Heavy metal has undergone a significant transformation during the '90s. Gone are the denim and leather and the open-E power chords of yesterday. Even throwing the "sign of the devil" index finger, pinky and thumb held aloft has become somewhat passé. Instead, what exists are baggy, pastel-colored outfits covered with hip-yet-ultimately commercial weed and sex slogans, and music powered by the same 808 bass and tape loops that top-selling rap acts use.
Testament hearkens back to that earlier time. And unlike most of its contemporaries, it's both still here and can still draw a straight line from metal's roots to where it stands today. Other bands have fallen by the wayside. Some (read: Metallica) have "matured" and now make what could best be described as "aggressive pop." But The Gathering, Testament's eighth studio effort, is elemental metal at its most '80s-ish.
At the same time the band has reached this point by plodding ahead after all others had the sense to stop. Testament has remained vital. And its vitality can be traced to the band's twin cornerstones and remaining founding members, guitarist Eric Peterson and vocalist Chuck Billy. Over the years the two have kept bringing new blood into the Testament circle and have kept moving forward. And unlike some outfits, where dissenting or stagnant members are let go or are replaced by weaker, more malleable individuals (the better to tighten the core's grip on control), Peterson and Billy have managed to attract, and fully incorporate, both a metal fan's and a musician's "who's who" of heavy talent.
In addition to Peterson and Billy, the current Testament lineup, both on The Gathering and on the road, features guitarist James Murphy (Obituary, Death, Cancer), bassist Steve DiGiorgio (Death, Sadus) and legendary drummer Dave Lombardo (Slayer, Grip Inc., Fantomas). Of the group and the CD's title, Billy says: "It's a gathering of assorted great players and also a gathering of all our styles."
You can almost hear the "friendly competition" that exists between dual-leads Murphy and Peterson. It crackles off The Gathering. On such tracks as "D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)," "Eyes of Wrath" and "Sewn Shut Eyes," the guitarists seemingly try to outdo each other. But at the same time solos never devolve into musical wank-fests. Each piece manages to put both the song and the music ahead of the virtuosity.
Even so, such creative friction is an improvement on most of the band's recent studio work. After getting dropped by Atlantic, Testament formed its own label, Burnt Offerings, and put out Live at the Fillmore, which was poorly distributed. And its first studio release was 1997's Demonic, which reflected the band's removal of all melody and subtlety so integral to its sound and employment of a jagged, stripped-down explosion of noise and anger. "It was just an angry record, I think the heaviest that Testament could go," says Billy. "We had some bad experiences touring Demonic. We just stayed out there too long, trying to keep the faith, trying to hold it all together. But those times are gone, and we've made new deals, and we've got an even better record than Demonic."
And going back even earlier, the closest the band ever came to betraying its heavy roots was when original drummer Lou Clemente and original guitarist Alex Skolnick were still in the band and were pushing the group toward commercial-type power ballads, stylings with which neither Peterson nor Billy was comfortable. Eventually both the musical and personal tension came to be too much. Clemente and Skolnick left, and Peterson and Billy made a pact to keep things fully heavy from that point on, laying the groundwork for The Gathering.
Musically the new Testament hearkens back to the band's initial late-'80s rise to glory with The New Order but, says Peterson, "with better guitars, better bass playing, better drumming.And better gear."
The band produced The Gathering itself, but with Andy Sneap (Machine Head, Skinlab) mixing the finished output, the record attains a contemporary attitude. In fact, songs such as "Three Days in Darkness," "Riding the Snake" and "Hatred Divine" sound like direct leftovers from the beginning of the San Francisco Bay Area's thrash movement all speedy drum and guitar runs yet also sound as if a new band might have recorded them.
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Lyrically New Order's theme of a world spun out of control is revisited on The Gathering. " 'Three Days in Darkness' is about the prediction that in 2012 the ring of fire in Japan is going to rise, the magma is going to shift, the water is going to get warmer and the ash is going to cloud the sky for three days," says Billy. Pretty heady stuff.
"Basically lots of bad stuff happens throughout the lyrics," says Billy. "Serial killings, drug habits, suicide, hatred. But there is also stuff like 'Allegiance,' which is my stand as a Native American, saying it's time for all of us to get together." There is also "D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)," which deals with Billy's ailing father's request to let him die rather than live on a respirator if he ever got sick. Well, he got sick. And the family has kept him alive. He now lives in a wheelchair in a rest home. The song represents Billy's struggle over whether or not the right choice was made.
Testament has been reborn. And despite the success achieved at reviving both the band's legacy and spirits with the current incarnation, neither Billy nor Peterson attaches any necessary permanence to it. According to Billy, as long as he and Peterson can keep writing songs together, there will be a talented pool of kindred musicians with whom to perform. No hard feelings if someone splits. No hand-holding to keep them around. The gathering rolls on.
Testament performs with the Haunted on Sunday, August 22, at Westfield's by the Railroad, 21119 West Hardy. Call (281)821-2021.