When Testament singer Chuck Billy joined the Berkeley, CA-based hard rock act Testament shortly after it formed in the early ’80s, thrash metal had not yet become fully entrenched as a musical genre. Given his musical background, Billy had to make a few initial adjustments to adjust to a style of music that broke new musical ground.
“I’m older than the guys,” he says in a recent phone interview while taking a break from rehearsing for the tour that brings Testament to the Agora at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 10. “The Bay Area was known more for hair metal bands. That was what I grew up with. Dokken and Ratt were popular. [Guitarist] Eric [Peterson] and them guys were brought up with Mercyful Fate and early Angel Witch and stuff like that. When I got into the band, I didn’t know thrash metal as well. I went to college and learned how to become a singer with melody. That was my thing. When I got into the band, it was so different because the music was so fast. I didn’t know where I could put melody in. I didn’t understand it, but they liked that I had some melody and Eric [Peterson] worked with me from Day One. I was on a crash course on how to become a thrash singer.”
After learning the songs that original singer Steve Souza sang, Billy eventually segued into writing for the band’s albums.
“On the first tour we did in Europe, we had a lot of time, and we were writing a record on the bus,” he explains. “That’s when I got to participate. By then, I had a good grip on the cadence with a little bit of melody and made my own style.”
That "style" has certainly served the band well over the course of its decades-long career. And while the band's latest album, Titans of Creation, might not represent a huge departure in terms of its sound, the group took a different approach to writing. After the band visited Jerusalem a few years ago for a music festival, Peterson was inspired and began to work on new riffs. He presented the tunes to Billy, who decided he’d write to the riffs instead of requesting changes to them like he usually does.
“When we wrote this record, I wanted to give Eric [Peterson] a lot more freedom because usually when we write a record together, I jump in and rearrange a lot of the riffs,” he says. "[Released in 2016,] Brotherhood of the Snake took us two years just to get the whole thing complete. I didn’t want to go through that again. I decided that if [Peterson] gave me the music, I would do the best I could with it. That’s how it worked out this time around. It actually was better. It was more challenging. I had to find my way through the riffs. In the past, I would’ve said, ‘Change that because I didn’t hear me singing on it.’ This time, I came up and tried different things and different voices.”
On a song like “City of Angels,” a sprawling tune with atmospheric guitars and beefy bass riffs, Billy uses a different texture of vocals and virtually speaks his way through the tune's intro, and for “Night of the Witch,” he enlisted Peterson to sing parts of the track.
“To me, I’ve been writing music with the same band for thirtysomething damn years and to try something different and new was kind of cool for me,” says Billy. “When we finished the album, the songs stand out on their own. It was better than we expected. All the songs had their own identity, and it makes for a good listening record. They all have their own identity. We didn’t write it as a concept record or think they needed to be in the same vein. That’s what makes it a better record. Some bands have been together 30-plus years and might take the easy way out and write something that’s the normal thing they do. We didn’t approach it that way. We always want to challenge ourselves. From Day One, we always thought we wanted to write a better record and sound better with each release. There’s always something that has to change.”
A prescient tune, “Symptoms” addresses mental health issues, something that the recent pandemic has only exacerbated.
“I think it was written during the time [singer-songwriter] Chris Cornell and Chester [Bennington] from Linkin Park had passed,” says Billy. “It was something that was brought up and talked about. [Guitarist] Alex [Skolnick] wanted write about that. That was what inspired that. When Alex writes his songs, we don’t know what he’s giving us actually until we’re there in the studio. He writes them at home, and we don’t work on them together. When we finally got together, we tried it out, and we worked through it."
Billy says that “to be able to get to try something new and not just do what’s comfortable” has kept touring and recording with Testament exciting all these years.
“I’m a believer that things happen for a reason,” he says, adding that the group just recorded a performance of the entire album with drummer Gene [Hoglan] prior to his official departure from that band. The performance will appear on an upcoming DVD. “We struggled trying to finish Brotherhood of the Snake, and I didn’t want to do that. In the end, it made it for a better record and challenged me to try something new [with Titans of Creation].”