Review Summary: This old horse ain't dead yet
Ah, the modern thrash metal revival. The resurrection of this most frenetic style of heavy metal has seen many new bands attempt their hand at mixing the great bands of yesteryear with a modern sensibility, while many stalwarts of the genre's golden age in the 1980s and early 90s came back to life or shed their mid-to-late 90s groovy skin to return to what made them famous in the first place. Many good things have come from the thrash revival (the returns of Exodus, Kreator, Destruction, Overkill, and the Big 4 to thrash as well as the emergence of Municipal Waste, Havok, Rumpelstiltskin Grinder, and Evile among others), as have many bad things (everything Destruction has made after Antichrist, that stupid yet thankfully brief Gene Hoglan-less Dark Angel reunion, the lack of a reunion of the classic Sepultura lineup thus saving us from any future Derrick Green fronted albums), however one cannot deny that more good has come from modern thrash than bad.
This leads us to Testament, one of the "Little 4" of American thrash metal alongside Exodus, Death Angel, and Dark Angel (although many I know would switch out Dark Angel for Forbidden or Metal Church). Since the death of thrash in the early 90s, Testament have tried their hand at more groove inspired territory throughout the decade with Low and Demonic before returning to the thrash genre with the simply spectacular The Gathering in 1999. After many years of doing practically nothing, they reacquired Alex Skolnick and set forth upon the world The Formation of Damnation in 2008 to something of a lukewarm response. Many called it a glorious return to form, while many called it a boring waste of space. Now four years and one Gene Hoglan later, the band has released Dark Roots of Earth, their tenth record. And yes, it is, for the most part, damn good old school thrash metal.
Right out of the proverbial gate with Rise Up, the band shows that they can still make you bang your head as if up from the dead, pummeling the listener with fast yet thick riffs and face smashing drumming. The band's Metallica influence comes through heavily in both the kind of radio friendly, melodic sound found on a large part of the album as well as the structure of pretty much every song on the record, each following a verse-chorus-verse format that may put off those that prefer their songs to have less of a rigid manner of happening, but for me I've no problem with each song doing this. If anything it means we just get to hear the good riffs many times throughout the song. One thing that did slightly bug me was that almost every song took place at the same tempo, with the exception of the slightly death metal influenced True American Hate. This can make it kind of hard to discern one song from another, although tracks like Rise Up and Native Blood contain enough memorable vocal melodies and riffs to keep them playing in your head for hours on end. As the album wears on though, this becomes a bit harder to do, as the songs kind of bleed together making it hard to tell which one is which unless you actually go back and listen to each song individually. The only genuinely not necessary song on the record Is the nearly 8 minute Cold Embrace, which is both the slowest and most melodic song on the album. It's both kind of out of place in the sea of hard hitting thrashers and not a very interesting listen and I recommend to just skip it on repeated listens of the record as a whole. Lyrically Chuck Billy has incorporated his Native American heritage into the fold, speaking about the hardships his people have endured throughout history. It's an interesting lyrical choice for a band like Testament and I'm surprised it took them this long to use it. Sadly the only song these themes appear on are lead single Native Blood, with the rest of the songs encompassing all too familiar thrash themes such as man's inhumanity to man, the people rebelling against the establishment, etc. They aren't bad lyrics in the slightest, but I personally would have liked to hear more about Chuck's people.
As can be expected for a band like Testament, the instrumentation is superb. 4/5 of the classic Testament lineup appear on the record, with the drum throne being taken this time around by legendary beater of heads Gene Hoglan. Having previously appeared on Demonic, this isn't his first time at the Testament rodeo, and his style of fast paced and aggressive yet creative drumming fits very well with the music found on Dark Roots of Earth, even throwing in some blast beating on Native Blood and True American Hate. Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson are, as expected, wonderfully proficient with their guitars, with Skolnick's leads being exactly what you'd expect from the former Trans Siberian Orchestra member. Greg Christian I'm sure is playing his bass with skill, but he's practically inaudible due to the album's loud, compressed to hell production style, although thankfully the album isn't brickwalled or clipping in a desperate attempt to mimic Death Magnetic. Chuck Billy's vocals are just as they've always been, hoarse, gritty, and memorable. His death grunting voice isn't used that much on the record, only really during True American Hate. As a whole, the band performs the music splendidly and only reaffirms that they know exactly what they're doing.
Dark Roots of Earth isn't a masterpiece, nor is it the bowels of the Earth. It's a fast paced, memorable-for-the-first-half-yet-kinda-loses-steam-in-the-second-half thrasher of an album with excellent performances from all who are performing on it. Does it surpass their classic 80s and early 90s work? Not in the slightest. Does it come close? At times, but again it's not gonna be something I think most people will switch off The Legacy or Practice What You Preach for. Is it a damn good album in its own right that is for the most part pretty entertaining on its own? Absolutely. One can only hope that whenever next Testament step into the studio they can see the positives of Dark Roots of Earth and build upon them to give us a barn burner of an album that can meet The Legacy and Practice What You Preach in terms of memorability, enjoyment, and just plain fun factor. Well done, Testament. You have kept my attention and shown you are still relevant in the world of modern thrash metal.