San Francisco's Testament is one of the highest-ranked thrash bands in the world by metal fans. Filled with spirits, prophecies, and demons, the riff-roaring kings' music and story are also better than most. Although the mundane details of the band's 20-year-plus history are well known — popular '80s thrashers make classic records, lineup fractures, major-label deal dissipates, 16 replacement players rotate through the group — singer Chuck Billy's reawakening a couple years back gives his band an experience as singular as its sound.
Spiritual themes have been part of Testament's music since its 1987 debut, The Legacy. In 1994, Low balanced death-metal dabbling with a six-minute ballad, "Trail of Tears," a song lamenting the bloody destruction of Billy's Native American culture. His father grew up on a Pomo reservation, but Billy was only vaguely aware of his heritage. He now says Native American traditions saved his life.
In 2000, a friend randomly introduced Billy to a Native American medicine man. A few months later, the singer was diagnosed with germ-cell seminoma. Doctors said he had a cancerous tumor the size of a squash in his chest cavity. Thus began a two-year struggle with the disease that included a five-days-a-week regimen of chemotherapy. Billy says he was reeling from treatments when the medicine man showed up on his doorstep unannounced, offering to perform a healing ceremony.
As Billy recalls, the healer danced around him, chanting and playing a flute. He brushed an eagle feather across Billy's chest, and the singer felt something move inside. After the ritual was complete, the healer told him, "The wind is going to be your spirit guide to get you through all this."
Billy's chemotherapy continued. A few weeks later, the family had a party. Late that night, Billy says the sound of wind woke him up as furniture blew into the swimming pool. He looked outside and saw beer cans spiraling in the air, blowing around in a funnel cloud. Soon after, he felt the sickness leaving his body.
"Right then, the beer cans hit the ground," Billy says. "It was like a movie. I woke my wife up and said, 'I don't have cancer anymore.' I went to the doctor that week, and the doctor said the tumor wasn't cancerous anymore."
After two more spiritual trips to healers — and a nine-hour operation — the tumor was gone, and doctors declared Billy cancer-free. "I believe 100 percent that [Native American medicine] cured me," he says. "That's what got me through. It was definitely a very enlightening time of my life."
The sickness also helped heal Testament, the lineup of which had been a revolving door for years. Friends held a benefit concert to offset Billy's medical bills. Original vocalist Steve "Zetro" Souza and guitarist Alex Skolnick rejoined their old bandmates to perform as Legacy, the name the band used before becoming Testament. Billy sang a song at the end, and the vibes were good. Skolnick formally rejoined Testament after a near-decade absence in 2001 and rerecorded classic songs with modern production on First Strike Still Deadly. A European promoter lured the remaining Legacy-era players back into the fold for one show in 2005, which turned into a tour. Momentum carried into talks of a new record. In 2006, drummer Louie Clemente's arthritis forced him to bow out, and Testament ultimately recruited ex-Slayer/Forbidden drummer Paul Bostaph.
The strong new Formation of Damnation, out this week, doesn't sound like Testament's death-metal days. But the recognizable crunch of Skolnick and never-departed guitarist Eric Peterson plays like a worthy sequel to Testament's 1988 classic The New Order.
"As long as Alex wants to do it and we're having fun, I think we'll be doing this for a while," Billy says. "The music is keeping me younger. I look at my heroes like [Ronnie James] Dio and [Rob] Halford and say, 'They're still rocking.' And hopefully, I can follow in their shoes."