Friday, 9 December 2016

Testament's 'Brotherhood of the Snake' - Album Review

Testament are often seen by many thrash fans as the band that should really be added to the Big 4. While Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax are without question the undisputed kings of the thrash metal genre, bands like Testament and Exodus are just as influential and really deserve to receive the same level of recognition as their more famous peers. Since forming in 1983, Testament have been remarkably consistent releasing eleven studio albums without ever really diving their core fanbase. While I cannot claim to be an expert in the band's catalogue, as I even never been anything more than a casual fan of Testament, the band do not seem to attract the same divisive attitudes as bands like Metallica have had over their career. A large gap between 1999 and 2008 aside, the band have been releasing albums at a fairly regular rate - none of which seem to really attract widespread hate. In a genre with fans as notoriously narrow-minded as thrash fans, this is a remarkable achievement. Testament, like many of their contemporaries, have had their fair share of line-up changes over the years, with many talented people coming and going over the years which has probably helped to keep thing fresh. Frontman Chuck Billy and guitarist Eric Peterson have formed the core of the and since Billy's arrival in 1986 however, and have driven the band's creative direction since the band's 1987 debut album The Legacy. Peterson is highly regarded as one of the best riff writers in the genre, and Billy's reputation as a diverse vocalist - he can go from powerful melodic singing to heavier pseudo-death growls with ease - has helped Testament become one of the most respected and loved thrash bands that are still touring and recording new albums. Lead guitarist Alex Skolnick, one of the band's founding members, has been back in the band for over ten years now and continues to impress with his shredding solos. His interest in jazz music helps him to craft solos that are different from those normally found in the genre, and has been a huge asset to Testament during their classic late 1980s/early 1990s heyday and their more recent ventures. These three men have come together once again to write Brotherhood of the Snake, the band's eleventh album and first since 2012's well-received Dark Roots of Earth. Drummer Gene Hoglan has remained with the band since that album's release, and has turned in another fantastic performance here. He is one of the best modern metal drummers, and his performance throughout this album shows why he is held in such high regard. Bassist Steve DiGiorgio, who played with the band between 1998 and 2004, returned to the band in 2014 and plays on his first Testament album since 1999's fan favourite The Gathering. Sound-wise, Brotherhood of the Snake is quite similar to Dark Roots of the Earth but seems to emphasise the faster side of their player a lot more. Juan Urteaga produces instead of Andy Sneap, but the result is overall quite similar.

The album gets off to a great start with the ferocious title track, which opens with a very memorable riff that owes a lot to classic 1980s heavy metal, before a more mid-paced verse kicks in with a rolling drum pattern and some crunching power chords. Billy displays huge variety throughout the song, with the vast majority being sung in his cleaner singing style, before really letting rip in a heavy mid-section with some rumbling growls that rival anything done any many of the leading death metal vocalists out there currently. The song's chorus is faster, recapping the riff of the intro, and provides one of the first real memorable moments on the album. The Pale King, which has an accompanying video which can you see below, is definitely somewhat more accessible with a great mid-pace groove led by a rather simple guitar pattern. Billy barks his vocal lines in a classic thrash staccato way (think early James Hetfield) which will be easy to sing a long with live. Both Peterson and Skolnick get chances to solo. Peterson takes the first, shorter, one which is backed up by a strange off-kilter drum beat that emphasises the shredding perfectly. The last third or so of the song takes on a slight grungier tone, with ringing guitar chords and some dark vocal harmonies to back up Billy's surprisingly light croon. Skolnick's solo is as explosive as you would expect, sitting atop an Iron Maiden-influenced chug for maximum power. With the first two songs on the album being largely mid-paced affairs, Stronghold really races out of the blocks with a classic thrash riff backed up by Hoglan's bouncy drums. Billy is one of the few thrash singers who manages to still be clearly understood even when singing fast-paced melodies, and this song is a great example of this. Heavier, slower sections are included throughout with some growled gang vocals which is sure to go down well when played live. Seven Seals opens with a great classic heavy metal slow riff, but soon explodes into something fast and furious. This is relatively short-lived however, as it soon descends into slower territory again with a methodical verse that hits you like a sledgehammer. DiGiorgio's bass really stands out, growling through despite everything else that is going on. Not all thrash music has to be fast, and this song is a great example of Testament slowing down but still writing a really memorable song. The chorus is fantastic here, and is a real melodic feast. Billy is not all about brutality, and he can really belt out something catchy and melodic when the song calls for it. Skolnick's solo is excellent too, with lots of whammy bar tricks and strange shredded sections which offset the clinical nature of the song's overall style. Born in a Rut has possibly one of the album's best riffs, but this is soon abandoned in favour of a strange-sounding verse that has that slight grungy feel that was flirted with earlier in the album. It works well though, and Hoglan's drumming has a slight jazzy bent to it which is a world away from his usual fast-paced playing. His fast footwork is used here too, with occasional bursts of real thrash energy. There's a lengthy solo from Skolnick too, which is another part of the song that speeds up.

Anyone worrying that there was not going to be much fast thrash on here just needs to listen to Centuries of Suffering for reassurance. This is a furious song, akin to early Exodus, with a pummelling main riff and a chorus that will get the blood pumping with throat-shredding harsh vocals. Peterson shows himself to be more than just a riff-maker with a great shredding solo early on in the song, but this song belongs to Billy. The song is mostly sung at the harsher end of his vocal spectrum, and the slight bursts of black metal-esque blast beats really make this vocal choice perfect. The pace never lets up here, and it is one of the most memorable songs on the album for that reason. Black Jack is similar, and really picks up from where the previous song left off. The blast beats are back too, and are used occasionally to really darken the atmosphere. It is not as relentless as the previous song however, with slower choruses which allow for a more melodic moment in an otherwise flat-out song. I have to say though the chorus lyrics are pretty awful, with more cliché gambling references than Motörhead's Ace of Spades! Neptune's Spear gets back to the more mid-paced dominated sound that was so prevalent on the first half of the album. I feel that Testament are at their best when they slow things down a bit, as it really brings the best out of the Billy's voice, and Peterson's riffs are usually packed full of natural groove which is brought out more when the pace is slowed somewhat. Skolnick's solo is right out of the neo-classical songbook here, with some excellent licks that are packed full of melody and technical skill. The drum beat keeps changing beneath the lengthy solo too, which helps to keep it interesting. Canna-Business, despite it's awful name, is another strong song that picks up the pace from the norm with some excellent thrashy riffs and drum patterns. The drug-promoting lyrics are somewhat predictable and annoying however, and I feel this subject has been done to death by countless bands by now. The real highlight is the guitar solos though, with both of the band's players getting a chance to spread their wings with lengthy shredded lines packed full of melody. The album's closing song The Number Game is one of the album's best, with possibly some of the fasted drumming on the album. Hoglan's foot speed is often ridiculous, and he has to be one of the fastest drummers on the planet at the moment. This is evident in the song's intro, with some bursts of extreme double bass playing that would make many of those who tried to play along look like fools. The song has an anthemic quality however, with lots of backing vocals in the chanted-style chorus. The song is a great mix of the band's faster playing style and the groove which I feel is their true forte. The styles mix well together well here though, and it is a great way to round out the album. Overall, Brotherhood of the Snake is a remarkably consistent album that shows Testament are still one of the best and most relevant thrash bands around. Age certainly has not slowed them down, and this shows the band sounding as good as they ever have done.

The album was released on 28th October 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Pale King.

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