Album Review: Testament – “Brotherhood of the Snake”

Thinking about it, I’m surprised that I haven’t talked about Testament’s music before now. Granted, they haven’t released a record after I started writing reviews and whatnot until now, but you’d have thought that someone like myself would have talked a lot about them, since I have quite the fondness for them (well, I have all of their studio records, at least) and I would certainly say that, by this point, claims of them being Metallica wannabes is difficult to justify, as their sound has developed to form a death/thrash hybrid that none of the main Bay Area thrash metal bands, let alone Metallica, have taken cues from.

Still, there’s no harm in starting now with them, especially considering their eleventh record came out fairly recently, so let’s get started!

Testament are one of those thrash metal bands who are alongside the likes of Exodus in that they’re very well known among metal fans and have a lot of respect, but the average person would struggle to recognise them at all. This isn’t to say that they haven’t been commercially successful to some extent (their records from 1988’s The New Order to 1994’s Low and their records from 2008’s The Formation of Damnation to the present day have all made it onto the Billboard 200), but they haven’t really had any breakthrough hits like the Big 4 have done over the course of their careers. While the band is mostly known for their vocalist Chuck Billy and guitarist Eric Peterson (the only members to have been on all of their records to date), they have had some pretty impressive names in the band, including current drummer Gene Hoglan (considered by many to be one of the greatest drummers alive), current bassist Steve DiGiorgio (a fretless bass wizard who is one of the greatest bassists in the extreme metal scene) and ex-guitarist James Murphy (although this is to take nothing away from current lead guitarist Alex Skolnick, who is considered to be one of the greatest and fastest guitarists of all time and also known for playing in a jazz trio which is pretty well regarded). To say that the band members have more than proven themselves to be worthy of respect is probably an understatement, as this is probably the band’s strongest lineup to date (which is no small statement, when you consider that their lineup for 1999’s The Gathering included ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo alongside the earlier mentioned Steve DiGiorgio and James Murphy) and, when it was noted in interviews that the band were going for more of a vibe a la The Gathering (considered by many to be among the strongest records Testament have released to date), you could probably have heard the joy from Testament fans from Pluto.

So how does Brotherhood of the Snake actually stand up to reality? Well…it’s consistent on the quality front, but I feel like it falls apart when you actually look at the individual pieces of the record and it’s not really as strong as it might seem to be when taken as a whole.

The band’s sound is very much in the vein of the death/thrash hybrid that has been the sound of their records since The Formation of Damnation, but, bizarrely, sounds much more thrashy than usual. As such, it doesn’t feel like a real follow up to The Gathering, as the vibe of the record is rooted more in thrash than death metal and it doesn’t really have the ominous moments that helped enhance The Gathering either. While this isn’t really a disappointment if you’re a fan of their last two records, anyone expecting the band to pull out something like “Legions of the Dead” will be understandably let down, because it doesn’t really live up to what was promised in that regard. That said, it isn’t a bad sound in its own right, just maybe a bit disappointing for those who expected something darker than what this record actually offers.

The songwriting on the record…I’ll be honest, I do spot issues with it which could sink the record for some people. While most would agree that lyrics have never really been Testament’s strong suit (they have some good ones, but they’re hardly the band’s calling card) and I usually don’t critique lyrics much, I can’t help feeling like the band have made some strange choices that will just raise questions from some people. “Canna-Business” in particular is a song which involves a lot of talk about legalizing cannabis, which is new territory for Testament, but not really the sort of song which the average Testament fan is going to take towards particularly well due to the habit of such topics overlapping with stuff like raggae and rap, which the vast majority of metal fans aren’t all that keen on, and which usually tends to involve glamorizing drug use, something which sits poorly with a lot of people in general. It’s not a BAD song (and hey, if you’re going to talk about legalizing a drug, it might as well be one which has good medical reasons for being used by people and isn’t particularly damaging in comparison to others), but it doesn’t really fit in with the band’s discography in general and probably won’t be a track anyone particularly wants to hear done live.

