The Testament story is one of the most inspiring and remarkable in the recent history of metal. It includes betrayal and coincidence, and a literal fight for life, the last of which thankfully ended in triumph. It all began in 1983 with cousins Eric Peterson and Derrick Ramirez, both of whom played guitar and had aspirations to be in a band.
“We lived in the Alameda area of California,” says Eric. “That’s somewhere between Oakland and San Francisco. We’d hang out together with friends in local parks, just drinking beer and listening to metal music. Bands like Angel Witch, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Venom were our choice. And I do remember listening to In League With Satan from Venom, and it scared me so much I wanted to break the record!”
Eventually, the cousins started a band called Legacy, initially being joined by bassist Greg Christian and Michael Ronchette, with Derrick also on vocals. But this lineup wasn’t to last long, with Louie Clemente quickly taking over on drums.
“He moved into our area and was into metal,” recalls Eric. “So he was told to go down to the park and ask for Derrick and me. I wouldn’t say we were local celebrities, but if you had long hair and wore denim and leather, then people assumed you would get on with the two of us.”
In Louie, Eric found a kindred spirit and the next day, the trio got together and jammed on Motörhead songs. “We also had this cool demo called No Life ’Til Leather from a local band called Metallica, and we knocked out a few of those songs as well.”
For Eric, life in those days – he was still only 18 or so – was simple and straightforward. Still jobless, he’d hang out at record stores. But the young band were beginning to take things seriously, even building a drum riser for Louie.
“Derrick worked for a beer company, so we got hold of five pallets of beer and plywood and built this riser. It was also very useful, because we could also store beer in the riser, which was handy when we got thirsty. But we were like punks, in that it had to be cheap beer. Anything more expensive than a few bucks we didn’t wanna know about.”
Derrick soon gave up singing, with local Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza taking over. And the band soon got their first ever gig, one that Eric still remembers.
“It was at a punk show, opening for a band called Rebels & Infidels. Tickets cost $5. To be honest, back then we got on better with punks than with rockers, and this gig happened at a place called The Record Gallery. We were still in our infancy as far as our style of music went, but I’d say we had a Priest style, but with a punk attitude.”
In the audience for that debut show was a slightly older musician, Chuck Billy. But he wasn’t there to see a band with a growing local reputation, so much as to give support to a mate.
“Zetro was a good friend of my younger brother’s,” says Billy. “He’d come along to cheer us on when my band played gigs, so we did the same for him. I was quite taken aback seeing these kids onstage, who looked so young, and all wearing priest collars while playing intense metal. It was quite something.”
With a reputation beginning to spread, Testament next played at the prestigious Stone in San Francisco with two hot young bands, Laaz Rockit and Slayer.
“At the time, we only had four songs,” laughs Eric. “We had to scramble around for a fifth to make up a decent set length for the opening band on a bill like that! But it was around this time that we realised it was time to do this properly.”
However, to the surprise of his cousin, Derrick suddenly announced he was quitting Legacy.
“He felt he wanted to have his own band, which I didn’t understand at all. Why would you wanna do that, when things were starting to go well for us? But we replaced him with this kid called Alex Skolnick, who was just 15 at the time.”
In 1983, Legacy recorded their first demo, but it was to lead to a fractious time with Zetro, and one that may well have precipitated what was to happen later.
“We each had to come up with $200 to afford the recording costs,” says Eric. “And I didn’t have that sort of money. In the end, ‘Zetro’ bullied me so much, even threatening to kick me out of the band, so I reluctantly borrowed money from my dad.”
What this first four-song demo did was emphasise that this was a fast-growing band. It had Reign Of Terror (written by Eric) and Alone In The Dark (an early Skolnick track), plus Raging Waters (co-written by Zetro and Eric). However, the real clincher was Burnt Offerings, which was the first collaboration between the two guitarists.
“It went all over the place, and really emphasised how much we were growing up as a band,” insists Eric. “We sent out copies to European magazines, who treated it like a proper album and were reviewing this favourably alongside professionally recorded and released stuff. We’d actually now become the local heroes, because by this time Metallica had gotten signed and were going all over the world. But then we hit a major problem.”
Zetro’s commitment to the band was starting to noticeably wane, and rumours were beginning to surface about what was going on.
“We’d come up with a song called The Haunting, but Zetro didn’t get around to finishing it. And then we’d written the music for another one called Apocalyptic City. However, despite the fact that we nagged him, Zetro never wrote any lyrics, and just told us to do it as an instrumental. That really shocked us, because we were so used to him being on the ball with his contribution.
