May 17, 2008

CD Review: Testament - The Formation of Damnation

Testament arrived on the thrash metal scene way back in 1987. They came in the wake of Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer. Because of their "next wave of thrash" status, I sort of heard them as a Metallica knock-off. Of course, back when I was first listening to them way back in the day I did not have the, ahem, taste that I have now and did not appreciate them as much as I should have. Sure, I recognized the talent that Skolnick possessed and enjoyed a number of the tunes, but the true realization of quality did not dawn on me until much later. Now what does this have to do with The Formation of Damnation? Well, to fully appreciate where we are now, we need to have a handle on what has come before.

Throughout the 1990's the band saw a number of lineup changes, with only vocalist Chuck Billy and guitarist Eric Peterson remaining throughout. Despite the shake-ups, Testament soldiered on, delivering a number of excellent albums (even if I did not recognize them as such at the time). This leads me to one of the significant items surrounding this release, with the exception of drummer Louie Clemente, The Formation of Damnation features a reunion of the original lineup for the first time since 1992's The Ritual. Yes, Alex Skolnick is back to spread his guitar mastery, blended with some new tricks learned over the years.

Earlier this year, in preparation for this release, Testament's last two studio albums were remastered and rereleased to store shelves, Demonic and The Gathering. I had the opportunity to review both of them, and let me tell you, they are great metal albums that did not get their due when they were originally released. Listening to them and then listening to this new album, it is amazing to see how consistently strong they are. Despite nine years lying between The Gathering and The Formation of Damnation, they have not missed a beat. It is as if the band never took a break and the original members never left.

For anyone who has followed a band over the course of a long period of time, you surely recognize the difficulties they have in keeping their music fresh, original, and generally strong. Some may have dips in quality only to come back with a strong entry, such as Megadeth (yes, United Abominations is that good), or they seem to fall off the table with regards to where they came from, like Metallica (hopefully their next album will bring back their thrash roots. Hey, I can dream), but precious few are able to deliver a consistently high level of quality. Testament is one of those bands, and while I still have some gaps to fill in, I have no doubt that they will prove to be as consistent as their last four-five albums have been.

Okay, enough of this. I am sure you are much more interested in what I have to say about the new album.

Is The Formation of Damnation good? You're damn right it is! Testament has successfully continued their legacy of creating first rate thrash metal. The music is as fresh and relevant as it has ever been. This album is filled with bone crushing, yet melodic riffs, soaring solos, driving drums, and instantly recognizable growls. In short this is every bit the album that you could have hoped it would be, proof positive that nine years between albums has not dampened their ability to create thrash metal that is as familiar as it is new.

There is very little wait to get into the album's strengths. The record begins with an instrumental intro called "For the Glory of..." This track, running just over a minute, puts their balanced blend of brutality and melody front and center. The style is instantly recognizable as Testament and the intro proves the perfect gateway into their first single, "More Than Meets the Eye." The cut is propelled forward by a galloping rhythm led by double-bass and a surging guitar riff. Chuck Billy's voice sounds as strong as ever, belting out that trademarked high pitched singing alongside that demonically deep growl.

Sure, I could go through this song by song, but where's the fun in that? This is one of those albums that takes hold of you, doesn't let go, and before you know it, it's two in the morning and you've listened to it five times in a row.

Chuck Billy has not lost a step in the years since The Gathering. His voice is as strong as it ever was. Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick pair up one more time and head into the breach delivering skull crushing riffs, strong solos, and a stronger sense of melody than has been seen before. I am sure that the infusion of more melody is due to Skolnick's work in the jazz arena, the man is an amazing talent. Greg Christian does a fine job on bass, although it is only the rare occasion that I really noticed him, and that came mostly in the final track, "Leave Me Forever." Taking over drum duties is Paul Bostaph, who played with the band previously on the Return to the Apocalyptic City release back in 1993, and he does a strong job delivering some excellent work behind the kit.

In addition to the strong performances from all, there is another key component. That key element is songwriting, performances need to be backed by strong writing or else why bother? Chuck Billy and Eric Peterson handle the bulk of the song writing, and they do a fine job of keeping everything fresh, mixing things up, and remaining relevant. The two collaborate with Alex Skolnick on one track ("Dangers of the Faithless") and Greg Christian on another ("Leave Me Forever"). Skolnick also offers up a song he wrote on his own ("F.E.A.R."), rounding out the collection. Strong performances and strong writing pair up to make an album that cannot be ignored.

Among the songs to pay close attention to are: "More Than Meets the Eye," "The Formation of Damnation," "The Persecuted Won't Forget," "Henchman Ride," and "F.E.A.R." The rest are strong too, but these are my current favorites.

Bottomline. What are you waiting for? Get out there and get this album. If you are a fan of thrash and want to see it done right, or are you are just a fan of metal in general, you need to have this in your collection. Rest assured, this will be worthy of many plays. Don't call it a comeback, just a return to the public eye, the music is as strong as it ever was.

Highly Recommended.

Track listing:
01. For The Glory Of
02. More Than Meets The Eye
03. The Evil Has Landed
04. Formation Of Damnation
05. Dangers of The Faithless
06. The Persecuted Won't Forget
07. Henchman
08. Killing Season
09. Afterlife
10. F.E.A.R.
11. Leave Me Forever


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