Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Occasionally, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Decibel site to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. This time around, Greg Pratt defends Testament’s The Ritual.
Alright, I realize you don’t like The Ritual much. No one really does. But hear me out: “Electric Crown” might be the best Testament song ever; it’s easily in the top three, but I can see no circumstance under which I wouldn’t just think, fuck it, it’s the best Testament song ever and an incredible way to get an album started. It’s a perfect mix of Testament songwriting, thrash energy, and a more reasoned, mature sound. It’s just one of those perfect moments in metal history, and for that alone, we need to stop ignoring The Ritual, but even aside from this song, this album rules. Now, I’m extremely, painfully aware that this is a melodic Testament album and not to everyone’s liking. The good news is Testament are one of the greatest metal bands of all time and if you don’t like their melodic stuff, listen to their heavy stuff; as long as we’re all listening to Testament, it’s all good.
But, wait, I don’t want to lose you just yet: I want you to listen to their melodic stuff. I want you to reconsider The Ritual, because it’s a fantastic melodic thrash album. The trouble is it came out in ’92, and it isn’t that much of a stretch to think that Testament, desperately clinging to a changing musical landscape, were trying to get a bit of that Black Album love. And maybe they were. But the thing is, when Testament try to write great melodic thrash songs, they write great melodic thrash songs, and the album isn’t a dud, and it’s not boring like the Black Album, it’s just a great melodic thrash album.
Take, for example, the second song (well, third, if we’re counting actually-kinda-cool 30-second intro “Signs of Chaos,” a song just slightly better known than the greatest-hits collection with the same name that came out in 1997, which I can only assume no one bought), “So Many Lies.” At the time, its mid-tempo groove and wildly catchy structure and vocal lines made us a bit nervous; years later, all you can really do is bask in its glory and admire what a great song it is.
Now, before we go any further, we should probably discuss the ballad, which is buried pretty deep in this album, placed at song 10 of 11. Here’s what we have to say about the ballad: “Return to Serenity” is awesome. Thrash ballads were a bit of a by-the-books exercise by this point, and Testament had the formula down pat, no doubt about it. But for all its strict adhering to the rules (see: “The Ballad,” “The Legacy”), “Return to Serenity” still totally rules. In a sense, “The Ballad” will always win out because it has Chuck Billy sitting pensive in a diner in the music video, yes, but as far as the songs themselves go, “Return to Serenity” is a home run of a thrash ballad.
But, man, there’s also the speedy “Let Go of My World,” the dirge-y title track (not a ballad, really), and the outrageously catchy “Deadline” putting together a cool mid-album trio of tunes; later there are songs you’ve absolutely forgotten about but are still legitimately great, like “The Sermon” (rules: how good were the band at writing memorable songs at this point? And can we talk about vocal lines? Let’s talk about Testament’s vocal lines: they are incredible on this album) and “Troubled Dreams” (also rules: this song ends this album with confidence, a heavy stomp that embraces the mid-tempo sounds that are universal across this disc, but injects them with some of the heaviest sonics on The Ritual, almost a promise, maybe an apology, definitely a good idea). “As the Seasons Grey” even has a fake-out fade-out ending, and we all love those, right?
One of the many things I love about Testament is the variety in their material; while it’s all thrash, some is of the near-Teutonic levels of blinders-on variety (the debut), elsewhere it’s ultra-heavy and modern (Demonic), classic ’80s (Practice What You Preach), or melodic and mid-tempo (this album). Where you spend the most time hanging out depends on what kind of thrasher you are. While I spend tons of time in the ’80s and getting Teutonic, when the mood strikes for mid-tempo and melodic, I’m blown away every time by the songs they crafted here.
My defense of Testament’s melodic material will likely lead to my premature death one way or another, but I stand by it: when they’re crafting songs that are as mature as they are thrashing, they hit on a sweet spot that few bands do, and no one does as well. The Ritual is Testament at the height of their melodic powers. Maybe they were hoping for some Black Album trickle-down, but we the listeners got out of it a thrash album that has aged very, very well, and one that is well worthy of much defense. And if this doesn’t convince you, go listen to “Electric Crown” again. And if that doesn’t convince you, let’s just meet for a few beers; we have things to discuss.