“But then we started to hear some really disturbing stories about how Zetro was ready to quit Legacy and join another local band called Exodus. These reports wouldn’t go away, and eventually we had to ask him what was going on. I honestly believed that he’d tell us it was a load of nonsense. But instead we got a really bad emotional outburst from him. He said he never wanted us to find out this way, and then cried, got very angry and screamed at us. It was very uncomfortable.”
Now faced with having to find a replacement, the band briefly thought about asking Steve Gaines, vocalist with local act Abattoir, to come in, but instead ended up trying out someone Zetro had suggested go for the job: Chuck Billy.
“When ‘Zetro’ insisted I call Alex Skolnick and put myself forward, I wasn’t too sure,” admits Chuck. “I was older than them and came from a classic rock background. I was into UFO, Thin Lizzy and the Scorpions. What they did was a new world for me.
“I’d started out as a guitarist, and when I became a singer, I took lessons, enrolled in college courses to learn everything I could about being a vocalist. Then my teacher told me there was nothing more he could show me, and that the best thing I could do was join a band that wasn’t just made up of my friends, so I decided to phone Alex and agreed to go for an audition.”
Chuck met his future bandmates in a rehearsal space that was so small he ended up singing in the hallway. Impressed with their demo, he sang the quartet of songs on the tape, and brought his own more melodic style to their heavy approach. But the band were still a little unsure whether he was the right man.
“To be honest, we couldn’t make up our minds,” admits Eric. “We thought he sounded like Rob Halford on the Priest song Rapid Fire, but we still had some doubts. So, the four of us agreed to go down and see his band, Guilt, playing at a local gig.”
Once they’d seen Chuck onstage, though, Legacy knew he was the right man for them.
“Guilt sounded like Ratt and were all pretty boys. Then you had this huge figure in the middle of the stage wearing a trench coat and calling everyone a pussy!” smirks Eric. “We knew that he was so wrong for that band and belonged with us. We were all a bit scared of him, and because he was a few years older, one or two guys in Legacy were unsure, but I talked them into taking the risk.”
The band finally got a big record company break on a very strange day. They recorded a demo with the songs The Haunting and Over The Wall, and this reached the ears of Johnny Z, head of Megaforce Records and the man who’d originally signed Metallica; he also managed Anthrax at the time.
“He came to San Francisco to see us rehearse, but was totally silent throughout,” recalls Eric. “Whatever we played made no impact. It looked as if we’d blown a chance to get a good deal.”
The date, though, says it all. It was September 27, 1986, the day Metallica bassist Cliff Burton died in a crash on a Swedish road. Johnny Z, who knew him well, found out about the tragedy as he landed in San Francisco. For Legacy it was a huge shock too.
Johnny Z was impressed enough to want to sign the band. But, with a new alliance with Atlantic Records about to happen, he wanted to wait before releasing anything. There was also another problem; there was already a band in the scene called Legacy.
“We had no idea what to call ourselves,” sighs Eric. “It was Billy Milano, vocalist with Stormtroopers Of Death, who suggested we call ourselves Testament. As soon as I began to play around with ideas for the logo, I thought, ‘This is it’. Everything made sense. And just so we kept faith with the past, we decided to title that debut The Legacy.”
Released in April 1987, the album had many believing that here were the next big thrash metal band, following in the footsteps of Metallica, and turning the Big Four – Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax – into the Big Five. But it never happened. The record failed to chart, and none of the subsequent albums did well enough commercially to put Testament on an equal footing.
“There are loads of reasons why we failed,” admits Chuck. “I could spend hours going through all the mistakes we made, and were made on our behalf. We all truly felt that we could be very big. But then grunge came along, and neither MTV nor radio wanted to know about the sort of music we did. We had a battle to get any sort of exposure.”
But there was never any doubting the quality of the band as they recorded four more albums over the next five years, each of which did better than the previous one. However, The Ritual  was their highest charting album in America, and even that stalled at number 55. While musically there was no doubt the band were maturing and developing, the continual failure to get significant sales took its toll. Both Alex and Louie left, to be replaced briefly by Forbidden pair Glen Alvelais and Paul Bostaph. But after the 1993 EP Return To The Apocalyptic City they quit, with James Murphy and John Tempesta taking over on guitar and drums for 1994’s Low album.
“I love Low, but like a lot of the albums from that era it suffered from a really poor production,” says Eric.
“I think Alex just wanted to get away from playing metal,” adds Billy talking about the guitarist’s departure. “He was so young when he joined the band, and now wanted to do other, more jazzy stuff, and this didn’t fit in Testament. We never fell out with him. It was only a musical thing. We always kept in touch.”
Over the next few years, drummers came and went. Derrick returned for 1997’s Demonic album, and Glen guested on this record and its tour. But by the end of the decade, Testament were in such a state of flux the future looked bleak. It got worse in 2001 when Chuck was diagnosed with cancer.
