Testament – These Colors Don’t Run

Sunday, 31st March 2013

(This content originally appeared on Blistering.com)

Thrash is by far the most cyclical style in all of metal. One decade it’s in (the 80’s), the next it’s out (the 90’s). Then it’s back in again (’00’s), and soon it will crest, which should happen any day now. So while the tide is high, who better to ride it than Testament? Universally regarded as the quintessential “everyman’s” thrash band, the Bay Area boys have just released their highest charting album to date (#12) in the form of Dark Roots of the Earth. Now, chart positions generally don’t matter, but they do in thrash, especially when the voluminous shadow of the Big 4 is everywhere one turns. With the exception of Anthrax, Testament has certainly outdone them all.

With their most grapple-ready album since 1989’s Practice What You Preach,Dark Roots is a mature, supremely heavy, and song-oriented outing, one that sees frontman Chuck Billy turn in one of his best vocal performances in years, as evidenced by cuts like “Rise Up,” “Cold Embrace,” and “Throne of Thorns.” And per the usual, the guitar tandem of Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick have little trouble hanging with a big league drumming talent like Gene Hoglan (Dethklok, Strapping Young Lad). In fact, it appears it’s the other way around – Hoglan is practically pushed to the brink on multi-faceted extreme thrash romps such as “True American Hate” and “Native Blood.”

Phoning in on a Thursday afternoon, the towering Billy was more than happy to discuss the back story behind Dark Roots with Blistering, as well as the band’s tumultuous mid-90’s period, which at the moment, seems like a distant memory…

Blistering.com: When you saw the sales figure for the new album and where it charted, what was the general reaction amongst the band?

Chuck Billy: I first give credit to Nuclear Blast for doing such a great job with their campaign. They did a lot of teasers and actually marketing the pres-ale with the special editions and stuff; they have like five or six different versions of the record you could buy which is different than when the label puts out the CD, then three months later, puts out the special edition. Fans are usually upset by that.

It was smart the way they did it; and the record didn’t leak out until a couple of days before it was supposed to come out. And, we made a decent record [laughs]. I think it was together, we did a great job of doing what we were supposed to do.

Blistering.com: In your 80’s and 90’s heyday, you had major label backing from Atlantic, so can you compare and contrast the methods of Atlantic versus Nuclear Blast?

Billy: The major label deal, they didn’t understand us, a metal band. But they had the proper machine and spent a lot of money and had the connections and pushed the product from a business point of view. With Nuclear Blast, they understand the music, where to put it, and who to get it to. It’s definitely more strategic thinking than just relying on the big machine. With this record, we got together with Nuclear Blast and came up with a plan where everyone was thinking outside of the box. We don’t want to be another band on Nuclear Blast that they did the normal campaign for. Together, we came up with a lot of stuff: the teasers, the making of the videos, the video…there’s just so many things. It sounds like crazy compared to our last campaign, like, “Wow, that seems like a lot!” But every single thing on our checklist, they made it happen. As a result of it, everyone was fired up to get on the record.

Blistering.com: It also helps that there’s been four years between releases, so there’s the necessary build-up and anticipation.

Billy: We toured up to three years on [2008’s] Formation of Damnation. A lot of shows. We spent maybe a year to get this record done and a lot of this was that we didn’t have Paul ready to work with us, and we wrote a lot on our own, so that put a little bit of a damper on it. The lucky thing was that we didn’t have a label like Atlantic with their A&R guy breathing down our shoulders asking for the next single or video. Nuclear Blast had the confidence that we were going to deliver the right record when it was ready. That was the beauty of it. We know what we’re going to do…we’ve done enough records for long enough.

Blistering.com: As for the new album, “Cold Embrace” is a song I keep going back to a lot. It’s your first ballad since “Trail of Tears.” [from 1994’s Low]

Billy: Yeah, it’s been a long time [laughs].

Blistering.com: What spurred the creation of this song?

Billy: In the past records, we’ve been concerned in the back of our minds with what fans, critics would think about the songs we put on record. Like, we gotta thrash hard, so let’s write thrashers. This record, we wrote it going into it with a lot of confidence. Just having the original lineup back together again and touring so hard on the Formation record, we went in with a lot of confidence. We didn’t think about…we just knew we had to write a couple of kick-ass songs to top the last records.

When I heard the riff for “Cold Embrace,” it didn’t even cross our minds as to what people will think. We all said, “Hey man, this is feeling good, let’s keep writing it.” And when I listened to it back, it really doesn’t feel like an eight-minute song. That to me, said a lot. You don’t want to push it to the next song because it’s a long track. And I thought we’ve written some pretty decent ballad-like songs with a lot of emotion in them, and that one has a lot of emotion, and lyrically and vocally, I thought it was a tone I haven’t used before on a record. It was interesting for me because it was something different.

