Testament - 'Low'
This is a fierce album. After losing Alex Skolnic and the push me-pull you musical differences that made 'The Ritual' such a moderate album, singer Chuck Billy and guitarist Eric Peterson felt liberated, free to be as heavy as they wanted to - and that's precisely what they proceeded to be. This album scales the aggression back up to Practice What You Preach levels - and heavier. While 'The Ritual' fit in with the overall trend of thrash acts mellowing out in the mid-90s, 'Low' took a few lessons from the more extreme metal of recent times to create an album that thrashed and grooved ten times more than anything they'd done before. Death metal guitar hero James Murphy helped them up the ante, contributing solos and textures that combined the new emphasis on brutality with as much skill as Skolnic had graced the band with.
A heavier musical direction was matched by more venomous lyrics and vocals. The title song, 'Low', with its stacatto, broken-up riffs and sledgehammer double bass only further hammers in the fierce scorn Chuck Billy directs at opportunistic political exploiters. And just think of the sheer shock to the system it was, after 'The Ritual', to hear this song and hear incredibly tight double bass and riffing...and growling! Billy hadn't shed the more shouty or tuneful sides to his voice, but this new growl - oh, my! 'Legions (In Hiding)' just kept the intensity building with its build-up into sheer groovy riffmania and Billy's vituperation directed at families that conceal dark secrets and 'keep spinning the wheels of abuse'. 'Shades Of War', 'PC' 'All I Could Bleed' carry on the trend of political and social comment, coupled with tight, groovy and heavy riffing.
'Hail Mary' and 'Dog Faced Gods' fit in more with Testament's older occult and anti-religious themes. 'Hail Mary' is like a blasphemous twin to 'Low' in its intense perfection, while 'Dog Faced Gods' ups both the intensity with positively death metallish sequences and some of the most atmospheric passages on the album, superbly conjuring up images of dark rituals in ancient Egypt. I'd say that 'Dog Faced Gods' is the real pinnacle of the album and a total vindication of the decision to forge ahead with a heavier direction rather than rely on thrash nostalgia or radio friendly homogenisation. 'Chasing Fear' is more of a general paean to mental disturbance, but just as sharp and focussed musically as anything else here, kicking in with some incredible soloing straight off the bat. 'Ride' is more paced-out, but just as intense, with great yell-along choruses that hark back to their earliest days as snotty thash kids kicking up a racket somewhere in the background while Metallica and Slayer dominated the scene.
'Trail Of Tears' is a ballad, and it veers a little too close to 'Return To Serenity' territory musically, although the lyrics are about the plight of native American tribes whose lands were usurped by the white man. That leaves two instrumentals. 'Urotsukidoji' is named for a tentacle-rape Jap comic, it's quite an instrumental workout, including some very fluid and kickass soloing by bassist Eric Peterson. 'Last Call' is a more groovy piece, with a great, unique atmosphere and a cool way to close out an album.
By now it should be clear to anyone with half a brain that sticking to your guns and progressing in heaviness is what works best for metal bands. Judas Priest discovered it before Testament, and Testament used that lesson well. If only more people had heeded the example of 'Low', bands like Kreator, Megadeth and others may never have had to get around to doing a comeback album in the first place.
The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: Thrash metal gets a heaviness upgrade for a decade that, sadly, didn't really appreciate Testament's efforts as much as they deserved. Definitely a peak in Testament's already notable career, and as fresh and fierce today as it sounded 13 years ago.