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TESTAMENT – Dark Roots Of Thrash
Anthony Morgan
July 2012

Testament (l-r): Greg Christian, Eric Peterson, Gene Hoglan, Alex Skolnick and
Chuck Billy

Attempting to pen new compositions that would form a tenth studio full-length, Testament guitarist and founder Eric Peterson encountered problems gathering initial track ideas at home. Influenced by heroes such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin who often ventured into rural areas in search of inspiration, Eric stayed at the home of producer and Sabbat / Hell guitarist Andy Sneap in Derbyshire, England for a one-week duration.

“When I came to the country side of the Midlands where Andy lives, everything opened up for me,” Eric beams. “Andy helped me with his really vast knowledge of programmes (laughs), working with this programme called Toontracks, helping me find drum beats and stuff like that for some of the riffs that I had. I actually went there twice; the first time I came home with nine ideas, and then the second time I came home with six to seven ideas. Some of them were songs that were pretty much all the way through and some of them were just riffs with a beat on them, but it was a good starting point. I made CDs, and gave them to everybody in the band. We worked on them.

“Alex would come out, and we would sit down together – just him and I – working out riffs, kind of like we used to do when we were younger. That was kind of cool. Rather than me showing up and saying to the band ‘Okay, here’s how you do it. Here’s your beat,’ we sat down and put the guitars together, and found the right melodies. A lot of the rhythms are the same on both sides, but we tried to get stuff where we were playing different things – two guitars – to make it a little more atmospheric. Working out the lead sections this time, there’s a lot of soloing going on on this record done by Alex and myself. I’m playing a lot more solos on this record as well, so we worked that out and yeah, took it from there.”

Eric’s Derbyshire sojourn planted the seeds for July 2012 record Dark Roots Of Earth, but not all of these initial track ideas surfaced on the album’s final track listing. “Actually, there’s a song that I thought was kick ass,” the axeman reveals. “Half of the guys liked it, but Chuck didn’t like it. I don’t know. I ended up using it as a Dragonlord song, and changed it around a little bit. I was thinking to myself ‘I really can hear a choir, I can hear strings, and I can hear French horns.’ I could hear all of the things that I ended up putting on top of it. By changing it around, changing the key around, I ended up getting a record deal with that thing on tape (laughs). It’s kind of funny, and then there are some other riffs as well.

“I had this one riff which really sounded like ‘Gates Of Babylon’ by Rainbow (from April 1978’s Long Live Rock ’N’ Roll), but a little bit different. I’m kind of surprised that that didn’t make it on there. It was kind of like ‘Gates Of Babylon’ but with the playing of ‘Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin (from October 1970’s Led Zeppelin III). It had that rhythmic sound to it, but it was kind of like ‘Gates Of Babylon’. It was pretty cool, so I think that’ll probably be on the next record. There were a couple of other ones that were really good that we didn’t use. So yeah, there are probably – now that I’m thinking about that demo – about five or six songs that we didn’t use that were just riffs that we didn’t put together.

“There was a song that was actually written called ‘Merciful Desecration’, and it’s probably one of the heavier… It’s really, really got this ‘A Dangerous Meeting’ meets ‘Desecration Of Souls’ (both from September 1984’s Don’t Break The Oath) kind of Mercyful Fate sound to it, but then the lead section kind of goes into this ‘First Strike Is Deadly’ (from April 1987 Testament debut The Legacy) where it’s got this more classical kind of progression with the chord sections going from B to F sharp to A back to B. It has counterpoints as well. It was just like ‘Man, this is gonna be so awesome,’ but we never got the vocals done. That song is actually ready to go. All Chuck has gotta do is sing on it, so we’re kinda saving it I guess for something. We tried to see what we could do about getting it on the record, because we kept pushing the record back.

Eric Peterson

“We kept thinking ‘We’ll get to that song,’ but we never did because we kept adding in the covers. We did a song in Spanish (‘Native Blood’), we did an extended version which was already done anyway (of ‘Throne Of Thorns’), and we did ‘Practice What You Preach’ for Japan, so there’s a lot of extra stuff we’ve got on the extended version which I think is the one everybody should buy for £2 more, €3 more, or whatever it is. The amount of material on there and the packaging alone is just worth it.”

