Testament's The Formation of Damnation has been hotly anticipated for two reasons. First, it marks the return of lead guitarist Alex Skolnick. This resets the lineup to its original members but for drummer Paul Bostaph. Second, it's taken quite a while. Since 1999's The Gathering, the band members have been busy elsewhere. Rhythm guitarist Eric Peterson has his black metal band Dragonlord, Skolnick has his jazz trio, and the drummer's throne is a perpetually revolving door. Add in reunion touring and record labels folding like cheap lawn chairs, and the result has been a brand in search of a soul.
That soul is back on Formation. It's a Testament record, no more and no less. Despite Skolnick's return, it's in line with Testament's output after his departure in the '90s. Thus, thrash riffs bulge with death metal heft, but leavened by the band's trademark melodic sense. Skolnick's fluid shredding is welcome and familiar, but it sometimes feels airdropped into material mostly written by Peterson. Still, this division of labor works best. Skolnick joins the songwriting credits for "Dangers of the Faithless," and adds the unnecessary complexity that bogged down The Ritual, which he dominated. Peterson is quite capable of running the show himself. His "The Persecuted Won't Forget" is some of Testament's most dynamic work in years; when Skolnick swoops in with a jaw-dropping solo, it's merely an added bonus.
The biggest bonus is Chuck Billy, who is seemingly ageless. His vocals are just as ferocious as they were on Low, when the band dropped its balls to try out death metal. As always, his lyrics are slightly awkward (e.g., "Election day spitting bullshit to the enslaved / Make them believe compromised insanity"). This time, though, they're at least directed, protesting the war in Iraq. Anyway, Billy's vocals have always been about their sound. For having a limited range, he's quite expressive. When he howls "Fear is only what you feel" in "F.E.A.R.," one can't help but fear him a little.
Formation bursts with energy, yet it's muzzled by overly hot production and mastering that renders it uniformly loud. The record is one long peak, which makes it a tiring listen. Andy Sneap contributes his usual clear, heavy mix, but the mastering destroys all separation and smears everything together. Drums smack futilely against digital zero, and songs never come up for air. The material is good, the sound is bad, and this comeback leaves the listener wanting more.