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The Legacy (1987)

Testament formed in 1983, under the name Legacy. While some make the common mistake of assuming that this band arrived on the scene a little late, they were there when the whole thrash metal scene began to explode. One listen to their 1985 demo will be enough to prove that the band had already composed brilliant songs, yet it seemed to take them a bit longer to get signed and to record a full-length. In 1986, Chuck Billy replaced Steve Souza, on vocals, and the band changed their name to Testament. After spending a couple years, perfecting all of these songs, they finally recorded their debut album. The Legacy was released in July 1987.

I discovered this album back in high school. There was a shop that bought and sold used records, tapes, books, etc. and I found myself selling a lot of old tapes and movies to fund my music addiction. It was during the middle of summer vacation and I had a lot of time on my hands. I sold everything that I could possibly part with, only to spend every last dime (and then some) before I left the shop. While I was scanning through the cassettes, I ran across The Legacy and Live at Eindhoven. I was already, somewhat, familiar with Testament, but I had never heard this album. I tossed it in to one of the broken-down radios that they had out to preview things and it took me all of two seconds to realize that these tapes were coming home with me. Being quite fond of the old albums from Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer, this was exactly the kind of thing that I was looking for. This album is a timeless classic; one that I haven't grown tired of in all these years.

"Over the Wall" begins with an intense explosion of thrash riffs. This is very fast-paced and energetic. The vocal patterns that Souza created were perfected by Chuck Billy, who has a much more powerful delivery. A few wild screams lead into the middle section, which slows things down a bit. This is accompanied by an incredibly memorable lead solo by Alex Skolnik. This is something he really excels at and it is one of the most notable characteristics of Testament's old records. The drumming has a good, old school feel, though it's nothing technical or complicated. There is an epic aura about these melodies. All in all, this is a killer song to begin an album.

Dark and foreboding riffs introduce "The Haunting". This title is quite appropriate, as this possesses a feeling that is more in line with Slayer than Metallica (who Testament were often compared to). Once it gets going, the pace is fairly fast, though there are plenty of changes. The introductory riff returns and leads into a mid-paced thrash section. Another amazing solo appears, near the middle of the song. Skolnik's solos are much lengthier than those of Jeff Hanneman or Kerry King and they certainly bear more feeling, which adds depth to the songs. The vocals are impressive as well. I don't think Chuck Billy ever matched this performance.

A somber acoustic guitar is accompanied by a haunting solo to begin "Burnt Offerings". This one builds up, slowly, before raging forth from the darkness. The vocals go well with the main guitar harmony to create something of a dark atmosphere. The lyrics are far better here than they would be on later albums.

"The spirits of anger come up from the gallows
Conjured my demons appear
Summoned to my cast, prey this deadly mass
Taken by the fire you fail"

The more serious approach to the songwriting and execution, found on this album, suits the band's abilities far more than anything they'd attempt, later on.

"Raging Waters" starts out, almost like an extension of the previous song. It is drenched in the same atmosphere. It's a shame that Souza didn't remain associated with Testament to write all of the vocal lines, as his ideas, coupled with Billy's delivery and improvisation, work very well with this music. As with most of the songs on here, this one is aggressive and yet captures an epic feeling in the guitar melodies, accentuated by the solos.

Side A ends with "C.O.T.L.O.D." Naturally, this stands for 'Curse of the Legions of Death'. As the shortest song, it is no surprise that this is the most straight-forward track to be found. Of course, with a song this intense, the lyrics must be equally as aggressive.

"Attacking with force as we show no remorse
Obstructing our victims fate
The blood in the chalice saluting the fight
All virgins must die this night"

One might expect a song that only lasts for two and a half minutes to be filler, but this holds its own against the rest of the material on The Legacy.

Side B opens with "First Strike Is Deadly". It starts out with a strange intro that leads into more killer thrash riffs. Clemente's double-bass work is done pretty well, especially considering that he was never given much credit as a drummer. Some of Chuck Billy's screams are insane, as he really displays a lot of power and versatility on this record. This song features the kind of sweeping arpeggios that Testament is well known for, as well as one of the best lead solos on the album.

"Do or Die" arrives at a point where one would surely expect filler. Quite the contrary, this song bring yet more elements to the table. The riffs are quite unique, among those that populate this album. The vocal lines are brilliant as well, being very memorable and matching the music, perfectly. This particular song seems to utilize more speed metal riffs, as opposed to pure thrash.

