Sails of Charon

REVIEW: Testament – Signs of Chaos: The Best of Testament (1997)

 

 

TESTAMENT – Signs of Chaos: The Best of Testament (1997 Mayhem)

I bought this in the winter of 1997.  I hadn’t listened to Testament in a few years.  I’d bought The Ritual album in 1992, but they kind of lost me post-Skolnick, when they went hell-bent for death metal.  Therefore the idea of a good, remastered single disc compilation album covering the entire career was appealing to me.  All the key tracks that I wanted were here, including two incredible B-sides!

Shortly after The Ritual came out, singer Chuck Billy denounced it as too soft, too commercial, and not the direction he and Eric Peterson wanted to take the band in the future.  Regardless of this, the single “Electric Crown” was chosen to kick off Signs of Chaos (including the brief instrumental intro, “Signs of Chaos”.  I’ve always felt it was superior to a couple of its chief rival songs at the time:  “Enter Sandman” and “Symphony of Destruction”.  You be the judge.  I think I have a strong case.

As I delved into the disc I found that I was very hit-and-miss with Testament’s earlier material.  For example “The New Order”, the title track from their 1988 album.  I find it thin production-wise, and melodically a bit awkward.  It’s hard-hitting and thrashy as fuck, but strangely enough I prefer the earlier track “Alone in the Dark” from 1987’s The Legacy.  Not only does it boast a stomping riff, but also a chorus that sticks to the head.

“Dog Faced Gods” introduced me to the Testament world of blast-beats and death metal growls.  This was from the first post-Skolnick album, Low.  Now Peterson and Billy had the chance to indulge their heaviest urges, and they did a fantastic job.  Featuring the stellar drum talents of John Tempesta (currently in The Cult), this is Testament brought to a whole new level.  While death metal growls are not normally my bag, Billy sings in a “normal” voice during the cool chorus.  As for the rest of the song, it is a precise complex of drum fills, lightning-fast guitar licks, time changes and riffs.

If you thought “Dog Faced Gods” was heavy, then “Demonic Refusal” might very well blow you out of your seat.  The followup album to Low was called Demonic and it took things further out to the boundaries.  Gene Hoglan on drums this time, “Demonic Refusal” is even more evil and scary.  It still boasts a head-crushing riff and has a strangely catchy quality to the vocal.  Chuck Billy convinced me on these songs that he is a diverse, talented thrash metal singer among the best in the genre.

“The Ballad” from the landmark 1989 album Practice What You Preach was about as close as Testament got to a hit single.  The timing was right, seeing as Metallica had success with “One” the year before.  Even though it is clearly a ballad (albeit a heavy one), the song has balls and metal fans had no problem embracing it.  To me it seems to be based on a prototype of some of Iron Maiden’s softer material.  The album Souls of Black, which followed Practice, was considered little more than a rushed carbon copy followup.  That may be the case, but either way the song “Souls of Black” is still as catchy as ever.  Skolnick’s fluttery licks are a highlight, as is Chuck Billy’s groovy lead vocal.

I find it funny that “Trial By Fire” is listed as a CD-only bonus track.  I guess this album must have been released on cassette too in 1997.  “Trial By Fire” isn’t one of the best songs in my books, but it does contain more outstanding Skolnick guitar shreddery.  A brief word about Alex Skolnick for those who don’t know:  He was one of Joe Satriani’s students, and he’s also well known for playing jazz fusion on the side.  In fact he left Testament initially to enable him to explore that kind of style.  His tone is really warm, and you can feel the vacuum tubes humming in a vintage amp when he plays.

Another uber-heavy song, “Low” from the album of the same name, is just as good and memorable as “Dog Faced Gods”.  The Low album featured one of the most respected guitarists in the death metal genre, James Murphy (Death).  Murphy’s chops helped bring Testament closer to that line between thrash and death, while maintaining the virtuosity that the band had with Alex Skolnick.

“Practice What You Preach” and “Over the Wall” provide a double-punch of early Testament heavy metal.  To me, “Over the Wall” is not an outstanding song.  It’s good for a head-bang and has a killer solo, but it’s not particularly special.  “Practice What You Preach” on the other hand nails it.  Testament were crossing groove and thrash metal together successfully, before Metallica painted it Black.  “Practice” remains one of their highest achievements from the early years.

I mentioned earlier that Souls of Black was considered by many to be little more than a second generation copy of Practice.  This extended to putting out another ballad.  “The Legacy” was one of their earlier compositions, polished up for Souls of Black.  While it’s the lesser known song, I think I prefer it to “The Ballad”.  The production seems a little more full, although the two songs are very similar.  As far as ballads go, I don’t think either song holds a candle to the next track.  “Return to Serenity” from The Ritual is a beautiful song, with gorgeous guitar tones.  It’s a less dark than the other two songs, and lyrically discussing those special places that you may have had as a child, and returning to serenity.  I would put “Return to Serenity” up against virtually any similar Metallica song, and I believe it would blow them away.  While both bands have a lead guitar player that was taught by Joe Satriani, I believe Alex Skolnick to be on a completely different level from other guitar players in this genre.