“I recall being told by the doctor that I had cancer, and taking it in my stride,” says Chuck. “But when I went home and told my wife, the enormity hit me and I spent the rest of the day crying. Then I got myself together and decided to beat it.”
Chuck has rarely spoken about facing up to his illness, but now he reveals that he turned to his Native American heritage to help beat the disease [Chuck is from the Pomo tribe].
“Before I even got cancer, a friend of mine told me she’d had a dream about how I got together with a healer she knew called Charlie, and he carried out a ritual. When I got ill, Charlie, who I’d never met, turned up at my home. We talked and he got me to lie down on the floor and close my eyes while he chanted. I felt as if I was floating through the sky. He then passed an eagle’s feather over my chest, which is where the cancer was. He told me that the wind would be my spirit guide.
“None of this made sense until one night I couldn’t sleep. I went to the toilet as I was having stomach problems, and there was a howling wind stirring up empty beer cans outside. Something went through my body and out, and the wind stopped, with the cans hitting the ground. The next day, my doctor amazed me by saying that the tumour was no longer cancerous. All that was needed now was to reduce its size, which I did through undergoing some more spiritual rituals, and then it could be removed surgically. What I gained through all of this was a complete respect for my Native American heritage.”
Chuck’s illness directly led to a rejuvenation of the Bay Area metal scene. On August 11, 2001 a benefit show called Thrash Of The Titans in San Francisco raised money to help pay hospital bills for Chuck and Death mainman Chuck Schuldiner, who also had cancer [sadly, the latter died later the same year].
“Bands like Forbidden and Death Angel got back together,” recalls Billy. “Alex Skolnick came to play, and this started the reunion of the classic Testament lineup. So, the good thing about my illness is it brought all these bands back together.”
By 2003, Chuck had made a complete recovery, and in 2005 the band announced a 10-date European tour. This led to a two-year world tour, after which the band recorded 2008’s The Formation Of Damnation, their finest album in two decades. And now Testament are working on a new album.
“We’ve got Gene Hoglan playing on nine tracks, so we’ll have blastbeats. Chris Adler from Lamb Of God is gonna be on two songs,” explains Eric. “Imagine a cross between the Beatles’ I Want You (She’s So Heavy) with early Metallica and you’ll get the idea. The songs are incredibly melodic and yet very powerful.
“The Formation Of Damnation raised the bar for us, because it had the quality of songs from the early days with the sort of great production we got on The Ritual.”
It’s been a long, tough and incredible journey for the band, which is now coming up to the 30th anniversary. Eric is proud of being there for every step of the trip.
“I don’t have a Ferrari in the garage, or a gilt-plated bathroom, but I don’t regard those things as being a true barometer for success. We have made mistakes – lots of them – but have made some great music, and survived some incredibly frightening moments. Ultimately, I think we’ve achieved so much more than I expected in 1982.”
The Albums: The A-Z of their studio output.
The Legacy [Atlantic/Megaforce, 1987]
The much-vaunted debut album. A lot of bands come of the box flying, yet also showing a certain naivety. What Testament did was show they could already match many of their more acclaimed peers. This was a formidable statement of intent and focus. Best track: Burnt Offerings
The New Order [Atlantic/Megaforce, 1988]
Chuck Billy believes Testament really found their feet with this second album. It’s hard to disagree. It had a balance of melody and muscle, with the production from Alex Perialas, who also worked on the debut, being sophisticated while never blunting the edge. Best track: The New Order
Practice What You Preach_ _[Atlantic/Megaforce, 1989]
Ditching their more occult lyricism, Testament got into realism here. The band recorded this virtually live in the studio, which gave them a serious energy flow. But maybe it just lacks the cohesion of the first two releases. Still, it’s no slouch. Best track: Practice What You Preach
**Souls Of Black **([Atlantic/Megaforce, 1990)
By the time Testament got to this album, they’d begun to experiment with a more diverse style. The thrash element was still present, only this time it was a little more hidden, with the band going for something altogether more mainstream. Best track: Souls Of Black
The Ritual [Atlantic/Megaforce, 1992]
The last album from the classic lineup, it was a splendid way to go out. Taking what had been started with Souls Of Black, Testament went for a heavier, slower style that didn’t exactly abandon thrash but gave them a more mainstream metal appeal. Best track: Electric Crown
Low [Atlantic/Megaforce, 1994]
With Alex and Louie gone, Testament seemed to struggle just a little to find a new momentum here. Still going for a heavy sound, the mid-90s lineup lacked the rapport of what had gone before. The result? A decent, yet hardly essential album. Best track: Trail Of Tears
Demonic [Burnt Offerings, 1997]
On their own label, Testament were suffering from an identity crisis here, going for a more grinding, almost death metal approach. Chuck Billy and Eric Peterson’s production makes it sound hurried and cheap. A pity, because the song quality is still high. Best track: Murky Waters
The Gathering_ _[Spitfire, 1999]
At last a sign that the band were getting back to the faster approach of the earlier days. After a few weary years in the wilderness, they were not yet back in business, but were at least riding along a path that would lead them back to glory. Best track: 3 Days In Darkness
First Strike Still Deadly [Spitfire, 2001]
This was the band getting to grips with songs from the first two albums to see if the return of Alex Skolnick after so long away could work. The original performances are a lot better than anything here. But at least Alex was back. Best track: Over The Wall
The Formation Of Damnation [Nuclear Blast, 2008]
The first new studio album in nine years, and it’s their best since The Ritual. It’s classic Testament – hard, heavy, yet also stylish. There’s enough from the past, but updated to provide a mature crescendo. World class. Best track: More Than Meets The Eye
The Playlist: The five tracks you need:
Burnt Offerings [The Legacy, 1987]
Nobody’s Fault [The New Order, 1988]
Practice What You Preach [Practice What You Preach, 1989]
Electric Crown [The Ritual, 1992]
More Than Meets The Eye [The Formation Of Damnation, 2008]
Did You Know?
