I hear a lot of shit being said about Testament. They're a weak band, they're unoriginal, et cetera, et cetera. Well, too bad for the naysayers that I don't give a crap about any of that. I'm here to judge this album on its own merits, rather than to compare it to previous works by the band, let alone to those of other bands. And once one begins to take this sort of approach, they begin to see the music for what it really is; and so, looking at The Formation Of Damnation, what I see is a solid, albeit inconsistent, slab of thrash metal.
We begin with "For the Glory Of...", quite possibly the best intro to any album I've heard since "Regalis Apertura". Everything about it is perfect—the strange time signature, the menacing riff, the wild solo fading in at 0:48, and especially the orchestration. (This makes me wonder if we have any bands around who are ballsy enough to pioneer symphonic thrash metal.) It's the perfect lead-in to the next track.
"More Than Meets The Eye" storms in unexpectedly with a slight variation on the riff from "For the Glory Of...", and shortly after it settles into a solid gallop. Chuck Billy rides in on the pentatonic scale, his gruff, sharp voice bemoaning the many demons tormenting him. Halfway through, Skolnick and Peterson prove their guitar chops in a climactic guitar battle—they're not Suiçmez or Schuldiner, but they do know their instruments. Then, we get one last verse and refrain ("My destiny awaits" -- easily Billy's best vocal moment in the whole album), and the song wraps itself up. Well fucking done. I approve of this song.
The first chink in Formation's armor manifests in the form of "The Evil Has Landed". Now I'm very well aware that 9/11 was a tragedy—whether it was orchestrated by a terrorist group or the government—but the lyrics are in some spots rather jingoistic for my taste. And while the volatile groove worked well in the intro track, on this song it just sounds like Testament are trying too hard to demonstrate some sort of advanced songwriting. They really should stick to what they do best: the sort of rampant thrashing beatdown that, lo and behold, is displayed on the title track.
"The Formation Of Damnation" was my introduction to Testament; I heard it on satellite radio and thought the drums sounded killer. Later, I procured the song on YouTube and definitely liked what I heard. This track is Testament at their prime throughout the whole album; it brings their best qualities to the table. Billy unleashes his death growls throughout the entire song; Bostaph rages along at 200 BPM (I counted), except for the occasional crushing triplet-based beats; Peterson and Skolnick pull out their most furious riffs; and Christian is somewhat audible near the beginning!
The absolute crowning moments of this song are the bridge and second solo. The former's pounding triplet riff is guarantee to induce some degree of headbanging, and the latter begins in the most epic possible combination of notes. Combined, they elevate the song into sky-high status. At the risk of sounding like an effusive bonehead, this is quite possibly one of my all-time favourite songs.
Things relax somewhat with the brooding melodies of the intro of "Dangers Of The Faithless". And so it would seem that this song starts shaping up to be a nice dark breather from the unbridled rage of the title track, but—damn it, there they go again with the off-kilter groove in the verses. There's a good reason why 4/4 is the most common time signature there is, even in metal; it carries momentum, force, et cetera. Unusual time signatures are great and all, but only if you're Tool. Things do flatten out in the refrains and the bridge, but still—this just doesn't suit the rest of the music.
Further dragging the album down is "The Persecuted Won't Forget". It's just unremarkable. The shift into the triplet-based groove right after the first refrain seems almost randomly-placed as opposed to the title track's smoother transition. The riffs are nothing to write home about. It's just pointless, and it's another obstacle delaying the next good track.
"Henchmen Ride" is, if you'll pardon the half-assed pun, a high-octane trip taken by a motley crew of triplet-based riffs. The refrain is musically and lyrically spot-on as far as imagery goes, and the flattening-out into straight 4/4 towards the song's middle lends something to it that the triplet break in "The Persecuted Won't Forget" didn't. Chalk another one up for Testament.
And here we're greeted with yet another clunker: "Killing Season". This one just doesn't do anything for me, especially not where it's placed—compared to the fury of "Henchmen Ride", this sounds like lounge music. Same for "Afterlife"; like the latter, it does nothing for me, not even lyrically. Nine minutes in one ear and out the other.
"F.E.A.R.", on the other hand, quickly made Alex Skolnick my favourite member of the band. He already had the second solo of the title track, among some others, under his belt, but this song is another shiner (and, unfortunately, the last one). The refrain is a blast to listen to, as is the bridge, which has a Ten Thousand Fists-like ring to it.
And on what sort of note should we expect the album to end on, given the ten songs we just went through? As expected, the album's closing song is solid, but not completely remarkable. "Leave Me Forever" is one of two songs where the bass is actually audible. It's certainly written with dynamics in mind, but that's about the only strong point of the song. Points for the nice ending, though.
So, what we have here is, to use the pass/fail convention, is an album that goes P P F P F F P F F P P. Six out of eleven—that's just disappointing. However, the good songs are good enough that Testament deserve another star for their effort. Here's hoping that next time we see a more consistent album.
Perhaps let Skolnick write more than just one song?
3.5 / 5
"Pretty good, pretty good..."