A resolve not to compromise their vision powered the members of Testament through the recording of the group’s 10th studio album, “Dark Roots of Earth” (Nuclear Blast USA).
“At this point we’re not really thinking about what anybody else thinks,” says Chuck Billy, frontman for the San Francisco Bay Area thrash outfit that has sold 1.4 million albums in the United States during the SoundScan era (1991-present). “Usually when we write and record, in the back of our minds we’re thinking, ‘What are fans going to think? Should there be a ballad?’
“I think this is the first time we said, ‘Who cares! We’re writing for ourselves. It feels good. Let’s do it,'” he adds. “I think that kind of confidence level is there now.”
Billy and his bandmates do see “Dark Roots of Earth” (due July 31) as a natural follow-up to 2008’s “The Formation of Damnation.” That album reunited the group’s original recording lineup – Billy, guitarists Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick, bassist Greg Christian and drummer Louie Clemente – for the first time since 1993 and sold 84,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “It was like finishing something we started, getting a second chance,” Billy says.
And while Clemente had to drop out of sessions for the new project due to arthritis, his replacement – Gene Hoglan – was with Testament during the mid-’90s and is well-versed in the group’s nearly 30-year heritage.
“It’s very special, since that is the lineup that people really want to see,” Nuclear Blast USA label manager Gerardo Martinez says. “The magic created on the last record is certainly here again . . . without having it to be Formation of Damnation Part 2.”
Billy says that Testament did indeed “set out to do something different” with the new album. It began with chief songwriter Peterson heading to England to rural Derbyshire to work on songs with eventual album producer Andy Sneap. And handing the reins to Sneap, a member of the band Sabbat who’d mixed Testament’s last several albums, was also a left turn for the group.
“This year we were willing to take direction,” Billy says with a laugh. “In the past, when we were younger, we thought we knew best, but maybe our way wasn’t the right way, as much as we wanted it to be. This time we let Andy direct things. We didn’t sit over his shoulder making suggestions and critiquing things. We let him take it on his own, and we trusted him.”
Billy adds that Testament also wanted a “raw” sound for the album, but the nine songs on Dark Roots of the Earth, while certainly true to Testament’s hard-hitting roots, also turned out to be surprisingly accessible, moreso than the bulk of its catalog, and even radio-friendly in spots, such as the balladic “Cold Embrace.”
“That one stood out just because we haven’t done one like that for so long,” says Billy, who wrote about apocalyptic predictions and perceptions of America, among other topics, on “Dark Roots of Earth.” “It’s nice, cool. It has so much emotion in it. We said to each other, ‘Yeah, this one is a little radio-friendly… Let’s go for it.'”
Martinez says that Nuclear Blast hopes to “capitalize on the fact [the album] has, in some instances, more accessible songs than the previous albums.” He promises a “heavy new-media push” for the record, along with traditional radio, TV and print campaigns. The label is also planning “other, outside-the-box-type marketing,” including a radio station contest with a free Testament concert as a prize to the outlet with the most pre-orders.
Testament has also filmed a video for the song “Native Blood,” which is in post-production. Billy, whose late father was a Pomo Native American, wrote the song from that perspective, but says it’s about “indigenous people in general that have something to say and a voice to be heard.” Testament also recorded a version of the song sung in Spanish to pay tribute to his late mother, who was Mexican. “It’s one of the most meaningful songs on the record for me,” he says. “They both would have been very proud of this song.”
Testament, which spent three years touring in support of The Formation of Damnation, will play festivals in Germany and the United Kingdom during early August, then will support Anthrax’s North American run from Sept. 14-Oct. 5. Billy says the group will head back to Europe during November and December, and is waiting on details for 2013. “Once the album’s out I think we’ll start getting more offers,” he says. “We’re pretty open to just about anything.”