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Not only standing as one of the band's least popular releases among the fans, this album has also been spurned by the band itself. If my memory serves me correct (note: read about a year ago or so, not back in the day), the band was offered to participate in the "Clash of Titans" tour just a couple of months or so before the recording of this album, and the band really REALLY wanted it out before going out on the tour (which they seemingly wanted pretty bad as well). Because of the tight schedule they had to work with during the writing, recording and mixing of the record, some of the results naturally came off as a bit rushed.
Yet, however, I personally find this album to be a tad stronger than the last.
What truly flawed 'Practice What You Preach' was not only that it didn't quite Thrash with a big T like the two first efforts did; the overall sound and playing also felt kind of stiff and overproduced for a thrash record. While still containing some impressive technical riffs along with a very focused and recognizable style of songwriting, it still ended up as an exceptionally tame record for a bay area thrash unit.
Now 'Souls of Black' is in no way a return to the Thrash form ala 'Legacy' and 'New Order'; it's arguably even less thrashy than 'Practice' in fact; but instead, this is a more BREATHING release than the last. You get more of a feeling that the band is just sitting in the studio jamming out some great heavy music - which seems to fit Testament better than the technical perfection they were aiming for on 'Practice'. There is also a certain heavier feel to many of the riffs; generally less thrashy, but heavier ("heavy" and "thrashy" don't necessarily equal). Real light-hitters such as 'Envy Life' and 'Greenhouse Effect' are fewer in number as well, and overall I'd probably describe this album as a rawer but more breathing and kicking version of 'Practice What You Preach', as the two albums are still very comparable.
This album is rawer in the sound department as well, which is both good and bad news.
Good news: This album isn't nearly as stiff and overproduced as 'Practice'; this sound fits Testament a lot better. There is also a certain heavier edge to the distortion, the distortion of 'Practice' was often much too light.
Bad news: The rhythm guitar is more pushed to the back, which doesn't exactly help this album to "breathe" like it otherwise does and is likely a result of the limited production period they had to work with. Actually, this disc is definitely worth a listen with headphones, as the rhtyhm work and distortion on this album is quite possibly the best on any disc from their "old" era. Eric Peterson = an incredibly underrated rhythm player and a force to be reckoned with.
Also, both the distorted 'Among'-like bass sound and the clicking 'Justice'-like bass drum sound are dropped, going for a more "basic" sound, which isn't really a bad thing, as this is overall a more "basic" album than the previous. However, in case you really liked that sound and need to blame something, it's probably yet another result of stressed production.
At some point in my Testament reviews I always seem to dedicate a section to Alex Skolnick, and in this review I should mention that this album actually features some of the strongest lead work since 'The Legacy'! There is no absolute god-like solo such as the title track off the previous to be found; instead, most songs hold a very above average level, overall.
Something should be said about the drumming, which take a path similar to the rest of the album: more breathing, more basic and less stiff when compared to 'Practice'. Yes, I know that I said several good things about the drum work in my 'Practice' review, but I'll just make it clear now, then: The drums on 'Practice What You Preach' are, while more varied than on 'The Legacy' and 'The New Order', pretty damn stiff and 'Souls of Black' improves in this area.
Alright, I've probably dissected this album enough already, but I'll do the usual song-by-song review anyway (some prefer that type of reviews, some don't, and I simply do both in order to make everyone happy, hopefully):
'Beginning of the End' is an acoustic intro, and a very good one in fact! I would definitely have wished for it to be a bit longer, as it clocks in at 0.36, but for what it is, it isn't half bad.
'Face in the Sky' opens with an Arabic-like riff (hardly anything new for Testament) before a heavy and really good riff descends at 0.25. This song is generally a bit slower and groovier than the Testament one is accustomed to, but still very good if you can adjust yourself to it. Since this heavy main riff carries most of the song, there's not much else to say, but there's also an excellent solo tacked in that is worthy of mention; above average even for Skolnick. Overall, this song is clearly one of the best on the disc.
A riff terribly similar to the one found in 'The Haunting' (off 'The Legacy') is found in the beginning of 'Falling Fast', before it begins to thrash pretty seriously; this song is one of the thrashiest on the disc and arguably heavier than any song on 'Practice What You Preach'. Check out the tremendous movement from 0.32 to 0.42, excellent heavy stuff right here! The verse may be a little too repetitive and also similar in style to the previous song, but it may also be that the two songs are placed back-to-back, and it can still hold it's own. The verse and chorus are played three times each before a kind of chaotic solo appears, especially for Skolnick. This song is unfortunately one of those songs that you wish the band could've spent some more time on; some riffs and vocal lines just don't feel very thought out, but there is certainly both potential and inspiration to be found here, especially after giving it a few listens.
