Testament, "Brotherhood of the Snake" (Nuclear Blast)
Every few years, Cali metal bands get hyped as "returning to their thrash roots." Sometimes it's not very true (the latest Metallica), sometimes it's true but so what (the latest Megadeth), and sometimes it's not a great notion (the new Testament). All three of these bands grew up in California, all three influenced one another, all three have showcased major talent, and all three have traveled long, uneven paths.
Because it just ain't 1985 anymore, each group kicks larger regions of my posterior when it sniffs fresh posies. Testament tends to mess with more adventurous song structures and hookier melodies when guitar marvel Alex Skolnick is getting his digits dirty, so the decision to hand almost every pigskin to founding co-axman Eric Peterson was not designed to massage my deltoids. Peterson's riffs sound rote, and Skolnick's occasional lead frenzies feel as if he was beamed in from a Centaurian spacecraft. (This schizo approach actually jibes well with the gut hollers of big Chuck Billy, who was lyrically inspired by the TV series "Ancient Aliens" -- a favorite of mine since it explains who took my UFO-shaped glass lampshade when I moved.)
The drunken-sailor swagger of "Born in a Rut" does lurch along manfully, though; the churning helicopter fade-out and Bach-derived solo on "Neptune's Spear" are fun touches; and the subtle switch between 3/4 and 4/4 rhythms on "Black Jack" will get music geeks strokin' their beards. If all else fails to grab ya, concentrate on the powerfully precise and inventive drums of the famed Gene Hoglan (on board for the last two Testament discs), recorded for optimal impact by equally famed engineer Andy Sneap.
Side point: The ever-exploratory Skolnick is deeply involved in the new alt-culture mag Unbuilt. Maybe he should interview Testament.
Burials/Exhausted Prayer (split)
Whether deathstyle or blackened, metal isn't heavy without a touch of magic, and each complementary but dissimilar band conjures it on this eight-song split.
Though at first Portland's Burials might sound undefined, therein lies the charm. Sophisticated drum polyrhythms lurk beneath a thicket of thorny guitar lines, whose throaty or chimy tones grab your neck and drag you through a prognacious free-for-all ("Laccolith") or dance you through a dense noise waltz ("White River"). Dynamic, big and musicianly.
SoCal pillars Exhausted Prayer make sure their buzzpicked black riffs sound like songs, and their screams & croaks leave enough space for the rhythmic angularities to roil your lunch. You want a blinding lead amid massive thrash oompah? You got it ("Sewer"). You probably didn't know you wanted a monkish choir over a hellbound funeral march, but you'll be glad you got that, too ("A Grim Homecoming"). Knowing & growing, E.P. make a case that they should crawl out from under that shroud more often.
Split to be released January 13 via Apes Who Looked Up, Rose Quarter Records, End Theory Records and Batholith Industries, available here.