Testament has managed a remarkable feat; they have spent their entire career one step into the shadows. During the 80's, the natural cutoff for establishing the group of thrash bands at the top of the heap left them one step away from immortality, despite their sales success. As bands shifted their sounds in the 90's and found greater audiences, Testament went the other direction by becoming more extreme with each album, doing nothing to ride the wave created by their peers. By the time they took a break after the thrash wet dream “The Gathering”, they lagged further behind than ever before.
Returning to life with their original lineup on “The Formation Of Damnation”, Testament made a strong case that they had spent their entire existence being under-appreciated. Critics raved, fans were excited, and the stars were finally aligned. Of course, nothing comes that easily for Testament, and no sooner did they resurrect themselves than the Big Four played together and sucked up all the oxygen. Testament was once again in the background, with everyone talking about “Death Magnetic” and “Worship Music”, and even Overkill's “Ironbound”.
From this position, there were two paths Testament could take. They could continue along their natural trajectory, serving as the heaviest of the original thrash bands, or they could soften the edges of their sound in one last grasp for commercial acclaim. Always being outsiders, Testament has opted for the third choice in a duality; they try to do it all.
“Dark Roots Of Earth” is undeniably heavy, in a way their peers haven't been able to claim in over twenty years. Eric Peterson's riffs rage, groove, and tear through the songs with a ferocity that belies their veteran stature. He and Alex Skolnick are a formidable duo, as tight and accomplished as any more esteemed tandem. Together, they are greater than the sum of their parts, the music taking on a different feel than when either works on their own. The albums in Skolnick's absence lacked focus at times, the riffs melding so much death and black metal into the sound that it began to sound like a different band. With him back in tow, “Dark Roots Of Earth” still bears those hallmarks, but keeps them confined in a framework that is undeniably Testament. They achieve a perfect blend of new and old, keeping their identity while still pushing forward.
There are stumbles along the way. Opener “Rise Up” falls flat out of the gate, a perfect live song that sounds contrived and dull on record. The call and response, “when I say rise up, you say war,” delivery will pump a crowd up, but is distracting when listening alone. Chuck Billy sings to no one, expecting a response. The song fails on a logical level, and doesn't have the musical chops behind it to rescue the failing.
The biggest question I had heading into the album was the approach to vocals, which on “Low” and “Demonic” got to the point of being painfully brutal for the type of music Testament is supposed to be making. Chuck Billy restrains himself from reaching too far into his guttural approach, spending most of the album in a familiar half-shout that at times can strip away the melody of the songs. His clean singing early in “Cold Embrace” exposes why he doesn't utilize those facets of his instrument more often, sounding weak in the face of the rest of the band.
For most of the album, he sound fine, and has a set of songs behind him he can take advantage of. “Native Blood” is a song that isn't immediately inviting, but becomes more memorable with each passing listen, especially the razor sharp riff leading into the solo. Likewise, the title track features plenty of groove in the main riff, while the chorus digs in as it repeats. “True American Hate” and “A Day In The Death” follow in similar footsteps, thrashers with enough groove in the riffs, and vocal patterns that aren't exactly melodies, but become more integrated and memorable the more they are heard.
“Dark Roots Of Earth” won't get the same level of attention as the recent offerings from Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax, but it's every bit as good an album, if not better. “Rise Up” may be a throwaway, and “Cold Embrace” is both too long and bears too much similarity to Metallica's “The Day That Never Comes”, but the package as a whole is strong enough to overcome those missteps. The album is a focused affair with fewer issues than the other thrash resurrections of recent years, proving that whatever may have happened in the past, Testament no longer deserves to be in the shadow of bands that are no longer capable of living up to their legacies. All these years later, Testament is as good as they've ever been. Not many bands can say that.