Testament Keeps Thrash Metal Alive

Chuck Billy, the Berkeley band’s frontman, talks about surviving cancer and how punk-rock influenced the scene.

Thrash metal was born in the ‘80s and its reach and influence since then has been well-reported. Indeed, it’s the stuff of legend in these parts thanks to the fact that so many of the scene’s originators and innovators are from here. While most people think of Metallica when they think of Bay Area metal bands, many forget that other acts, like Testament, hail from the area, as well. 

Guitarist Eric Peterson formed Testament — then called Legacy — in Berkeley in 1983. Singer Chuck Billy joined in 1986, which is around the same time the band’s name changed to Testament. Billy had previously sung for local thrash band Guilt, and his predecessor in Legacy, Steve Souza, left the band to join Exodus. That level of inter-band member trading was common because this was a real, grassroots, DIY scene, complete with tape-trading and homemade flyer-making, way before Metallica invaded the upper reaches of the mainstream charts.

“I saw the Bay Area being punk and glam metal in the early ‘80s, and then when Metallica, Exodus, and all the other thrash bands started popping up, we forced the glam scene out of there,” Billy says. “That’s when that scene really started to take off. It was really a family vibe, because every show you went to, the after-parties were all the same people. It was a really cool, tight family. Maybe we didn’t realize it when it was happening — we just thought that was the norm. But when you reflect back, it was special.”

Venues like The Omni in Oakland, The Stone in San Francisco, and Berkeley’s Ruthie’s Inn and The Keystone, were ground-zero for the blossoming thrash scene. Those venues are either gone or very different now, and Billy sympathizes with young metal bands and veteran thrashers who are struggling to find places to play at because of the lack of a scene.

“In the past, you’d be able to go to a show at 7:30 p.m. to see the opener, and then go across the street to The Stone and see a support band, and then go down the road around the corner to see a headliner,” he says. “It was a healthy scene then.”

Those early thrash bands were influenced by the punk bands that came before them — groups like Fang, Flipper, and the Dead Kennedys. Billy, Metallica’s James Hetfield, and others felt like they had far more in common with the aggressive proto-hardcore bands than with the sleaze rock, Sunset Strip-style groups that were emerging at the time. Thrash bands were dialing into punk’s aggression and blending it with the bombast and precision of British heavy metal bands, like Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, and Motorhead.

“I think the attitude of punk-rock inspired a lot of the thrash, but we tried to tighten it up,” Billy says. “Punk had a different image — ‘Fuck you, fuck society, fuck government.’ Metal was still angry, but it wasn’t leaning so far that way. It was about being rebellious and not doing videos or MTV. I think a lot of bands followed suit and kept that mentality.”

Between 1987 and 1999, Testament released eight albums that varied in quality between awesome (The Legacy, Demonic), and decent (The Ritual). The Gathering ended up being Testament’s temporary swan-song, as the band took an extended break after it was released in 1999. And then in 2001, Billy was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer — germ cell seminoma — that resulted in a tumor near his heart.

“I didn’t think I was going to be playing music anymore because I’d lost all my hair, didn’t listen to music, and I just didn’t recognize myself when I looked in the mirror,” says Billy who is now in remission. “I thought my career was done, but we had a reunion of the original lineup in 2005. From that reunion, which was supposed to be one show, it turned into where we are today. We’re done with day jobs, this is our full time job, and we’re going to hit the road hard and be a working band again like we used to.”

Testament’s eleventh studio album, Brotherhood of the Snake, came out in October, and deals with the sinister-but-fun subjects of ancient secret societies, alien sightings, and conspiracy theories. The band chose to focus on less serious subject matter in Brotherhood of the Snake because their previous two albums dealt with personal topics, like Billy’s cancer and the death of parents.

“We wanted to come up with something that could have cool imagery and lyrics,” Billy says. “At the time, I was hooked on this show, Ancient Aliens. I was just fascinated with how [alien sightings were] documented around the world: the same sightings, the same objects flying through the sky. At the same time, I was looking up some stuff about secret societies, and the Brotherhood of the Snake came up, which was a secret society formed about 6,000 years ago. That’s right up Testament’s alley.”

Testament is currently on tour with Brazilian thrashers Sepultura and New York industrial metal band Prong. That’s a stunning triple bill, made all the more special because, outside of festivals, these bands haven’t played together before. In fact, when you put three metal bands on the same bill, you’re bound to have a reunion of sorts.

“I’ve met fans that are the parents, children, and grandchildren,” he says. “Three generations at the same show, which is really cool for me. It’s like we came full circle.”

Testament plays with Sepultura and Prong at 6:30 p.m., on Friday, May 19, at The Regency Ballroom

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