Today, Testament arguably enjoys greater clout than their ever did in their supposed glory days, and much of the credit for that resurgence ties back to this unlikely triumph.
Though thrash, with its emphasis on brutal aggression and social rage, was far better positioned to weather the post-grunge musical landscape than its better-coiffed brethren on the Sunset Strip, its luminaries underwent the same identity crises as other aging metalheads during the alternative era. Testament was no exception; the Bay Area quintet’s early, blistering albums gave way to early-’90s melodic releases like The Ritual that aped the more commercial ventures of top-level acts like Metallica and Anthrax. Then, the group overcorrected in attempting to regain their former ferocity, producing the groove and death metal of Low and Demonic, which sounded too much like a band past its prime attempting to emulate successors like Pantera and Sepultura. Never quite at the level of their more popular San Francisco peers, Testament, down to founding members Chuck Billy and guitarist Eric Peterson, appeared to be limping toward a muted ending.
Then came The Gathering. Testament had been shuffling its lineup since the early ’90s, mainly relying on session musicians to round out gaps in member departures, but the lineup that Billy and Peterson assembled for this record effectively transformed the band into a supergroup. Joining Peterson on guitar duties was legendary death metal shredder James Murphy of Death and Obituary, while extreme metal session man Steve DiGiorgio took over on bass. On drums was the greatest coup of all: Slayer skin-basher Dave Lombardo, the most influential drummer in metal. This was a who’s who of perilously heavy music, and anyone taken aback by Demonic‘s course-correction back to the extreme ends of the genre had no idea what was coming.
From the moment that “D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)” rises out of hell and explodes into a gallop that makes Iron Maiden sound sedate, it’s obvious that Testament are rejuvenated. Lombardo’s pummeling but knotty drum pattern sets the kick drums and snares against each other as Peterson and Murphy charge forward with just enough structure to form a recognizable riff. From the jump, this is heavier material than anything the band recorded during its classic era. All of this is tied together by Billy’s monstrous vocals, which perpetuate the death metal style he developed over the last two releases while bringing back his gift for melody. The raspy yelp of his early days has been refined and deepened into a paradoxically smooth bark, capable of plunging into gravelly depths while retaining clear vocal control.
If Testament sounded too much like they were following their followers on their previous two albums, here the mix of thrash, death and groove metal sounds natural. “Eyes of Wrath” grinds at mid-tempo and slinks into darkness before erupting into thrash sprints, at all times maintaining a steady rhythm to keep the punters headbanging in time. “3 Days in Darkness” sounds like Testament beating Pantera at their own game, the riff ringing like steel striking concrete as Billy roars staccato phrases over Lombardo’s kick drum runs. Nearly all of the album’s tracks are ready-made for open-air metal festivals, particularly “Careful What You Wish For,” with its refrain of “Hey, we live in a fucked up world” begging to be chanted by tens of thousands of metalheads.
Lombardo’s drumming gives Testament a drive it never previously enjoyed, but the album’s secret weapon may be DiGiorgio. A bassist capable of finger-picking at the outrageous speeds of thrash metal, DiGiorgio infuses his basslines with the thick, organic warmth that is too often lacking in metal bass. On “Careful What You Wish For,” his descending sprints puncture the wall of the riff and Lombardo’s massive sound. Elsewhere, he threads the needle of the guitarists’ occasional contrapuntal contrasts, as in his delicate navigation through the center of “Sewn Shut Eyes.” DiGiorgio’s standout moment, though, comes on “Riding the Snake,” in which he plays fretless bass and moves through the track with sidewinding menace, giving a subtle, disturbing undercurrent to an otherwise pounding thrasher.
Two decades later, The Gathering is still revered as one of metal’s great comeback LPs, on the order of Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell. With most of their peers broken up and the Big Four largely settled into commercialized ruts that would last well into the 2000s, Testament came across like the freshest face in thrash at the genre’s nadir. Unfortunately, they failed to capitalize on this momentum through no fault of their own; shortly after the album’s release, Billy was diagnosed with cancer, sidelining the band for much of the next decade as he underwent treatment and recovery. Astonishingly, when Testament finally re-emerged with a recuperated Billy in the late 2000s, they picked up right where they left off, reuniting with many original members and crafting the most consistent late-period metal discography this side of Iron Maiden. Today, Testament arguably enjoys greater clout than their ever did in their supposed glory days, and much of the credit for that resurgence ties back to this unlikely triumph.