A couple notes here before we get started, which will also help you understand where I stand on the matter of ranking Testament‘s albums.
1: Testament is not capable of putting out bad albums.
2: Testament is one of the best metal bands ever.
Having said that, their albums have explored a number of different sounds (play Demonic and The Ritual back to back, for example), and they haven’t all been perfect thrash opuses. To celebrate the upcoming release of Brotherhood of the Snake, we thought it would be fun to look back on the band’s ten studio albums and rank them from least-best-fucking-band-ever to best-best-fucking-band-ever. And it was fun, mainly because it gave me an excuse to spin every single Testament album again and call it “work.”
Join me, and get ready for plenty of disagreements, but let’s all just agree on one thing: Testament totally rule.
10. Demonic (1997)
It’s not even so much Chuck Billy’s left-field death metal growls, which actually sound kinda cool; it’s that I can’t really remember any of the songs on this album without peeking at the track listing. It’s got weird song titles (mainly “Jun-Jun” and “John Doe”), a patchy lineup (although Gene Hoglan behind the kit is always a good thing), very ’97 cover art, and not much else. Now, about Billy’s vocals… it’s not that they don’t sound impressive and strong, because they do; but Chuck Billy’s voice is a unique and awesome thing, and here the familiar Billy-isms are nowhere to be found, rendering this the least Testament of all Testament albums. Dig that bottom-heavy production, though, and “The Burning Times” proves that the band was able to craft at least one memorable tune here.
9. Low (1994)
Too long and too oppressively straight-faced and basically just no fun, Low is still a very admirable middle finger to the industry, the band’s swansong on a major being their heaviest up to that point, with tons of ferocious bottom end. It marked the beginning of a lot of lineup changes, but they were solid, as far as changes go: John Tempesta and James Murphy ain’t exactly bad additions to any group. The fact that I can remember the title track after not listening to it for years means they were doing something right, but the fact that I can’t remember other songs as they’re playing means something just wasn’t quite clicking for much of this album, although the spirit is certainly in the right place, the band crafting some seriously satisfying sonics on this oddball, black-sheep album.
8. The New Order (1988)
Maybe it’s the lame Aerosmith cover (thrash bands: don’t do that), but I just never fully clicked with The New Order. It’s not to say it doesn’t contain killer ’88-style US thrash with tons of songwriting finesse and a good mid-tempo mastery of the instrumentation. It does, and it also contains the great one-two punch of “Trial by Fire” and “Into the Pit,” not to mention having that totally awesome Children of the Corn song (which is probably in the top five best Testament songs ever; top ten, for sure), so, fuck yeah; more Malachai, less Steven Tyler, you know?
7. Dark Roots of Earth (2012)
This and ’08 comeback The Formation of Damnation proved the band still had a shocking amount of life in them, both these albums being incredibly strong and top contenders for album of the year when they came out. The lyrical conceit of opener “Rise Up” always felt a bit too “This Town Knows how to Rock,” if you know what I mean, and I’m still not sold on the blastbeats in the (otherwise awesome) chorus of “Native Blood,” but those are both kinda personable, lovable, Testament-y quirks as opposed to serious problems (plus, the killer ending of “Native Blood” definitely makes up for it). Elsewhere, the title track and “True American Hate” (one of the best Testa-choruses ever, although again with those outta-nowhere blastbeats…) totally kill it, while much of the album is of a slower and moodier approach, to good effect.
6. The Formation of Damnation (2008)
Nine years after the incredible The Gathering album, Testament returned after a silence with this extremely powerful album, which boasted a huge production, tight thrash songs, and classic Testament songwriting skills: “More Than Meets the Eye” was an insta-classic that sounded straight off Practice What You Preach, “Henchman Ride” is hilariously catchy, and the title track boasts tons of cool guitar work that is pure Testament. Late-album highlight “Afterlife” is raging and downright heartwarming; hearing Chuck Billy singing about his “old man” over those perfect Testament riffs? Perfection. This album is only down this far on the list because their other albums are so damn good; this was a hell of a comeback, and a hell of an album, period.
