Testament - Dark Roots of Earth
2012 Nuclear Blast Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.
The most-discussed metal album coming into the late edges of summer is Dark Roots of Earth. Prepare for this one to make many year-end-best lists and give the fellas in Testament a collective clap upon their backs for representing themselves (and all of us) with dignity and force. 2008 was considered Testament's comeback year and their well-received The Formation of Damnation gave their fans a reason to believe that the stabilized four-fifths of the classic lineup wouldn't be a mere cash-in reunion.
"Comeback" is a phrase you either take literally or you scoff at its profoundly stupid usage. Testament's devout kept tabs on the band through the Low and Demonic years and while the core lineup had been shaken then, you'll seldom hear anybody itch about those records. Many hold those two nuggets in high esteem with anything Testament has laid down. The Ritual has its fans and its detractors, but it was a product of its time when American metal had been sent on a different direction where those who still had recording contracts were forced to modify their speed if not aggression. The Ritual, by all means, is a powerful album in its restraint, and one can examine that album along with Testament's entire recorded body when approaching Dark Roots of Earth.
We're beyond "comebacks" at this point. The Who's Who of eighties thrash have all resurfaced these days and the operative word is hardly "comeback." It's more like vengeance. Dark Roots of Earth is complete vengeance. Not vendetta, mind you, since that would indicate tones so ugly there's no regard for the audience. Testament, a band that deserved to flourish more than they did back in the day, gets to enjoy the fruits of their labors (along with Overkill and and Kreator) this year as spotlight grabbers. Granted, there's no Metallica or Slayer getting in their way at the moment, but it's cathartic Testament are the grand poobahs of metal for 2012 and even better Dark Roots of Earth is a lordly cranium basher.
In many ways a retrospective of Testament's entire career within nine fresh tunes, Dark Roots of Earth is a calibrated powerhouse of wreckage seldom few are going to be able compete with. It's enough Testament has virtuosity and brutality contained as a perfect storm. They've always had an unfair advantage that Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson are the KK Downing and Glenn Tipton of thrash and Dark Roots of Earth showcases their reverence-meets-antagonism symbiosis. Their minute-plus solo section of the manic blitzer "True American Hate" is something to behold, regardless if you're used to hearing these guys. Even their temperate intertwining on the lofting "Cold Embrace" (which hails and restructures "The Legacy" from Souls of Black and "The Ballad" from Practice What You Preach) is full of both elegance and checked-down fury.
Skolnick and Peterson have always exhibited advanced level class in each other's company, but their congruent blend of darkness and light is prevalent more than ever on this album. You can hear the effect they have on Greg Christian, always a juggernaut on bass, and of course, Chuck Billy, whose vocal dynamics sparkle. Safe to say this is one of Billy's personal best efforts, from growl to tenor. Christian naturally answers the call with equal tenacity. The beautiful mixing job on Dark Roots of Earth allows listeners to hone in on every player at will, very rare in these days of pasteurized audile processing.
The X-factor on Dark Roots of Earth (as if it needed one) is Gene Hoglan. While serving Testament, you get the impression this was a whole new training ground for one of the modern masters of his trade. We all know Hoglan is capable of summoning infernos with his blast beat stamps and triplicate-happy rolls. Testament grounds him a bit while at the same time feeding off of his monster energy. What a pleasure it is hearing Hoglan mix intracate rolls and rat-a-tat bass pedals amidst the primary drive of "Man Kills Mankind," much less the hammer-down mosh rhythms on "Rise Up" and "Native Blood." Let's not overlook Hoglan's capacity to jerk out some impossibly smooth black metal racks on "Native Blood." Not out of the question he could've easily played for Emperor. Hoglan salutes Bill Ward (as Testament does to Black Sabbath in whole) on the lethal and proficient "Throne of Thorns." The cool part to "Throne of Thorns" is how it becomes more of Testament's beast in the second half with exquisite soloing and a riffing death metal submelody before coming back to the primary stamp mode in the final stanza.
"True American Hate," however, is the album's tour-de-force for all constituents involved. It's impressive enough hearing Testament unleash their hounds on this breathless and unfailingly fast monster. The precision of each member is a true spectacle and it's a giddy task trying to soak up each part moving at hyperspeed. As mentioned, the guitar solos are major league and abundant, while listening to Hoglan bop along quickly and then show off some breakneck chops as part of the song's chorus, hoo-mama. "True American Hate" is the metal performance of the year. No need to deliberate, Grammy committee.
Closing off with a tried and true San Fran mosher, "Last Stand For Independence," it's fitting Testament calls up the old school "Mechanix" gallop marking their home scene, never forgetting their roots...dark roots, that is to say. It's as if Testament is humbly making a stand for themselves along with their Bay Area brethren. The slower but searing middle section of "Last Stand For Independence" is like a beacon call that Testament is here to claim their birthright and kudos to them. They freaking deserve it.