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.