The reasons why San Francisco’s Testament have never been able to achieve the same notoriety as fellow Bay-area stalwarts like Metallica or Slayer could easily be spun into an intriguing story for VH1’s Behind The Music. It’s filled with medical drama, line-up changes, a revolving door of record companies, and more than a few creative missteps. You might even draw conclusions that the band’s lack of real commercial success is a culmination of these events. But their latest release, The Formation Of Damnation, proves that these events have provided the band with a creative spark, motivating them to turn in their strongest effort since their initial offerings some two decades ago.
The Formation Of Damnation sounds nothing like a band navigating through a mid-life crisis. Instead, it sounds like a band believing that they can outgun any metal outfit on the block, regardless of age. Believing that you can shred heavier than everyone else is one thing; being able to deliver that bravado is another, and Testament rips with enviable ease throughout Damnation‘s eleven tracks.
From start to finish, Testament takes a deep breath of the wisdom that comes with age while paying attention to how they’ll ultimately be perceived by younger audiences. Metal is a young man’s game, and while those of us up in years stick to the comforts of our familiarity with hair metal festivals in Oklahoma and endless Motley Crue reunions, the real future of metal, those currently sulking through the halls of your local high school, alienated and socially shunned, need every fucking role model they can muster. Make no mistake about it; Testament is a perfect role model, providing the disenfranchised with a blueprint of how metal bands (and fans) should enter their middle ages. And if you follow Testament’s lead, the proper way to grow old gracefully is to bang your head every step of the way.
As long as you focus on this, you may overlook the occasional lyric misfires like “The Evil Has Landed.” It’s forgivable that Testament, because of their inactivity, waited seven years after the fact to give us their 9/11 sonh — hell, with a great title like “The Evil Has Landed” one has to wonder why nobody has thought of a song title that fucking clever — but with lines like “So many people killed / 2,974 / Innocent blood spilled / Extremists fighting a holy war,” you start to wish that they’d found a more topical subject matter for their riffage.
That guitar shredding, by the way, is spectacular. There’s enough jugg-jugging, fingertapping, and dexterous tempo changes to please any denim-clad fan and it’s done at speeds that should impress all ages of thrash metal supporters.
Credit vocalist Chuck Billy for bridging the generational gap. He alternates between traditional metal vocalizations to modern death growls, providing Testament with a wide texture of sounds. It’s impressive, particularly considering his age, the polyp-inducing nature of this style, and the fact that Billy battled a rare form of cancer not too long ago that most assuredly took some toll on his energy level.
Let Damnation be considered his declaration of a clean bill of health then. “I stand tall defiantly!” he barks on the title track, and nearly every song afterwards continues with the vitality and terror of a man half his age.
The middle section of Damnation is as good as metal can get, setting a fairly high bar for the more notable Cali thrash metal outfits, including those that are currently working double-time to return back to a time when their integrity wasn’t questioned.
So let’s not pull any punches here: replace Testament’s name on Damnation with Metallica and we’d all be talking about that band’s amazing return to form. But we’re not; we’re talking about their low-rent neighbors who’ve been through enough drama for their own Some Kind Of Monster documentary and have emerged from it with an album with such joie de vivre that it will be tough to match.