The epic feeling that flows throughout this classic album is present from the opening solo of "Alone in the Dark". After this brief intro, a haunting guitar harmony plays over a vicious thrash riff. This repeats during the chorus. The story told in the lyrics is far more interesting than most anything they came up with in later years.

"Faustus prepares the legions of the night
Diviners from the far north arrive
Aimlessly people there huddled in a pack
Wreaking deadly havoc on mankind"

Late in the song, the pace slows down for another solo, before returning to the main riff. As with all of the songs, the placement of this one is just right.

This masterpiece concludes with "Apocalyptic City". A somber acoustic melody is joined by a depressive lead solo and bass line to introduce this epic song. As things get going, there is a sense of tension in the riffs; somehow, it is easy to detect that the end is near. The riffs are bloody impressive and the solo is as epic as it gets. There are some nice lead harmonies as well, before the main riff returns. Of course, the tale of mass murder, by incineration, is quite interesting as well. As the final notes fade out, you can't help but feel that you have experienced something very significant.

Simply put, The Legacy is an essential classic of thrash metal. The songwriting is vastly superior to Reign In Blood, though it doesn't quite compare to the early Slayer records. Still, this destroys anything ever released by Anthrax and nearly rivals albums such as Ride the Lightning and Peace Sells... While it is nowhere near as violent as Darkness Descends, it features a sense of melody and an epic atmosphere that Dark Angel would never be able to achieve while standing tall over Pleasures of the Flesh or Beyond the Gates. Unfortunately, Testament would never match this masterpiece of Bay Area thrash metal. At any rate, any fan of this style is absolutely required to pick this up.
(15 May 2009)

The New Order (1988)

In early 1988, less than a year after the release of The Legacy, Testament returned with their sophomore effort, The New Order. Despite being recorded in the same studio by the same line-up and produced by the same guy, it failed to reach the level of brilliance found on their debut. Perhaps it was the haste with which the band wrote and recorded another album. Whereas the tracks on The Legacy had been cultivated for years, the material found on The New Order didn't have the time to be perfected before being put on record. The result was sort of mixed.

I initially purchased this album just a few months after their first one. I was highly impressed with it, in the beginning. Again, I wasn't as analytical about everything back then; at least, not until I'd owned something for six months or so. It took quite some time for this album to leave my stereo. However, in the months and years that followed, it would become clear that it simply lacked the staying power that The Legacy possessed.

From the opening moments of "Eerie Inhabitants", you will notice a bit more effort being put forth to create an atmosphere that removes you from the mundane existence that you were cursed to be born into. There are similar pieces, throughout the album, such as the instrumental "Hypnosis" and the first minute or so of "Trial By Fire" and "Disciples of the Watch". For some, these atmospheric melodies hold no value and are deemed little more than 'guitar wankery'. Personally, I disagree with this narrow-minded view.

Regardless of which side of the fence you're on, concerning that issue, there is plenty of intense thrash to satiate your hunger. The first song displays a good balance between straight thrash and the more melodic side. There are flashes of brilliance, reminiscent of their debut album. Side A has very little to complain about, with the exception of the feeling that some parts (a chorus here or there) seem too accessible and generic. The title-track and "Trial By Fire" are guilty of this. The production is still strong, putting the guitars at the forefront where they belong. Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick are the stars of this album, naturally. Clemente's drumming is fairly basic, but he is consistent enough. Chuck Billy doesn't sound as dark in his vocal delivery, but this is a symptom of that which infects the whole album. Greg Christian, on bass, doesn't appear to stand out too much, though he'd get his opportunity on the following album. He's audible, more or less, but not anything to really devote great amounts of attention to.

On Side B, "Disciples of the Watch" proves to be a very strong track, though the chorus gets a bit tedious, all these years later. Though there are several points during the album where things feel a little too generic or light-hearted, it's the Aerosmith cover song, "Nobody's Fault", that really destroys the momentum of the record. To make matters worse, this was one of two songs chosen for music videos. The only reason this song seems to blend in as it does is due to the relaxed atmosphere that is prevalent on The New Order. As many times as they repeat the word 'sorry', during the chorus, nothing can really salvage the album from the damage done by this song's presence.

The record gets back on track with "A Day of Reckoning". This one turns out to be one of the better songs on here, with a a nice vocal melody in the chorus. This one feels more genuine that some of the others; it's neither designed for radio nor created with hopes of becoming some 'thrash anthem'. It is what it is.

"Musical Death (A Dirge)" is an introspective, somewhat depressing, instrumental piece that closes out the album in a somber manner. The opening guitar melodies really dig into your heart, like rusty knives. As it progresses, there's a nice epic feeling as the energy builds toward the climax.

