Testament: The Road to Damnation
Originally printed in Guitar World, July 2008
Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick talk about the strife that divided the original Testament guitar lineup and the forces that brought them back together for The Formation of Damnation, the group’s first album of new material in nine years.
“LIFE IS HARD. BUT TESTAMENT IS HARDER.”
So says guitarist Eric Peterson, and he should know. The cofounder and sole Testament member to have played with the band from its early Eighties formation as Legacy up to the present day, Peterson has seen it all during his more than two decades with the group. There have, of course, been the triumphs. Testament were a leading light of the Bay Area thrash metal movement, arguably ground zero for the scene. Signed to Megaforce/ Atlantic Records, they promptly released three bona fide thrash classics: their 1987 debut, The Legacy; the following year’s The New Order; and 1989’s breakthrough Practice What You Preach.
But the Nineties brought a string of disappointments for the band. Despite minor flirtations with the mainstream, Testament never achieved the levels of recognition and success enjoyed by thrash’s “Big Four”—Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax. In the early Nineties, the band was dropped by Atlantic and during the decade’s middle years lost three key members: founding drummer Louie Clemente, bassist Greg Christian and, most notably, hot-shot lead guitarist Alex Skolnick, whose technically dazzling, fretboard-burning solos were arguably the band’s trademark component. Peterson and stalwart singer Chuck Billy soldiered on with a rotating cast of supporting musicians and continued releasing albums on a variety of independent labels. But by the end of the decade, Testament appeared to be running on fumes.
“There were some tough times in those years,” Peterson says, “but I guess I just saw it all as part of the business. You have to roll with the punches and take things as they come.” And the punches kept coming. In 2001, Chuck Billy was diagnosed with cancer after a tumor was discovered nestled in his chest. “I think that I thought Chuck would get better,” Peterson says, with a hint of uncertainty in his voice even now. “I just had to believe there was some way he would get through it.” Through a combination of chemotherapy, surgery and alternative medicine, Billy did eventually recover. Today he has a clean bill of health.
Testament are in a much better place, as well. In 2007, they signed a new record deal with the powerhouse indie metal label Nuclear Blast, which has just released the group’s ninth full-length album, The Formation of Damnation. The disc is Peterson and Co.’s first collection of new material in nine years. More significantly, it sees both Alex Skolnick and Greg Christian returning to the fold. With four-fifths of their classic lineup in place (ex-Slayer drummer Paul Bostaph rounds out the group this time around), Testament sound like a band rejuvenated. Peterson’s riffs are all classic thrash chug but fortified with a more modern and abrasive edge. Billy delivers his most impassioned and nuanced vocal performance to date, and Skolnick’s leads are as impressive as ever— harmonically complex, melodically rich and full of finger-twisting, hyperspeed shredding. From the pummeling gallop of “More Than Meets the Eye” and “Henchmen Ride” to more extreme songs like the crushing “The Persecuted Won’t Forget” and the death-metal- tinged title track, to hooky cuts like “Afterlife” and the harmony-guitar-filled “Dangers of the Faithless,” The Formation of Damnation manages to sound both classic and current, skillfully updating Testament’s thrashy attack for the 21st century.
“It’s kind of amazing,” Skolnick says, “but I listen to this record and it sounds like a modern band to me. And that’s the way it should be. With other groups that were our peers back in the day, I hear their new music I go, ‘Wow, this really takes me back.’ But I think what we’re doing fits in with where some younger acts are at. It doesn’t sound dated, and that was important for me to be able to come back.”
For Skolnick, returning to the band with which he made his name as a young gunslinger— he was just 19 when The Legacy was released—was a particularly loaded proposition. In the years since his 1992 exit from Testament, the guitarist has taken on a variety of gigs. He joined the power metal band Savatage for an album and tour, played with Ozzy Osbourne’s band for a brief moment and, a few years back, signed on as a member of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a collective best known for their symphonic metal interpretations of traditional Christmas songs.
He has also made a name for himself as a respected jazz guitarist and composer. In 2001, Skolnick received a BFA in jazz from the New School in New York City. Soon after, he formed the Alex Skolnick Trio, with which he has recorded three albums that feature both original compositions as well as jazzy interpretations of classic metal songs like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” the Scorpions’ “No One Like You” and Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye” (their most recent release, Last Day in Paradise, even features a Latin-tinged version of Testament’s “Practice What You Preach”).
