TESTAMENT - Ticking Like A Time Bomb

August 17, 2012, 2 years ago

Words by Aaron Small; Photos by Dean Karr

testament feature

While drought is still plaguing farmers and their crops across North America, the dry spell for TESTAMENT fans has ended! The four-year wait for new material - the last being 2008’s The Formation Of Damnation - has come to an end with the release of the brilliant new album, Dark Roots Of Earth, available now via Nuclear Blast.
First single and video ‘Native Blood’ features vocalist and proud Pomo Native American Chuck Billy bellowing the line “This white man’s world won’t tell me what to do.” Rather scathing don’t you think? “Yeah, it’s definitely a strong line,” admits Chuck. “It’s a rebellious song. The way I wrote it is for Native Americans; but it’s really for any indigenous group in the world, just having their voice and opinion heard.” Equally as powerful is the song title ‘True American Hate’. “That one was basically right after 9/11. On the news I was seeing parents – fathers with their children on the streets, waving guns and burning American flags,” recalls Billy. “That image burned in my mind; how can an adult teach their young kids so much hate? How is that child going to be at a later age? When you’re that young, you’re pretty influenced. I know that because my father was a huge Oakland Raiders fan, and was a huge San Francisco 49er hater. So we were raised as love Raiders, hate 49ers. So I had that influence all my life growing up. Now that I’m an adult, I still don’t like the 49ers; but probably because of that reason. It made me think of that same kind of influence – they’re out there teaching their kids by burning flags. What’s that generation going to be like in 15 or 20 years when they’re adults? Who knows, maybe they’ll be in power? A major world war, I don’t know? But it made me think, how can someone teach such young minds such hatred?” Leading up to the release of Dark Roots Of Earth, Testament’s label Nuclear Blast posted several “making of” videos on YouTube; one of the clips features Chuck admitting that he used outside writers for help on the lyrics for this album. “I’ve been working with Del James for over 15 years; he used to be the chief editor of RIP Magazine back in the ‘80s. We became really good friends, and he wrote some GUNS N’ ROSES songs as well. So we started working together cause he was wanting to write some more metal stuff. And there’s Steve Souza who sang for EXODUS, he’s a friend of mine and also sings in DUBLIN DEATH PATROL (which Chuck is a part of). He was helping me write songs too. That’s always the part for me, as a vocalist, I really want it to be the best I can do. I had my ideas about what I wanted to convey, but Del was really good at putting it to paper for me.”
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The fans are excited, as is the rest of Testament, to have Gene Hoglan – whose resume includes: DARK ANGEL, DEATH, STRAPPING YOUNG LAD, OLD MAN’S CHILD, DETHKLOK, FEAR FACTORY and many more; as well as Testament’s 1997 album Demonic – back on drums. “Oh yeah, very much so,” exclaims Chuck. “When we found out Paul (Bostaph) wasn’t going to be returning, right away we said we needed to do the record. So we actually called three drummers. First we called Dave Lombardo (who played on 1999’s The Gathering), he was down but he was doing a SLAYER record and we just couldn’t wait. We called Chris Adler (from LAMB OF GOD), and that same day Gene got back to us saying he was available. So Gene flew up a couple days later, learned the songs in a week and recorded them in two weeks. In three weeks’ time, he came and did the record.” Although Chris Adler didn’t join Testament, he can be heard playing on ‘A Day In The Death’ – exclusive to the iTunes version. How different does Adler’s version sound compared to Hoglan’s, which is on the main album? “It’s definitely different; Gene did some different beats in it. We didn’t tell Chris what to do, we just said go for it, so it wouldn’t turn out like Gene’s version.” Gene Hoglan is undoubtedly a drum wizard, but again in those Nuclear Blast “making of” videos, you really see Testament guitarist Eric Peterson giving Gene a lot of direction, and coaching him as to how he wants the drum parts to sound. “Definitely, cause Eric wrote a lot of the songs and he did it on a drum machine. Eric’s the kind of guy who doesn’t waste riffs or ideas; so once he’s locked on something, it’s hard to get him off of it. When he has the drum rolls, the fills, and the cymbal catches, he really accents his guitars with that. So of course he’s telling Gene exactly what he wanted, and let Gene take it from there.” Will Testament pepper their live set with more material from Demonic because Gene is back in the band? “Actually no, we didn’t really think about that. With the new record, The Formation and The Gathering, there’s plenty of material there that we really would like to play. It’s probably the first time we actually have four songs off a new record in the set: ‘Rise Up’, ‘Native Blood’, ‘Dark Roots Of Earth’ and ‘True American Hate’” – the first four songs off the new album. “Yeah, it’s weird how that worked out.”
