “Rock You Like a Hurricane” no true metal band writes music so that it would sync up with some 17 year old Russian chick with bulimia doing a triple lutz.  In fact the only thing less metal than that is me doing a review of this album and having to look up a figure skating move just so that joke might work, which it likely didn’t.  As far as Testament’s version, I’m not a huge fan of it because the songwriting aspect is notably missing, and there are points where I’m worried that Billy is going to launch into “I want you to Want Me” by Cheap Trick.  No reason for this to be on the album, and it’s very odd to choose this song to cover as it is very slow moving and most importantly doesn’t work with in sequence with the rest of the songs. 

12.  “Powerslave” (Iron Maiden Cover)  8.7/10.0

I suppose if you’re going to put a cover on a metal CD you have to go big, and Testament knows that by now.  This is a great cover to do because on the off chance that someone hears this album and has never heard Iron Maiden, a cover of “Powerslave” is a great introduction to one of the most legendary and influential bands in all of rock history.  It has the galloping climb back to the first position that made Iron Maiden so addictive, as well as the unmistakable vocal approach of Bruce Dickenson.  While Chuck can’t exactly match Bruce’s vocal prowess, he can match the enthusiasm and energy that it takes to give new life to a classic such as this one.  My hope upon hearing this track is that younger fans will do some online research and witness the glory that is Iron Maiden, and anytime that a band can bring this to light they’ve done a good job. 
 
13.   “Throne of Thorns” (Extended Version)     7.0/10.0

I will never understand why bands do this.  Why in the world would you put a longer version of a song from earlier on in the record late on the record?  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a decent song, but if you edited it you did so for a reason.  Why press the first draft?  Not trying to compare the work that I’ve done with a band like Testament, but seriously if someone pressed a disc with every first draft of any song that I’ve had a part in writing, I’d make sure that individual “accidentally” died from inhalation of donkey semen.  Edits are edits for a reason…Now I do know that since Eric is the one that is enlightening us with our metal, that this is a deluxe edition and this is not the way the band originally intended this record to end.  However, I don’t usually like any structural decision to put the same song on any CD twice, unless it carries a certain theme because it’s a concept album or it’s just so different that it’s unrecognizable.  In all seriousness this song is very much the same as the first version, it’s just that they faded out track 8 and on 13 they let them play it out. 
Overall Score:   8.5/10.0
 
Summary:

From where I see it, “The Dark Roots of the Earth” is a piece that is lyrically about the entropic elements of life that will one day lead us to our demise.  It’s about that asshole at the gas station earlier that sat there and bought 4 scratch lottery tickets, which in turn made you late for work, then your boss started to wonder if you’re presence is really needed, and now you’re worried about your job. It’s about the little things that can set a chain of events in motion that make other things much, much worse.  What hurts even more is that it’s about us.  I am a big fan of anybody who questions stuff like this as opposed to simply pointing a finger whatever direction is most convenient. 

From a sound standpoint, it’s real obvious to me that Testament did their best to stay true to their roots and crank out some more head pounding metal.  At the same time, they have picked up an a lot of production aspects that some of the new bands have been so liberal with using.  I say “aspects” because I don’t like using the word “tricks” when referring to production because I don’t think anybody realistically creates music for the sole purpose of “tricking” anybody into anything. 

There are times in this CD where the vocals do show aspects of Chad Tribbett from Mudvayne, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Now, in no way am I saying he’s trying to imitate Chad, what I’m saying is that Testament has sharpened an already piercing weapon and the vocals are noticeably better.  This album really opened my eyes and it reminds me that some of the older guys in the business still have it.  These dudes haven’t missed a beat at all, and I enjoyed it even though parts of the CD contained buzzkillesque qualities. 

It’s my own personal opinion that this album could have been cut down to about ten songs and it would have been a high A.  Sometimes less is more, but then again, it’s not my vision so far be it from me to have to explain why I’m returning the spectacles.  Sometimes less is more, especially if you have so much stuff that’s high quality and you’re so close.  It can be the difference between “putting out another record” and “seriously reminding everyone that you absolutely mean fucking business and you aren’t going anywhere anytime soon”.  In this case, I don’t think that there is enough questionable material on this album to be “just another record”.  I think with this CD Testament is making a statement that they are not going to be denied their carefully swept corner of the thrash metal Smithsonian. 
 
Once again thanks for visiting First Order Historians and enjoying more of the internet’s finest in user generated content.
 
Meehan

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