Skolnick’s continuing work with Trans- Siberian Orchestra and his own Trio was a determining factor in his decision to play once again with Testament. “Knowing I have these other outlets made it easier to go back to the band,” he says. “The first time around, I started to feel musically stifled by playing only metal. But now I’m happy to do it, because it’s not all I do. But when I’m there, I’m 100 percent committed."
The flipside, of course, is that he’s not there 100 percent of the time. Case in point: The basic tracks for The Formation of Damnation were cut last fall, at Testament’s own Driftwood Studios in Oakland, California, at the same time that Skolnick was on a holiday season tour with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. As a result, Peterson played all of the rhythm guitar parts on the album. While this was mostly out of necessity, it also reflected the way the guitarists often worked in the early days of the band.
“On some of the old records, like The Legacy and Practice What You Preach, we both played the rhythms,” Skolnick says. “But The New Order and [1990’s] Souls of Black were definitely all Eric. He’s always had his rhythm playing really together, and sometimes it just made sense to have one guy do all the parts in order to keep things tight.”
“For the new record we decided to go back to that way of doing things because I’m really picky, and I guess a little bit of a control freak,” Peterson says, with a laugh. “Plus, Alex’s schedule didn’t permit him to be able to learn every nook and cranny of the songs. I got it done so we could move on.” Peterson’s main guitar for his parts on The Formation of Damnation was a black Dean MS V. “I actually have two of them,” he says. “One is fitted with EMG pickups, which give me areal tight crunch with a lot of low end, and the other has DiMarzio Super Distortions, which provide a little more midrange bite. I switched between the two guitars depending on what the song called for.” His amplifier remained constant throughout the sessions. “I used the new Fender EVH 5150 III on everything,” he says. “A friend of mine who works at Guitar Center turned me on to it. It’s weird, because I never liked the Peavey 5150, but my friend was like, ‘Dude, you have to try this amp out.’ I plugged in and hit one chord and was like, ‘Whoa!’ It was warm, crisp, had great presence and incredible saturation. I bought it right there, and the cabinet, too. And that’s all I played on the album.”
Skolnick added his guitar tracks to The Formation of Damnation during two sessions, one in New York in December 2007, and another at Driftwood in early January. “The guys met me in Albany during a break from the Trans- Siberian tour, and I did about half of my leads at a studio up there,” Skolnick says. “Then I did the rest in Oakland after the tour ended.”
His main guitar was a Heritage H-150, which he says is “similar to a Les Paul. In fact,” he adds, “the Heritage factory is the old Gibson plant in Kalamazoo [Michigan], and the company was started by a bunch of former Gibson guitar builders. So there’s a great lineage, and I just love the H-150. In addition to that guitar I also had my 1960 Les Paul Gold Top reissue, and I switched off between the two.” Though Skolnick says his amplifier of choice for live work has of late been the Marshall Mode Four, on The Formation of Damnation he stuck primarily to a Marshall JCM2000 DSL. “It gave me the best sound in the studio,” he says. “I just threw an Ibanez Tube Screamer—which I’ve been using forever— in front of the amp, and that was it.”
Skolnick says he refrained from composing his solos in advance of going into the studio. “For the most part, I just worked out a basic form for my leads,” he says. “I’d figure out where I wanted to be on the neck at a certain point in the solo, or maybe where I wanted to do a fast run, or an arpeggio or a slow, screaming bend. But I left a lot of room for improvisation.”
His approach was partly inspired by his time spent studying jazz. “Even though jazz is such a different style of music than metal, I incorporated ideas from that world into my playing on the new album. For example, when you’re soloing over a form in jazz improv, it’s great to work out a lead and then forget it. That way, you have it in the back of your head when you’re playing, but you don’t regurgitate it note-for-note. As a result, you’re essentially improvising over a structured idea. That’s what I did on Formation. I had a concept for what I wanted to do on a given song but then ‘forgot’ it and just played whatever came naturally.”
