Testament's Chuck Billy on Life After the Death of Thrash

Check Billy, center, with Testament.EXPAND
Check Billy, center, with Testament.
Photo courtesy of Pinnacle Entertainment

From living large to barely surviving and back again: That’s been the story of both Testament vocalist Chuck Billy and thrash metal, the neck-snapping genre that he helped to codify in the late ‘80s. Back when tight jeans and white high-tops ruled rock, Testament and their ilk of hairy, shredding alcoholics virtually wiped hair metal off the face of the planet. Just when thrashers were hitting their high-water mark in the early ‘90s, though, alternative rock arrived to steal all the credit. As tastes changed in the hard-rock community, Testament and other thrashers fell hard, many never to be heard from again.

Few fell harder than Billy. After Testament was dropped from Atlantic Records, the band’s fortunes turned sharply in the ‘90s. After countless lineup fluctuations, Testament was nearly leveled when the singer was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer affecting his heart and lungs in 2001. Much like thrash itself, Billy appeared to be on his way out for good.

All the more amazing, then, that both are back and stronger than ever in 2017.

“I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished and what this band has accomplished since my illness,” Billy says. “At that point, life was looking kind of grim, you know. The future of Testament, in my eyes, was done. From that time, 2002, to where we are today, I’m very, very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

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He ought to be. Testament isn’t just hanging on, playing old hits like “Return to Serenity” to European festival crowds in the middle of the afternoon. After defying death, Billy and the group rallied to release the two highest-charting albums of their career in the past five years, 2012’s Dark Roots of Earth and last year’s Brotherhood of the Snake. It’s a different era, to be sure. But in a world once again awash in fear and corruption, metalheads have regained their taste for thrash’s whipping righteousness.

It’s been a better second act than Billy dared hope for.

Chuck Billy onstage at House of Blues, 2013
Chuck Billy onstage at House of Blues, 2013
Photos by Amanda J. Cain

“I really didn’t know if I was actually going to be coming back after my illness,” the singer says. “So, when we had the reunion, I don’t know if it was a blessing or what, but it was kind of an opportunity to have a second chance and continue on with the band. That was ’05, and shoot, it’s been, like, 12 years now. It has picked up and grown, and I think the scene’s gotten better all around.

“The business is all on timing, and I think right now it’s full-circle from where we started to the ’90s, kind of back around and getting strong again,” he adds.

If they aren’t leading the way, Testament isn’t trailing too many in the revitalized genre. When the band takes the stage at their headlining gig at House of Blues on Sunday, constant Testa-members Billy and guitarist Eric Peterson will be joined by a couple of thrash’s best. Lead guitarist Alex Skolnick is one of the most skilled and soulful axe-men ever to get caught in a mosh, and after an extended absence from the group during the lean ‘90s years, he’s firmly back in the fold. Drummer Gene Hoglan, who has bashed the skins for standouts from Death to Deathklok, helps make Testament 2017 a pummeling force to be reckoned with.

Simply put, Testament has rarely been better, and they know it. So don’t expect a simple greatest-hits package on Sunday.

“I think we’re going to have four or five songs off the record in the show this coming tour. I look forward to those, because the crowd response has been great for them. We were on tour the first day the record came out, and the crowd already knew it just from the video on the Internet we released a month prior. Something about them, the crowd really knew ’em more than before. The response was much bigger, so I think those are the ones we’re going to focus on.”

Testament may be rightfully proud of their new stuff, but that doesn’t mean they’re afraid to revel in a little nostalgia. Billy has some fond memories of Houston, where the band recorded some of its earliest music videos with local rock-biz maven Sam Taylor.

“When we were shooting ‘Trial By Fire,’ actually, that was the first time that we met Pantera,” Billy says. “We came to town, and I know they said, ‘We’ll take you to this club. There’s a house band there that’s performing, and they play 'Over the Wall' if you guys want to go jam with them.’ We thought, ‘Sure.’

“I was blown away by Darryl just ripping it up, shredding backstage,” Billy continues. “We played, and that was the first experience with Pantera. After that show, that’s when I thought of the title 'Practice What You Preach,’ after we left. We were all drunk, but I remember that time in the van.”

Testament arrives in Houston to make some new memories on Sunday at House of Blues with Sepultura, Prong, and the Convalescence. Doors open at 6 p.m.


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