“Perilous Nation” is a plenty-good thrash party, but again this is listed as a CD only bonus track.  I just find that amusing on an album released in 1997.  The CD ends with two smoking covers:  “The Sails of Charon” (Scorpions) and “Draw the Line” (Aerosmith)!  We all know Testament are huge Aerosmith fans, since they covered “Nobody’s Fault” earlier.  Both are absolutely incredible covers and alone worth the price of the CD.  “Draw the Line”, already a manic-fast song, is give a dose of Liquid Schwartz in the ol’ engine.  I defy you to refrain from banging your head.  What an awesome song to end the CD on, and this review on!

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Scorpions – Taken By Force (remaster)

The second review from Toronto Record Store Excursion 2013!  I paid $7.99 at Sonic Boom.

SCORPIONS – Taken By Force (1977, 2002 Hip-O/Universal remaster)

I don’t have all the Scorpions albums, but I’m filling in the blanks with some of the critically acclaimed early albums.  Through that process I discovered that I really like the Uli Jon Roth period!  Taken By Force was their last studio album with Roth, although it was followed in 1978 with the double live Tokyo Tapes.  Taken By Force was also the last Roth-era album that I needed in my collection.  Unfortunately, according to the Wikipedia, although this remaster contains a bonus B-side and live track, it also contains an edited version of “Sails of “Charon”, a flaw common with almost all CD versions.

Taken By Force immediately states its heavy metal purposes with “Steamrock Fever”; the sound of a jackhammer and pounding riff opens the album.  Its anthemic chorus, melded with some Roth six string trickery and that unrelenting jackhammer will knock you down.  The Scorpions are not winning any awards for lyrical poetry, preferring to take the sledgehammer route with their message too.

All this is well and good, because next is a respite.  At least for a few moments, “We’ll Burn the Sky” allows you to cool down, before a classic Schenker riff takes the fore.  “We’ll Burn the Sky” is classic Scorpions.  It combines their penchant for melody and talent for executing memorable guitar riffs.  Roth’s slippery classical-like licks are icing on the cake.

“I’ve Got to Be Free” is the first Roth composition and features the odd bluesy licks flickering in and out of an otherwise heavy rock song.  I really like the screamed verses.  The broken-English lyrics of “The Riot of Your Time” seems to refer to the death of Elvis Presley, while foretelling the future of “’94 or ’95”.  According to the Scorpions, if the world is still alive by 1995, it will “be the start for the riot of your time”.  I don’t know what that means exactly, but the guitar seems to echo The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” through a heavy metal filter.

The original LP would have been split there and side 2 introduced by wind-like sounds, before entering “The Sails of Charon”.  That windy intro is cut on this CD, so “Charon” commences with the riff.  Surely, “The Sails of Charon” must go down as Uli Roth’s greatest contribution to the Scorpions.  This majestic masterpiece is ambitious, elegant and exotic.  And heavy.  Let’s not forget that the riff, while highbrow, is as heavy as a load of concrete.  (Incidentally, Testament did an amazing cover of this.)

“Your Light” is a funky Roth composition, one of the most likeable on the whole album.  When I say “funky” I don’t mean Sly and the Family Stone, think more the Deep Purple variety of funky.  There is also common ground here with sounds that Van Halen would later inhabit.  Then, “He’s A Woman – She’s A Man” resumes the sledgehammer assault that dominated side one.  New drummer Herman Rarebell had his first writing credit on this single.  Album closer “Born to Touch Your Feelings” is a ballad, with a long outro and overlapping voices.  It’s a solid, dramatic closing to an album that grabbed my attention at every turn and every song.

This 2002 remaster contains two bonus tracks.  First is “Suspender Love”, which was originally the B-side to “He’s A Woman – She’s A Man”.  It’s a slinky tune, fun and all, but very much unlike Taken By Force as a whole.  Still, I have no problem with the inclusion of relevant B-sides, so I’m glad to have this. The other bonus track is “Polar Nights”, originally from Virgin Killer but included here in the Tokyo Tapes version.  This was done because when Hip-O reissued and remastered Tokyo Tapes, they did it as a single disc meaning this song wouldn’t fit.  It was included here so you could still buy a complete Tokyo Tapes.  This is kind of sloppy, but at least the whole package is still available.  Also, since “Polar Nights” is a showcase of Uli’s bluesy, funky fingering, it’s also a nice way to close his final album with the Scorpions.

5/5 stars

As usual, the Scorpions courted controversy with their album cover.  The original “graveyard gunfight” photo was replaced in many regions with a plain cover with band photo.  This remaster unfortunately has the alternate artwork.  Shame about that.

Record Store Excursion 2013!

PART 1

PART 2