On a more general note, the songwriting feels like it’s running on a smaller number of ideas than the band’s last record, because quite a few tracks feel more like typical thrash metal tracks than anything else (indeed, the riff work to “The Pale King” brought to mind Death Angel’s 2013 record The Dream Calls for Blood rather than anything particularly Testament influenced, and this wasn’t the only time I felt this across the record either: “Stronghold” feels somewhat like a rehash of the band’s earlier works, just with the inclusion of Chuck’s death metal-influenced roars from their last few records). It isn’t necessarily BAD to have material which isn’t all that unique, but, coming from a band with an easily recognisable sound from the last two records and a way of making that sound really work, it feels strange that the band have started to lose that uniqueness here. That all said, the actual songwriting is definitely functional at minimum and, even at its absolute worst, I never felt like any song was wasting my time. The problem is that the best songs on here don’t really leave the same impact that the best songs on previous records did to me, with the end result is that the record is more consistent than their last two records, but, in the effort to iron out the flaws, the record has also hammered the peaks down more, resulting in a record that you can listen to happily without needing to skip tracks, but which won’t really leave a strong opinion on you when you really break it down. It’s consistent, I’ll give it that, but being consistently listenable isn’t really high praise when you’re playing a style of music that is meant to be energetic and ferocious, like heavy metal on the extreme side of things and punk.

Still, the performance front on the record, on both the vocal and instrumental front, is definitely worthy of the legacies of the members, as nobody gives a weak performance at all. I know this sounds like a cop out to say that (especially considering how long the last two paragraphs were), but I mean it: nobody delivers a performance that feels disappointing in comparison to what they’re capable and I didn’t feel like anyone was failing to pull their own weight, which is a statement that I don’t say lightly considering the praise that these musicians get from metal fans in general! The whole band definitely brought their A-game here and I doubt anyone familiar with the musicians on here would be disappointed by the performance aspect of this record, save maybe those who want Chuck Billy to focus more on his heavier vocals, as he doesn’t use them as much on here as you might expect.

The production side of things is basically the definition of a professional production job: clean, but without any real grit or surprises to it. I don’t normally regard this as a problem, since, well, a clean production is at least a sign that the producer knows how to make the instruments sound great, but it doesn’t really work so well when you look at thrash metal, where a rawer production job (which, let me remind you, is NOT just a clean production production robs the music of some of the impact it could have had and the mastering, job with the mastering turned up as loud as possible) is somewhat necessary to help give the music more of an edge. The result is definitely not overly digitised, but it feels like the while not the worst in the world, feels like it has fallen into the trap of how most people seem to think you need to make a modern record sound raw. I will be fair and acknowledge that it’s silly to expect people to deliberately not use the best recording practices available to them (like it or not, digital recording is the norm now), but there are ways to make a digital recording replicate an analog recording and perhaps a better way to handle the production side of modern thrash metal records (and records on the heavier side of the metal spectrum) is to not aim for a job that feels professional, but, thanks to clever recording and mixing, feels like an old school record, turning a professional job into one that is stylistically reminiscent of older records while still offering an excellent quality recording that is based on modern recording techniques. I can’t deny that a good job was done on the actual technical side of things (though I do think that DiGiorgio’s bass gets a bit buried in the mix, which is a shame for a guy as talented as this guy), but it doesn’t really enhance the music and I can’t help feeling that it’s a case of a good production job actually doing the record more harm than good, as weird as that might sound on paper.

Ultimately, I don’t think Brotherhood of the Snake is a bad record: the songwriting never gets to the level where I’d call anything about it bad, the performances are great and it’s obvious that this was the work of a group of professionals on all fronts. Unfortunately, the end result just doesn’t stand up especially well when you really break it down, resulting in a record that is easy to enjoy if you just want a thrash metal record, but doesn’t really offer anything that makes it particularly impressive beyond that fact. There are far worse records out there than this and, to be fair, I could certainly see a lot of thrash metal fans enjoying it, but I wouldn’t say this is going to be a record I’ll be returning to as much as I did with 2012’s Dark Roots of Earth. It’s decent for what it is, but I don’t see this holding up well over the course of time.

Brotherhood of the Snake was released on the 28th of October by Nuclear Blast.