TESTAMENT – Live Offerings
Bay Area, California-based thrash metal outfit Testament embark on a short UK visit during mid-to-late June 2016 as part of a European tour. Beginning at the 02 Academy in Oxford, England on the 19th, the trek concludes at the Thrash N Bowl event at the Brooklyn Bowl in London on the 23rd.
“We’re coming over for some shows,” Eric Peterson chuckles, guitarist and co-founder of Testament. “We haven’t played the UK for a while, so we’re excited to go over there and jam it out. We just started recording our new record (The Brotherhood Of The Snake); we started doing the drums Wednesday – this is our second day. Gene’s already got two songs under his belt done, and we’ve got a good drum tone. We’re excited. It’s killer. We’re excited we’re actually doing it.
“It’s so hard, because we’re always touring. We’re leaving June 15th to go over there, and I’m almost telling Chuck ‘Why are we touring? Why don’t we get the record done (laughs)?’ We always do this; we always plan tours while we’re working on a new record. That’s kind of the reason why it takes us so long, but whatever. We’ll get it done. We’ll be working on the record, and hopefully will get it all recorded before we leave. Then we’re heading over there to do some shows in Europe and the UK.”
Testament have visited the United Kingdom on a number of occasions through the years. “We’ve done a lot of UK shows,” the axeman notes. “We’ve been touring since ’87. Are you talking about all of them (laughs)? The UK is one of our favourite countries to play. For a band like us that has been around for over 25 years and touring a lot, we’ve gone through a lot of friends and lost a lot of friends. We’re lucky enough to still be doing what we love and playing music. I would probably think that one of the highlights of doing the UK was probably a club show we did, where we did the first two records back-to-back (April 1987’s The Legacy and April 1988’s The New Order).
“We usually do pretty good there – we’ll sell out smaller venues. We’ll book the shows a couple of months in advance and it’ll sell out pretty quick, but when we did this show and announced that we would be doing the first two records, it sold out within like a day. That was pretty cool. It just shows you what the fans like – they like the old stuff. That’s one of my favourite memories.”
1987 witnessed the respective issue of debut effort The Legacy, in April of that year to be exact. The platter reaches its 30th anniversary in 2017, although the occasion might go initially unmarked. “We’re gonna be putting out a new record, and we’ll be supporting that record,” Eric muses. “I would imagine in the future… At the end of the cycles, we like to do something like that.”
Visiting the United Kingdom for the first time during 1987, Testament supported a member of the Big Four. “We were supporting Anthrax,” the composer remembers. “Anthrax had put out… It wasn’t Spreading The Disease (October 1985), but Among The Living (March 1987). Yeah, it was a great tour. I think we did like 20 dates. We had The Legacy out, and had popped over to Europe earlier in the year. We did a show in Holland; we did the Dynamo Festival (on June 8th, 1987), and ended up doing an EP with that (Live At Eindhoven, October 1987). Five, six months after The Legacy came out, the record company put that EP out, and then we did the States with Anthrax.”
A number of compositions have entered Testament’s live setlist since 1987, some of which are Eric’s favourites to perform. “I would say half of my favourites are on there, but half of them we never even play, which is a shame,” he laments. “We have a lot of songs that we’ve never played that are awesome, in my opinion. Maybe we’ll change that in the future, but yeah, for sure. We do a lot of the classics, like ‘Over The Wall’ (from The Legacy), ‘The New Order’ (from The New Order). ‘Dog Faced Gods’ (from Low, September 1994) is another one of my favourites, and stuff like that. ‘D.N.R’ (from June 1999’s The Gathering).”
A range of material figures among those the axe-slinger would like to introduce to Testament’s live setlist. “I’d really like to play some of the crazier stuff, like ‘Fall Of Sipledome’ which is off of The Gathering, tracks like ‘Seven Days Of May’ off of Souls Of Black (October 1990), or more stuff off of Demonic (June 1997) like ‘Hatred’s Rise’ or ‘Murky Waters’,” he cites. “There’s some great stuff on that record that we never do, and Low (laughs). We rarely ever play anything off of Low, although ‘Dog Faced Gods’ we’ve just added into our set – there’s some good stuff on that record as well.
“Maybe some more stuff off of The Ritual; maybe the song ‘The Ritual’, which sounds like a ballad that’s darker. That’s a pretty cool tune. Yeah, stuff like that. We seem to do a lot of our title tracks, and then we seem to do a lot of songs off of The New Order. I love that record; it’s got a lot of classic stuff on it, but yeah, stuff like that. We’ll have to push them in for the next time.”
