Like my beloved Overkill, Testament has been on a recent uptick across their last few records. After a seven-year lay-off, they returned in 2008 with a barnstormer in Formation Of Damnation, and then followed it up with the strong-but-maybe-not-as-strong Dark Roots Of Earth in 2012. Their first new material with guitar whiz Alex Skolnick and bassist Greg Christian since the mediocre The Ritual in 1992, Formation showed there was plenty of fire left in these middle-aged dogs, and the return of drum guru Gene Hoglan for Dark Roots made the band stronger, even if the songs weren’t quite as explosive.
Since Dark Roots, bassist Christian departed in a hailstorm of Facebook-post accusations, replacing again by journeyman Steve DiGiorgio (Sadus, Death, ummm…. Sebastian Bach?). Christian’s no slouch, but DiGiorgio is damn near metal bass royalty, should such thing exist, so once again, the band gets stronger.
But once again, the material gets a notch less exhilarating.
Testament’s strength has always been three-fold: First, Skolnick’s leads are brilliant, searing and melodic, his ability to craft a memorable and blistering lead among the greatest. Two, Chuck Billy has an immediately recognizable voice, one that can handle melody and aggression in equal measure, and he’s among the most charismatic frontmen in metal. Third, Eric Peterson and Skolnick can write some damn riffs, and combine those with Chuck’s ability to work a melody, and the creative core of Testament can crank out some seriously great thrash tunes. Witness the likes of “Over The Wall,” “Disciples Of The Watch,” “Practice What You Preach,” “Low,” “More Than Meets The Eye”… And Brotherhood can bring the goods — all the hallmarks are here. Billy sounds great, utilizing some deathier grunts and screams to accent his throaty bellow; Alex sounds and plays as well as always; the band is tight and powerful. And there’s some good tunes, but there’s also some duds that keep Brotherhood a notch below the rest of the post-reformation Testament catalog.
The title track kicks off the proceedings, and it’s the best song on hand, with killer riffing and an (ahem) venomous performance from Billy, plus some serious drum thrashing from Hoglan. DiGiorgio (again, ahem) snakes around beneath Peterson’s rhythm riffs, and Skolnick adds some fun lead melodies, and the whole coalesces into a killer second section with some almost blackened background screams and nice harmonized leads from both guitarists. Put differently: Everything comes together, just like it should. Follow-up “The Pale King” is solid, not as destructive, losing focus in a melodic bridge and then a spoken-word section that doesn’t hold up against the riffs that precede them.
“Stronghold” briefly switches back into full-on thrash mode, to expectedly good results, but thereafter, the Brotherhood descends into a sort of mid-level rut for two tracks. Billy’s spiteful spitting still can’t push “Seven Seals” over the edge, and DiGiorgio’s sliding lines and a strong Skolnick solo can’t salvage the swaggering “I’m such a bad boy” silliness of “Born In A Rut.” The raging “Centuries Of Suffering” and the military tale of “Neptune’s Spear” bring the album back up for one last two-shot kill before Brotherhood succumbs to some weaker songs in “Black Jack,” the pro-weed preaching of “Canna-Business,” and closer “The Number Game.”
Upon my initial listen, Brotherhood left me pretty wholly cold, outside the title track. Then, there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with it – it just didn’t seem to quite rip like I knew Testament can still rip. But over the listens necessary to craft an actual opinion, Brotherhood grew on me. It’s not an immediate ass-kicking like Formation was, nor even an immediate “hell yes” like Dark Roots, but like the insidious reptilians it invokes, it slithers into your ears and takes hold stronger than you realized. There’s merit within, for sure – this is Testament, after all, and how dare I doubt them – but even then, Brotherhood’s uneven nature does make it a downward step from the two albums before.
Testament can thrash better; Testament has thrashed worse. In its best moments, Brotherhood Of The Snake is close to the former, but in its weakest, it falls closer to Souls Of Black thrash-by-numbers.
Not all these snakes are deadly, but enough of them are to warrant some attention.