Snakes on a higher plane: The story behind Testament's philosophical new album

A photograph of Testament's Chuck Billy holding a snake
(Image: © Tina Korhonen)

“The Brotherhood Of The Snake were out to debunk and put down religions. That was their task. Did they believe that we were put here by extraterrestrial sources? Yes, they did. And when you look at the connections – the holy books, the writings on the wall – they also all showed these ‘alien’ beings, with the big heads. They looked like typical aliens, and there were flying ships and stuff like that. And the landmarks we have on Earth – Stonehenge, the Pyramids – they could be celestial markings…”

Metal Hammer is sitting on the top floor of our London office trying to keep up with a six-foot-three, brick shithouse of a heavy metal singer whose current thought trajectory is running so far into unexpected territories that we’re starting to feel less like we’re conducting an interview and more like we’re auditioning for a really weird X Files reboot. The man in front of us, Chuck Billy, is not only one of the most beloved, fascinating and generally badass dudes our scene has ever produced, but with Testament, he’s crafted a new album that has allowed his somewhat…uncommon interests to run riot.

“I’ve been hooked on this show called Ancient Aliens,” he explains with a sympathetic smile after clocking our rather puzzled expression. “It’s about aliens and religion, and the connection there, the connection that we’ve seen around the world. It really opened my mind that this Earth is just a small speck, in amongst all the other solar systems out there. And then I came across the Brotherhood Of The Snake.”

The Brotherhood, as Chuck helpfully explains, was an alleged society – some say the world’s first secret society – which existed almost 6,000 years ago. According to Chuck, there is evidence to suggest that ancient Sumerian texts detailed The Brotherhood Of The Snake as a functioning body that did indeed exist to debar all religions, as well as spread the message that we were not put on this Earth by gods, but by aliens looking to exploit the planet’s resources for their own gains. Keeping up? Good, us neither. And, given that our own research following this interview found little in the way of any concrete evidence of the Brotherhood having ever really existed the question has to be asked: just how in the hell has Chuck Billy ended up knee-deep in such wild historical meanderings? And what does all this have to do with a new Testament album? Take a brief dip into Chuck’s formative years, however, and you’ll find the roots not of a basement-dwelling conspiracy theorist, but of a man steeped in culture, research and history, and who has encouraged his own beliefs to explore far further reaches than most.

Born to a Mexican mother and Native American father in what he describes as the “White Man Society” of Dublin, a tiny city midway up the Californian coast, Chuck was exposed to myriad cultures, traditions and belief systems from day dot. In fact, it was a Catholic upbringing courtesy of his orthodox mother that first put the singer in touch with his spiritual side.

“Oh, she was serious,” he says affectionately. “She didn’t drink, she didn’t party as a kid, she went to church every day and lived a straight, religious life. She’d always stop me and pray for me, and I’d wake up from parties with her throwing holy water on me. She put all us kids [Chuck is one of five, similarly sized brothers – just think of that] through Sunday School, and we went through all the steps of the religious process.”

Like many children who are brought up with religion, Chuck initially took his mother’s teachings as quite literal gospel, but it was through going out and meeting others in his community and understanding religion’s place in the wider world that his own beliefs began to grow more complex.

“I’d meet other people and their religions, and come to the understanding that there is more than one ‘god’,” he begins. “And then, maybe it’s about more than God. Maybe it’s about a way of life. That the consensus is to treat people good, no matter what the religion is.”

So far, so reasonable philosophical musings. As Chuck got older, he also began to get more in touch with his roots on his father’s side, opening up another vast culture that, eventually, would draw him to the infamous evening where a Native American medicine man came round his house and, by his reckoning at least, cured him of cancer (if you haven’t heard that story yet, a) where have you been? and b) check it out, it’s a belter). And Chuck’s passion for older cultures didn’t end there. Over the years, he’d find himself reading up on countless belief systems and long-forgotten orders, eventually stumbling across the story of a certain Brotherhood and discovering, to his delight, that it related to his growing interest in one of the less common but particularly fascinating ideas that have permeated religion through the generations: that the many strange figures we see depicted in ancient religious scripts and paintings represent not gods or deities, but alien beings. Put short: the roots were being sewn for some fucking badass thrash metal lyrics.

“My mind was like, ‘Whoa. maybe there’s something to this,’” he reveals. “‘What is this [alien] connection between all these old religions, that have existed from so long ago?’ They didn’t have the internet or anything like that, they just had this [common thread]. Then when I heard about the Brotherhood, I just thought, ‘This fits right in with where I’m going with aliens and religion’, so we just went forward from that point on with the concept. The title track, Brotherhood Of The Snake, was the first song we wrote. After we put that together, we thought, ‘Actually, this Brotherhood thing is a really cool story for the album!’”