All in all, The New Order isn't a terrible album. But it reeks of that 'could have been better' feeling. As a matter of fact, they left off what would have been one of the best tracks on the record, "Reign of Terror". They recorded this old song, yet only released it as a B-Side for the Trial By Fire E.P. It was a stronger song than most found on the album and could have, easily, replaced the awful Aerosmith cover. The New Order isn't essential, like The Legacy, but it's a fairly safe purchase for die-hard Testament fans. Just keep your expectations low.
(23 June 2009)

Practice What You Preach (1989)

Within a couple months after getting The New Order, I tracked down Testament's third full-length, Practice What You Preach. While it took years for the flaws to become evident in the former, the latter was a little difficult to digest, right from the start. The first thing that I noticed was the odd production, which seemed a little bass-heavy. The overall sound was a bit softer than on previous records, lacking the sharp edge that was present in the past. Through Eric Peterson's desire to gain more exposure and Alex Skolnick's wish to experiment, to a degree, Testament fans were greeted with the black sheep of the early albums. Released in the summer of 1989, just a year after The New Order, it proves that interesting things can happen when bands are in such a hurry to capitalize on their own momentum.

The title-track bursts forth with high energy and great thrash riffs. It's catchy, powerful and makes a pretty decent impression. More importantly, it's good enough that the listener agrees to make an effort toward ignoring the odd production to give the record a chance.

"Perilous Nation" opens with a bass solo, with the rest of the instruments slowly building to join in. Immediately, one notices that the song is based more on the soft vocal melody of Chuck Billy, rather than the guitars. It's not terrible; it's just a little too mellow for the taste of some.

The next song slowly builds up, as Chuck lets loose a fairly deep death metal growl. Once the track really gets going, it becomes apparent that this was quite out of place, as the feeling is far too relaxed for such things. Again, "Envy Life" isn't all that bad. If you're a die-hard Testament fan, it's adequate enough if you can manage to not compare this to their brilliant debut album. The problem is that it is dripping with the fact that this is starving for attention from the masses.

"Time is Coming" maintains this docile pace, while still possessing some decent riffs. Of course, the dark atmosphere found on The Legacy is long-forgotten by this point. Even as "Blessed In Contempt" promises a little more intensity, in its opening moments, it fails to rise above the mediocrity that plagues this record. "Greenhouse Effect" is more of the same.

The beginning of "Sins of Omission" is mostly memorable due to it reminding of some 80s TV theme, like Knight Rider or something. The song is no different than the rest that have been offered up, here. The vocal lines are memorable, but the music remains soft and mediocre.

The pussification of this band reaches its climax with "The Ballad". There are a couple bleak melodies that could have been used elsewhere, but the overall feel of this song is total boredom. As it progresses, there's an incredibly lame section where it all builds up as the lyrics become far too optimistic and weak. The song then speeds up, yet manages to possess absolutely no aggression. Their later attempts at such a song were far more successful than this pile of steaming feces.

"Nightmare (Coming Back To You)" was one of those songs that sounded very familiar from the first listen. Obviously, I'd never heard it before, but it was so generic that I might as well have listened to it a million times already. It's the fastest song on the record, but it still suffers from weak production and songwriting, completely neutralizing any attempt at aggression or fury.

By the time the album reaches its conclusion, with "Confusion Fusion", I can only feel a great sense of relief. This instrumental has a few interesting ideas, but the overwhelming feeling is that of joy at the thought that this abomination is nearly complete.

Despite pandering to the mainstream, Testament could have made a much better album and still accomplished this. Neutering the sound and making it so soft and non-threatening was the first mistake. Including weak ballads and devoting too much of the album to raping the legacy of the band was absolutely unnecessary. They could have used the more melodic approach on a handful of songs and retained enough thrash to please their core fan base. However, dumping 90% of the riffs into the first song (as someone once described it) is never a good idea. Everything is downhill from there. Practice What You Preach is only recommended for rabid Testament fans that want to own everything they put out. It is hardly essential for anyone else. It's not totally worthless, but it's too close for comfort.
(25 June 2009)

Souls of Black (1990)

In September 1990, Testament released their fourth full-length, Souls of Black. Recorded in a different studio and produced by a different guy than the previous albums, this one made some corrections to the sound as it had developed on the previous record. The more melodic vocal approach remained, to a degree, though the emphasis was placed back where it belongs with regard to the overall sound; the guitars. In a sense, one could say that this album bears elements from each of its three predecessors while also having an identity of its own.

