We never knew how much we'd miss armchair-quarterbacking on the rocky road of TESTAMENT's career until it was replaced by a nine-year flatline. We all debated when and why the band fell off their seemingly divine fast track to stadium stardom (let's get it out in the open now — "Souls of Black" was a misstep and "The Ritual" was tepid dogshit). We debated how heavy TESTAMENT should be after they roared back with "Low" and then went off the rails with "Demonic". And our celebrations for the massive and humungous "The Gathering" were curtailed when we learned that the big man, Chuck Billy, was suffering from cancer.
After the benefit shows, personnel changes, reconciliation, and reunions of various pieces of the lineup, "The Formation of Damnation" kicks in the door and says, in effect, "what nine-year delay?" Sporting the four guys who matter from the classic lineup, plus the more-than-ready Paul Bostaph on skins, the album presents a kind of travelogue through TESTAMENT's formative years, as filtered through modern production and the kick-in-the-ass intensity offered up on "The Gathering".
Talk about a "for the fans" album — if you're looking for "Souls of Black" swagger, "Killing Season" will satisfy you immensely. Want some of that slightly theatrical, more melodic old-school stuff they dished up on songs like "Alone In the Dark" and "The Haunting"? "Henchmen Ride" throttles forth with a driving double-kick gallop and scowling power metal motif. "More Than Meets the Eye" and "The Evil Has Landed" are the best one-two punch the band has ever delivered, mercilessly hooky but with a heaviness the band could never have dredged up in their younger days. "Afterlife" is the midtempo, top-down "Envy Life" of this era, while the title cut blasts through its duration with the kind of wild-eyed, over the top mania "The Gathering" dished out in spades.
The hell of it all is, the end result of all this rifling through the band's past glories doesn't sound like a warmed-over rehash. "The Formation of Damnation" is a vital, modern and bleedingly relevant album, more well-rounded than the last three, but with nary a trace of weakness or appeasement to current trends to be heard. It's the essence of what's made TESTAMENT so important to so many of us over the years, boiled down to the most essential ingredients and brought into the modern age rejuvenated, arguably more on top of their game than they were the first time around, and ready to take on bands half their age. Well worth the wait, if not the worry – and I'll pre-order the next one right now if someone can promise me it won't take 'till 2018.