Chuck’s beliefs are a bit “out there” for some, but he takes his research sssssseriously

Chuck’s beliefs are a bit “out there” for some, but he takes his research sssssseriously
(Image: © Tina Korhonen)

Always forthcoming while stopping short of outright chumminess, Chuck retains the kind of calm confidence that you’d expect from a rock star who could wrap you up with one hand and wear you like a belt if he fancied it. He’s at his most animated when talking about his early years, waving his (fucking massive) hands about and allowing his cool, Californian drawl to go up an octave as he explains in amusement how he was effectively forced to embrace music as a career option: “I told this guy who caught me drinking beer from my school locker to go fuck himself – he told me he was the new principal and I got kicked out of school.” As it happens, Chuck’s music career would go pretty damn swell, fronting Testament through three decades, scores of critically acclaimed albums and countless incredible live shows.

Now in his mid-50s, he’s seen and done enough in his life to be able to happily sit back and knock out solid Testament material on auto-pilot without fear of judgement, and yet the enthusiasm with which he has attacked the thrash veterans’ new material is inspiring. And it shows in the music; from the thunderous opening of the title track to the rumbling chug of Born In A Rut and the furious pace and power of The Number Game, this is Testament at the absolute top of their game, musically recalling their more speed-metal-oriented early material while retaining the ballsy production that gave 2012’s Dark Roots Of Earth and, in particular, 2008’s stunning The Formation Of Damnation their contemporary sheens. Lyrically, the album flirts with lines that border on the fantastical (‘The Pale King comes from afar/Before the time, who will decide?/I live to see one thousand moons’), but it’s delivered with such aggression and swagger that it manages to dodge straight pastiche.

“We really wanted, musically, to go back and recapture the essence of [1988’s] The New Order, and stuff like that,” Chuck confirms, before adding of the album’s themes: “On that record, [lyrically], we went into Nostradamus and all his predictions. So again, this time, we wanted something that wasn’t just your typical metal lyric about doom and gloom and cemeteries. We’ve got songs like The Pale King, which is about the alien Enki, who’s from the story of the Brotherhood. He’s trying to control the world and condemning humans as slaves. Eric [Peterson, guitar]’s got a wild, vivid mind, and he actually came up with that title.”

Hey, we told you it was a bit fantastical! But does all this mean what we think it means? Have Testament gone Full Nerd and recorded a historical/mythical concept album?

“Well, it did start off that way!” Chuck admits. “But it’s not all about The Brotherhood Of The Snake. We can’t just keep going on about it! We’ve also got songs like Seven Seals, which is about Christ and The Devil. They have a battle, and Christ wins. When Christ wins, the Seven Seals are broken, which means that the end of the world is coming. And that means…”

And just like that, he’s off again. Chuck Billy: Testament frontman, cancer survivor, human tree and owner of one of the most interesting and open minds in all of metal. We’re just gonna have to make sure we read up a bit before we catch him next…

Ancient Hisssstory

Did The Brotherhood Of The Snake really exist? We invesssstigate…

WHAT IS THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE SNAKE?

Supposedly, a secret society. Chuck Billy heard about it on a TV programme called Ancient Aliens on the History channel, and there are references to it online. The story goes that Sumerian texts describe how draconian aliens came to the planet to exploit its resources. As the work was difficult, an alien scientist named Ea or Enki created humans as slave labour. He wanted to tell them where they came from, but his superiors didn’t agree, so he started the society to enlighten them in secret. When the other aliens found out, they infiltrated the society, making them believe in false gods.

HMMMMM, WHY ‘SUPPOSEDLY’ A SECRET SOCIETY?

According to Dr Alasdair Livingstone at the University Of Birmingham, the Sumerians did indeed have a god of wisdom called Enki, and the Babylonions who came afterwards worshipped that god under the name Ea. But as for draconian aliens? “The ancient Mesopotamians did not have any creature which would correspond to the ideas we have of what a dragon ought to look like, although they had a creature called a Mush-Hush, or ‘fierce snake’,” Dr Livingstone explains. “We normally think of aliens coming from outer space, but the Sumerians had no such concept. Maybe an extra-terrestrial was contacting Chuck in his sleep!”

SO WAS THE BROTHERHOOD REAL, OR NOT?

Probably not. Sorry, Chuck!

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