2020 started off well enough, but it unraveled seemingly overnight – by early spring, we found ourselves crushed under the weight of unprecedented distress and uncertainty, trapped in a world fraught with as much disease as dis-ease.
By the time April came limping into view, there wasn't much anyone could put their faith into – that is, unless you are a fan of classic American thrash metal. When Testament unleashed its 13th studio album, Titans of Creation, on April 3rd, it gave Gen-X metalheads a reason to rejoice – a reason to celebrate during a time of great discomfort.
It also served as a bludgeoning reminder that Testament is still at the top of its game 33 years after the release of its debut album, Legacy. And that’s really what the metal community has come to expect from Testament through all these years – that the thrash veterans from Berkeley, California, will be there when they need it most, no matter what.
Since first emerging from the Bay Area in the mid-'80s, Testament have been through an abundance of turmoil and disruption, including a dizzying number of lineup changes and singer Chuck Billy’s bout with cancer in 2001 – yet here in 2020, the band sounds better than ever.
“Our dark times were definitely dark,” says guitarist Eric Peterson, “but through ruin comes creation. Somehow we’ve always been able to keep it going.”
Titans of Creation is the sound of a band in peak form. Songs like the album opener “Children of the Next Level,” “Night of the Witch” and “Code of Hammurabi,” one of two tracks written by lead guitarist Alex Skolnick, showcase the immense talents of each member of Testament.
Peterson’s riffage is relentless and inspired, Skolnick’s soloing is majestic and soaring, Gene Hoglan’s drumming is everything you’d expect from the legendary skinsman, Billy’s vocals have a refreshingly classic quality and bassist Steve DiGiorgio takes advantage of a few moments in the spotlight to remind everyone why he has been considered one of the best in the business since his turn-of- the-Nineties days with Sadus, Autopsy and Death.
Skolnick attributes the high level of quality achieved on Titans of Creation to the fact that the band took its time putting the album’s pieces together. “The previous record [2016’s Brotherhood of the Snake] I feel was a very rushed process,” says the guitarist.
“With that record, it was like we were in the middle of touring, then all of a sudden there was a sense that we were really behind in terms of making a new record. Like all of a sudden, it was crunch time. This time, we talked about it while we were on tour and said, let’s not have that happen again – let’s at least discuss a rough game plan for the record.
“We made sure that we had more time together to play and for all of us to make suggestions, because on the last record Eric became more of the decision-maker and there just wasn’t enough time for everyone else to weigh in.”
As Titans of Creation was making its way into the hands and hearts of clamoring, quarantined Testament fans all over the world, Guitar World caught up with Skolnick and Peterson to discuss the making of the record and look back at some of the pivotal moments in the group’s stormy yet successful 33-year history.
In the 33 years since Testament released its debut album, The Legacy, the band’s sound has undergone some fairly dramatic changes in tone and style, creating a distinct difference between, so to speak, old Testament and new Testament. When you look back at the group’s evolution, where would you say that shift began to take place?
ERIC PETERSON: “I would say it was after our fifth record, The Ritual . We did five records in five years, and I think by our fourth album, Souls of Black, there was some good stuff on there, but it wasn’t groundbreaking like the first three. And a lot of our fans were starting to turn their backs on us because music was changing, we were changing, grunge had come in and just sideswiped metal and alternative was getting big.
“With The Ritual, I think we were trying to be more heavy metal as opposed to thrash, and I wasn’t that happy going in that direction. Songs like Electric Crown and Return to Serenity are great songs, but we couldn’t get any stronger than that – it just felt like our feet were in the mud.
“Around that time in the early '90s you had albums like Sepultura’s Arise and Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power, and I was like, 'That’s where I want to be,' but it didn’t happen with The Ritual. After Alex left in 1992, we came out with Low , and that was more like it – that was like a new beginning for us.
“We brought in James Murphy on guitar for that record, and it was great to have someone who could play like Alex but who also loved that kind of music – the truth is, Alex was never really into the heavier stuff like that; things like Cannibal Corpse and Death and other bands like that at the time.
“He just needed to get out and do his own thing. So it was around that time that we took on this new sound, and that went from Low into Demonic  into The Gathering .
“By the time The Gathering came around we had already been through a bunch of lineup changes and we had gotten stronger because of it. The years leading up to that had been so weird with all the changes in the band and changes in the music scene, and by the time we did The Gathering we had built ourselves back up again and people were getting excited about our music again.”
Eric, you’ve been the musical leader of this band since the very beginning. What would you say was perhaps the darkest period for Testament?
