Review Summary: 25 years of music and Testament is still going strong.
Dark Roots of Earth is a huge relief for me. I had been holding my breath ever since The Formation of Damnation, and finally it seems like the band is entering a consistent phase again. The album contains nine new tracks, which deserve much more focus that the bulk of bonus material that is included. Testament sticks to their thrash roots for most of the album, and in their usual fashion, include a ballad-style song. The entire album holds up to par with many of their old and new classics, with few dull moments and a real sense of original writing that is hard to come by in bands this old. They really are reinventing the wheel here. Not in the sense that this is the greatest thing in thrash since the beginning of time, but more like each track brings forth something that hasn't already been done 1,000 times, and it's refreshing.
The album opens with what is easily one of the best songs on the album, Rise Up. Its fast pace and catchy call-and-response chorus is a great way to open the album. The band really is a powerhouse of musicianship, and based on that, expectations are met. Peterson's riffs are crushing, Skolnick's leads are blistering, Christian's bass has never been better, Billy is still a monster vocalist, and Gene Hoglan is Gene Hoglan. So yeah... Chuck Billy's vocals stand out tremendously, and push the already great song to one that is truly memorable. Clocking in at 4:18, this is the shortest song on the album. This could be a drawback for the listener, but they certainly didn't waste time in songs with useless sections if that's what it suggests.
The next song in the album is Native Blood. This song is apparently the single, as they released a music video for it. Speaking honestly, the video was so lame that it made the song hard to listen to for quite a while. Unlike the video, the song doesn't fall short, boasting a strong chugging verse, and the emotion can be felt in Chuck's vocals about the topic of his Native American heritage. The one complaint is about the blast beat chorus. Even though it provides a good contrast to the verse section, something feels slightly awkward about it.
The title track, Dark Roots of Earth comes up next, with an eerie verse section that builds stronger and stronger up to each chorus. The song implies some deep meaning in its sound, as should be expected from such a title. There is a good deal of lead work also: one after each of the first two choruses, and a climax solo. Full of deep bends, it asserts the vague meaning behind the lyrics, and adds a lot if texture that is necessary for a song like this.
These three songs need to be addressed in unison, because they sum up the most disappointing feature of the album. True American Hate, A Day in the Death, and Man Kills Mankind as a group are some of the most lyrically mediocre tracks that have ever been written by Testament. Each song features the same themes, even listed in the titles, of hate and death of mankind. Even some of the sections are the same lyrically. True American Hate and Man Kills Mankind both have sections "some people" this, and "some people" that, that are impossible to ignore and they detract from the album. With that said, each of the three songs stands strong on its own, they don't sound anything alike musically, and Chuck Billy still has one of the best voices in metal.
Cold Embrace is the ballad of the album, and one of the stronger tracks. I'm going to say it...reminiscent of Return to Serenity in the right ways, this song is excellently written. It never gets too heavy, and never sits too long in a section to get boring. The transitions are very smooth, and even though Billy isn't the greatest singer in the world it wouldn't be the same without him. There is one issue though. Seeing that this song can be very airy at times, the bass is still hard to hear. From what I can tell the line is good, but it would have been nice to hear it stand out where it was so very much needed in the acoustic parts.
Coming upon Throne of Thorns, it seems like there may be another Cold Embrace, but it is far different. It is much more like other fast, thrashy songs on the album, but still different in the various intermediate sections that make it so long. The chorus is strong, and in competition with Rise Up's as the coolest on the album. It's cheesy, yet something you can't help but sing along to. The extended version should also be summed up in this section, as it is practically the same track. The difference is yet to be discerned by my ears.
The last original track on the album, Last Stand for Independence, is a strong finisher and a stand out track in general. This is the one track that stands out on all levels. The bass is even a big element in the song as well; probably the most audible throughout the entire album. Although the rhythm of the song should not be set aside, the vocals and lead guitar are what pushes it to an exceptional level. If this is the end of the album for the listener, satisfaction should be the least of feelings that are left.
So the last thing to mention would be the covers. They include Queen's Dragon Attack, Scorpions' Animal Magnetism, and Iron Maiden's Powerslave. They were all covered extremely well, of course. I particularly enjoyed their version of Powerslave. Apparently there is an iTunes bonus track of A Day in the Death featuring Lamb of God's Chris Adler (on drums I assume - haven't heard it). Someone should report on that.
Dark Roots of Earth does a lot of things. First it confirms that Testament is back to a stable phase. Also, it proves that nothing has been watered-down with time. The songs are as original and inventive as ever, some of them even better. Finally, at this point I don't think there's anything they can do to destroy their legacy (no pun intended), having put out enough great music for long enough to blow most bands of their time/genre out of the water. Conclusion: the album is awesome.
Recommended tracks: Rise Up, Cold Embrace