If classic thrash metal's "Big Four" (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer) ever decided to expand to a "Big Five," then that slot would certainly be taken by California's Testament (sorry, Exodus fans...).
And while seemingly every band of a certain longevity will proclaim their latest record "just as good" as their classics, Testament's recent Dark Roots of Earth really is. A fist-pounding, blood-thumping maelstrom of havoc, war, death, the dark power of nature, and one sorta romantic number (if you like your ladies sort of cold. Literally cold). It also has one fucking cool cover.
The lineup -- which has seen plenty of changes over 30 years -- includes classic-era members Chuck Billy (vocals), Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick (guitars) and Greg Christian (bass), with newer member Gene Hoglan on drums, is currently on tour. Rocks Off spoke with Billy about the record, some early days in Houston, and his distaste for a certain football team from San Francisco.
Rocks Off: How do you think Dark Roots of Earth stands out artistically from the rest of your catalogue?
Chuck Billy: Definitely the songwriting and the production on it are a notch up from the last records we've done, and we took a little more risk in the mixing process. We've been working with Andy Sneap [Accept, Exodus, Nevermore], and Eric and I are always on the mixes kind of breathing down his shoulder. On this one, we gave him a little direction, and he mixed it on his own. And he nailed it.
RO: So the overall reaching theme of the record is "Don't fuck with nature."
CB: Well, that and what mankind is doing to ourselves and the planet.
RO: What about the lyrics to "Pure American Hate"?
CB: I was watching the news years ago when we were seeing young kids in the street in other countries, six or ten years old, waving rifles in the air and burning American flags with all this... anger.
Just as a father, how could you raise a child that young and do that? To have that hatred ingrained in their brains? I know when you're that young, your mind is influenced. For instance, I was raised growing up to be an Oakland Raider fan and a 49er hater. And here I am, a 50-year-old man and I still hate the 49ers.
RO:: So you must be pretty happy about yesterday's Super Bowl.
CB: Oh, I loved it.
RO: "Native Blood" talks about the rights of not only Native Americans, but all indigenous people.
CB: Yeah, anywhere in the world. My heritage is [Native American] and that been a big help to me spiritually and it helped me beat cancer. I haven't really written songs with that message and talking about my roots until this record.
RO: You recorded a Spanish version of that song as well, specifically for your South American fans. What is it about heavy metal and thrash music that makes people there go more nuts than another country.
CB: It's probably an attitude because it's a rebellious type of music. And also something to do with subject matter of [metal and thrash]. And once someone is a metal fan, they tend to always be a metal fan.
RO: Eric says that you are dong things with your voice on this record that maybe you haven't done before, like you're pushing yourself into new areas.
CB: I don't know about that. This record, we took risks and went more with our gut. We never would have really wrote stuff like "Cold Embrace" or "Dark Roots of Earth" if we worried about what people would think. It just felt good to us.
RO: Do you have any particular memories about Houston?
CB: I remember that we used to shoot our videos there, we'd come out and work with the same director and had fun in those early days. We used to go to... it was called the Back Room or Back Stage...and see Pantera play before their first record even came out. We have some good memories.
RO: Finally, what are your plans after the current tour?
CB: We head over to China and Japan. And then straight after that we come home and go to Europe. There's a little break in April, and then we go back to Europe. We're playing Europe a lot! (laughs).
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Testament plays House of Blues Wednesday, February 6, with Overkill, Flotsam and Jetsam and 4ARM. Doors open at 6 p.m.