Review: Testament ”Low” [Atlantic Records]

Review: Testament ”Low” [Atlantic Records]

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I like you for your warped demented ways!

Twenty-five years ago, in a time where classic metal was way past its point-of-no-return in terms of decline and decay, an army of groove metal bands where following the lead of Pantera and chasing the success of toning-down-your-shit like Metallica and so many others – even Testament themselves – did in this painful entry to the 1990s. While the latter’s own The Ritual was the continuation of slowing down and catering to the masses, Low felt like a loud stray bullet, without completely sacrificing their integrity and recognition value which had already suffered from their lack of consistency in the late 80s/early 90s.

To put it simply ladies and gentlemen, this is the path that groove metal should have taken after the alienation of thrash. Low is mighty aggressive and yet rarely dabbling in proto-nu-metal waters, not relying on bouncy, single-note non-riffs and bendings that started to devour the scene by the mid-90s with the uprising of Korn and similar cancerous spreading, which sought to terminate heavy metal’s most vital functions. Instead of following the obvious trends, Testament presented a more-than-subtle flirtation with the then more extreme ends of the metal spectrum, mainly death metal. Sure, there’s a lot more modern groove to this than ever before in their sound – the (d)evolution of 90s metal took the world by storm and they wanted their share of the cake – but as I said, it’s a route taken without the total abandoning of the mighty guitar riff and that surely could not have been an easy task in 1994.

Obviously, the band’s progression into this entity had a lot to do with the departure of their trademark lead guitar player virtuoso Alex Skolnick and his replacement being no other than James Murphy of Death and Obituary fame. While some of Alex’s tasty sweeps and melodic licks are a thing to be missed, James’ more aggressive, punishing approach does fit the sledgehammer-riffing very well and even the album’s sole track where the listener is not being battered by heaviness,“Trail of Tears”, is equipped with a blistering and highly memorable guitar solo.

Yet, what would Testament be without the mighty Chuck Billy? He’s always been in possession of one of the most recognizable voices within the thrash metal realm but this album is were he first started utilizing a technique that borrowed a lot from the death metal growlers of the time and it’s amazing how much brutality and atmospheric qualities his chords brought to the table on this one. His (almost) clear singing voice on the aforementioned “Trail of Tears” ballad almost feels a tad out out of place since it’s the only piece here without a predominant use of said commanding tone – a unique style that one is easily becoming accustomed and even attracted to while listening.

A few more honorable words should be said about John Tempesta’s short stint with the band: this man slays! Killer tone, thunderous grooves and a ton of skill all put into one boiling stew of crushing madness! Yeah, the riffs are heavy as fuck and the rumbling bass does its job accordingly (thanks again to Mr. Petersen and to Mr. Christian for taking that route) but time and time again, this monstrous drummer carries the songs and provides a spicy technicality often absent in what is usually referred to as groove metal.

One glaring flaw that needs to be pointed at is that the album COULD have been absolute killer, if it wasn’t for it meeting its untimely death way before the actual end of its running time; after a very enjoyable run concluding with “All I Could Bleed” the record takes a nosedive into absurdity and fragmentation with “Urotsukidöji” being a very uneven, confused mess of instrumental ideas. It doesn’t flow well at all and features a few weird spoken word samples ripped from some Asian Manga film. Apparently this should have some meaning, but in reality it’s nothing but distracting and I skip this song every single time, even though there’s a few good sections in there. Sadly, these are just not outstanding enough to be salvaged. Similar things can be said about the last 3 tracks; they feel as if the guys had a few rather rotten ideas that somehow just had to be turned into songs. Maybe contractual obligations were the reason why those mostly lackluster pieces needed to be included, but hell, I rarely get through all of those and I don’t see why any fan of the band should. At least – in the age of all things digital – skipping the crap is easier than it’s ever been, so we should leave it at that and be thankful for the album’s first 30 minutes of headbanging delight.

Well, you know – it’s 2019 already, you should have heard of this one already since it is 25 years old this year, but if you have been living under a rock for a few decades or discovered the band a lot later, be sure to spend some time with Low since it’s one of the bands strongest and most interesting records. Don’t be fooled by those who say that their mid-era is not worthwhile since it’s only Demonic (and partly The Gathering) which took this approach too far, amplifying the modern death metal influences even more, but without the riff-laden substance and the ageless charm of this record presented here.

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