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.