PETERSON: “It was probably around the time of The Ritual. I remember Atlantic Records telling us that we had only sold around 250,000 records that year – which would be amazing now [Laughs] – and we were down about that.
“We lost our management around that time, Alex told us that this was going to be his last tour with Testament, and Lou [drummer Louie Clemente] left – so everything was kind of falling apart around then, but we were still hopeful.
“So we changed some things around, changed how we did business and formed our own record company and things like that – and just when it seemed that we had gotten a hold of things again, that was when Chuck got sick [In 2001, lead singer Chuck Billy was diagnosed with a cancerous condition known as germ cell seminoma].
“But even after all that, we kept it going, and we got heavy again, and I think that was the start of the new Testament. We developed a more modern sound and had more of a black and death metal influence, even though we were still very much a thrash band. We just weren’t trying to be politically correct with our lyrics and all that – I mean, come on, we put out a record called Demonic. [Laughs]
“By that point, we had gone through a couple of different guitar players, a lot of drummers, we were having problems with our original bass player [Greg Christian] – and we weren’t really sure what we were going to do. So we ended up doing a record called First Strike Still Deadly , which contained re-recorded versions of some of our older songs.
“When I go back and listen to The Legacy or The New Order , I’m not blown away by the production, but the songs sound modern when we play them today – they sound great, and that was what we were going for with First Strike Still Deadly.”
Titans of Creation is the band’s 12th studio album of new material. When did the record first begin to take shape?
PETERSON: “It always happens that we’ll be touring and touring, and Chuck – being the business-minded person that he is – will bring it up, like 'We have to get a record out.' And he’ll usually tell the press and the label that we’re gonna have a new album out in a few months, which just isn’t realistic at all, and then I have to be the one to tell everyone that, no, it’s not going to happen. [Laughs]
“With that being said, I’ll try to get in there and find something, some kind of riff or whatever, just to get it started… And then once the new album gets started and everybody likes a couple of songs, things will just start to pop out after that.
“Some of the better songs came to us last this time round. Once you get over that hump, like five songs in, some really clever stuff starts coming out. One of those was Night of the Witch. That song is different for us; it’s modern, but it’s got this almost Slayer, Captor of Sin kind of vibe with all this crazy riffing.”
ALEX SKOLNICK: “There are so many steps to the process, and it always takes longer than you think it will. One reason is because of the touring. As a band, it’s just very hard to focus on an album when you have a show to do that night.
“Regardless of how many people bought tickets to the show for that evening – whether it’s a few thousand at one of our own shows or tens of thousands at some kind of festival we’re playing – they’re all expecting something, and you have to be up to standard.
“If your focus is on coming up with a new part for a song, then it won’t be on the performance that people are expecting. There’s a certain concentration that’s required for putting on a good performance. So things for this record started happening while we were out on tour, and I had some ideas that I would develop and send over, and Eric would have some ideas that he would send over.
“This was around 2018. By early 2019, we were meeting up, and Eric was meeting up with Gene and going over stuff – basically just doing the preliminary get-togethers. By the summer of last year we were actually finally recording.”
What were your initial thoughts when you first started hearing what you guys were working on?
SKOLNICK: “To be honest, you never know where a record is going to end up when you first start working on it. But I knew early on that it was going to sound like a Testament record. And because we had more time to play together and work out ideas on this record, I ended up with two full songs: Symptoms and Code of Hammurabi.
“Both of those were songs that I demoed from start to finish. With Code of Hammurabi, I wrote the main riffs of that on my bass. A long time ago, with a song called Souls of Black, the same thing happened, and that ended up having a bass intro too.
“Plus now we have this monster bass player in Steve DiGiorgio, so why not give him a little bass intro to play and some bass breaks in the songs. So a lot of Code of Hammurabi was written on bass, but then what I’ll do is I’ll switch to guitar and I’ll find a sound that I think will work for Testament.
“And if I’m recording at home, it’s just so much more practical to use a plug-in or a modeler – so I’ll either use my Kemper Profiler, which is the same thing we’ll use live, or I’ll use one of the patches that I like with AmpliTube by IK Multimedia. Sometimes I’ll do a blend of the two.
“Chuck and I wrote the lyrics for Code of Hammurabi together, and Symptoms was something that Eric and I worked on together in terms of the lyrical concept.”
Symptoms is a song about depression and other mental health issues. What served as the inspiration for that?
