Review Summary: A modernized version of their best work during the 80s, Dark Roots is coherent and consistent, without lacking variety
Third time’s the charm. Up to now, Testament have lost their momentum twice. First, when they weren’t able to expand on the success of Practice What You Preach and the records that preceded it, which resulted in conflicts between the members of the band, and a subsequent loss of direction, especially during the years of the death of thrash (post 1991). Then, right when it seemed that the all-star line-up of The Gathering would guarantee artistic and commercial success, several misfortunes hit Chuck Billy and the band proved once again unable to capitalize on the success brought by a very promising record. But by 2008, the world of metal had changed; thrash was back with a vengeance and Testament had 4/5 of their original line-up reunited. The Formation of Damnation, was an incredible record and implied that Testament can be an integral part of the new wave of thrash metal. It remained to be seen how they would react this time.
Dark Roots of Earth is finally Testament capturing the momentum. Now I can’t be sure how this will reflect commercially, but in terms of quality, this is top notch material again. The beauty of Dark Roots of Earth lies in the fact that there is a big picture. Gladly, Testament recorded one album that is not too long; just like old times, this means less (or no) filler material. It also means something more; that the record sounds as an album, as a whole, rather than a collection of songs.
Indeed, in a total of nine songs, Testament have divided their material wisely. Three mid-to-up-tempo groove thrashers; Native Blood, A Day in The Death and Man Kills Mankind, the first one being one of the best songs in Dark Roots, with its beautiful dual guitar harmonies and the catchy chorus (kind of like the “Indians” of 2012). Then, there is Cold Embrace, a semi-ballad, more or less in the vein of Low’s Trail of Tears, which means beautiful acoustic guitar work, with nice solos and heavy parts entering here and there to create build-ups and climaxes. There are two plain epics, the title track and Throne of Thorns, which is arguably the best song of this album; galloping rhythms, harmonized leads, a menacing Chuck Billy and an adventurous song structure overall, this is by far Dark Roots’ most interesting track. There is also Rise up, the opener, clearly destined to become a live staple, due to the nice vocal melody of the verse and the gang vocals during the chorus. Finally, there are two furious thrashers; True American Hate (which is pure thrashing madness, sounds a lot like the title track from the previous record-without the growls) and Last Stand for Independence, the closer. Among them all, only Man kills Mankind seems to be of lesser quality, probably because of its somewhat generic nature.
As mentioned before, Dark Roots is a very coherent work. There is enough variety to keep this record interesting from start to finish, but there is also a strong sense that it is a whole. Despite the variety, the band’s trademark elements are everywhere; shredding lead guitars courtesy of Alex Skolnick, dual harmonies, riffs that groove as much as they thrash (in Testament’s very own, The New Order- kind of way),catchy choruses and Chuck Billy’s melodic yet very aggressive vocals (the Hetfield disciple we all adore). Also, special credit must be given to Gene Hoglan whose performance is incredible, probably one of the few drummers who can fill-in for Paul Bostaph.
Dark Roots is pretty much a modernized version of Testament’s 80s albums. It is certainly no less impressive than their 2008 offering, it is more coherent, probably without the highs and the lows of the Formation of Damnation. However I feel that comparing one Testament record to another is less important than observing their actual status in today’s metal scene. I mean, honestly, which band among the big 4 has made such an impressive comeback?