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Testament is an interesting band to look at, regardless of whether you like them or not. They've never been a band who alot of people have gone crazy over, and some even branded them as Metallica rip-offs. As much as I like the band, and most of their catalog, that branding does fit to an extent, particularly their late 80's releases. Unlike most bands of the caliber, Testament wasn't infected by the 90's Syndrome, which caused a good number of formerly respectable thrash bands to become walking embodiments of heavy metal suckage. Instead, Testament crafted a new identity for themselves, and proceeded to actually get more interesting as time went on.
In the 21st Century, Testament had seemed to run their course, particularly when Chuck Billy was diagnosed with a form of cancer in 2002. This undoubtedly had many Testament fans on edge, myself included because we didn't know if this band would get back. Sure enough they did, the end result was one of their stronger albums of the last fifteen years or so. "Formation of Damnation" is both the band's earlier days and later days meshed into one, albeit with more emphasis on the latter. Some of these songs reach into thrasher territory, but there is also a good deal of their 90's half groove half thrash style coming into play. This is not a bad thing in my eyes, because its been counterbalanced to a good degree by speedier moments. This might sound like your general "not quite" thrash band of the modern era, but rest assured, Testament do it better than most out there today.
As some have already said, one of the best things about this album is Alex Skolnick. While I didn't particularly dislike his replacements, nothing can substitute the original and this album proves that. Unlike the whole "-tallica" clone insult, Skolnick outclasses his percieved rival Kirk Hammett in almost every way possible, including his abilities as a stand alone musician. Skolnick's work is rather exceptional here, and it only reaffirms why I've stuck with this band for so long, as his work here is good on all fronts.
As I said before, the songs are sort of split between the groovers and the thrashers, and those that mix both. The faster songs are generally the better ones here, including "F.E.A.R.," "Killing Season," "Henchman Ride," and "The Persecuted won't Forget." The last song mentioned does include a little of the groove style, but again there is plenty of change-ups to keep things running smoothly. The songs that focus more on groove would include some like "The Evil Has Landed," "Afterlife," "More Than Meets the Eye," and "Dangers of the Faithless." Not all of these are straight-forward groove like Sepultura circa 1993, as they all possess other characteristics to keep the mid-tempo work from grounding them to a halt. As a bonus, Chuck Billy sounds far better here than Max Cavalera did on "Chaos A.D.," and delivers one of his better performances since his adoption of a more deep pitch growling style.
The one area I actually got stuck on was "Leave Me Forever." As a closing song, I expected something to really leave a good note behind, which is not what this does. This isn't really a throwaway track, but it strikes me as more of an afterthought than a real closer. The fact that Chuck Billy goes into something of a word salad fit with his gutteral vocals doesn't help out a thing.
On a final note to this album, it seems rather ironic that these guys got slammed as a Metallica clone. While that label was somewhat true, they had their own merit, and there were worse breeds of Metallica clones out there. Yet, in 2008, Testament actually came back after a nine year hiatus from releasing an album and knocked the hell out of Metallica. This was also the year of the grossly overrated "Death Magnetic," which wasn't entirely bad on its own, but "Formation of Damnation" is leagues better in almost every way that can be concieved. The production is far better, so is the singer's voice, so is the guitarist, and so are the songs. No seven minute jumbles of overlong sections and ideas worn too thin. It seems a little ironic that Testament would rise up and defeat the band they're so often compared to as ripping off, clearly winning out over that band's effort in the same year. Clearly, 2008 was the year of the underdog when considering these two bands who are often unfairly compared.
That being said, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed "Formation of Damnation." Its just about as good as "The Gathering" was, and trumps just about everything before that, except maybe "The Legacy," for the sake of its classic status. Still, in the world of halfway modern thrash that's going on these days, its good to hear an old guard who can still put those young bands to shame. I understand there is another Testament album in the works, and we can only hope it will continue to empower the band like this did. If you're looking for a good comeback album by a band too many people have underestimated, look no further than this.