2020 is set to be a fantastic year for European thrash metalheads – three legendary pioneers of the genre have announced a tour of the old continent: none other than Bay Area’s very own TESTAMENT, EXODUS, and DEATH ANGEL with a stop in Helsinki, and Tampere. The success of the tour is immediately clear with a sold-out show in Helsinki. Those who still want to catch the thrash metal legends still have the opportunity to go see their performance in Tampere, where there are still some tickets left. On top of that, TESTAMENT is releasing a brand new album “Titans Of Creation” on 3 April 2020 through Nuclear Blast Records.
Less than two weeks before the much-anticipated concert at The Circus in Helsinki, I get the opportunity to talk to Chuck Billy about the upcoming record. I ask the frontman how he is doing since they finally have the record ready. He seems excited the studio effort is finally done, but at the same time, he mentions that it’s been very busy. The band just released their latest single “Night Of The Witch,” and has been preparing for the European tour, at the exact same moment that they also are doing promo for the new record. Aside from rehearsing, he has to do interviews, while the highly anticipated tour kicks off soon. He mentions being busy is great though, but it’s also tiring.
I ask him how he feels about the upcoming tour because, after all, European thrash metal fanatics probably have been waiting for a tour with a line up like this for years. He mentions the band is extremely stoked for the tour. TESTAMENT has been planning to do something like this for years; bringing the Bay Area classics to Europe is going to be great. Indeed, I do believe that these bands are going to make a lot of thrash metal fans very happy with their combined shows.
Not only is it exhilarating that these bands have teamed up to show Europe what Bay Area thrash metal is all about… It’s exciting how these Bay Area Thrash metal acts still are active and still are putting out excellent records one by one. I ask Chuck Billy what it is about the Bay Area that makes thrash metal bands thrive there, a question he probably gets a lot. He mentions that back in the eighties, it was just that new musical winds were on the horizon. A lot of people mostly listened to things like glam rock and hair metal, and when METALLICA put out their first singles, it was refreshing to them. They didn’t want to do the hair metal thing, it wasn’t their cup of tea, so TESTAMENT started to join the ranks aside from some excellent thrash metal bands, who all were intrigued with the new genre. He mentions that when he looks back on it, it’s fantastic because it doesn’t happen a lot anymore that a genre is basically bound to an area or a city. Things have changed quite a bit. When you think about it, it makes sense… Seattle grunge, Bay Area thrash, and Gotenburg melodeath… I can’t think of a city or larger area that has produced a certain subgenre in modern times where backing tracks and orchestrations have taken a larger role in contemporary metal music.
While agreeing to his statement, I quickly mention that we’re luckily not here to dwell on the past, but we’re here to talk about his upcoming record “Titans Of Creation,” the album from which they just last night released their first single, “Night Of The Witch” for. I ask whether this first single paints an accurate picture for the fans concerning the sound of the record. Chuck Billy mentions that that specific song is a very heavy one. In general, he reckons that the album is even more thrash than the previous one and that it’s definitely faster than the last record. At the same time, the band tried out different things. For example, the vocals, as you can already hear in “Night Of The Witch,” are more melodic than on the previous record. The vocals in the single vaguely remind me of Chuck’s vocal style in “The Gathering,” TESTAMENT’s eighth full-length album, a welcome change in the sound the band has developed in recent years.
As I scrolled down the comments on the music video, I noticed that a lot of fans agreed that the vocal performance is top-notch. On whether it was an intentional choice that these songs required more of a melodic singing style than on “Brotherhood Of The Snake,” Chuck Billy replies that the way he writes the vocal lines is purely based on the song. He doesn’t think about it too much, it’s just what the songs require. According to him, it’s definitely the best work he has done vocal-wise up-to-date.
I mention that the vocal performance on the record indeed is extremely good, I ask him how he managed to keep his voice intact over the span of thirty years. Usually, the older you get, the more of a struggle it becomes, but Chuck Billy seems to sing better than ever. He mentions that he believes not drinking alcohol during the tour helped his voice a lot. When he was younger, touring basically meant partying for him, getting drunk and smoking pot, something that also affected his voice a lot. When he looks back to videos of past performances, he often feels that his vocal performance wasn’t perhaps at its best. At the same time, he explains that it’s also a lot about the routine, especially when performing, keeping healthy and warming up your voice goes a long way toward delivering great vocal performances on tour.
Now that he talks about performing, I grab my chance to talk about the songwriting process for “Titans Of Creation.” After all, TESTAMENT has toured relentlessly for about four years, which also delayed part of the process. In interviews TESTAMENT first mentioned the intention to follow-up “Brotherhood Of The Snake” in 2017. He acknowledges that it took them some time to put this album together. After the tour, the band took a nine-month break to write the songs together, something that, according to Chuck Billy, was really necessary. It took less time than “Brotherhood Of The Snake,” for which the songwriting process lasted two years. The band decided to do things differently and that’s why they decided to take a break and focus on getting the new material done.
