And while the U.S. run of “The Bay Strikes Back” tour has now been twice postponed, it finally kicks off next month with a stop in Houston on April 20 at the White Oak Music Hall. Vocalist Chuck Billy, on a Zoom interview while riding in a car, is both stoked and scared.
“I’ve never been home this long! I’ve just been with my dogs, and you get comfortable being there and not leaving. And now I’m getting anxious,” he says, noting the band has had a few rehearsals under their collective studded belts. “But I’m also excited. And a little nervous. I had COVID and I don’t know how my lungs are going to react for such a long tour.”
As for their tour mates, Billy says there’s already a comfort level with their shared history and the European run. “When you go out on a tour with a band you don’t know, you’re pals by the end of it, but then it’s over,” he says. “With [Exodus and Death Angel] we’re already friends and see each other. In Europe, it was so smooth, everyone got along great, and it was a lot of fun.”
Testament was formed in 1983, after having to change from their original moniker of Legacy (which was already trademarked by a hotel R&B band!). After some lineup shifts, the band debuted with 1987’s The Legacy and quickly established themselves as one of the leading lights of thrash metal with records like The New Order, breakthrough Practice What You Preach, Souls of Black and The Ritual.
In fact, if the now-established “Big Four” of the genre includes Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax, it’s Testament who would likely get the next nod if that expanded to a “Big Five” (though fans of Overkill and Exodus might have something to say about that).
The current lineup of Testament includes original member Eric Peterson (guitar), classic members Chuck Billy and Alex Skolnick (guitar), and later member Steve DiGiorgio (bass). Earlier this month, it was announced that their “new” drummer is Dave Lombardo. He recorded and toured with Testament briefly in the late ‘90s, but has spent most of his career thumping skins for Slayer. That group completed their farewell tour and disbanded in 2019. Lombardo replaces Gene Hoglan, who left the group to pursue other musical endeavors.
“There’s no bad blood between us and Gene at all. He told us he was going to post on social media [about leaving the band] and he and Testament did it at the same time,” Billy says. “Less than an hour later, I got a text from Lombardo with just a question mark. I called him right away. His wife saw the announcement, woke him up, and said ‘Testament needs a drummer!’”
“He would have always been our first choice anyway,” Billy continues. “But he had other bands and I figured he’d be too busy. As soon as we talked, we put the brakes on getting any audition tapes! It’s been cool hanging out with Dave, and I believe that things like this always happen for a reason.”
Testament’s last studio effort was 2020’s Titans of Creation. Song topics included the Heaven’s Gate cult (“Children of the Next Level”), mass destruction (“WWIII”), the occult (“Night of the Witch”), real-life serial killers and murderers (“City of Angels,” “False Prophet”), history (“Ishtar’s Gate,” “Code of Hammurabi”), and mental/physical health (“Symptoms,” “The Healers”).
The Heaven’s Gate story has something of a Houston connection as cult co-founder Marshall Applewhite (aka “Do”) was born in Texas and for a while was on the faculty of the University of St. Thomas. Billy says he had the idea for the song while writing for the previous Brotherhood of the Snake album while pursuing a fascination with aliens.
A core belief of the Heaven’s Gate group was that followers could transform themselves into extraterrestrial beings by rejecting their human forms to become immortal and ascending to “The Next Level.” In 1997, 39 members of the group committed mass suicide, believing that the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet was their cue to act. After discussion and research, Billy and co-writer Del James turned it into a song.
But the track that is most personal to Billy is “The Healers.” In 2001, he was diagnosed with a rare form of testicular cancer (but whose tumor appears near the heart). After much struggle, he went into remission four years later, and then it disappeared entirely.
Billy credits his work and time spent with three Native American medicine men healers (he himself is half Native American and half Mexican) and their holistic treatment with curing him. The song is a tribute to them.
“I had some pretty intense rituals with them, but now they’re dying themselves. One of them has dementia and is in a VA hospital, and another passed away. I wanted to tell the story of what they did for me,” Billy says.
“One helped me use the power and the energy of the Earth to shrink my tumor. I did sweat lodges with another one and had some wild times during that. And another came to my house unexpectedly, and I felt connected with him. He laid me down and took me on this wild journey on the floor. I was floating through the sky and he was playing the flute and I heard chanting and wolves.”
This healer also told Billy that the wind would be his spirit guide—even if he didn’t exactly understand what that meant. Then on one windy day, he was having some stomach issues that sent him to the bathroom. Billy recalls that he could hear the strong wind outside rotating some clanking beer cans left over from the previous night’s house party.
“I sat on the toilet and as soon as I released something, the wind stopped and the cans hit the ground. I had this overwhelming sensation that I had gotten the cancer out of me,” Billy offers. “I told my wife that I basically shit the cancer out!” He then went to his doctor the next week, and after checking the results of his bloodwork, the physician proclaimed the singer cancer free.
Billy says that the future will possibly bring a new Testament studio record with Lombardo, as well as a solo record that will be non-thrash metal. The band is also taking a business cue from several other metal/hard rock groups and is partnering with Morgan Territory Brewing Company to produce a Titans of Creation German Kölsch-style beer, and possibly other spirits with a new Native American brewery.
Finally, Billy says that the city of Houston played a part in the early career of Testament, as several of their early videos were filmed in the city including “Nobody’s Fault” and “Practice What You Preach.” Those were directed by Sam Taylor, who he says also managed Houston hard rockers King’s X.
It was via Taylor how they found out a visiting band that was just starting out and played mostly hard rock and metal covers, including Testament’s “Over the Wall.” That band was playing a local bar, and Billy decided to check them out, eventually getting onstage to jam on the song and a couple of others.
That group? A little quartet from Arlington called Pantera. Who would go on to do OK for themselves with their original material a few years later.
“So,” Billy sums up. “Houston has some good history for us!”
Testament plays at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 20, at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 Main. For information, call 713-237-0370 or visit WhiteOakMusicHall.com. Exodus and Death Angel open. $29.50.
For more on Testament, visit TestamentLegions.com