IT’S NOT MUCH OF AN EXAGGERation to say the band Testament has been to
hell and back. In their quarter-century existence they’ve seen the
departure and return of their world-famous lead guitarist, they’ve gone
through a Spinal Tap-approved 12 drummers, and they’ve had two key
members get cancer and beat cancer. And this was all without so much as
a single Gold Record to their name. Despite the fact that far lesser
strains would have destroyed far more successful bands, they’re not
only still here, they’re better, badder, and heavier than ever.
Testament is the Lance Armstrong of metal bands.
How did they get to this point? It began in 1983, when San Francisco Bay Area guitarist Eric Peterson formed the thrash band Legacy, which would soon change its name to Testament. When you play thrash and you live in the Bay Area, it’s tough to avoid comparisons to hometown (and worldwide) heroes Metallica. In fact, the “Big Four” of this nascent style of metal— Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax—were already firmly established, making it difficult for the second wave of bands to break through. According to prodigal lead guitarist Alex Skolnick, “When we first came out, we were in the shadow of this very powerful group of bands that came before us. The music was so left field and out of the mainstream at that time, there wasn’t that much room for other bands.”
But Testament persevered, and the fruits of their labor are evident on this year’s The Formation of Damnation [Nuclear Blast], a crushingly heavy and musical album that reunites the classic guitar duo of Peterson and Skolnick. On a brief respite from their world tour, Skolnick fielded questions from a van in Pittsburgh, where his jazz trio was performing, and Peterson talked and shot video at the band’s Oakland rehearsal space.
This band has been through a lot over the years. Are you surprised to be talking about a new Testament record in 2008?
Peterson: Yeah, especially with Alex, Greg [Christian, drummer], and Paul [Bostaph, bassist]. I’m really happy with how good the new record sounds. We keep getting heavier and faster.
Skolnick: Initially we didn’t think we would make a record. We just wanted to do some reunion shows, hang out with old friends, and have fun playing the old songs. As far as doing a record, I only wanted to do that if we could really reach our full potential. I think we did with this record.
Remind our readers what you had been doing previously, Alex.
Skolnick: I had been doing mostly jazz for ten years and living in New York. In addition to my trio, I was touring with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and even though that’s a symphonic holiday concert, it’s got a lot of rock guitar parts. That got me balancing jazz and hard rock stuff. While I had been away, this whole new lot of metal fans had cropped up. A lot of people who had missed us the first time around were thrilled to see Testament.
Eric, you co-produced this album. How did you see your role?
Peterson: I pretty much oversee the whole project. I’m there for the recording of the drums, bass, vocals, and obviously my guitars. Because I write most of the material, I have the ear for what it needs, and I want to be there to make sure it comes out the way I envision it. I’d been writing this record for four years, and some of the older tunes ended up changing a lot. Alex has a great ear for that stuff. He came in fresh after I had been writing and he would suggest moving parts around, maybe putting in a stop here or there, which was great. I was definitely thinking, “Welcome back!”
How would you guys divide up the solos?
Peterson: I did all my solos at the end because then I knew exactly what Alex was going to do. I would set aside the section I wanted to solo over, because on all the other records we did when Alex was in the band I never did any solos. We were so young back then. It was, “He plays lead, you play rhythm.” Now we’re older and it’s cool if I want to do solos.
Skolnick: When I left the band I was doing all or most of the solos. I didn’t want to come back and try to make it 1989 again, where I would bring in whole compositions that were solo sections, these epic solos. I think the solos are shorter than in the past. There are a few songs where it’s just me soloing. “Afterlife” is a song where we split it evenly, with Eric taking the second solo. The title track is a good example of the difference in our styles.
Peterson: My solo in “The Formation of Damnation” fits the music, I think. It has a kind of old-school Dave Mustaine feel. It’s bluesy, but with some fast picking. I played a Dean ML with DiMarzio Super Distortions into the new Eddie Van Halen 5150 III amp.
Your solo in that tune, Alex, is a nice blend of fast scale passages and big intervallic skips. Lots of guys do just one or the other. Where does that ability come from?
Skolnick: Playing different genres of music, I think. The skips you’re talking about, that’s a pattern I first heard from the pianist McCoy Tyner. He did that in “My Favorite Things.” It’s also in the song “Inner Urge,” by Joe Henderson, which to me is almost a metal song. It works perfectly there. That specific intervallic pattern, which is root, b9, 4, 5, and 7, is pentatonic, but it’s out of the normal major or minor pentatonic. As far as the scale technique that I combine with it, a lot of that comes from years of experience with this high-energy music and doing highenergy solos.
“More Than Meets the Eye” has a great tight groove between the rhythm guitar and the drums.
Skolnick: That’s Eric doing the rhythms, which is true for most of the record. When I was away, they had made a few records and that was the formula. He’s great at it. He’s got razor-sharp precision.
Where does that galloping rhythm come from?
Peterson: Heart’s “Barracuda,” “Restless and Wild” by Accept, “Necrophiliac” by Slayer—all those songs have that galloping picking pattern. I wanted to bring back that old-school vibe and some of the picking patterns that no one does anymore, like in our song “Henchmen Ride.” No one does that pattern anymore. The only people who did it in the past were Metallica and us. They did it on “Four Horsemen” and we did it on “Burnt Offerings.” Everybody does the basic thrash picking but there are so many others.
How did you get your chops and your timing together to be able to play those rhythms?
Peterson: I wanted to be a drummer in the beginning, so for a lot of my riffs, I’m thinking like a drummer [sings drum fills and then guitar chugs with same rhythm]. That’s a huge part of our sound, how the guitar and the drums go together.
Skolnick: Honestly, it took a few days for me to get my fast rhythm chops back in shape. I hadn’t done that style in a long time, but it came back pretty quickly. I have this new appreciation for how complex some of those rhythms are.
A lot of thrash bands are so tight they can sound sterile. How do you guys stay super-tight but keep a sense of swing and groove?
Peterson: That probably has to do with our influences. The swing comes from listening to the Glen Miller Band. The way all those instruments come together—that’s heavy. The tightness comes from bands like Rush, just being in awe of how they can do all their intricate parts and the stops and starts. We put all those elements together along with being evil like Sabbath.
What other gear did you use on this record?
Skolnick: I used a Marshall JCM 2000 along with my modified Tube Screamer. I set the amp so it sounds like AC/DC in the ’70s. It’s distorted, but more of a classic rock/hard rock sound. On top of that I add the Tube Screamer but it’s not totally cranked. I try to strike a balance between the two. You don’t want too much distortion. It’s very easy to get over-overdriven. Right before that happens it’s perfect. That’s what I go for for this type of music. On tour I use the Marshall Mode IV. It’s a very low-maintenance, user-friendly amp. I’m competing with some very heavy sounds onstage and my solos would always get buried as a result in the past. With the Mode IV, not only does it cut through on its own, but it has this solo button that really makes the leads jump out. The guitars are all handcrafted Heritage guitars.
What’s next for Testament?
Peterson: We’re going to keep touring, and we already have some tunes for the next record. We feel like we’re just getting started in some ways. We’ve worked really hard. But maybe not having as much success as some other bands is what’s kept us going and hungry. Metal needs that hunger right now. There are a lot of bands out there that are supposedly metal and I listen and I don’t see what the fuss is about. They’re not taking it to another level. With this record we tried to say this is how you do it. And hopefully we succeeded.