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The Formation Of Damnation and Dark Roots Of Earth complement each other quite well. It’s definitely not part one and part two, but they both firmly belong to the new, modern era of Testament. “Yeah, I think so too,” agrees Chuck. “It definitely doesn’t sound like a band that’s been around almost 30 years.” Despite the periods of inactivity and unstable lineups, Testament has a rabid fan base globally. “I think having Alex (Skolnick – guitar), Greg (Christian – bass), and even Louie (Clemente – drums) back in ’05 when we had the original band was definitely a new start and almost like a blessing. We could just take the opportunity to finish what we started together.” Initial listen to ‘Cold Embrace’ (from Dark Roots Of Earth) is somewhat surprising as ‘Return To Serenity’ (from The Ritual, released in 1992), is the ultimate Testament ballad. What prompted a revisit to the slower song format? “We weren’t consciously thinking about doing that when Eric (Peterson, guitarist) came in with the riff. It just had a lot of emotion in it. We knew it had been a long time since we’d done it (release a ballad). We really didn’t think about everybody critiquing or criticizing it, we just said we’re feeling it, we’re digging it; let’s go for it. For me, it’s one of my favourite solo parts on the record.” A deluxe version of Dark Roots Of Earth is available featuring a wealth of bonus material, including three cover songs: QUEEN’s ‘Dragon Attack’, ‘Animal Magnetism’ by SCORPIONS, and IRON MAIDEN’s ‘Powerslave’. Chuck explains why Testament chose those particular tunes, what they mean to him, and how he approached them. “We actually first started out by sending an email to everybody in the band, asking them to come up with songs we could make our own. Once Eric got the list, he was pretty focused on wanting to do Scorpions, cause we’re all fans of that. He wasn’t sure about ‘Dragon Attack’, at first he didn’t really want to do it and didn’t get it. But I said, ‘imagine MINISTRY doing it,’ and he got it. We made it guitar driven, the way we did it. The Maiden song was actually a surprise to me! The covers were the last tracks to do and it was like wow, I’ve got to do Bruce (Dickinson); it’ll be a challenge. At first I was a little nervous, but once I started I got comfortable and just went with it.”
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Production-wise, The Formation Of Damnation saw Chuck and Eric at the helm, with Andy Sneap (ARCH ENEMY, MEGADETH, CRADLE OF FILTH) mixing and engineering. On Dark Roots Of Earth, Andy is wearing the producer’s hat as well. Chuck reveals the reasoning behind bestowing that additional responsibility upon Sneap. “This time, instead of doing all the recording ourselves, we had Andy come out to do everything: drums, bass, guitars, vocals. This is the first record probably that I really took direction from a producer. In the past, I always knew best and it was going to be my way. On this record I wanted the vocals to be the best they could be, so I would try every possibility. Andy actually had me hitting notes I probably wouldn’t have chose myself; like ‘Cold Embrace’, that’s a different tone for me vocally. I wouldn’t have got there if it wasn’t for Andy. And Juan Urteaga (HEATHEN, VILE, SADUS) helped us; he did some tracks with me as well. They both gave me some good guidance with it, and now looking back, I’m glad I did; cause I would have done it different. It’s definitely different singing live than in the studio, and I’m glad Andy pushed me to do that. When we went into the record, I knew that I wanted to sing with a little more melody, instead of going for the death voice.” Also included with the deluxe version of Dark Roots Of Earth is a DVD featuring live footage of four classic Testament Tracks. “We did it at the last show at The Avalon (in San Jose, CA), right after the last leg of the ANTHRAX tour. It’s: ‘Disciples Of The Watch’, ‘Practice What You Preach’, ‘Into The Pit’, and ‘Over The Wall’. It was just something extra; we wanted to film the last show with Gene there. We weren’t really planning to put it on the bonus stuff, but we had it available, so hey, why not?” Momentarily stepping outside his role in Testament, Chuck will serve as Master of Ceremonies for Slaughter By The Water 3, aboard the decommissioned USS Hornet on August 25th in Alameda, California. “We were trying to play that, but it’s too close to where we’re playing in Sacramento (on September 14th). But I still wanted to really support it and be there, so I volunteered to MC it. I just jumped on board; it’s going to be fun. We’re taking blanket donations for the Pine Ridge Indians, and one stage is going to be bicycle powered. It’s going to be a cool event.” If people stop riding the stationery bikes, the lights go out and the amps won’t work. “Yep, exactly; they’re going to have to pedal hard to keep the music going. It’ll be people constantly rotating to keep it going.” Currently Testament has tour dates booked until early October. Chuck alludes to the band’s plans past that date. “We’re looking at possibly going back to Europe in November / December. There’s a few things planned that we’re kind of just laying out what’s going to happen. We’re planning January and February in America – don’t want to say much yet about that ‘til we finalize it. We’re going to be pretty busy, hopefully for the next year or two. We missed going to Europe for the last three years for the festivals, so hopefully next year we can hit all of those over there.”

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