Songwriting sessions for Dark Roots Of Earth mark the first occasion where initial Testament album track ideas weren’t authored within a home setting. “It’s funny, because I had been reading a lot of autobiographies,” Eric shares. “I just read Tony Iommi’s (Iron Man, October 2011), I read Ozzy’s (I Am Ozzy, January 2010)… A lot of different ones too… What else did I read?… Joey Kramer from Aerosmith (Hit Hard, June 2009). I read the AC/DC one. The one that intrigued me though was the Ozzy one or Judas Priest, seeing some of their stuff where they talk about renting castles. When they’d do their records they’d rent a house, a castle or something. They would get out of their element, and go somewhere different. I was like ‘That’s what I wanna do,’ and it was funny because right at that time I was like ‘I’m gonna book a flight; I’m gonna go to England, and I’m gonna stay at Andy’s house that was built in the 16th century and is surrounded by greenery (laughs).’ Just how green it is, and the animals. It’s awesome, and it worked. I almost told myself that that was what was gonna happen, that that was how I was gonna make it happen.”

Eric and fellow guitarist Alex Skolnick additionally returned to their old method of composing tunes, the two convening together at Driftwood Studios in Oakland, California. “It was just time, you know?,” the co-founder reasons. “With the last album (April 2008’s The Formation Of Damnation), I wrote pretty much 90% of it. I don’t have a problem with that, but I really think – especially since it takes so long to come up with ideas – I really need Alex’s input. I know just from talking with him on tour and stuff about what we wanted to do, this record needed to be a team effort between Alex and I. It isn’t as though the whole record was written like that, but I think we wrote four songs together (‘Dark Roots Of Earth’, ‘True American Hate’, ‘A Day In The Death’, and ‘Throne Of Thorns’) and I composed the rest. It helped a lot, and it made for a more epic, diverse record. Epic, you can definitely say that. This record’s very epic.”

Dark Roots Of Earth arguably boasts greater variety than predecessor The Formation Of Damnation, Eric feels. “It’s a darker, epic… It’s the cooler brother of it,” he critiques. “The Formation is good, a good comeback record. I think The Gathering (June 1999) was the record that set the bar, like ‘Okay, here’s Testament now. This is where they should be,’ and I think the world agreed. We got on all of the festivals three to four years after that. We didn’t have to come back with a new record, although they asked us for one. Getting the original line-up back together with The Formation, and then bringing in the ideology of The New Order (May 1988) and Practice What You Preach (August 1989) – that kind of singing and that kind of sound, but with the way we did The Gathering – I think all mixed together. That’s kind of where we were with The Formation. We’re taking that same vibe but going a little bit darker, more melodic, and a little bit more epic which is what I’ve always wanted to do anyway. We just couldn’t push it too much on everybody first, and I told everybody this too. When we put out The Formation, they were asking about the next record. ‘How are you gonna top that?’ I go ‘This record is setting up the next one.’

“It was pressure, but it was good pressure. I don’t know what it’s gonna sound like on its first listen because I’ve heard it so many times, but I remember when I first came up with the riffs. I remember the feeling, like ‘Yes, this is cool.’ When you’re writing a song, and you’ve got that feeling… When you wake up and you open your eyes, and you wake up the next day… For some reason I had this feeling ‘There’s something cool going on,’ like ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got these new songs. Cool.’ That’s always a good starting point, knowing that you’re gonna have a good record.”

Testament (l-r): Gene Hoglan, Alex Skolnick, Eric Peterson, Chuck Billy and
Greg Christian

The guitarist’s lead contributions for Testament began with sixth studio outing Low (October 1994). This was the first studio effort to be issued following Alex’s 1993 departure, Alex returning to the Testament fold in 2005. “Me and (James) Murphy were kinda back and forth, trading off,” he recalls. “We were joking around, like ‘I’m Michael Schenker and you’re Uli (Jon Roth)’ (laughs). We were like ‘That’s kinda cool.’ On Demonic (June 1997) I did all of the solos on my own, and with The Gathering we didn’t have any solos. I don’t know, but that record just seemed to flow without them. When Alex came back that was a big part, but I was like ‘Look, I’ve been playing solos. I would like to… You’ll have the bigger ones, and I’ll do these other ones around here.’

“This time around I’m like ‘Look, ‘More Than Meets The Eye’ really went over well, and that’s like back to back.’ I think the first one that we did was ‘True American Hate’, and both of the solos are super-long but they’re back to back. They both really hold up to each other; mine holds up to Alex’s, which is weird because it’s shredding as well. Usually I’m doing more a thematic kind of solo, like the beginning of ‘Cold Embrace’. That beginning solo was more what I’m used to doing, more of a thematic, melodic, bluesy kind of thing but with the shredding stuff.

