Testament’s new album, Brotherhood Of The Snake, is likely to please the faithful and even more likely to be ignored by anyone else. While the band delivers typically strong riffs and decent vocal melodies, there is nothing particularly new or groundbreaking. It is, not surprisingly to those who have followed the band for decades, simply another Testament album.
Testament, like so many metal bands that rose to prominence in the 80’s, had a period of wandering in the desert during the 90’s. This period of penance resulted in them distancing themselves from their stronger, hook-based material most commonly associated with Practice What You Preach, a classic from the Headbangers Ball era of metal. Why they made this decision is unclear, though it did result in the apparent decision to hold their earliest albums The Legacy and New World Order (a reference to a popular 80’s conspiracy—more on this imminently) in a sort of religious regard, the vessel for a doctrine that should not be deviated from. This type of genre straightjacket approach can be limiting creatively, though conversely pleasing to a certain subset of fans.
On the other hand, what exactly is the band supposed to do? Adding too many elements of more “modern” metal can be interpreted as desperation or reaching. Look at the bitching that resulted when Slayer dared to add some blast beats to Christ Illusion’s “Supremist,” a move so criticized that the hyperbole surrounding it made it seem that Slayer released a disco album. Testament walks this line with a tightrope walker’s delicacy, adding just a dash of blast beats here or the hint of a growl there. And there is no question the band is aware of larger trends, as guitarist Eric Peterson even has a black metal band, Dragonlord.
Brotherhood Of The Snake has a real Achilles heel, and it’s that most of the lyrics are box-of-rocks dumb. The biggest offender is the brain cell killer “Canna Business,” an ode to the growing marijuana industry. While legalization is an important social issue, songs like this actually set the movement back due to the sheer stupidity. “Canna business is a way of life / healing the sick while all the rest get high.” No. Just, no.
The other, much more problematic aspect of the album’s embarrassing lyrical content is the band’s conspiracy theory bent. Conspiracy theories used to be fun. When Holy Blood, Holy Grail hit bestseller lists in the ‘80s it was a fun read, because, really, who could take that bloodline of Jesus shit seriously. It even became the “non-fiction” (ahem) basis for Dan Brown’s best-selling, atrociously written, wanna-be Indiana Jones rip, The DaVinci Code. But now that metal icons like Dave Mustaine spew Alex Jones rhetoric on guns and conspiracies like the so-called birther movement have gained credibility, this stuff is no longer fun and has, in fact, historically, been anti-Semitic. For an example of how this can go wrong, look no farther than Henry Ford’s years ago publication of the anti-Semitic tract Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and ask yourself why Ford Motor Company still pays to run periodic showings of Schindler’s List on network TV.
Metal lyrics do not have to be dumb. The genre has evolved to the point that sites like this one can provide multi-part articles breaking down complex lyrical concepts that absolutely challenge listeners to pay attention across multiple, dense tracks. This is not to suggest, at all, that Testament is anti-semitic, but instead that maybe it’s time to advance beyond the secret society stuff, if for no other reason than Dan Brown’s mainstream success showed that it’s totally played out. And Brotherhood exposes hidden puppet masters in spades, providing gems like “as they control your mind,” “they show us what we want to see, it happens all the time,” “doesn’t matter what the people say,” and, the best, “we’re fighting for the reptiles.” The last is presumably a reference to David Icke’s lizard people lunacy, a conspiracy theory so aggressively moronic that its proponents make Sandy Hook truthers seem well-adjusted. And, to add insult to injury, there is a conspiracy theory joke, too, in the awful “Canna Business”: “a stoned world order.”
All that said, the record pretty much rocks and is certainly not without its strengths: solid riffs from guitarist Peterson, leads from the very-jazz inflected Alex Skolnick and Chuck Billy’s convincing delivery of the questionable-at-best lyrics. The playing is tight and solid, due in no part to the considerable drumming skills of Gene Hoglan. In addition, bassist Steve DiGornio is now back as a full-time member and adds some runs that provide counterpoint to the strong riffing. Songs like “The Seventh Seal” will likely be a strong addition to the setlist and is the album’s best track. It’s as well-written as anything from the Practice era. The album opening title track is another highlight, employing the previously mentioned blast beat seasoning and Billy exploring his low-end range with an inflection that borders on death growl briefly. “Centuries of Suffering” has a great groove in the lead section, and it serves as a launch pad to some strong lead playing.
As a whole, whether or not to check out Brotherhood Of The Snake is not one of life’s big decisions. If you like Testament and have enjoyed their two most recent albums, Dark Roots Of Earth and Formation of Damnation, you will probably find plenty to like as there are no real departures here. If you are somehow new to the band, it might be better to start with their earlier material from the glory days of thrash rather than the later, non-essential records, such as this one.
Testament’s Brotherhood Of The Snake will be available October 28th, 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Pre-orders are available at this location.