6. Titans of Creation (2020)
With the exception of Brotherhood of the Snake, I think all of the Testament albums released since 2008 are on pretty equal footing, but I’m going to put this one at the top of that pile for now because songs like “Night of the Witch” and “City of Angels” are some of the best songs the band has ever released, which is a difficult thing for any band to do after so long in the game. One of my favorite things about Titans is the inclusion of Eric Peterson’s screeching vocal style. Eric did the vocals for Dragonlord, but was never included in Testament, and I find that to be a welcome change that adds a new element to Testament’s sound. The reason the album sits in the middle of the list is because while those songs are great, I’m not sure at how much of the other material will call for a lot of repeat listens. It is possible that if you took best material from Brotherhood and the best material from Titans, you could probably create the best thrash metal album of the last 5-10 years. As it stands, it’s hard not to feel like the band have been writing the same three songs over and over for a long, long time.
I want to take a moment to give a bit of a bird’s eye view on Testament’s whole discography and levy a major critique against their music. Without a doubt, these guys are some of the most talented musicians in the whole heavy metal genre, but they don’t take a lot of risks with their music. So much of their material lands in the same sonic territory in that they are almost always in a medium-high tempo. They never go Mach 7, but they also never really break down into some creepy-crawly doomy metal riffage, and I find that to be a bit disappointing. “Well, that’s not the Testament sound,” you say. And you’re right, it’s not. But that absence isn’t because of a lack of ability, it’s because as a group they actively avoid adopting that style as part of their sound, which, to me, makes it seem like the band has “rules” as to what kind of elements can be incorporated into Testament’s music.
If I had one complaint about Testament as a whole it’s that they do seem to “play it safe” a lot of the time. The downside of being a reliable artist is that you rarely surprise the audience. Testament is not the kind of band that ever seems to illicit a strong emotional response in the listener in the same way some of their peers do (you know which ones I’m talking about.) For most metalheads, Testament is a good band, but rarely are they anyone’s absolute favorite band that they will defend to the death. I sometimes wish I would see someone respond to their music with more than “Yeah, that’s badass,” or “Yeah, they’re pretty good I guess.” I think it’s great when a band has group of diehards that will support them through whatever, and a group of adamant haters that will never enjoy what they put out. That kind of passionate response is a product of artistry that is lawless, undeniably honest and from-the-heart. I hate to say it, but Testament never seems to have achieved that kind of response. The band just exists where they’re at and have basically hit the glass ceiling.
All of that is just my personal opinion on their career and is in no way meant to disrespect any of those guys. I have nothing but respect for them as individuals and as musicians. I just wish that even for one album this band would throw caution to the wind and really try some wild, wacky ideas in the name of artistry without worry about how it would impact their fans, sales, or the business side of Testament.
5. Practice What You Preach (1989)
I can see the look on your face now: “Dude! Practice What You Preach is one of their best albums! What the fuck?” And I agree with you, I’m kind of an asshole in that way, because most people would put this record in at least the Top 3 Testament albums. When I was 17, I would have, for sure. Fortunately, over time tastes change a bit and you’re allowed to evolve and change your mind, so with respect to that I gotta put Practice… right here. Again, I repeat: there are no bad Testament albums, but the reason I’ve knocked it down a couple notches is that I grew to like The New Order a lot more and gained a lot of respect for some of their other records. Make no mistake- this is a killer record with some of their best songs. The title track for sure, and “Sins of Omission” is surely one of Testament’s most underrated songs, along with “Nightmare (Coming Back to You).” The album’s closing instrumental “Confusion Fusion” fuckin’ RIPS too. But let’s be honest here- Testament in the late-80’s was still kind of the “poor man’s Metallica,” and unfortunately there is just no way to avoid those comparisons. As much as they put out some great music, they still walked pretty closely behind Metallica. Some years later they would diverge from that path, which brings us to…
4. Low (1994)
Low is an extremely important record in Testament’s discography. This is the first the band stepped away from that tendency to shadow Metallica. This is the first time they dared to find their own sound and style and go heavier than ever, which was pretty significant for the time. Heavy metal music was in a very strange place culturally with so many of the 80’s bands being dropped by their labels and left in the dust. While Testament was still on Atlantic Records, Low would ultimately be the last time they were signed with a major label. That didn’t mean a whole lot since the label did basically nothing to support the album anyway. However, this record is where the band started exploring a more death metal-influenced sound that remains as part of their sound today. Low also marked the departure of original drummer Louie Clemente and guitarist Alex Skolnick. In their places the band recruited drummer John Tempesta from fellow Bay Area thrashers Exodus and on lead guitar James Murphy. Clemente was a capable drummer, but Tempesta had a much more intense and skillful approach that gives Low a much more impressive rhythmic foundation. It would be difficult to say whether Skolnick or Murphy is a technically better guitarist- they’re both extremely talented- the fact is that Murphy’s death metal style was a lot fresher and more relevant to that era. For all intents and purposes, the Testament sound was reborn with down-tuned guitars and Chuck Billy’s step into a more vicious vocal style, and it’s quite obvious how inspired and energized Chuck sounds. Everything including the lyrics took a darker, more sinister turn and goddamn it works. This album perfectly marries the band’s thrashy roots to the more modern death metal future and only the most dedicated old-school thrash metallers would dare to argue that. The band was even able to keep a ballad on the album with “Trail of Tears,” which might be the best ballad they’ve ever written. The title track, “All I Could Bleed,” and the instrumental “Urotsukidoji” round out what I feel are the album’s stand-out tracks, but it’s a very strong record from front-to-back.