“I’ve really let the listeners hear what I’ve done, and it really sounds good. I’m pretty proud of it. How we go about it though is basically starting off, when we get the song I will usually initiate the lead section and go ‘Okay, where do you want to play? Do you want to play right here? Do you want to play this rhythm?’ Once he’s sorted, I kind of go ‘Okay. I’m thinking I’m gonna do mine right here.’ Then sometimes he’ll go ‘Well… I wanna do that,’ so I’ll go ‘Okay… Then I’ll do the other one’ (laughs). It usually works out pretty good though. Alex was really supportive this time, which made me feel good because I definitely don’t wanna seem like I’m stepping on his toes because I do so much of the guitar stuff. I don’t wanna be like a hog but we’re trading solos now, so it’s kind of cool.”

January 2009 tome The 100 Greatest Guitarists by UK scribe Joel McIver features Eric at position 36. “I didn’t know I was in there,” Eric admits. “Is Alex in there too?”

Yes (at position 13). “Okay. Wow. Usually I get dissed, and I’m not in there (laughs). I don’t look at those things… and that’s another thing too. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and what’s kind of puzzling to me is I started the band. I’m a rhythm guitar player. I write most of the songs but the way people look at lead guitar players, it’s like ‘Oh, that’s the main guy.’ I’ve always been kinda overlooked in a way, and I didn’t really recognise it until a lot of people started pointing it out to me. I was like ‘Yeah… How come? What’s up with that?’ It shouldn’t be ‘You can’t play leads,’ or ‘You’re just a rhythm guy’ or whatever. This is a band. It’s gonna make the band sound better having everybody contribute to their full potential really, but that’s cool. That’s cool that I’m in there I guess.”

The musician’s confidence surfaced following Alex’s temporary departure. “It wasn’t a personal thing, but it was almost like we were younger and and we weren’t mature enough to talk about it,” he muses. “Even with Alex, he didn’t know how to say ‘Hey, I wanna do this jazz thing.’ He just let it fester for years, and finally he did it. He should’ve just done it a long time ago, but now we talk about things and we schedule things. Getting back to your question though, yeah, definitely. It was healthy for the band for Alex to go his own way. It made him grow up and do the things that he wanted to do, and it let me as a guitar player play more of the music. To keep Alex in the band and keep him happy was becoming a compromise, and was compromising the Testament sound. You’ve got to also remember he was turning into a jazz guitar player and playing metal. We didn’t all understand it, and he probably didn’t understand it.

Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson

“That was like me when I put Dragonlord together; if I didn’t put Dragonlord together, I would probably be trying to put all of these black metal riffs into Testament because that’s what I like. It was healthy for me to do that with Dragonlord though, because when I came back to Testament I was like ‘Okay, I can be in Testament now. I’ve got this fucking itch out of my butt.’ I got it out of me. For all those purposes and whatever bad things, reasons for us separating, it definitely let everything air out. There wasn’t so much smoke being built up.”

Dark Roots Of Earth sees the return of Gene Hoglan (Dethklok / ex-Death / ex-Dark Angel / ex-Strapping Young Lad) behind the drumkit, 1997’s Demonic including his contributions. “Having Gene onboard is awesome,” Eric enthuses. “He’s not onboard permanently though because he’s doing Dethklok right now, but for him to come back and do the record with me… Demonic was awesome and we had a great time, but that record was a totally different record than what we’re doing now. I think both of us have gotten so much better as players and learnt a lot, and I think we taught each other a lot when we worked together. For him to come back and to work with him again, we both knew each other and we actually had a good experience. It was a lot of fun because Gene is a pro, a real pro.”

“He’s breaking boundaries for Testament, definitely, with blastbeats,” the axe-slinger continues. “In the ballad (‘Cold Embrace’) – the slower song – it’s so dynamic what he’s doing. There’s so many ghost notes and there’s rolls, and there’s some of this catchy cymbal stuff that he’s doing. Really cool stuff that Neil Peart (Rush) would do or Carter Beauford (Dave Matthews Band), stuff like that, and then mixing it in with what we’re doing. Dynamically it’s just a whole other ball game, and what he brings is what I’m fantasising. Some of the drummers that I’ve worked with in the past definitely had what I wanted, but Gene really had every little thing I wanted. Gene delivered, so that was pretty killer.”

