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Dusting off the Oldies: Testament – Low

Breaking out old metal albums can be good for your health, and bad for your social life.

I almost forgot that I even had this album. Testament doesn’t really figure into my life all that often, possibly because, to be frank, a lot of stuff from the nineties – especially metal – sounds really dated to me right now. This isn’t really the time or place for it, but I have a theory about that; in a nutshell, I think because music is a cyclical thing it phases in and out of favor with our ears, so that during the late 90’s/early 00’s stuff from the 80’s sounded pretty dated to me, now however a lot of that stuff has been re-absorbed into modern music and thus there is a current aural reference for it, so it no longer sounds as dated. Working in the cycle though, now it’s 90’s stuff that sounds dated – I threw on Primal Scream recently and was shocked at how obtuse it sounded to me. Of course there are a lot of bands from any era that always defy association with their time (Cake and Soul coughing both spring immediately to mind as far as 90’s goes) but with a lot of stuff, especially metal that seems to cycle through and exhaust various geographical scenes, material can get pretty pigeon-holed pretty fast (who doesn’t associate the blahs of the 00’s with rap-metal?). So no, groups like Anthrax, Testament, or Sacred Reich if you want to reach further, don’t get regular rotations right now. Part of this probably also has to do with the fact that, much as I talked about in a recent article on the Beastie Boys, I believe it a natural defense mechanism for the brain to distance itself from things that were deep-rooted and very influence to it when it was in as volatile and formative a state as adolescence – it helps avoid/neutralize personality paradoxes until we are far enough away from them to re-integrate those fragments into our daily lives, sometimes years (or decades) later.

Anyway… as I was saying at the onset, I had forgotten I even owned Testament Low, the band’s sixth album proper and, arguably, one of the first to see them begin to evolve out of their late 80’s synergy with thrash metal as a classic genre. Low saw the absence of founding guitar player Alex Skolnick and the recruitment of death-metal stalwart James Murphy and drummer tour-de-force John Tempesta. This is indicative of the sound the band begins to channel from Low on, incorporating a lot of elements of the burgeoning death metal scene of the mid-90’s and smoothing out a lot of the genre cliches that previously wove in and out of their sound. What’s more, unlike metallica and megawhore’s attempts at chasing ‘alternative’ qualities* to integrate and ease them into the mainstream, which neither would have had to do if they’d just kept doing what they were doing, Testament did the smarter thing and took a ‘next logical progression’ approach by imbibing new strains of metal. This of course didn’t alienate their fans but rather excited them. The positive results of this show in the quality of Testament’s output after Low, most notably on their seventh album Demonic, which has all the power of a Obituary or Death album and next to none of the goofy posturing. It’s a bit questionable that Chuck Billy and the boys used the whole Satan thing as pretty much a fashion for most of their careers, but hey, to me it’s done well and with a degree of taste a lot of others forewent. Not to dismiss everything else, but to me Low remains, as they say in comics, a “perfect jumping on point for new readers”.

‘Dog Faced Gods’ is arguably the best song the band has in its arsenal but all the heavy hitters feel good on this album, and the one melodic, slower song, ‘Trail of Tears’, is honestly, beautiful. This is another thing a lot of other bands could never get down – how to make a ‘ballad’ without making actually making a ‘ballad’ and pissing metal heads off. I mean, honestly none of them should give a shit anyway, but seriously, Testament nailed it with ‘Trail…’ – it’s topical, a quality metal seemed to somewhat embarrassingly insist on before it became all about insecurity and angst**, it’s melodic as all hell, and it doesn’t give up its nails to do so; the choruses still hit hard and there’s just a general sense of the song belonging on the album that surrounds it, as opposed to something like nothing else matters by that one band…

Testament was always a little bit of an underdog and maybe that gave them the edge – when you’re not being micro-analyzed by music nerds like myself all the time you’re free to do a little more – you can evolve without constant scrutiny. As I always say, part of the big two’s fall was their fault, and part of it was ours, for placing such rabid expectations on them.

Speaking of evolution, tonight I will be seeing The Ocean Collective live, so Monday’s blog will be a review of a show I have super high hopes for – the scope of The Ocean’s progression is so high concept its almost ridiculous, and despite that and their intricately-layered orchestration and attention to melody, I still count some of their material among the heaviest I’ve ever heard, so I can’t wait to write about it.

But I know, careful right, there’s those rabid expectations again.

……………….

* Which of course, since alternative wasn’t anything other than a corporate umbrella label, there aren’t any qualities to chase, thus explaining both those bands’ floundering with their sound in often-just okay, often awful, often ridiculous ways.

** Arguably there was angst in metal before the 00’s, but not nearly as much. 80’s/90’s was all about history (Bruce Dickinson was a history major, haha), fantasy and, of course, good old SATAN!!! Songs such as In My Darkest Hour and Fade to Black dove into the angst thing, but in the midst of albums filled with songs about Creeping Death, what to do if you’re trapped under ice (you DIE!!!) and ah, songs about nuclear war, you know, cuz it was the 80’s.