5. Souls of Black (1990)
People always told me how this album just wasn’t that good, but I, relentlessly, defended it. But, okay, fine, I’ll admit it: it’s not amazing. But it’s still great! I love the title track, there’s another great ballad, “Face in the Sky” is a killer opening tune, “Falling Fast” has tons of great riffing and legendary Chuck Billy vocal lines… But there’s also a lot of tunes that sort of fly past without leaving anything whatsoever to remember them by. In a way, it’s a classic thrash album, but it could have been better, sure. I’ll admit it now. Firmly here in the middle of pack, maybe not actually as good as the two modern-era albums, but nostalgia is hard to battle.
4. The Ritual (1992)
Widely considered one of the band’s weakest, the worst I can say about The Ritual is that it’s too long; but have you spun “Electric Crown” lately? Holy shit, it’s one of the best songs this band ever wrote. The ballad on here is great, too (co-written by the guy whose short story inspired “November Rain,” so there’s that) (also, always loved that “was that a mistake?” guitar moment at 0:34; if any members of Testament are reading and would like to verify, please contact Decibel HQ); sure, it felt like they were chasing the Black Album a bit with this disc, but it still totally rules. After all, who does melodic thrash better than Testament? This is classy, mature, grown-up thrash at its finest, and it has aged incredibly, sounding even better today than it did in ’92. “So Many Lies” is mid-tempo Testament at its best, the title track is basically 7:30 of melodic sludge, “Deadline”’s chorus still rules, and “Agony” proves the band were still able to thrash at the speeds of their previous two full-lengths, they just chose not to for most of this killer album. And it worked.
3. The Legacy (1987)
Look, in 1987 Testament put out an album with a song about going missing in the Bermuda Triangle on it. It’s so absurdly metal and awesome that this wildly frantic album could blast to position number three here based on that alone, but it doesn’t have to: every song on this classic straddles a bizarre line between manic thrash (approaching Germanic levels of speed and intensity) and totally catchy songwriting. It’s tons of fun to listen to, and has so much youthful energy it’s almost ludicrous. It also holds up remarkably well, the songs sounding just as vital, exciting, and urgent today as they did in ’87. And while it’s tempting to write it off as not standing up as well as some of their other efforts due to a lack of maturity, it’s even more tempting to just crank it up and leave all traces of maturity back on our number-four pick here.
2. The Gathering (1999)
A very surprising mid-era peak here, Testament coming back after the weird Demonic with one of their most solid, and memorable, thrash albums. It’s classy and mature like The Ritual but heavy as Demonic, with the songwriting excellence of Practice What You Preach. And the lineup is nuts; sure, sometimes Testament are exhausting with their member changes, but they get damn good ones a lot of the time, and it’s through the roof here, with the trio of Dave Lombardo, Steve DiGiorgio, and James Murphy joining original Testament fellas Chuck Billy and Eric Peterson. It was like the band came back after Demonic having learned from that album’s mistakes, but drawing on its strengths and combining them with every other strength in the Testament skill set. If we take nostalgia out of the equation, this might be their best album, as insanely good tracks like “True Believer,” “Careful What You Wish For,” “DNR (Do Not Resuscitate),” and “3 Days in Darkness” prove.
1. Practice What You Preach (1989)
Oh, for fuck’s sake. This is almost perfect music, the band coming into their own early here, scrapping the fast-faster-fastest thrash of their debut to focus on the mid-tempo range that they would totally own by album’s end. Starting the album off with the incredible title track (those vocal lines!) was bold, but it’s not like the album loses steam from there, as killer songs like the totally rulin’ “Envy Life,” “Time Is Coming,” the excellent “Perilous Nation,” the relentlessly catchy “Sins of Omission,” and, sure, “The Ballad” (it rules, and don’t even try to deny it) keep the listener completely engaged throughout its 46 minutes, every single time. Then, to end it all off, “Nightmare (Coming Back to You)” is a quick punk blast, and “Confusion Fusion” is a tech-y instrumental; this could be novelty, but it works, and is a cool and quirky way to close off this most triumphant of thrash albums.