The permanence of Gene’s Testament membership is uncertain. “No, he’s not a member right now,” Eric divulges. “He is a member (laughs), but it’s kind of tricky. We’re trying to work it out – get our schedules together, and make it all happen – but for the most part yeah, he’s a member. We’re trying to get all the scheduling right.”

Chuck Billy contributed a strong vocal performance for Dark Roots Of Earth. “I think he returned back to his glory days, getting even more melodic with it and writing a lot more mature lyrics, adding more realism to what we’re talking about,” the songwriter reckons. “I really like what he’s doing; mixing it up with the heavier stuff, but keeping it very melodic.”

Chuck’s vocals hearken back to Practice What You Preach. “Yeah, and that’s kind of everybody’s favourite period, but musically mixing it up with the style of The Gathering, with that kind of singing,” Eric deems. “I think it’s a good combination.”

Chuck penned lyrics with longtime collaborator Del James, a portion of Dark Roots Of Earth’s words occupying the fantasy realm. “Probably ‘Cold Embrace’, ‘Throne Of Thorns’,” the axeman ventures. “There are some other ones that are fantasy’ish, but there’s a lot of realism to them. They’re not pinpointed to a certain time or date, but are more of an idea. ‘Throne Of Thorns’ is based on the book A Game Of Thrones (1996, George R.R. Martin), and we also did a song like that in the past. It’s called ‘Hatred’s Rise’ (from Demonic), which was about the Hand Of The King (Lord Eddard Stark) and spoke from his point of view. This new one is more about the king’s point of view. If you’re a fan, if you know about A Game Of Thrones – if you’ve read the book or seen the series – the song kind of has that vibe.”

Mayan prophecies figure as well. “There’s definitely some of that going on on the cover, and the title track ‘Dark Roots Of Earth’ talks about that,” Eric clarifies.

April 2012 marked the 25th anniversary of debut album The Legacy, an anniversary that should be celebrated. “This record’s coming out, and that’s kind of a little bit of that and then some covers,” the co-founder believes. “We did a re-recording for Japan (‘Practice What You Preach’), but it wasn’t something off of The Legacy. It’s a good idea. I don’t know… We’ll have to think about that one. I know we’re planning on doing something. We actually played all of The Legacy in England in 2010, I think; we did The Legacy and The New Order back to back.”

The deluxe edition digipack version of Dark Roots Of Earth includes three cover interpretations; The Scorpions cut ‘Animal Magnetism’ (originally from the March 1980 album of the same name), Queen tune ‘Dragon Attack’ (originally from June 1980’s The Game), and Iron Maiden composition ‘Powerslave’ (originally from the September 1984 album of the same name). “We chose a certain era, but we wanted to do something and make those songs sound more like they’re our songs rather than doing some kind of karaoke version,” Eric explains. “‘Animal Magnetism’ we tuned down to B; that song is really hypnotic, and came out great. It really sounds like one of our songs now.

“‘Dragon Attack’ is just crazy, if you know it. It’s Queen changing from their ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (from November 1975’s A Night At The Opera) kind of songs with the singing to their more commercial songs like ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ (also from The Game), mixing it up. We approached it like ‘What would Ministry do to it?’ Not that we sound like Ministry, but just the idea of ‘Okay, this is how we’re gonna approach it.’ It sounds like Testament. You probably wouldn’t even recognise it. Alex does the whole end part on ‘Dragon Attack’. I do this thing with the drums in the beginning by myself, which is with the riff and with the wah-wah pedal which sounds pretty cool. ‘Powerslave’, I actually do the first solo on that one. That one came out really good. ‘Powerslave’ is ‘Powerslave’; you can’t really reinvent that one, but we definitely got that one right. It’s pretty modern.”

On March 8th, 2012, it was publicly announced that Dragonlord – Eric’s black metal side project – had inked a record contract with Spinefarm Records / Universal. “I’m pretty excited about it because we have a lot of material that we’ve been writing over the years,” the guitarist informs. “I definitely didn’t wanna take this long, but I’ve been so busy with Testament. We’re finally now gonna enter the studio, and get it done. It’s gonna be definitely along the lines of what we did before, but kind of what Testament did I guess; a lot more melodic, and more epic. It’s planned for around Halloween, but I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Dark Roots Of Earth was released on July 27th, 2012 in Europe and on the 31st in North America, all through Nuclear Blast Records.

Interview published in July 2012. All promotional photographs by Dean Karr.