The title track was my introduction to this band, many years ago. I'd read of the band, but not heard anything. It was late one summer night when I called in to 'The Haunted Mansion' and requested that they toss in some old Testament. For a show that specialized in black, death and doom metal, it was a little difficult to make a proper segue into thrash, but as Obituary's "Chopped In Half" faded out, I heard the sound of thunder that would lead into "Souls of Black". Despite being rather mid-paced, it was memorable enough to get stuck in my head and give me cause to go searching for Testament albums, first running across The Legacy. It took me until October or November to get my hands on this one, and it was certainly worth the wait.

The intro, "Beginning of the End", is a brief acoustic bit that serves a an adequate lead-in for the first real song, "Face in the Sky". As it begins, the pace is still more relaxed, similar to the previous album, though the delivery is far more energetic. Skolnick's lead work is on target, as well. The guitars sound a lot stronger than they did on Practice What You Preach, while the drums and bass aren't anywhere near as annoying as on that one. The guitars have a bit of an edge to them, again, which makes all the difference in the world.

The pace picks up a bit with "Falling Fast". Throughout this album, there's somewhat of a dreary feeling, similar to that felt on a cold and rainy day. Even as the songs speed up and give off a little more energy, everything remains laced with a somber sentiment. The reverb on the vocals gives some distant, ethereal quality, but never overpowering the guitar riffs.

As the thunder roars and a brief bass line rolls forward, the title-track lumbers forth. This is a mid-paced affair, though extremely memorable with regard to both vocal and guitar melodies. Of course, the solo is one that will pierce your skull with great ease. It's a fairly simplistic song, but sometimes less is more. The next track, "Absence of Light", follows a similar pattern.

"Love To Hate" sees the pace pick up, at times. Of course, the days of The Legacy are long-gone, but it's enough to provide the necessary variation for the album. It is here that some of the lead techniques found on The New Order seem to be employed with greater success, blending well into the piece as opposed to being somewhat detached. As with the rest of the record, the vocals and guitars share the responsibility of providing memorable melodies.

The intensity increases, if only by a slim margin, for "Malpractice". This may have something to do with the motivation behind the lyrics for this one. From the first verse, one can sense the frustration and anger.

"We all will go and stay sometime
Soon to be victim of a crime
Loss of blood and death is near
Take a number, can you wait right here"

Even two decades ago, it was clearly evident that the medical establishment is nothing more than a joke. It is a business, like any others. Hiding behind false sentiments of wanting to help those in need, the truth is that these butchers care for nothing but the almighty dollar. Chances are, they'll do more damage than good as a sort of job security. Most anyone should be able to identify with the lyrics, here.

"One Man's Fate" opens with an ominous feeling, assisted by the sweeping arpeggio riffs that Testament are well known for. This one keeps up the pace of the previous song, alternating between faster moments and more relaxed ones. As with the album as a whole, this possesses more of an organic feeling, as the riffs seem to have more room to breathe than in the past. The incredible solos compliment the song well. The tone seems to get a little darker, working well to blend into the mood of the song that follows.

Testament's previous attempt at a ballad yielded horrid results. However, "The Legacy" is a powerful piece of music, eliminating the flaws from previous attempts and delivering something far superior. This record truly possesses an autumnal feeling, in some sense. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I obtained it during the season of dying, but there seems to be some somber tone that is ever-present throughout the recording, similar to the feel of feeling the cold autumn winds chill you as the naked trees stood as claws against the grey sky. This song is very introspective and poignant, possessing a lot of feeling. Chuck Billy's vocal performance is top notch and the guitar melodies slither through your being, injecting venom into your very soul. There is a strong epic sense, here, almost giving the feeling that life is soon to end.

Before you are able to take that final plunge, "Seven Days of May" gives a much-needed does of adrenaline. Like a second wind, it enables you to continue on when, moments earlier, you were prepared to lay down and expire. This one is filled with energetic thrash riffs, though never reaching a frenetic pace by any means. The only way to really describe it is to say that it sounds like Testament. This could never be mistaken for anyone else, as their sound was well-defined by this time.

Technically speaking, Souls of Black may not be the best Testament album, though it's probably my second-favourite one (after The Legacy, of course). Perhaps, it is the result of sentimental reasons, or maybe it's simply because the album is very strong and consistent. Often times, this one is forgotten, but it stands as the final record from the band's classic era. There would be one more release with the original line-up, but that one is quite removed from their earlier output, stylistically. This is highly recommended.
(27 June 2009)

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