Peterson contributed a number of solos to the album as well. “I probably did about 20 percent of them,” he says. “There’s one on ‘Afterlife,’ another on the title track, and on ‘More Than Meets the Eye,’ Alex and I are trading off leads, going head-to-head.” This, however, was hardly standard procedure during Skolnick’s initial tenure in the band. “Back then it was like, ‘I’m the rhythm guy, you’re the lead guy,’ ” Peterson says. “We were young and that’s just the way it was.“
“But once Alex was gone I started taking on more of the lead playing, and I also had to always teach the new guys who were coming into the band the parts to the old songs. As a result I became a more well-rounded player over the years. So this time I was like, ‘Hey Alex, I know you’re the lead guy, but I definitely want to do some solos.’ And he was like, ‘Cool, yeah. Do it!’ So everything worked out.” Things were not always so easygoing.
Ironically, it was at the time when Testament were experiencing their greatest success, with mainstream-leaning albums like Souls of Black and 1992’s The Ritual, that relations between the two guitarists, and the band members in general, were at their worst.
“Overall there was a lot of tension,” Skolnick says. “As for me, the other guys didn’t understand where I was coming from when I started getting into jazz. They didn’t get how I could be all excited about this other kind of music that wasn’t Testament. But it just sort of happened. I had been a closet jazz fan, and then all of a sudden it overtook me. I became obsessed with it.”
“It just seemed like ‘metal’ became a dirty word to Alex,” Peterson says. “All of a sudden, he couldn’t sit down with us, have a beer and crank some Slayer. He’d go drink tea and listen to jazz in the back of the bus.” Peterson was also finding that, despite being a founder of the band and a main song-writer, he was often being overshadowed by his fleet-fingered counterpart. “When you have a two-guitar team, it should be a team,” he says. “And it wasn’t Alex’s fault, but I think that the press built him up like he was this superhero. I remember one time in the early Nineties, he and I did a photo shoot for a guitar magazine, and I sat there for five hours while they took photos of Alex and his instrument. I never even got called in. And I just felt like a fucking piece of shit.”
“Testament had experienced a certain amount of success, but we weren’t really where we thought we should be,” Skolnick says. “So everybody started pointing fingers, and it just became a bad scene. There were problems in the band, problems with management, problems with the label. It was just too much.”
Skolnick quit the band following their tour in support of The Ritual, and within a short time Clemente and Christian left as well. Peterson and Billy soldiered on, taking Testament in a heavier direction on albums such as 1997’s Demonic (on which Peterson handled all rhythm and lead guitars) and 1999’s The Gathering. Skolnick and the band began to heal their rift in 2001, after Billy’s cancer diagnosis. That August, he and Christian joined their former bandmates at Thrash of the Titans, a benefit concert for Billy and Death frontman Chuck Schuldiner, who was at the time battling a brain tumor. “We had begun to resolve our issues at that point,” Skolnick says, “and then when I found out Chuck was sick, of course I had to be there for him.” Later that year the guitarist also joined the band in the studio for First Strike Still Deadly, an album of re-recorded Testament classics.
It wasn’t until 2005, however, that Testament truly reunited, with a series of European shows dubbed the 10 Days in May tour. “That led to a few more shows, another tour and then us just getting to a point where we were like, ‘This feels good, let’s go forward with it,” Skolnick says.
And they are. Testament will be touring The Formation of Damnation for the remainder of the year (though day jobs and other responsibilities, particularly Skolnick’s various musical projects, rule out any extended jaunts). A for the future, the band is leaving things wide open. “It’s funny,” Skolnick says. “It sorta feels like that scene in The Godfather: Part III where [Al Pacino] says, ‘Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!’ But I’m happy to be here again, and it feels right to me.”
“Chuck and I took the band as far as we could on our own,” Peterson says, “and I think the albums we did over the last 15 years or so had some really good music. But Alex and Greg are O.G. players, and it’s great to have them back. We’ve been through all the bullshit, all the guilt trips, all the pettiness, and we’ve left it all in the past.
“So it’s been really cool to just enjoy the music, enjoy playing together, and enjoy feeling like a band again. At one point, that was hard to do. But now, it’s more than enough.”