By Aniruddh “Andrew” Bansal
After what seemed like an eternity, the wait is finally over as San Francisco Bay Area thrash giants Testament get ready to unleash their tenth studio album “Dark Roots Of Earth” on July 27th in Europe and July 31st in North America via Nuclear Blast Records. Their 2008 release “The Formation Of Damnation” was highly acclaimed by critics and equally well appreciated by fans, and subsequently, the band took part in the hallowed Metal Masters tour with Judas Priest, Heaven & Hell and Motorhead, completed a successful club headline tour of North America, followed by tours with the likes of Megadeth, Slayer, Exodus, and most recently Anthrax & Death Angel. “Dark Roots Of Earth” is the band’s follow-up to that glorious album cycle, and it’s an exciting time to be a thrash fan. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to guitarist Eric Peterson to discuss the making of the album in detail, along with a few other topics as well, including his black metal side project Dragonlord. Enjoy the conversation below, check out a song off of the new album, and visit the band’s facebook page for more info.
Finally, there is a release date for your new album “Dark Roots Of Earth”. It must be a relief, considering how long this album has been in the works.
Yeah, it’s been a record in the making for quite a while, but it’s finally coming out now. There were a lot of hiccups and stuff, because there was a lot of scheduling to take care of. The last time that we pushed it back, we decided to put out some covers and some bonus stuff at the same time as the regular record, so that way the fans can choose what they want to purchase. So it got pushed back again because we wanted to do these covers, which actually turned out really, really awesome. We’re really excited about the covers. I think it’s worth the wait, and once people hear the record, they’d be like, ‘Ok, I don’t remember why, but this is killer!’ (laughs)
That’s good to hear, man. Obviously the main reason for the delay was the lack of time, and also because you got on so many tours, but in terms of the songwriting, was there any big change while the album was being delayed? Or did it stay the same throughout?
No, it had nothing to do with the writing. It was just a lot of scheduling. We kept having tours pop up every four months that we were committed to, and we didn’t want to cancel those. So we just kind of kept going in and out of the studio. At one point, we were actually done and the record would have come out in May, but again the record company wanted some covers for the special edition. So we all decided against putting the record out and then put a bonus one out three months later. We didn’t the fans to be like, ‘Wait, I just bought the record. Now I have to buy it again?’ This way you can choose. You got the regular record or the special edition. The one with the bonus material is way better, because it’s got three really good cover tracks we did in a way that we actually kind of gave birth to these songs again, I think. And it’s got an extended version of a song called “Throne Of Thorns”. It’s got a DVD on it with the making of the record, it’s got some additional live tracks from our last tour, and it’s got this really cool guitar thing where me and Alex show all our guitars and the rig that we’re using. So it’s a lot of fun. That version is really good. And the album is also going to be out on LP, which is perfect for this album because you really have to buy the vinyl to capture the vibe of this artwork.
Yeah, I agree with that. It would look pretty killer on the vinyl, I’m sure. I spoke to Chuck a couple of years back, when you guys were out with Megadeth on the first of their Rust In Peace anniversary tours. He told me that you had set up some kind of portable studio to record stuff on the road. How did that work out for you?
(Laughs) That didn’t work out. I bought pro-tools and on days off I’d set up in my hotel room. I got a couple of riffs, but you really need to go away. I was having so much of a mental block being at home, I actually had to go to England last year right before we did the record I went to Andy Sneap [producer] with just a bunch of ideas and no songs put together, and I came back with nine songs. So sometimes you have to step out of your element to get some ideas. After reading a lot of these autobiographies, I was thinking about how bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin would rent castles, they would go away, rent houses in LA, and they did things like that to get the vibe. So I decided that I was going to do that. I ended up going to this place that was built in 1691, haunted and everything, and it was giving me some vibe of the English countryside. It really worked for me, you know. It was a really good way to get started. Then coming back and blocking out time, Alex and I sat down together and vibed it out as guitar players, and made sure that all the guitar stuff makes a lot of sense, and it came out super melodic. And also, this time around, I’ve done a lot more solos on the record than usual. I’m kind of sharing the duties. It didn’t take away from anything, it just added. Not only is Alex shredding better than he’s ever done, but then you’ve got me who’s been playing guitar for 30-plus years to finally come in. I’ve been playing lead for a long time, but I just dabbled here and there on the records, but I think I’m really making my mark on this record.
That’s very interesting. At the time of this interview, I haven’t been given access to the album, so I have to ask you this. How does it compare to the previous one in terms of the overall sound?
It’s in the same vein, definitely. But if I have to compare it to any records, it would be a hybrid of “The Gathering” and “The Ritual”. What I mean by that is, musically it’s heavy like The Gathering. It’s really riff-heavy, it’s got a lot of melody to it, and it has the fast brutal stuff. Then it’s also got the slow heavy stuff. But vocally, and in terms of the way the songs are arranged, it’s like The Ritual. This record is a lot more melodic than anything we’ve done. The Ritual was like an easy-listening kind of Testament record, but super melodic. We had “Return To Serenity”, “Electric Crown” and some really good songwriting, but the drums were kind of … too easy, you know. There were some really good songs on there, but it lacked the heaviness of The Gathering. So, I think with those two ideas put together, the most melodic and the heaviest side of Testament mixed all together, you have “Dark Roots Of Earth”.