A slew of tracks compromise Testament’s overall catalogue. “Yeah,” Eric concurs. “There’s almost a hundred, so it’s hard to… We tend to stick to the same songs, though. I’ve really gotta push the envelope to get anything new in the set (laughs). With the last one we did though, in South America, we got like five songs that we’ve never played… Or not never played, but brought them back into the fold.
“Songs like ‘True Believer’ off of The Gathering, ‘Eyes Of Wrath’ off of The Gathering. ‘Dog Faced Gods’ like I mentioned, which we hadn’t played in a while. I’m just trying to get stuff that we’ve not always done into the set. We always do ‘Over The Wall’, we always do ‘Practice What You Preach’ (from the August 1989 album of the same name), we always play ‘The New Order’, and we always play ‘Into The Pit’ (from The New Order). It’s great when you’re a band that has to play certain songs, but there are so many songs which would just be so heavy live, like ‘Fall Of Sipledome’ – that song is just nuts.
“Of course some of the slower songs, those are some of the favourite songs for our fans, and the reaction we do get when we play them is awesome. Songs like ‘The Legacy’, or ‘Return To Serenity’ (from The Ritual). ‘Return To Serenity’ is a song that we’ve never really played live, but that was one of the biggest radio songs for the band when that album came out. Although it’s not a thrash metal song and doesn’t really represent the band as a whole, it would be a good piece in the set and bring in some diversity for sure.”
Classic cuts are naturally live staples, although other strong numbers are being omitted. “Yeah,” the musician seconds. “In my opinion, I’d like to do some songs that we haven’t done before.”
The latter half of the 90s is arguably somewhat under-represented within the setlist. “We’re slowly starting to add stuff like that in there,” Eric comments. “We used to play that stuff a lot, but then when we kind of got The Ritual line-up back, we went back to the old stuff. We’ve just recently been bringing in some of the stuff from the era where Alex (Skolnick, guitars) and the other guys weren’t playing with us – we’re starting to bring some of that stuff back in.
“Lou (Clemente, drums) and Greg (Christian, bass) aren’t in the band any more, but when we got that line-up back together, those guys didn’t really see the evolution of Testament and how those records really kind of brought us back from the dead. I mean, after The Ritual… It’s a good record, but I don’t think it was a thrash favourite. I think once we kind of had a rebirth with Low, Demonic and The Gathering, we saw Testament’s status rise again, if not get bigger. Then when they came back, we went back to the old stuff. Like I said, we’re starting to bring that other stuff back in, but the last records have been pretty good, I think.
“We’ve been getting back to our roots, and recording-wise and just songwriting-wise, I think we’re as strong or as crazy as we used to be – especially with this new one. The Brotherhood Of The Snake is gonna be… I don’t wanna… I’m just trying to give you a name to describe it, but it doesn’t sound like that so don’t take it out of context. This is gonna be our kind of Reign In Blood record (Slayer, October 1986), because it’s just super-brutal but still melodic.”
Tracks for The Brotherhood Of The Snake were penned under different circumstances than had been the case in the past. “Actually, this record is the strangest that has been written,” the rhythm player judges. “I usually do write most of the material, but we used to collaborate and get together. This record though, I literally wrote it by myself in my room. The rest of the band are in other bands. Alex Skolnick is doing Metal Allegiance here and there, and he’s got a lot of other stuff going on like his jazz thing. He lives on the other side of the country. Gene (Hoglan, drums) and Steve DiGiorgio (bass) are in Death and they do other things, and Chuck (Billy, vocals) is doing other things.
“I kind of just was left with writing the record by myself. There’s good things and bad things about it, and the bad thing is it’s kind of all on me. It’s kind of cool to have a little diversity, but at the same time, where I’m at in my playing and my influence on music right now, I was able to come up with some good stuff. We’ve got ten new tracks, and they’re super-brutal. I’m really excited about it.”
The Brotherhood Of The Snake will be inevitably critiqued against predecessor Dark Roots Of Earth (July 2012). “It’s different,” Eric observes. “This one is more thrash. I mean, this has got some of the fastest stuff that we have ever played. Usually, we have one or two thrash songs, and then we have some mid-tempo, and then we have a slow, heavy one, and then up-tempo kind of stuff. Half of the new record is thrash, which we’ve never done before. Even with our first record, there’s ‘Over The Wall’ and ‘First Strike Is Deadly’, but then there’s stuff that’s back and forth from mid-tempo to thrash like ‘Do Or Die’ or ‘Apocalyptic City’. Full-on thrash though, like six or seven songs, has never been done by us. It’s kind of a trip to hear it.”
