Aggressive music is a vital part of American music.
If your knowledge of thrash only reaches early Metallica and Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” you may not be familiar with Testament. You should be. Since 1983, the band has been included in almost every conversation about the genre’s greats, but without mainstream success, it’s always been a band you had to actively seek out. Frankly, that’s what thrash is about anyway: it only wants you if you want it. If Testament’s latest, Brotherhood of the Snake, doesn’t convince you, you probably don’t really like thrash. The band’s 11th album is a modern thrash masterpiece, and if you’re willing to take the thrash plunge, this is as good a place to start as any.
The beauty of Testament, and perhaps its key to keeping things fresh, is its insistence that while thrash may be the source code of their DNA, that’s not all it is. The group is influenced by thrash, heavy metal, black metal and death metal, and uses all those genres to create one cohesive whole. They’ve never done it better than on Brotherhood of the Snake.
From start to finish, you’ll hear the breakneck tempos of thrash, the darkness and blast beats of death metal, the righteous riffage of heavy metal and vocal chops from Chuck Billy, who can do just about everything from a deep, guttural growl to an ear-piercing shriek and everything in between. The album shows the band firing on all cylinders 30 some-odd years on and better than ever—which is pretty tough to do considering the thrashterpieces Testament churned out over the years.
The album begins with the title track, a riff-fueled, blast beat and palm-muted chugga-chugga beatdown that covers all of the metal offshoots the band touches throughout the entire album. While it’s always been aggressive, intense and violent, it hasn’t been this extreme since 1999’s The Gathering. The track impressively keeps its head above the thrash waters by still managing to be more oriented in their base genre than any of the darker counterparts mentioned above.
“The Pale King,” “Stronghold” and “Seven Seals” keep up the tempo, momentum and thrashmentum nicely by oscillating between fast, heavy and mid-tempo elements almost on a whim. The harmonized guitar solos will give any guitar-oriented listener some true jollies because of triumphant but still grim notes. Alex Skolnick, with his jazz chops, plays some of the best guitar in recent metal memory by pushing the boundaries of logical sense. There is no mindless noodling here; it’s all pure, unabashed talent from a master craftsman, mind-bending and technically accomplished.
The last third of the album is stuffed with some of the fastest tunes Testament has recorded. “Centuries of Suffering,” “Neptune’s Spear” and “Canna Business” are absolute barn burners that will enchant any fan of fast music. This breakneck speed comes along with an unquestionable technical precision. This is a band so accustomed to making fast music that they make it sound completely effortless, but of course it’s hard and brutal work.
There is one thing wonky with Brotherhood of the Snake. Thrash has never been known for insightful lyrics, and not for lack of trying. Music this extreme is already in the red on the ridiculousness meter, so any lyrical slipup can magnify that; extreme lyrics may work with songs of blood, death and swords and totally fail with political tirades. “Canna Business,” a plea for the legalization of recreational and medicinal marijuana, is downright hysterical. For that reason it’s a black eye on the album. Revel in its thrashy beauty, but ignore the silly lyrics.
Testament may not be a household name for the casual music listener. The group is part of the same American musical tapestry fabric weaved by Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax, so it’s a shame that Testament isn’t held in the same esteem. Brotherhood of the Snake proves that thrash metal is still alive and well despite existing on the fringes more than ever before. Maybe the band prefers it that way. Free to do as they please, its latest is indeed a testament to the idea that underground, aggressive music is a vital part of American music.