A Testament to Metal

When you think about it, all the thrash-metal bands that started their career in the 80s, especially from the Bay Area, either called it quits when the "grunge" 90s hit and left it at that, or they reunited when thrash metal became cool again. Throughout their career, Testament has stood the test of critics and musical trends. Despite overwhelming adversity, the band has constantly adapted their sound over the 25 years of their existence. That includes key members leaving, or in vocalist Chuck Billy's case, being diagnosed with a rare form of throat cancer, a decline in record sales, finicky metal fans that fear any change or progression... hell, I could go on. It has been nine years since the band's The Gathering was released. Testament unleashed The Formation of Damnation on April 29, which is already garnering great admiration and presents a new look at things to come.

This new effort, obviously a long time coming, was a culmination of many things. With original members returning to the fold in roughly 2002, the desire to create new material was only natural. The Formation of Damnation is a mix of the best of both worlds, the old-school Testament sound and their newer sound.

Billy describes the new album as "a cross between the The New Order (1988) meets the Low (1994). The tuning is lower than The New Order, but the song style has the energy of The New Order. I think having our original guitarist, Alex Skolnick, and bassist Greg Christian back in the band makes it a real familiar sound. I think that gives it that flair and feeling of the old stuff."

This new chemistry of original members is a key point for Billy. If they hadn't returned a few years ago, they most definitely would have sounded different. When asked about the creation of the band's new record, Billy says, "I'd say it was a conscious effort we had when Alex and Greg got back and were ready to record new material with the band. We wanted something classic, but current sounding. I wanted to really sing more like what I did with the Practice What You Preach (1989) album, with a little more melody and singing. Our longtime guitarist, Eric Peterson, wrote a bunch of great riffs that allowed room for me to sing." One might suggest that Billy's throat cancer had to make him adapt his vocal style, though his current style of a more gruff and gritty approach began on Low, years before his diagnosis.

Reading through The Formation of Damnation's liner notes, is a small blast from the past. I haven't seen a thrash record in years (with the exception of Slayer) where a band states for every song which guitarist plays what solo and when. It's clear that the guitar solo is on the rise. With the solos shortened on previous albums, Erik never really had the chance to put his solo-writing skills to use. "Knowing that Alex was back in the band and he was going to be playing solos also, he really wanted it to be known who played what," says Billy. Both guitarists are virtuosos in their own right and play with inherently different styles. Erik has a straight-up thrash approach and Alex plays more melodic solos. The solos that both guitarists have crafted for The Formation of Damnation are astounding, but remain grounded in the old-school craft of metal. The wailing solos don't sound out of place. They come off as fresh and they're a treat for any fan of guitar solos.

"Well, we're in a very comfortable, happy place," says Billy. "The pressure of a new record was huge. I think we were really focused with the original guys back in. I think we accomplished that goal and this record is stronger than previous albums. It's not dated sounding. I think it's really a culmination of all the music we've been writing all these years, all the styles we've been playing and all the voices I've been trying. We're fired up to write another record because in this frame of mind, maybe we could pull off 11 or 12 more great songs like these."

Likeminded thrashers know Testament have always strived to be the best they can possibly be. With The Formation of Damnation shredding a new path and opportunities for Testament, the future is a bright one for the typically cryptic band (well, lyrically cryptic). This future includes a massive summer tour with none other than Judas Priest, Heaven and Hell and Motörhead. Unfortunately, the tour won't be stopping in Salt Lake. Newcomers to thrash can take a lesson from the band. Because of Testament, and other American thrash artists, well, to put it simply: Thrash metal will never die.