3. The New Order (1988)
The New Order is considered by many fans to be the absolute best Testament album. What Ride the Lightning is to Metallica is what The New Order is to Testament. And it’s a fair comparison as both releases are sophomore efforts for each band respectively. Songs like “Trial By Fire,” “Into the Pit,” and “Disciples of the Watch” all remain staples of the band’s live performances and rightfully so, because they kick fucking ass. There once was a time where even I would mark this as their absolute best release. So why do I have it as only their 3rd best now? Well, because even though it’s a fantastic record, you can tell it was heavily influenced by Ride the Lightning. Testament were a very similar to Metallica, and a few years younger, so they found themselves walking in the footsteps of their older brothers. Where Metallica dared to forge a new path on their own, Testament was always a few steps behind them. Fully capable musicians in their own right, they were still essentially finding their own unique sound. Now, if you’re a seasoned fan of both bands you’ll hear some stylistic differences, but the similarities are too great to ignore. The other thing that I think brings The New Order down an inch is the inclusion of their cover of Aerosmith’s “Nobody’s Fault.” It’s actually a great cover, I really enjoy the song, but it also means that there is an element of the record that isn’t truly original. I would levy the same argument against Megadeth’s inclusion of “I Ain’t Superstitious” on Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? Personally, I believe that the inclusion of a cover on the standard track list of any studio album automatically disqualifies it from taking the #1 position in a band’s discography. In my book, it has to a completely original piece of work. Covers are reserved for bonus tracks, re-releases and live shit. That’s just my personal outlook, yours may differ.
2. The Ritual (1992)
The Ritual is not often placed this high on the list of fan-favorite albums, but I think this one takes a lot of undeserved criticism. Going back to what I wrote about The New Order being Testament’s version of Ride the Lightning, many fans might say The Ritual was their attempt at following Metallica’s lead on its 1991 self-titled (black) album. A more mid-paced record that tries to reach for mainstream acceptance, and perhaps that’s true to an extent, but is that really such a bad thing? Metal fans have this romantic notion that they get to keep their favorite band small enough that they feel special just for being a fan of the band, as if they’re clued in to some secret hidden from the rest of the world. The problem is that any band that’s going to be able to keep making music has to be able to play to more than you and the 12 other metalheads you know in your town. On one hand, fans complain that mainstream is full of shitty rap and three-minute pop songs, but then anytime a rock or metal band starts to gain momentum they turn their backs on them and call them sell-outs. Mainstream acceptance is a fine line that is difficult to walk for any metal band, and they usually can’t do it for long, but I never found much sense in shitting on a band for trying to widen their audience without completely abandoning the key elements of their sound, which is exactly what Testament did on The Ritual.
What I like about The Ritual is that it has a pretty unique identity within the band’s catalog. Where The New Order and Practice were “sister records” and Souls of Black was a lesser version of those two albums, The Ritual saw the band re-work their sound ever so slightly. Where The New Order included an Aerosmith cover, it’s on The Ritual where Testament takes that 70’s hard rock influence and transforms it into a more muscular, metallic version. The band sounds energized and intent on undoing any damage they may have done to themselves with Souls of Black. While most thrash fans have an unhealthy obsession with everything needing to be faster and faster, the fact is that a lot of heavy metal sounds best at slightly lower tempos. Black Sabbath, the inventors of the genre rarely play what would be considered “fast” by today’s standards, and to continue the comparison to Metallica, songs like “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “Sad But True” tend to pack the biggest wallop in the live arena. Perhaps it’s not just the lower tempo themselves, but the dynamic of having a variety of different speeds scattered throughout a concert. A sign of true musical chemistry is when a band can lead the crowd through a sonic journey by pacing their show. Some bands will open with a full-on, blistering face-melter. Sometimes it’s a slow buildup and there are peaks and valleys over the course of the show. That isn’t so prevalent with opening acts, but once a band reaches the point in their career where they are playing longer sets, they have to be able to conserve some energy to make it last an hour or more. It’s easy to play at break-neck speeds the whole way through a 25-minute set. Not so easy when you’re going for an hour and a half. Even if you can physically pull it off, it still causes a bit of ear-fatigue on the audience. Ultimately, no one stays 21 forever and any band that sticks around long enough will eventually want to mature into a more dynamic version of themselves.