Albeit the tenth studio full-length from Testament, Dark Roots Of Earth was a strong effort, ample proof that the assortment are still knocking it out of the park so to speak. “That’s one thing, too,” the guitarist begins. “With each record getting good reviews and critical acclaim and stuff like that, it’s always like ‘What can you do with this music?’ Everything’s been done with it. There’s so many bands that are a part of it, but we have the Testament card. We were one of the originals of this type of music. I mean, there are bands out there that are just doing some crazy shit, but they’re number 120 out of 500 thrash bands, so maybe they get overlooked.
“Luckily for us, we were in the right place at the right time 25 or 30 years ago. With that being said though, all this time later, we’re still delivering the goods. I can honestly say with this new one, it’s hands down gonna be the heaviest record Testament has ever put out.”
The Brotherhood Of The Snake has to be quite heavy an affair, the likes of Demonic arguably being Testament at its heaviest. “There’s stuff like that on here,” Eric divulges. “It’s kind of like Demonic and The Gathering, but a little bit wiser I think. Chuck’s not singing so death. I mean, he does some death stuff but he’s singing more like he did on the last record and then with the craziness of The Gathering or even heavy stuff like Demonic. Yeah, I’m excited to put this record. It’s gonna be killer.”
Albeit still thrash, June 1997 outing Demonic entered the death realm. “Yeah,” Eric agrees. “We definitely went into the darker side; it’s almost like you had a band that had ballads on the radio and commercially kind of accessible songs, but then all of a sudden, we just signed a deal with the Devil or something (laughs). No, I’m teasing on that… But that record was definitely the 666 special, and it kind of gave us a rebirth in the whole underground fanzine scene. We kind of went back there a little bit. Even though we were a band that had sold millions of records, we kind of went back underground a little bit, dabbled in that, and kind of rebuilt the foundation back up, I think.
“We had definitely lost some ground with Souls Of Black and The Ritual; we were playing bigger shows and supporting bigger artists, but it really seemed like we were slightly going downhill a little bit. Once some of the original people left though, we kind of reinvented ourselves and saw it go back up again.”
Testament arguably updated its sound following the departure of original members, for better or for worse. “We just got onto what we knew we needed to,” the co-founder reckons. “We kind of got rid of the major label, who were like ‘You’ve gotta write the song.’ It’s like we finally said ‘Fuck you, we’re gonna write what we want.’ In that part of our career too, in 1992, everybody was telling us that Testament was done. We heard that so much from everybody, so we were just like ‘Alright, fuck it. Let’s do what we want.’ We stopped trying to be corporate, and listening to people that don’t even go to our shows telling us how to play. It was kind of retarded, so we really kind of took everything into our hands at that point.”
Thrash entities were becoming more accessible during the early 90s. Megadeth issued single offerings like ‘Symphony Of Destruction’ (from July 1992’s Countdown To Extinction), while Metallica released August 1991 multi-platinum smash The Black Album. “Yeah, but they did it right,” Eric submits. “Even though Metallica crossed over a little bit to that more polished thing, that record’s awesome. That’s a good example of success – from being a thrash band to being more mainstream – and they’re one of the few that pulled it off.”
The Testament catalogue boasts some compositions which garner radio appeal within the genre market. “The earlier stuff I think like ‘Electric Crown’ (from The Ritual), ‘The Legacy’, ‘Souls Of Black’ and ‘Practice What You Preach’, if you’re looking at radio stuff,” the axeman lists. “Then we have Liquid Metal and we have SiriusXM, and they’re always playing a lot of the old, classic stuff. Yeah, we’re pretty versatile. We could go from mid-tempo to just ‘Legions Of The Dead’ – crazy, thrashing mad – to more melodic like ‘True Believer’ or something, also off of The Gathering.
“There’s a big diversity on there, although it’s got a good flow. Even with the record before last, we had the title track ‘The Formation Of Damnation’ (April 2008). We do the Wall Of Death on that one, and then on the same hand, we have ‘Cold Embrace’ off of Dark Roots Of Earth which is more like an older school ballad. We try to mix it up, and we’ve got a lot of different influences.”
A point of interest is the fact that while other thrash bands became more accessible during the 90s, Testament became less accessible. “We just kind of really made a strong stance by not getting huge, but claiming our stance in terms of where we were at and just not budging,” Eric tells. “We have a really good foundation. We’re not gonna get smaller and we’re not gonna get a little bigger, but we’re just kind of rock solid where we’re at. I don’t know, though. It’s weird. It seems like for all this time – and I hear it from a lot of people – like ‘You guys are getting bigger and bigger.’ I’m like ‘We are? Okay…’ (laughs). I’m just happy to stay busy. It seems we have some respect, so that’s cool.”