You talked about the drumming. Do you think Gene Hoglan’s return, at least for this record, helped you in that aspect?
Definitely. The songs were all written before Gene came in, and the beats were kind of were what they were already. But Gene came in and just played them better than they were anticipated. Like I said, you can have songs written and the beats all programmed or whatever, and the ideas are there, but it depends on what drummer is going to play them. Like for example, the song “Native Blood” is a catchy, melodic song, but it’s got a blast beat in the chorus. So it depends on who’s going to do that blast beat. It just happens to be Gene Hoglan doing it, so it’s going to sound pretty authentic and pretty brutal.
That’s great, man. Now this is something pretty much all fans want to know. What’s your permanent drummer situation? I know Gene’s been touring with you on this run with Anthrax, but what’s going to happen after that?
We’re trying to make it such that Gene can stay with the band, and I think Gene wants to stay with Testament, but he’s got other things he’s doing. Just like Alex, who’s doing his jazz stuff and we try to work out scheduling, and I’m also starting Dragonlord again. A new album is being recorded right now and it’s going to come out soon. So we all have different stuff that we’re trying to do, but when it comes to Testament, when we schedule stuff we all have to stick to the plan. So that’s kind of what we’re aiming for, to make a schedule that’ll work for everybody. We do have the first tour in Europe for three weeks in August, and Gene is not going to be available for that. So that’s where we kind of learned our lesson. The communication between the management wasn’t spot on, and it kind of got messed up. Gene signed on for our Europe tour, but then he wasn’t aware that Dethklok was starting earlier or later, or whatever it was. So from now on we’re really trying to nip it in the bud. That’s out plan, at least. Drummers in Testament have always been a curse, but they’ve also always been a blessing (laughs), because the records are coming out better. For me, getting to write with a Dave Lombardo or with John Tempesta or Paul Bostaph, and now me jamming with Hoglan again, it really has inspired me with the music that I’ve written. Once I found out that I was going to get Gene, I really honed in on everything I wrote and went, ‘OK, I can actually get super fast double bass here on this part’. When I wrote with Paul, I was thinking of doing something here and there, but then I would think, ‘Oh, he doesn’t like to play that kind of beat. So I won’t do that.’ So I was kind of compromising on stuff, but with Gene, there was no compromise. I just did everything that I wanted to do.
I’ve always had big plans for Dragonlord, but it just never seemed to work out. The last record I did [Black Wings Of Destiny] got a lot of great reviews and I was gearing up on doing some touring, but between some of the band members with their life styles and the record company, I think it really got chaotic and messed up. The record company kind of fell off the planet. I was going to put out a Live In Japan DVD in 2006, and that never came out. So there’s a lot of stuff that was just left undone, and the whole time I was super busy with Testament with the reunited tour, then we did a record and toured after that. Before I knew it, seven years had passed by. In my head I always wanted to do another Dragonlord album, but I was thinking may be I’m not going to do it, may be I’m done with that band. But on the last Testament tour, a lot of people were asking me about Dragonlord. A lot of magazines were also asking me about it. So finally, I had a demo for a song on the newest record, so I decided to send it out to a couple of labels that were interested. Spinefarm Universal Records was one of those interested, and I sent it to them. I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t expect to get a response. But they wrote back the next day, and they were like, ‘Yes please!’ (laughs) So it kind of got everything fired up again. We’re going to try to do it right this time. The new Dragonlord record a lot better than anything we’ve done, which is why I’m doing it. I wouldn’t do it just to do it. There were some really good ideas and some newer ideas, now that we’ve got together and revisited the black metal community, seeing what’s going on. I kind of want to do it my own way. I’m not trying to be like the European style. Even though that’s some of my influence, we’re trying to do something a little bit different. It has nothing to do with the spirit of black metal. It’s more about the sound, more about the music side of it. I know that a lot of people in black metal really live the part and that’s a big part of black metal, but to me it’s more about the music. It’s not about burying my clothes in the earth or getting blood. To me it’s about how wicked the string section can get with the guitars, or how melodic can I push it, how far can I go to where it’s almost not black metal. Because I don’t really think Dragonlord is true black metal. We’re just musicians playing a type of music, but we believe in it and we’re totally into what we’re doing. It’s just on a different level, you know. It’s a whole different take on the style. So that’s going to be happening pretty soon, and I think people are going to be surprised by this record. It’s going to be a crossover, but not a bad crossover like I’m mixing some rap with my thrash beat. I’m not doing stupid shit like that. It’s going to be true, wicked as hell, and there’s some crazy stuff going on. But it’s more about entertainment and listening, and people putting on CDs, taking them somewhere else and enjoying that type of music.
That’s very interesting. One more thing I wanted to ask about the drumming is, I read that Chris Adler from Lamb Of God was supposed to contribute for the bonus tracks. Which tracks has he exactly worked on?
