Revisiting Testament’s The Formation of Damnation

tfod-2009

By Adrien Begrand

The trend of re-releasing albums as tarted-up “special editions” has been a disturbing one over the past six or seven years, a cynical attempt by record labels to cash in on the loyalty of metal fans. Sure, some savvy labels try to give fans bang for their buck, Nuclear Blast’s lavish, mailorder-only deluxe editions for instance, but nine times out of ten the extra bells and whistles, be they a bonus track, a making-of DVD, expanded artwork, or merely a lousy cardboard slipcase, are only worth a cursory glimpse or listen at best. Although the fad is not as rampant as it was around 2005 (remember how many different versions there were of Mastodon’s Leviathan there were?), we do still get the odd, lazily tossed-off reissue from time to time, the most recent of which being the, erm, “Deluxe Tour Edition” of Testament’s comeback album The Formation of Damnation. Despite the fact that this album came out two years ago and there are a ton of 2010 releases that I really should be writing about, when this CD arrived in the mail, I nevertheless thought it was as good a time as any to take another close critical look at the record to see how it’s held up over the past 24 months.

When it first came out, my initial reaction was cautiously positive at best. There were some very good moments, I thought, but I also thought it had some significant flaws: the production felt unnecessarily busy, some songs struggled with consistency, and I just wasn’t hearing the brilliant melodic sensibility by guitarists Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson that drove such favourites as Practice What You Preach, The Ritual, and The Gathering. In addition, I found some of the lyrics to be on the weak side, and egads, that album cover was atrocious. Seriously, can anyone tell what the hell that image is?

It’s funny how some records creep up on you long after first coming out. By the end of 2008 I still didn’t think it was worthy of my year-end list, but throughout 2009 I found myself gravitating to that pesky record more and more. A track would suddenly appear on the MP3 player’s shuffle or on Sirius, and I’d find myself increasingly absorbed. Its incessant appeal got to the point where even a few weeks ago I found myself completely obsessing over the album, streaming it on Spotify at the computer, blasting the CD in the car. Yeah, I was now able to now belatedly admit, this is a damn fine record. Flaws and all.

That’s right, I still hear weak spots on The Formation of Damnation. The title track is a waste of time, an unnecessary reversion to the band’s more aggressive sound of Demonic. It’s not a bad track; it’s just an awkward fit, Chuck Billy’s death growl clashing too much with his far superior, more melodic style on the other nine tracks. As far as the lyrics go, “Leave Me Forever” still feels overtly maudlin, while “The Eagle Has Landed” is doubly flawed, its tale of 9-11 not only feeling too dated, but also failing to offer any unique perspective on the disaster, consisting merely of a matter-of-fact account (“So many people killed / Two thousand nine hundred and seventy four”) and an uncomfortable “call to arms” (“Time to stand and deliver when evil flies our way”) coming nearly seven years after the country was led down a rabbit hole that it won’t soon crawl out of.

In the end, though, the songs on this album win out, resoundingly so. Awkward lyrics and all, “The Eagle Has Landed” is a brilliantly catchy song, which along with the contagious gallop of “More Than Meets the Eye”, gets Formation off to a rampaging start. It’s during the middle of the album where its real strengths lie, however. “Dangers of the Faithless” wouldn’t sound out of place on The Ritual, Billy’s vocal performance both authoritative and nuanced. “Killing Season” possesses a vicious swing to it, almost as is drummer Paul Bostaph was inspired by playing Dave Lombardo’s beats during his time with Slayer. “The Persecuted Won’t Forget”, meanwhile, exudes a total The New Order vibe, Peterson’s snaky opening riff leading towards hard-charging, palm-muted verses propelled by Bostaph. “The Henchmen Ride” is even stronger, as the band proves they can still walk the line between aggressive and accessible better than anyone. As that track proves, the importance of Billy’s more melodic side cannot be underestimated either. From day one the man has been a master of injecting strong melodies into his snarled vocal lines, exuding a kind of swagger that 20 years ago could only be matched by the likes of Armored Saint’s John Bush and pre-Black Album James Hetfield. Billy’s is one of the definitive voices in metal, one that simply sounds ageless.

So is this new version of Formation worth buying if you already own the album? Not a chance. We do get a bonus disc, but it’s only a collection of three live tracks and a scant enhanced portion (do people still think CD-ROMs are a good marketing tool?) that has annoyingly truncated MTV video clips of said live tracks as well as the patently unmemorable clip for “More Than Meets the Eye”. If you have yet to pick up this fine, remarkably resilient record, though, now’s as good a time as any. Plus, if you get this new version, you’ll be treated to a new slipcase that, despite being a rather hilarious pastiche of meaningless metal clichés (iron cross, pentagram, horned skull with forked tongue), does keep us from seeing that atrocious original artwork inside.

(Nuclear Blast)

Rating: 8.5

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.