Tuesday, 13 February 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Testament - "Live At The Fillmore", "Demonic", "The Gathering", "First Strike Still Deadly", "Live At Endhoven '87" (Reissues)

By: Richard Maw

Album Type: Reissue
Date Released: 26/01/2018
Label: Nuclear Blast

When at their best, as on “The Gathering”, there are few thrash bands who are their equal.

"Live At The Fillmore" (1995), "Demonic" (1997), "The Gathering" (1999) (remastered by Andy Sneap) "First Strike Still Deadly" (2001), “Live At Eindhoven '87" (2009)

The Review:

Testament's career is generally viewed as being a little behind the pace of the Big Four, but not by too much. Cursed with a late start via their debut of “The Legacy”, they followed it up impressively with “The New Order”, got a little more catchy on “Practice What You Preach” and then... lost their way a little chasing Metallica and then Pantera's coat tails. The records they released in the first half of the 90's were thus a mixed bag- great moments, weaker moments, thrash, no thrash and so on.

These welcome reissues, then, remind us of what a potent force Testament returned as via a shot of more extreme metal and an iron will. These reissues cover a couple of live albums- from 1987 and 1995 and then their studio output from 1997 into the new millennium. Let's be clear, Testament at their lowest ebb were still one of the best metal bands around, and so if “Live at The Fillmore” catches them on tour after the release of the album “Low”, it cherry picks the best tracks from their career to that time. It's a solid and punchy listen- if maybe lacking the “lightning in a bottle” x-factor that, say, “No Sleep Til Hammersmith” has. It works as a fine live best of- most of the best album tracks are represented. 1987's “Live at Eindhoven catches the band at the very start of their international career and the performances are rough, ready, energetic and fiery. Both releases are really for fans only. For me John Dette being on drums makes “Live at The Fillmore” superior for me. He is one of the very best drummers in thrash. He played with Anthrax, filling in for the equally majestic Charlie Benante and he absolutely blew Paul Bostaph away- who must have been having an off night!

1997's “Demonic” is a superb and surprisingly extreme listen. Chuck Billy introduced some very extreme elements to his vocals to excellent effect and the overall impression is of a band revitalised and out-heavying the competition (Metallica and Megadeth were at career low points musically at this point, Anthrax were effectively inactive and Slayer were coming off the back of their worst studio album). Eric Peterson was firmly at the helm as usual, with Chuck ably upping his game and the mighty Gene Hoglan stepping in on drums. While Alex Skolnick was not present, Greg Alvelais proved a worthy replacement with Greg Ramirez rounding out the studio line up. The death metal influence is strong and the record finds the band doing what they want to do- trends be damned. Great performances all around and impressive writing; what a great come-back record! It also sounds great- tight and clear with lots of weight to the production.

However, with “The Gathering” in 1999, the band hit an all time high. Dave Lombardo delivers a masterclass in thrash metal drumming (thanks Aaron!) and all the material is top notch. From the massive opener “DNR” to “Hammer of The Gods”, this is a thrash tour de force from a time when no-one was releasing such records. There are some classic tunes on here- “Riding The Snake”, “3 Days in Darkness”, “Legions of The Dead”. Every track is prime Testament and is right up there with “The Legacy” and “The New Order”- with much better production. The fact that it is, in my view, Testament's best makes it one of the best thrash albums of all time. Chuck proves on this one that he is one of the best and most versatile vocalists in metal, while the chemistry between Peterson and Lombardo is sublime. Steve Digiorgio helping out on bass really helps the cause too- metal royalty! As a final boost, Andy Sneap's production is excellent.

“First Strike...Still Deadly” rounds out the studio releases and is one of my favourite Testament records. Whilst some fans may moan about the band re-recording their earlier classics and the clinical sound, I loved this at the time of release and still do. The sound is excellent, the performances are uniformly good (John Tempesta on drums this time around) and the song choices are stellar. Having Steve Zetro Souza come back for a couple of very early compositions is a nice bonus and overall I would recommend buying this over and above the first two studio albums! That may well not be a popular view, but there it is.

The verdict on this set of re-issues? Three essential releases and two live albums of good to great quality. Testament are usually mentioned in the same breath as Exodus and Overkill as being just outside the Big Four, but that is not to say that they don't knock all of Anthrax's work plus half of Slayer's, Megadeth's and Metallica's discography into a neatly cocked hat. When at their best, as on “The Gathering”, there are few thrash bands who are their equal. After an extended break while Chuck Billy dealt with cancer, Testament returned and to date have released three great studio records from 2008 onwards. A classic band.

Band info: facebook