He ended up doing one track called “A Day In The Death”, and it’s going to be available on iTunes only. We chose iTunes because it’s pretty big and a lot of people listen to their music off of that, specially fans of Chris. They don’t have to go and buy the whole record just to hear Chris. They can just buy the song. Or if they like it, they can buy the whole record but we wanted to keep it a little different and this is something we’ve never done. He tore it up on that track. He did a really, really good job.
Talking of the bonus tracks, there’s one Queen cover in there, for the song “Dragon Attack”. I kind of expected the Maiden and Scorpions covers because you guys have been influenced by them, but how did the Queen idea come up?
Queen is definitely one of our favorite bands, but it’s not a band that influenced our sound. It influenced our way of life, as musicians and respecting how far you can go with hard rock, being melodic, and the guitar tones being different. Actually, Chuck picked that song, and I picked Animal Magnetism. I was trying to think something different as well, but Chuck’s pick was so different that at first I didn’t agree. I was like, ‘I don’t get it. How am I going to make that song sound like Testament??’ And he goes, ‘What would Ministry do to it?’ And as soon as he said that, the beat clicked in my head. I didn’t think Ministry. I didn’t think of the telephone voice with the fucked up samples, but it was such a statement that it made me think way different. Rather than saying what Metallica, Megadeth or Anthrax would do to it, when he said Ministry, I immediately knew what to do. Within five minutes, I had the song rearranged with Gene. Chuck came in, and he just looked at me and went, ‘Yeah!!’ (Laughs) So we just kind of took that song and made it our own. That one, and Animal Magnetism, they sound like Testament songs now. For Animal Magnetism, we tuned it down to B. It’s super low, and we slowed it down. It’s already a slow, hypnotic song but we slowed it down a little bit more. That’s where the song just sucks you in. It puts you in a trance, which is what I think the Scorpions meant to do with the title Animal Magnetism. It’s kind of like a hypnotic beat through the whole song. But ours is like, hypnotic to death or something. It’s got a real drone-like sound to it. But then again, the Queen song I can actually picture being a radio hit for us, because it’s got such melodic vocals, and the way we play it, each member gets to do a solo. I do a guitar solo with the wah pedal, and it’s almost like a rhythm guitar solo. It’s really cool. It’s kind of like the live version of “Genocide” on Judas Priest’s “Unleashed In The East”, how it starts off with the drums and the guitar and it goes on a little bit longer than the studio version. It’s almost like a rhythm solo. I do something like that with the riff, but I change it up a little bit. And then Greg does a bass solo with the drums, and then the drummer does a solo, and then Alex does the whole end section. He shreds while we change the tempo. We actually have some really mathematical type of structures the way we play the riff. We almost do some stuff like Meshuggah, with the counting. Then it comes into a vocal solo. It doesn’t sound like Queen does on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but it’s still melodic like that. It’s not like a bunch of drunk sailors singing it. It still sounds pretty melodic. It was a real surprise, even for the band. Animal Magnetism was a surprise too, specially for Chuck. Greg and the other guys were thinking more metal. They were like, let’s do “Breaking The Law”, and that kind of typical metal songs. Chuck and I didn’t want us to sound like karaoke. We really wanted to make these songs sound like Testament songs. Now, the Powerslave song, that’s a song you really can’t change (laughs), because it’s pretty modern and pretty up to date, and it’s pretty awesome. But it really fitted in with the rest of the record, and I think what we really do to it is definitely give it justice. It sounds very close to the Maiden version, but it’s just got that extra tightness and crunchiness to it. And the way Chuck’s singing it, it really puts a good vibe on it. He doesn’t sound like Bruce at all. He really just sounds like himself. So yeah, we’re really happy with the covers and I’m excited for everyone to hear them.
That is indeed exciting. I’ll ask you just one more question .. you’ve been doing this tour with Anthrax and Death Angel. You did two legs already and a third leg has been announced. Would you say the tour has been received much better than you expected? I don’t think you would have initially planned for three legs.
Oh, definitely. It was only supposed to be going through a small part of America, to see how it goes. Actually, my first reaction was like, ‘Naah. I don’t want to tour with Anthrax’. But I hadn’t heard their new record at the time. When I heard it, I was like, wow! This is good. I really like how Joey’s back in the band and not only is he back in the band, but it sounds like Anthrax now. It reminds me of the good stuff they did, like “Among The Living” and “Spreading The Disease”. For me, Anthrax has been a band who either gets it right or they try to be someone else that they’re not. Let’s be rap, or let’s be more trendy, or I don’t know what they were trying to do, you know (laughs). It wasn’t working for me, but there’s an Anthrax that I like, and it’s the Anthrax that put out the two albums I just mentioned. I think that’s their calling, and I think they hit it right on the nail with the new album. So after we heard the record, we were convinced that this tour could be a cool idea, as we have a new record coming out too. Of course ours got delayed, and then we did some more touring with them. But now it’s working out because we’ll be doing a Canadian run with them in September, and we’ll have our record out by then. I think the Testament camp has really gotten along with Anthrax a lot better than we used to, and this is going to be a lot of fun. There’s also talk of us taking this to Europe. So, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
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