This made me wonder whether the songwriting process was also different this time around. Chuck Billy explains that, as they live in different places, it was hard to get together to do the writing. So, most of the songwriting was done online by sending riffs to one another. At the same time, it was quite similar to what they did on other albums. He continues by saying that when you write a new album, you always want it to be better than the previous one. You have to compete with yourself in order to make the album as best as possible. It’s tricky because, in the beginning, you only have demos, there’s no way to tell. There was a lot of pressure to top the quality of a record like “Brotherhood Of The Snake.” I ask him whether he is pleased with the end result. He explains that that’s when it all comes together for him. When you listen to the demos during the process, it’s still not the same as the finished result, and he’s really happy with what TESTAMENT has achieved this time around.
On whether the recording process was done in one studio, or also spread around the globe, he mentions that the band rented out a studio in California and came together to record the songs. I ask him about the advantages of that, to which he replies that everyone on board basically knows what is expected of them. Whether they do it on their own in a studio, or together, it doesn’t really matter, but everyone was so invested in this record that it just made sense to do it this way. You get to decide together which parts should be done in a different way, which means fewer discussions afterwards.
The band, once again, has chosen Andy Sneap as a producer, who has been working with TESTAMENT since “The Gathering.” Chuck Billy mentions that working with Sneap is great, the band knows him very well, and Andy Sneap knows their work, what they do, and how they want to sound. This is why they gave him a free hand. The result was incredible – after the first mix was ready, the band had to maybe tweak a little bit, but altogether they were very pleased with the result.
When I listened to the album for the first time, I couldn’t help but sense a little bit of a throwback to the eighties oldschool thrash metal sound. Yet production-wise and musically-speaking, the band always manages to integrate modern elements into their sound. I ask Chuck how, after such a long career, they still get these refreshing and progressive ideas. He explains that Eric Peterson is the cause of that. He brings something fresh to the sound of TESTAMENT; especially because Eric Peterson doesn’t listen to mainstream radio and music. He mentions Eric Peterson mostly listens to black metal and somehow manages to sneak those elements into TESTAMENT’s sound. This is why TESTAMENT always has sounded a little bit different than the other thrash metal bands. I tell him that Eric Peterson’s influence is especially clear in the new single “Night Of The Witch,” where he also gets to sing a part. Chuck Billy mentions that Eric Peterson doesn’t get to sing much on TESTAMENT, but he has another project where he sings and plays guitar, a black metal act named DRAGONLORD. He uses those black metal growls there. He mentions that the song is about witches, which is something that Eric Peterson wanted for that song. That’s why when Chuck Billy wrote the vocal lines, he told Eric Peterson that he’s singing during the chorus as well, it adds a little bit more aggression to the song, it works really well with Chuck Billy’s more melodic voice, and thus the end result is as wicked as the theme of the single. When I ask him whether this is something the band is planning to do more often in the future, he hints that what fans don’t know yet is that the album contains another track featuring Eric Peterson on vocals. The track is not released yet but it is definitely something that fans can look forward to for when the album is released in April.
When I took a peek at the tracklist, I couldn’t help but realize there is no title track. Yet the songs don’t seem thematically connected. I ask Chuck how they decided on the title. He explains how they were a bit torn about it. They had the album ready, the artwork ready, then only recently they realized the answer was right in front of them. The cover art that adorns the twelve-track record by artist Eliran Kantor was the answer. It literally has titans on there, who are standing over the world they have created. When the cover art still was a sketch, it was difficult to know what to expect, but then once it was finished, everything kind of fell into place, and thus the band decided on the title “Titans Of Creation.”
Since “Brotherhood Of The Snake” had such a strong concept, it’s inevitable to ask whether the songs have an overarching theme that I perhaps didn’t understand. Chuck explains that they actually wanted to continue with the theme of the previous record, which was related to aliens and humankind. This is pretty much what the first song “Children Of The Next Level” is about. However, he soon realized that he was drifting further and further away from the theme, and ended up with various topics. I ask him about one song that stood out to me “WW III,” a song he wrote when there was a lot happening around North Korea. It made him very aware that Word War III was not far away, and in fact, could happen at any point in time. It felt even more serious, especially because of the Nuclear aspect in the war. He mentions, in that sense, that he doesn’t trust the North Korean president, who could start a war any time. He chuckles and says that actually the same thing counts for their own president, Donald Trump. He’s unpredictable. He reckons it’s crazy when you start thinking about it. He definitely has a point – how many WW III memes did you see float by when President Trump brutally assassinated Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani?
“Titans Of Creation” is definitely something to look forward to with its roots in traditional thrash metal combined with a modern sound. The question now is, when will the band bring the album to the stages. Fans who want to catch TESTAMENT around the world shouldn’t worry. Chuck Billy mentions that they are going to be touring non-stop for a year and a half, with plenty of opportunities to catch the band perform. He reckons he maybe only has four to five weeks off this year, the rest is filled with performances supporting “Titans Of Creation.” He mentions they first have the European “The Bay Strikes Back” tour coming up, after that the band is heading to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia. Once that is over, they come back to American for some shows. In summer the band is planning to come to Europe to dominate the festival stages, after which they’ll return to America for a headlining tour. The band will conclude with yet another European headlining tour.
It seems like pretty exciting and busy times are ahead for TESTAMENT, and I realize I better let him get back to preparing to conquer the European stages during “The Bay Strikes Back” tour, but not before asking him if he still wants to share something with the fans. He mentions that they have been really grateful that the fans have embraced the new song and record so positively. They can’t wait to meet them around the world when they tour.