January 5, 2008

CD Review: Testament - The Gathering

Two years after the release of their death metal album, Demonic, in 1997 Testament returned with a new lineup and their last album of original material prior to the announcement of The Formation of Damnation (slated for release in April 2008). The album, called The Gathering, tones down the overt death style of Demonic and returns to a more thrash oriented sound, although there are still traces of the death style. In short, it continued the evolution of a band that has been one of the most consistent thrash acts since their arrival on the scene in 1987. The album went largely ignored upon its release through Spitfire Records. I have to admit that I was among those who ignored it. Granted, I was, at the time, less than thrilled with Demonic. Combine that with the fact that there was little promotion of its release that it may not be that it was ignored but rather that no one knew about it. Anyway, Prosthetic Records is re-releasing the album so that we may have a second chance to discover what a chosen few have known for nearly a decade.

The 1990's were a decade of change for the longtime thrash band. The Gathering was the fifth release and the fifth lineup of the decade. At the core of the band were vocalist Chuck Billy and guitarist Eric Peterson. They alone had weathered the storm since their 1987 debut, The Legacy. The result was a series of albums that were all decidedly Testament, but distinctly different in execution. The decade began with the release of Souls of Black, the well-received follow-up to their breakthrough Practice What You Preach. The next full-length was Low, which saw the band moving in a decidedly heavier direction that culminated in 1997's Demonic. The Gathering saw a new lineup bring more thrash back into their recently perfected death metal side. The result is possibly the finest realization of what it means to be Testament.

I doubt that The Gathering will ever be considered in the same breath as Practice or Low, but there is absolutely no denying the excellence put forth. The problem was most likely timing. 1999 saw the monster emergences of nu-metal acts such as Slipknot, Static-X, and Limp Bizkit getting the lions share of attention while bands such as Testament and Overkill were overlooked, despite strong releases. It was a changing of the guard, in a manner of speaking. Although, not it seems that the thrash bands of old will have the last laugh as the nu-metal fad is dying down and fans are looking more for real metal.

The new line-up featured the return of guitarist James Murphy, who had appeared on Low in 1994, joining Eric Peterson to bring back the two guitar attack that was absent from Demonic. Joining on bass is Steve DiGiorgio (Sadus), bringing a distinctly different approach than his predecessor, Derek Ramirez. Finally you have a legendary drummer replacing a legendary drummer. Gene Hoglan left after one album to work with Strapping Young Lad, but stepping up to take over the drum duties was Dave Lombardo, who attained his legendary status while with Slayer. He brings his incredible talent to bear on The Gathering, ably filling the large shoes that were left behind.

The Gathering finds a Testament that is more focused than ever. Together, this gathering of metal luminaries proceed to deliver an album that is as thrashy, heavy, and brutal as you could want. It is quite something to listen to their albums, in order, and see the growth and changes they have gone through while at the same time remaining incredibly consistent. It is almost as if all they had been doing was with the intent of building to this release.

It all begins with "D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)." It is a speedy, thrashy little number that goes a long way towards setting the stage for the rest of the album. It calls to mind moments of Demonic, but it also recalls the early recordings from the 1980's. Chuck Billy continues to experiment with a growling style, while reintegrating his higher register.

This is one big dose of mean, it gets right down to the point with its spot on production and combination of melody and brutality. It builds through cuts like "Eyes of Wrath," "3 Days of Darkness," and the very speedy "Legions of the Dead," culminating with "Riding the Snake."

"Riding the Snake" shows this version fo Testament at their peak. They are working in perfect unison, delivering one of their finest songs ever. Complete with guitar and bass solos, heavy melodic riffing, strong vocals, and drumming that is just perfect.

The album goes on to close with a pair of excellent tracks. First up is "Fall of Sipeldome," a song that keeps the speed going until the very end. The final song is the instrumental "Hammer of the Gods." It is not the best instrumental I have ever heard, but it slows the pace down to a powerful groove mode. The guitars heavily processed as the bass walks around behind them and the drums keep the momentum moving forward. There really is not a lot to this last song, but there is something that feels so right about the way it closes the album down.

Bottomline. Excellent album, easily among the best that they have ever recorded. Sadly ignored in 1999, now with renewed life and another opportunity to recognize the quality it contains. Even as it nears ten years old, the music still feels relevant and contemporary in the current metal scene. Do yourself a favor and unearth this forgotten gem.

Highly Recommended.


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