SKOLNICK: “We lost so many people to depression recently. Anthony Bourdain, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, Jill Janus from Huntress… I lost a cousin as well as a neighbor of mine who was a very successful young writer. Just so many people you would never expect that to happen to.
“People who seem to have it all – like they’re the last people you would ever expect to be victims of depression. So that was part of the inspiration… it was also inspired by people we knew who were in relationships with people that had disorders.”
With everyone living in different locations and sometimes working on other projects, it must be increasingly more difficult to get everyone together these days to write and record an album.
PETERSON: “Chuck likes to press the envelope in terms of trying to get everybody out here to jam, but thinking about it like that just going to be able to write a record in five days when we’re all together. All the good ideas will start coming around the fifth day, which will be when everyone has to leave for the airport.
“It’s cool because I can usually make a rough mix of something and then WhatsApp it to everyone. I’ll usually send things to Steve first to see what he thinks, and most of the time he’ll say, 'It’s killer!' Then I’ll send it to Chuck and he’ll be like, 'I don’t like it.' [Laughs] He’s a tough cookie – he hates everything.
“But the truth is that that’s really just what’s in my brain after all these years of working with him, because as soon as I send him something and think he’s gonna hate it, he loves it. Some of our most famous songs are the ones that Chuck said he hated. Return to Serenity, Dark Roots of Earth, True Believer… just a lot of songs where he initially said, 'I don’t hear anything there.'”
Do you make changes until he approves, or does he eventually come around?
PETERSON: “I just don’t argue with him, and then I write something else that he does like, then bring back the other song that he didn’t like and sneak it in there I guess. Because here’s the thing: for everything else in my life that I may be a fuck-up with, I know how to do this.
“I’m super picky, so if I like it, then it’s got to be good. I let him get mad and do the yelling – I don’t ever get mad at him. I just try to make it work. And he recognizes that. I’ve heard him say things like, 'I don’t know how Eric puts up with my shit.' But he’s more on the business end of things, so it evens out.“
It’s been unavoidable lately, but do you find the technological aspect of writing and recording at home enjoyable?
SKOLNICK: “I think so, and partially it’s out of necessity. It’s pretty much a job requirement at this point. But it can also be fun, especially if you make it fun. And you’re always going to get stuck at some point along the way: you should be on Input 1 when you’re on Input 2, and you can’t figure it out and need to find someone to help, or the whole thing crashes.
“But this happens even in professional studios. So it definitely helps to have friends you can call to troubleshoot it when something like that happens, or at least have a good tech support number. And there’s so much help available online too – you can just Google a problem when it happens.
“Recording at home is definitely more of a solitary activity, which I don’t mind at all because I am a bit introverted and like being in solitude – you can have a nice evening at home with these gadgets and create some sounds that you like. I’ve learned to enjoy that process.“
Does having instant access to all these sounds keep you from wanting to find new guitars and amps?
SKOLNICK: “Maybe, but I’m still a junkie when it comes to new equipment. Especially when I’m doing something outside of Testament, like a one-guitar situation. There I’ll use more pedals, because I love pedals; they’re so much fun. I certainly don’t need more guitars, but it seems like every year I’ll find a guitar that I need.
“A few months ago I found this old Gibson ES-347 – just a beautiful guitar, like a variation of a 335. Certainly not a cheap guitar, and it’s like one of those instruments that just plays itself. I saw it, thought about it, and decided I had to have it. [Laughs] And that seems to happen every year or so.
“Then there’s the equipment I get from manufacturers. My signature guitar is made by ESP. For hollowbodies I love to play Godin. In the studio for my last Alex Skolnick Trio album I had a couple of acoustic songs, and Taylor had sent me a great guitar that got me really excited about acoustics again.
“So I really haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm for gear. And I tend to make a deal with myself when it comes to new gear: if I get something new, I have to use it. If it just sits around and I don’t touch it, then I make myself get rid of it.“
When I first called you for this interview, Alex, you had to call me back because you were in the middle of a session – what were you working on?
SKOLNICK: “I’m always up to something. Right now I’m recording with a piano player, believe it or not. His name is Randy Klein, and it’s his project – it’s kind of a piano-guitar duo. He did an album of duets and he also has a record label called Jazz Heads.
“He’s around 70 and is just a very nice piano player – not one of these crazily technical piano players. Just nice compositions and really nice playing to listen to. I was on one of his duo records a few years ago, and he reached out about revisiting some of those songs and doing some new songs.
“We’re also looking at doing some live performances at some point. So that’s where I was when you called. If you had called me last week, who knows where I would have been. [Laughs]“
You need musical variety in your life.