Some terrific grooving and swaying marks the title track, which is possibly the best number on the disc; definitely the catchiest, anyhow. An ultra-catchy bass line opens the song before giving way to the heavy chorus riff - check out how the rhythm and lead guitar work together here, right when it kicks in! Some great singing is featured, with the chorus being really soaring and both the verse and chorus riff just all-out sway, which overall makes for a true neck-twister of a song!
'Absence of Light' is one of the more technical-laid numbers on the album and perhaps a bit more in the 'Practice' vain. Opening with some sharp and strong rhythm guitar work, a heavy and face-smashing passage follows at 0.12. However, the verse is just downright boring and almost annoying. It bumps along in an ordinary fashion, but it's really just there doing absolutely nothing, and the vocal melody seems pulled out of Chuck Billy's ass - or rather from 'Falling Fast'!!! Yes, this is the EXACT same melody, except sung less high-pitched and shouty. This is just terrible, as the verse in 'Falling Fast' isn't really all that great either; I just don't see why you'd wanna rip off your own half-assed vocal melody and do a half-assed version of it. Anyway, there are a few good rhythm sections here and there and while the chorus sounds a little sleepy, it's still decent. But overall, this is definitely one of the weaker and carries a whole lot more potential than it exploits; a syndrome many of the other songs on this disc unfortunately have.
'Love to Hate' begins much like the previous track; sharp rhythm work here. The verse tempo shifts real nicely, also featuring some excellent shouty vocals, and the chorus is simply what Testament does best - hear those crushing rhythms, especially how it shifts over from the verse! This is probably the most 'New Order'-like song on the disc (though still not really in quality), probably even more than any track off the previous album, in fact! The middle section before the solo (another great one, BTW) from 1.26 to 1.54 is another highly enjoyable part; overall this song is what some of the other songs on the album SHOULD be like: consistently good. This song may feel a little more "jammed" out than "thought" out if you catch my drift, but here it just seems to work slightly better than it does with some other songs the album.
The "hospitals suck"-tinged 'Malpractice' (I hereby advice you to read the lyrics; funny stuff) simply rocks. Clearly one of the more coherent and thought out songs on the disc and perhaps leans a little more towards heavy/speed metal than thrash. The rhythm work and vocal melody in the verse (especially check out the second verse, which comes with a great lead guitar fill) is just terrific. "Loss of blood and death is near, take a number can you wait right heeeere!" The chorus is pretty much equal in quality, as it features that patented Testament guitar-and-drum pattern - headbang material for sure. The solo has that really melodic Skolnick feel; one of the things that made Testament stand out from many other bay area units at the time. Here, it's a really bluesy solo, but with that trademark ripping Peterson rhythm work. There is really just one complaint to be had in this song: the passage from the solo back into the opening riff doesn't go very smoothly at all, but that's more of a minor error, really. It's still one of the best songs on the album.
Yet another unfinished sounding song comes through in 'One Man's Fate', as the only part in this song that has a whole lot of saving grace is the chorus, which is melodic and real nice; all other parts either just flat out suck or sound incredibly uninspired. The solo is nice, but so are pretty much all solos on this album; not enough to save a 1/4-assed song, basically.
'The Legacy' isn't the lost title track from the debut album or anything; this is actually a ballad (which would've sounded very out of place on that album, obviously). Not just any ballad in fact, this song does kick huge amounts of ass and makes the namesake 'The Ballad' off the previous album look really BAD! I'm not gonna go all in-depth with this song; when you hear it, you'll probably understand what I mean when I say "beautiful acoustics, tremendous vocals and soaring emotion". It becomes a little heavier at 2.43, but that detracts nothing from the emotion and actually becomes really soaring with the "Life was like a fantasy, taken by reality" line at 2.59. Out of the four ballads Testament has written to this date, this one is my favorite.
And so the album closes with a number similar in style to 'Absence of Light': 'Seven Days of May', which is not only very technical-laid like that song, but also pretty damn uninspired. Even more than 'Absence' in fact, as there's really not one single redeeming section to be found in this song; even the solo is very sub-par!
Yes, I can agree on that some parts of this album lack inspiration, which the band just didn't have time to gather enough of at the time. But far from the whole album is like that - when this record is good, it's clearly better 'Practice What You Preach', hence the slightly higher rating for this one. With the guitars mixed a bit more to the forefront and some more time spent with some of the songs, we could be talking 85-87%. This is a very underrated and kind of original Testament release, worthy of checking out and of course highly recommended to be given a try if you're a fan but have mostly been fed with negative reviews of this one.
Finally, there's one thing that's extremely important to point out before you give this disc the first spin: this album is MUCH less catchy and gripping than any of the first three efforts, and some songs may seem a bit boring and incoherent at first (another good explanation to why this album ends up as one of their least popular). Songs like the title track and 'The Legacy' (unsurprisingly the two highest regarded songs on the album) will have you addicted from first listen; songs like 'Face in the Sky', 'Love to Hate' and 'Malpractice' may require repeated spins to fully enjoy.