January 5, 2008

CD Review: Testament - Demonic

Testament is an interesting band in that I feel their best music was released well after their debut. They first rose to prominence with their debut album The Legacy in 1987. The album was carried by their then popular thrash style and the musical virtuosity of lead guitarist Alex Skonick. A couple of albums later they released what was the pinnacle of their 80's era success and the album they are most identified with, Practice What You Preach in 1989. The following year they released a strong follow up in Souls of Black. However, after this release the band went through some line-up changes that saw the departure of Skolnick and drummer Louie Clemente. This shake up resulted in the band stepping in a new, heavier direction with the release of Low in 1994. The lineup changes continued, as did their musical direction with Demonic in 1997, which is being re-released through Prosthetic Records after being unavailable for years.

I remember getting Demonic when it was first released, based off of my love for Low. I also remember listening to it and not thinking that much of it. Whenever I wanted to listen to Testament, I found myself reaching for Low and Practice What You Preach more than any of the others. Now that I have this remastered Demonic in my hands, I have to believe that I was either stupid (please no comments, I already know), or that Testament was just way ahead of the curve and it took this time for the rest of us to catch up to them.

Quite frankly, Demonic just may be the heaviest and most brutal they have ever sounded. It definitely does not sound like Testament of old. This album continues the trend that began in Low and takes the band in a direction that sidesteps thrash, although the elements are still there, and into the more evil and, dare I say, demonic arena of death metal.

I cannot help but feel that with Alex Skolnick leaving the band, it left more songwriting opportunities for the rest of the band, and in particular Eric Peterson (who, along with vocalist Chuck Billy, are the only original members that have been there since The Legacy). This is not a knock against Skolnick, as he is an excellent songwriter and an even better guitar player. I wonder if that is what led to his departure, disagreement on the direction of the band? Whatever the case, it led to the start of a second era of Testament that was still distinctly them but decidedly different from the first era.

Demonic is a heavy album that found Eric Peterson handling all of the guitar duties. Gone are the twin axe attack that typified the Skolnick years, that was replaced by a sound that is darker and more evil sounding. This new guitar sound played in perfect harmony with Chuck Billy's vocal decisions. On their earlier albums, Chuck was known for his more high-pitched singing. Here, he opts to lower the register into a more death/extreme growl. For a moment, you may even think that it is a different singer altogether; however, Chuck's vocal style is still distinct as he blends some of his older style with this new look.

Rejoining the band for the first time since they abandoned the name Legacy in favor of Testament is bassist Derek Ramirez, who was with the band prior to Greg Christian and prior to their emergence as a force on the thrash scene. Also appearing on Demonic is monster drummer Gene Hoglan, a legend in the world of metal drumming. This guy is absolutely amazing, just check out his work with Strapping Young Lad and Dark Angel (not to mention animated band Dethklok). His unique arrangements add another dimension to the brutality of the album. Unfortunately, this was his only album with the band, leaving to work with Devin Townsend and Strapping Young Lad.

The album starts off ominously with the countdown to evil, an intro that was sampled by Slipknot on their Iowa album, leading to the extreme "Demonic Refusal." It is a jarring introduction to the new sound, with Chuck's evil growl. Other songs to pay attention to include the eerie "The Burning Times," the groove metal of "John Doe" and "Hatred Rise," the brutal "Murky Waters," and the death stylings of "Ten Thousand Thrones."

Bottomline. Testament delivers an album that is unlike anything they had done before while remaining true to what makes Testament Testament. This was largely ignored upon its release, be grateful for this new opportunity to discover an underappreciated gem from a band that helped forge the thrash genre.

Highly Recommended.


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