Review Summary: Thrash icons, Testament, emerge with a new album, with an eye towards the past..
Throughout Testament's storied career, to many fans, thrash's overlooked underdogs, has shape-shifted with the times. While Metallica was getting ready to further alienate some of their most hardcore fans with Load (two years later), Anthrax had just released their Sound Of White Noise the year before, and it looked like thrash's pioneers were all teetering on radio play and selling albums, except for 94's Testament release, Low.
Not that every band has to stay on the same page or have room to grow, but in that general time frame, Testament had tapped into the pulse of where metal was going, incorporating growls, death metal, and an overall change into a more extreme sound. They followed up with Demonic, with which they totally abandoned their core sound, going for a more pure death metal sound. Then came The Gathering, which was the highlight of the 'new' Testament sound. It had thrash, death, it had growling, groove, and it had some great melodies.
After a 9 year silence, they came back with Formation of Damnation, which seemed to cover all the bases, bringing back some of the original sound, while retaining some of the death metal touches as well. Which bring us to Dark Roots of the Earth, after another 4 year wait. The fact of the matter is, looking at Testament's back catalog, they really have not moved forward that much with this release. That is not to say that they have to continually be pioneers or reinvent the wheel, but they seem to have evolved with each release, for better or worse. That is why this album feels stagnant.
It is not that it is a poor album by any stretch of the imagination. It is still far beyond the drivel that is seen in much of today's metal market. What brings it down is the standards they have set for themselves over the last two decades. It is head and shoulders above what many metal-heads consider the 'Big Four'. Though the last releases of Anthrax, Metallica, and Megadeth have seen all three bands headed back in a heavier direction, Testament has never stopped being heavy. There is no 'return to form' for them. However, if anything, this album could be considered a return to form, if comparing it their older releases such as, Souls of Black.
They have toned down the death metal flourishes to almost non-existent, brought back the ballads ('Cold Embrace'), and with Skolnick (guitarist) fully back into the fold by actually co-writing much of the record, it takes a nostalgic step back into past. This is truly a matter of taste. For those that like the heavier, more brutal-side of Testament, they will find much less to salivate over, except for a few songs, such as, 'True American Hate'. For the older fans, that miss the original sound of Testament, the old-school thrash, the 2 minute solos, there is plenty to chew on here.
But regardless of which side of the coin the listener falls on, the song writing feels tired, almost forced, and Chuck Billy's vocal melodies border on monotonous. On a positive note, the production is fierce, crisp, and holds up to the best of what is out there in metal today. Unfortunately, after a few spins, most of the songs are forgettable, and it seems more appealing to dig into their back catalog if in the mood for some Testament.