SKOLNICK: “I think that’s an understatement. [Laughs] I feel like I never fit into any one scene, even though the most visible and longest-lasting project I’ve been involved with has been Testament. It’s what I am most identified with, but I have a whole world outside of that.
“And a lot of the people who know me from other projects might know that I’m also in Testament, but they don’t even know what Testament sounds like. But I do think that I’ve been able to find a strange niche and a balance of all these different projects, and I’m certainly not done yet. There’s some music forthcoming that may surprise some people.“
Testament fans must be more accepting of your side projects now than in the past.
SKOLNICK: “That’s exactly right. Especially in the '90s when I was kind of keeping a low profile. I had a few short-lived bands that I would bounce in and out of. There was a period of time, once the internet started taking off and everyone was getting connected online, where I could tell that there was just this… hostility… toward me because of what I was doing outside of Testament. I never let it affect me though. These days, however, there’s much more support out there for what I am doing with my career.“
What was your gear setup on the new album?
PETERSON: “I always use my black Les Paul with 81/85 EMGs, and I used both the American and Korean versions of my signature Dean Old Skull guitar. For solos I used this new Dean [USA Patents Pending ML Classic Black], which is a replica of a guitar they put out in the '70s. Strings are also very important to me. I’m with D’Addario, but I ended up going back to Ernie Ball. .010–.052 seems to work really well, even considering the downtuning.
“When Andy Sneap was mixing the record, I was like, 'Dude, the guitars are kinda… I don’t want to say generic… but kinda safe.' So I told him I want to use EVH, because I love the EVH guitar tone, and I have a 50-watt that I’m really digging right now. And he said, 'I’m gonna put it through the new [5150IIIS 100- watt head] Stealth.'
“The way to explain it is that it’s got this kind of saturated feel, but with a nice midrange. Almost like a '70s, hard-rock midrange where it cuts through, but it’s got this nice warmth. The EVH amps are just awesome, I love ’em.
“For effects, the only thing I would turn on once in a while was my MXR Micro Chorus – there’s no Chorus that competes with that. It’s like Frank Marino’s Chorus tone or Zakk Wylde’s – the Micro Chorus is just the shit. Randy Rhoads too – all those cats used the Micro Chorus. And my Vox Wah. I used a Theremin on this record too, which was something different for me.
“It’s on the end of Night of the Witch – I was trying to get some creepy sounds for the fade-out. When Chuck first got the mix and heard it, he was like, 'What is that at the end? I don’t fucking like that.' He said it wasn’t creepy and was just real mad about the whole thing, and then he said he didn’t like the mix anymore. I think he was just having a bad day because everything just stayed the way it was. [Laughs]“
What was the inspiration for using the Theremin?
PETERSON: “It was Joe Bonamassa, and a song of his called The Ballad of John Henry. It’s one of his tuned-down, darker songs. He also did that song with his other band, Black Country Communion, and I actually like that version better. It’s a more hard rock version.
“So I really dug the Theremin, and I ended up buying one about five years ago, and I’ve just been having fun with it; it’s kind of like the go-to thing when my daughter has a sleepover and all the girls want to try it out.“
Alex, what was your main guitar on the new album?
SKOLNICK: “My Lemon Burst ESP Alex Skolnick model is pretty much my go-to instrument when I record with Testament. I haven’t changed my string type in a long time. I’ve been with D’Addario for many years and they’ve always worked well for me.
“When they came out with the NYXL line, that was exciting. I thought that that was a big development, and I can really feel the difference in those strings. So I’m still using those, gauges .011–.049.
“My first electric guitar when I was in high school was a Les Paul. But as I got more into technical playing and listening to players like Yngwie Malmsteen, who mainly plays a Strat, or Randy Rhoads with his Jackson, I started getting more into different guitars. The Les Paul just didn’t have a place in my life at that time. But as I got older and became more of an all-around player, I rediscovered the Les Paul.
“When I hooked up with ESP, which was maybe a few years after the Formation of Damnation album came out in 2008, I had been getting back into classic guitars, and they offered to make me an instrument that would be pretty much whatever I wanted.
“I wanted the tone of a classic Les Paul, but with more playability – something that would allow for more technical playing like an Ibanez or Jackson. And maybe my signature model doesn’t play that easily, but it’s not like a log either.
“Plus it’s not some rare, vintage instrument that I have to worry about. We’re not in a position where we can buy a seat for the instrument on a plane or fly a private jet.“
- Testament's new album, Titans of Creation, is out now via Nuclear Blast.