Blistering.com: Gene Hoglan has been a big point of discussion for this record and this is not the first time you’ve worked with him. Is it better working with him than the first time?

Billy: [pauses] Oh yeah. Different headspace, different band. When we wrote the Demonic record, we were coming off the Low record with Atlantic and the change of the times with music and nobody on radio was playing music, so we were pissed-off [laughs]. You can tell in the tone of my voice – I sang a lot of death metal-styled vocals on it, but that’s what that record called for. With this record for Gene, I think he got pushed to the limit. It’s not like a Fear Factory record where it’s solid double-bass patterns, where a lot of this stuff is more dynamic, so it’s different for him to be that kind of drummer. So I don’t know if it’s harder or easier for Gene to be that kind of drummer doing straight double-kick stuff [laughs]. We pushed him harder to make it sure it was done with feeling and emotion and dynamic in it.

Blistering.com: Singing over the blast-beats had to be a different angle for you as well.

Billy: It really tripped out Eric and those guys. When we wrote it, I’d sing fast over those parts, but then I flipped it and sang slower. I sang more open lines and it gives it a good contrast; the blast-beat with a simple vocal melody over it.

Blistering.com: Let’s switch gears and talk about those post-Low years. As you mentioned, the climate for thrash bands was certainly not healthy, so what are your recollections of that point in time?

Billy: When we got the Low lineup together with Johnny Temptesta and stuff, we were thinking we were going to start a new era. Low was our farewell to Atlantic, so we wanted to write something harder and heavier compared to The Ritual. Then Johnny left right before that record came out, then Greg left. We did what we did, but over the years it got frustrating having to teach new guys the songs all the time and go through different styles with different feelings and vibes. It got frustrating. We forged ahead through it, though.

I’m a big believer in stuff happening for a reason. When I got sick in 2001 [Billy was diagnosed with cancer], I think that was the turning point for Testament. And for myself. If I didn’t get sick, I don’t know if we’d ever have the reunion. I don’t know if I would have written songs or embraced touring the way I do if I didn’t go through that. Since then, it’s been a different thing for us, just having the original guys, it feels like we’re almost blessed with the opportunity to finish something we started together. When I was sick, I lost all of my hair, I was on a steroid and I ballooned up. I didn’t recognize the guy in the mirror. I thought I wasn’t going to come back and play music. I thought I was going to beat the cancer, survive, and go on with my life and be with my family and friends.

When we had the opportunity to get back together with the original lineup, it felt like we were really blessed. It made the band a different band. Before I got sick, we were fed up with the revolving door of musicians, we weren’t a touring band. We did special shows and short tours, but it wasn’t a full-on touring band. We probably suffered the fanbase doing that, but we were content at the time, but it was getting old. Once we got the original guys back, what was supposed to be five shows, turned into seven years of touring and here we are.

Blistering.com: And like the “full circle” idea, you’ve hit 25 years for The Legacy.

Billy: You always think that’s what you join a band for – to have a long career. To actually do it, is another thing [laughs]. We went through the 80’s when it was hot for metal, and then we survived the 90’s when metal was a bad word. And now 2000 came, and all kinds of new metal coming, hitting the scene. In 2012, we have a little bit of it all: the old fans, and the new fans. What an accomplishment that we went through this whole cycle. The new bands of the last 10 years like the Lamb of Gods, the Shadows Falls, and all these bands were influenced by what we were doing, and now we’re influenced by what they’re doing, because I dig their style.

Blistering.com: For the next album, do you think it will be another four years?

Billy: Well, hopefully we can tour for the next four years on this record [laughs]. It was three years of touring hard on the Formation record. It took a year to write this record because Paul [Bostaph], the drummer was injured. We couldn’t work on writing as fast because we were waiting for him to get better. Eric was on writer’s block and he wasn’t feeling it yet. It took us to find out Paul wasn’t come back and Eric went to England to work with [producer] Andy Sneap and came back with 12 or 13 skeletons of songs and nine of them made it onto the record. That held us up and I don’t think that’s going to happen again. We definitely said that when we end this touring cycle, we better have our next record ready to go right into the studio. We need to be prepared to get on it.

Blistering.com: I have to ask: I saw you last November on the Anthrax tour and it your mic stand was lighting up. What’s the deal?

Billy: I just decided I wanted to get something different than a regular mic stand. I found a company in England that makes mic stands – the guys from Dimmu Borgir uses them; ZZ Top uses them, then I saw they had a half of stand, which is my thing [laughs]. I bought it and it changes six or seven different colors. Last year, I had it to Formation colors and this year, it will beDark Roots of Earth colors, green.

 www.testamentlegions.com