Almost every guitarist will at one point find that it’s not about how many notes you can cram into one measure, but about squeezing the most grit and feel you can out of the strings against the frets. However, it’s not as if Testament are going down a route of spacey, effects-heavy psychedelic music… it’s rock n’ roll, and it’s still heavy metal! This album really lets Eric Peterson solidify his role as rhythm guitarist and Alex Skolnick continues on the path toward Shred City. Some of the leads on this record are the tastiest solos he’d ever laid down up to that point. Greg Christian is laying down some great groove, making up for some of Clemente’s simple-but-effective beats. There are occasions where Chuck Billy sounds like he’s not entirely sure how to sing over slower, more spaced out chord changes. There are certainly some points where it seems like maybe he had a few too many beers and could’ve given the track a bit more from the gut- the title track verses seem like he’s searching for something, but hadn’t quite figured out what to do. However, he sounds as good as ever on songs like “Electric Crown,” “Let Go Of My World,” and “As the Seasons Grey.” It’s not a perfect record, but rock & roll isn’t meant to be perfect. As a listener, it’s satisfying to hear a band try to stretch their sound out a bit. If you recall earlier in this article, I wrote how I felt Testament often fail to experiment with their sound. The Ritual isn’t extremely experimental music, but it certainly changes the formula that had grown a bit tired over the course of four very similar records. The Ritual in my mind is the original Testament striving to create the absolute best album they could, and it’s that drive for success that make me rank it as the 2nd best record. There is only one album in their discography left to discuss, which leads us to my #1 draft pick…
1. The Gathering (1999)
The Gathering marked a quantum leap forward not just for Testament, but for thrash and death metal in general. At this point, Testament’s lineup was essentially a supergroup of some of the best musicians to ever make metal music. Once again, James Murphy returned to provide a wealth of lead guitar shit, 5 years more advanced than he was on Low. In between Low and The Gathering, Murphy released an album called Dreams of the Carrion Kind from his own death metal outfit Disincarante, as well as two solo albums: 1996’s Convergence and 1999’s Feeding the Machine, featuring guest appearances from not only Chuck Billy, but also Devin Townsend of Strapping Young Lad. On bass guitar, the band recruited Steve DiGiorgio who had also done work on Murphy’s solo albums, but had gained a mass of experience as a founding member of Sadus, then joining fucking Death who are basically the most important death metal band of all-time. And last, but certainly not least, The Gathering boasts the talents of fuckin’ Dave Lombardo of Slayer. With a line-up like that, it would be pretty much impossible to make a shitty record.
Go back in your mind to the year 1999 and ask yourself what the biggest names in metal were doing at that time. If you think about it, it was actually a pretty dark year for a lot of metal bands. Metallica was neck-deep in their mainstream radio rock era writing songs for the Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack. Slayer had just released Diabolous In Musica one year earlier, an album that many consider their career low-point. Megadeth released Risk in 1999 as well. Anthrax was all but dead in the water. Sepultura had just split with Max Cavalera. Even relative newcomers Machine Head jumped the nu-metal shark with 1999’s The Burning Red. Not even the mighty Pantera was active in 1999. Dude, even Alice In Chains and Soundgarden were defunct by 1999. I guess if you were into Red Hot Chili Peppers or Limp Bizkit and Korn you were in good shape, but if you liked fuckin’ METAL, it was tough times indeed. Not to say there were no good metal albums released in 1999, but things were definitely in a slump and you had to dig into the underground to find anything worth a shit. Of course Testament was pretty far off the mainstream radar, but they did have name recognition in the world of heavy music, and when you have the line-up they did, you’re bound to attract a bit of attention.
In my estimation, The Gathering is just as good as Master of Puppets. It may not have the widespread recognition that Metallica’s name brings, but on a purely musical level, it ups the ante on every single aspect of the Testament sound. It has all the necessary ingredients to make a fuckin’ SICK album and it puts them together in just the right quantities to make it delicious. The raw talent and amazing performances from everyone involved makes every song bad ass in it’s own unique way. The record possesses a crystal clear production that had a direct influence on how many thrash and death metal albums were produced going forward, and even today over 20 years later it still sounds fresh. Very few records can say that the sound still holds up so many years later. Master of Puppets holds up. Rust In Peace holds up. Death’s The Sound of Perseverance holds up, and The Gathering holds up too. With a line-up of some of the best musicians in the genre, an album full of extremely well-written songs and a high-quality production value, it’s pretty clear that The Gathering is hands-down the best Testament album.
Undoubtedly you will have your own opinions on rankings, so leave a comment below and let us know what you think!