The songwriter feels Testament have matured with age. “There was something weird back then,” he reminisces. “I don’t know if we just didn’t have a good handle on ourselves, or the infrastructure within. It could’ve been a lot of things that just weren’t clicking right, but I don’t know. Now, we just seem to really know who we are and what we’re about and what we’re doing. We know how to do what we need to do.”
Eric accredits a specific record with Testament’s resurgence. “Probably The Gathering,” he identifies. “We toured for eight years on that record; after The Gathering came out, we didn’t do anything until The Formation Of Damnation. The Gathering was ’99, and Formation was 2008 (laughs). That’s a long time, but we kept touring every year and played festivals. It isn’t like right now, where they’re like ‘They don’t want you guys unless you have a new record out.’ It was the longest tour ever (laughs). We were really seen as coming back to where we were, but stronger.”
During 2001, vocalist Chuck Billy was diagnosed with germ cell seminoma. “That was another reason why we didn’t put out a record,” the axe-slinger mentions. “We kind of went through that little episode in our career, in our life.”
A release date for The Brotherhood Of The Snake has yet to be revealed. “It’s gonna be coming out September, October,” Eric offers. “It’s gonna get delivered at the end of June, and it’ll be probably be delivered to the record company by the end of the summer just in time for a really big tour we’re doing of Europe. I can’t mention who it is, but we’ll be doing a big tour in Europe at the end of the year. And yeah, it’s gonna be killer. We’ll have a new record out, and be on tour.”
In addition to a core track listing of ten compositions, a small number of cover interpretations might be delivered as well. “They were a lot of fun, the last ones we did,” the musician recalls. “We did ‘Animal Magnetism’ (Scorpions, originally featured on the March 1980 album of the same name), but we tuned it down like five steps. It was just really, really low tuning. We did ‘Powerslave’ by Iron Maiden (originally featured on the September 1984 album of the same name), but we couldn’t do much to that because it is pretty awesome the way it is. We did ‘Dragon Attack’ by Queen (originally featured on June 1980’s The Game), and totally reinvented it Testament style. That was kind of my favourite – that one came out really good. This time around, there are a couple of songs we are looking at. It’s fun to do covers. We’ve just got to get the right ones.”
Of the ten scheduled to comprise The Brotherhood Of The Snake, not all have been fully authored at the time of writing. “There are two songs I have that aren’t finished,” Eric informs. “Probably next week after Gene gets some songs under his belt, I’ll go in a room with him and kind of doodle around, and try to make fully fledged songs out of these riffs I’ve got.”
The rhythm player is sitting behind the production chair for Testament’s 11th studio long-player. “I’ve kind of produced since The Gathering or even Demonic,” he briefs. “I’ve never really thought of it as that, other than just making everything happen with the arrangements and making sure that everything is recorded right. Engineering wise, we’re working with Juan Urteaga. He’s kind of like the new, up and coming Bay Area engineer / producer; he’s done work with Testament before, he did the last two Machine Head records (September 2011’s Unto The Locust and November 2014’s Bloodstone & Diamonds), and he works with a lot of underground death metal bands. He’s done some other stuff; he’s worked with Ted Nugent and Night Ranger, and he’s done the last couple of Vicious Rumors records. So yeah, we’re excited about that.”
Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza – vocalist for Exodus and formerly of Testament (while Testament operated under original moniker Legacy) – has lyrically collaborated with Chuck Billy, once again. “I think Zetro actually wrote a song with Chuck, yeah, so that’s pretty cool,” Eric confirms.
The title track from The Brotherhood Of The Snake will be available for listening in the coming weeks. “The label’s getting everything ready,” the guitarist shares. “We’re gonna be putting out a single in mid-to-late June, so it’ll probably come out a little after we start touring. So yeah, we’ll be having that out while we’re on tour in Europe in June.”
Whether that aforementioned title track will be included in Testament’s setlist during its forthcoming European trek is uncertain. “We’ll see,” Eric ponders. “Like I said, the band’s all over the place (laughs). Me and Gene are the only ones who have ever played it, and Steve. I don’t think Alex has – Alex played the lead on it, but I don’t think he even knows the song. We’ll have to wait and see. At some point we’re gonna be playing it, because it’s a killer song. I’m excited about it.”
The Brotherhood Of The Snake will be released later in 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records.
Interview published in May 2016. All promotional photographs by Stephanie Cabral, with all live photographs by Andrada Mihailescu.
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