By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Filled with spirits, prophecies and demons, Testament's music and story are better than most, although the mundane details of the band's twenty-plus year history are common. Popular '80s thrashers make classic records. The lineup fractures. Their music changes. A major-label deal dissipates. Sixteen replacement players rotate through the group, keeping the name alive through more tours and albums.
Depending on how you want to score it, the San Francisco group is ranked either the number five or six thrash band, the riff-roaring kings of the junior varsity, who trail behind Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth. The unique accomplishment in Testament's continuous career got heavier as the years went by — though it wasn't a steady progression.
Creative differences altered the classic lineup, which featured wunderkind guitarist Alex Skolnick, a student of shred king Joe Satriani. In recent years, he's toured with the arena-packing Christmas-metal crew the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and he's played small clubs with his self-titled jazz trio. Skolnick was just fifteen when he joined Testament, and by 1992, he was itching to try new styles. He left after The Ritual album, which earned a lukewarm reception. 1994's Low balanced death-metal dabbling with a six-minute ballad, "Trail of Tears." It wasn't an attempt to score a prom theme; the track lamented the bloody destruction of singer Chuck Billy's Native American culture. That album was the end of the band's commercial aspirations, but not its career.
"All we knew was that the fans admired our early stuff, and we always knew we had to stay true to that," reflects Billy, one of two members that's been with the group constantly since its 1987 Atlantic Records debut, The Legacy, arguably the best of its nine original studio records. "The Ritual wasn't what this band was about. So we started getting heavier and stepping back to our roots. A lot of people admired us for being a cool underground band. And when I was a kid, that was the kind of band I admired."
As original members fell out, Testament toured clubs. With half of death-metal legends Death in the lineup, 1997's Demonic found a brutal midground between thrash and death, but the lineup didn't hold. Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo sat in for 1999's The Gathering. It was well received, but still was no Legacy, which was equally funky and thunderous.
The Legacy was written when the band was still known as Legacy and featured vocals and lyrics by future Exodus singer Steve "Zetro" Souza. Thrash had an occult streak, but that album's poetic lyric sheet was the movement's most Dungeons & Dragons moment. Supernatural themes continued on 1988's The New Order and 1989's Practice What You Preach. Inspired by sixteenth-century doom prophet Nostradamus, Billy and crew began writing songs like "Souls of Black" and "Trial By Fire," which had more words than actual lyrics, like "Hey/This is what the people say/A new way/A trial by fire!" A different strain of mysticism would help resurrect the classic lineup.
Billy's father had grown up on a Pomo tribe reservation but didn't want his kids to live that kind of life. Growing up, Billy was just vaguely aware of his heritage. In 2000, one of his friends told him she wanted him to meet another friend, Charlie, who was a Native American medicine man. Later, she said she'd had a dream in which Billy and the shaman were sitting around a campfire, putting on war paint, preparing to go into battle. Billy laughed it off. Then the singer found himself fighting for his life.
Months later, Billy was diagnosed with germ-cell seminoma. Doctors said he had a cancerous tumor the size of a squash in his chest cavity. Thus began a two-year struggle with the disease. Billy began taking steroids to offset a five-days-a-week regimen of chemotherapy. Soon, his six-four frame ballooned from water weight, pushing him past his regular weight of 240 pounds. One day, Billy was reeling from treatments when there was a knock at his door. It was Charlie the medicine man, who had shown up unannounced. He offered to perform a healing ceremony.
The medicine man cleared Billy's living room floor, then he told Billy to lie down and close his eyes. Charlie took him on a healing journey. The singer describes it as a mystical experience. Eyes closed, Billy felt the healer dancing around him, chanting and playing a flute. Feeling like he was floating off into space, he heard howling and blowing wind as the healer invoked Mother Earth. The medicine man brushed an eagle feather across Billy's chest, and the singer felt something move inside his body. The ritual complete, Charlie told Billy, "The wind is going to be your spirit guide to get you through all this."
Billy's chemotherapy continued. A few weeks later, the family had a party. Late that night, the sound of wind woke him up as furniture blew into the swimming pool. The treatments had been causing stomach problems. The frontman went to the downstairs bathroom, hoping to shake something loose. Seated on the toilet, he looked outside and saw beer cans spiraling in the air blowing around in a funnel cloud. Then his bowels moved, and he felt sickness leaving his body.
"Right then, the beer cans hit the ground," recalls Billy. "It was like a movie. I woke my wife up and said, 'I don't have cancer any more.' I went to the doctor that week, and the doctor said the tumor wasn't cancerous any more."
After two more spiritual trips to healers and a nine-hour operation, the shrunken tumor was gone, and doctors said Billy was cancer-free.
"I believe 100 percent that [Native American medicine] cured me," says Billy, who was moved to rediscover his roots. "That's what got me through. It was definitely a very spiritual, enlightening time of my life."
The sickness helped heal his band. Friends held a benefit concert to offset a mountain of medical bills. Souza and Skolnick rejoined their old bandmates, performing as Legacy. Billy performed a song at the end, and the vibes were good. Skolnick rejoined in 2001, to rerecord classic songs with modern production on the First Strike Still Deadly album. A European promoter lured the remaining Legacy-era players back into the fold for one show in 2005, which turned into a tour. Momentum carried into talks of a new record. In 2006, drummer Louie Clemente's arthritis forced him to bow out. Testament ultimately recruited another ex-Slayer drummer, Paul Bostaph.
The strong new Formation of Damnation doesn't sound like Testament's death-metal days, and while it still doesn't have the headbanging groove of The Legacy, the recognizable crunch of Skolnick and never-departed guitarist Eric Peterson plays like a worthy sequel to The New Order.
"As long as Alex wants to do it and we're having fun, I think we'll be doing this for a while," says Billy. "The music is keeping me younger. I haven't grayed. I figure, one day, I'm going to turn that corner. But I look at my heroes like [metal singers] Dio and Halford and say, 'They're still rocking.' And hopefully, I can follow in their shoes."