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The reaction to Testament's recent albums has been really divisive. It was hard for me to decide if I should even pick this one up because though some people think this could be the best album they have recorded yet, others were disappointed. The angry metal guy blog listed this as the album of the month for July 2012, others say it is boring, has no riffs, and goes nowhere. I think part of this difference of opinion is down to the era of Testaments work that each person finds the most appealing, and Testament has gone through some rather different phases. To put this review in perspective my favorite Testament tracks are 'Trial by Fire' and 'Practice What You Preach', I think 'The New Order' is their best album and I didn't think that either 'Low' or 'The Gathering' were particularly impressive.
There seems to be a bit of a thrash metal revival going on now, so there are some recent releases to compare this one against. Testament's previous album 'The Formation of Damnation' also divided opinion and was compared to Metallica's 'Death Magnetic' because of the release date. This time we have Kreator's 'Phantom Antichrist' to go up against. I picked up 'Phantom Antichrist' and in my opinion Kreator have a more focused and solid album than 'Dark Roots of Earth'. When 'Phantom Antichrist' is at its best (such as on the title track) it out classes the current Testament offering. I also re-listened to 'Formation of Damnation' a few times and find it less varied and less interesting than DRoE. It had more barking tunless vocals from Chuck Billy. The arrangements on DRoE are reminiscent of 'The Ritual', and though I was not a fan of that album some of that atmosphere works here when combined with the extra heavy production.
Ah yes, Andy Sneap's production is very good. A bit too clean perhaps, but really heavy and dark. Billy's vocals are front and center, we can actually hear the bass unlike the previous album, and of course the guitars sound great. The drum production is actually quite nuanced in places but does not stand out. This album was not just slapped together.
The fifth band of the big four, Testament never really lived up to their potential, they are composed of some of the best musicians in the genre and yet they consistently fail to produce a great album. Even their classic albums have a lot of filler and too many tracks sound similar. Alex Skolnick is one of my favorite guitarists, his leads are incredible. Both he and Kirk Hammet were students of Joe Satriani and there's a reason that people say that Skolnick is the one who did his homework. Peterson has come up with some incredible riffs, at best his work is catchy, complex, and heavy. He can even produce some good solos on top of it. I think Chuck Billy is one of the best vocalists in metal, he can do so much and do it convincingly. From actual melodic singing to death growls and everything in between. Greg Christian is a skilled bass player that rarely disappoints and Testament have managed to recruit only fantastic A-list drummers since Clemente's departure.
So what's missing? Somehow things rarely gel to make Testament more than the sum of it's parts. It doesn't help that the lyrics are usually pretty bad. The themes for Testament songs are pretty generic for thrash and never provide any profound insight into their subjects. This album has a couple of song titles that are just one step away from being on a Dethklok album, such as 'Man Kills Mankind' and 'A Day in the Death'. To be fair 'Phantom Antichrist' also has some terrible song titles and lyrics, but Kreator at least have the excuse that they ar enot native english speakers.
This album pushes Testament's boundaries much more that the previous one. 'Formation' had songs that were styled from easily identifiable previous albums, on DRoE things are more coherent and focused even while some new elements are brought into the mix. There are even some blast beats on here, perhaps an influence from Petersons black metal side project. Also the best track 'Throne of Thorns' is almost like a pagan or viking metal track, this is not classic Testament but it is a very cool song.
Most agree that having (almost all) the original band back together is fantastic. That Louis Clemente is not part of the Testament reunion is a plus. I was never a fan of his drumming though most people considered his abilities to be adequate. I recall reading an interview with Peterson and Skolnick where they mention that the high hats at the beginning of 'The Ballad' had to be reverbed out because Clemente was playing so out of time and they were recording live off the floor and wanted to keep that take because of the guitar work.
Gene Hoglan is a great drummer and sets a solid foundation for DRoE. Actually so is Bostaph so Testament should have a solid foundation for their next albums whichever drummer they record with.
It's been said that the best tracks on DRoE are the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, unfortunately I have to agree. The bonus version of 'Throne of Thorns' is the one to listen to, the version on the vanilla album has this ham fisted fade at the end which totally does not work. I know there was a lot of arguing among the band members during recording and mixing and it seems that this fade was one of the points of contention. The guitar solo on this track is killer, the best one on the album in my opinion and there are some great solos on this thing.
The deluxe edition cover songs vary in quality. 'Dragon Attack' (Queen) sounds too much like the more recent Metallica cover album, glossy production and no intensity. Their version of 'Animal Magnetism' (Scorpions) is a very dark and atmospheric take on the song and it works. The Iron Maiden cover starts off sounding wrong to my ears because I'm so familiar with the Maiden original. What throws me off is Billy's vocals, but after a minute into the song the elements start to work together and this is a very cool cover song. I know that Skolnick likes Maiden and he totally nails the solos, in fact all the guitar work is great on this track.
How about the other songs? The first track starts well and settles into a pretty catchy riff (I had it in my head the other day) and Billy's vocals are aggressive but he's still singing and not just barking. So far so good. The call and response chorus is a bit odd but actually not too bad and will probably be useful when they play live. The first solo on the album is classic fast Skolnick. Can't complain.
I also really like the title track, but maybe that's because I have a thing for arpeggiated chords. It begins with a slow doomy riff, I have no problem with slow as long as it is HEAVY and this delivers. Another interesting and long solo here as well.
The ballad (no not 'The Ballad') 'Cold Embrace' is overlong and doesn't really go anywhere. The lyrics are pretty cringe-worthy. I know some fans of 'The Ritual' consider this their favorite track on the album and think it builds and works perfectly, I'm not one of those people but do appreciate Testament providing some variety and showing their range.
Some of the other songs sound a bit too generic and don't hold my interest. I always considered Testament to have more of a European metal sensibility, at least when they are at their best. Maybe it's because some passages have sounded a bit like a national anthem for some little germanic country. A few songs here have a very American metal band feel kind of like Slayer's less interesting 90s work. Though most of my favorite bands are American (such as Slayer themselves) I'm not sure the style works with the precise and tight guitars of Testament. Maybe it's just the groove and metalcore elements coming through but I'm not so into tracks like 'True American Hate' or 'Native Blood' though they are well executed.
In sum I think this is a pretty good album and in fact probably one of Testament's most consistent. Compared to other recent thrash releases it can hold its head up high. But it suffers from most of the old Testament pitfalls and so is still rather disappointing. On the positive side it is markedly better than the last one and if they can continue to build on their strengths the next album might be killer.