1) Testament first played in the UK during November 1987. They were supporting fellow thrashers Anthrax on the latter’s Among The Living tour.
2) Testament frontman Chuck Billy is also a member of Dublin Death Patrol, as are his brothers Eddie and Andy Billy, and Steve Souza.
3) In 2008, Testament played at the Download Festival. This was the first time they’d ever appeared at a UK festival.
4) When he’s not busy with Testament, guitarist Alex Skolnick has his own jazz band, The Alex Skolnick Trio. He also appears on the Rodrigo Y Gabriela album 11: 11.
Final Word: Our heroes, as rated by their peers.
Mark Hunter, vocalist with Chimaira:
“We’ve only ever had the privilege of playing one show with Testament. That was in New Jersey on the Sounds Of The Underground tour in 2005. They were on the bill for just that one gig. Luckily our tour bus was parked in such a place that we were able to sit on top of it and have a VIP grandstand view of Testament in full flow, and it was incredible to be able to do that.
“After the gig, we got to hang out a lot with Testament that night. Our two buses were parked right next to each other. So we just did all the normal things that bands do when they spend time together; drink a lot of milk and discuss the philosophy of religion. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
“I must have gotten into Testament at the end of the 1980s, or around that time. I was eight years old in 1986 when a friend of mine got me into metal. He must have had about 500 albums, and it was that collection which introduced me to the glories of metal, and I soon picked up on Testament and never looked back. They were one of the big influences on me. I particularly love the Demonic and Low albums, because they were a lot heavier than some of the rest we were listening to at the time.
“Chuck Billy has been a constant source of inspiration to me as a singer. He just has some cool rhythm patterns, and what he does has a killer groove to it. I won’t admit it very often, but if you listen to some of the stuff I do, then you can hear where I got it from – sorry, Chuck!
“I know Rob [Arnold, Chimaira guitarist] is also a huge fan of Alex Skolnick as well. And overall, I feel that Testament are a major inspiration to Chimaira.
“I’d love to think that one day we might be able to do a full tour with Testament – that would be something incredible. But even if that never actually happens, at least we got to play with some of our heroes just once.”
Years active: 1983-present
Hometown: San Francisco, USA
*Members: *Chuck Billy, vocals, 1986-present
Eric Peterson, guitar, 1982-present
Alex Skolnick, guitar, 1983-1994, 2004-present
Greg Christian, bass, 1983-1994, 2004-present
Paul Bostaph, drums 1993, 2007-present
Steve Souza, vocals, 1993-1986
Glen Alvelais, guitar, 1993, 1997-1998
James Murphy, guitar, 1994-1996, 1998-2000
Steve Smyth, guitar, 2004
Mike Chlasciak, guitar 2002, 2004-2005
Derrick Ramirex, guitar, bass, 1982-1984, 1997
Steve DiGiorgio, bass, 1998-2004
Louie Clemente, drums, 1983-1993, 2005
John Tempesta, drums, 1993-1994, 2001, 2005
Jon Dette, drums, 1994-1995, 1997
Chris Kontos, drums, 1995
Gene Hoglan, drums, 1997
Dave Lombardo, drums, 1999
Jon Allen, drums 2000-2004, 2007
Nick Barker, drums, 2006-2007
Releases: Nine studio albums, five live albums, six compilations
The Legacy was released on April 21, 1987