Still rightfully revered by many as two of thrash metal's touchstone bands, Testament and Exodus have both carried the torch for Bay Area headbangers for over three decades. Formed in 1980 by future Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett -- who would leave the band a couple years later when invited to replace Dave Mustaine -- and drummer Tom Hunting, Exodus established a reputation as a ferocious live act with its regular appearances around the Bay and is cited by some as the first thrash band in the region.
While the band's crushing 1985 debut Bonded By Blood was delayed by label troubles, it quickly became a standard by which future thrash releases would be measured. Though sonically not as refined as Metallica's first effort, songs like "Metal Command" and "A Lesson in Violence" showcased the breakneck tempos and tandem/dueling guitar solos that became part of the thrash-metal template.
The departure of original Exodus lead singer Paul Baloff after the album came out could have derailed the band, but the addition of Steve "Zetro" Souza -- who was the vocalist for Testament precursor Legacy -- ushered in the most popular line-up of the band for such classic efforts as Pleasures of the Flesh and Fabulous Disaster.
The move to Exodus would lead to the seminal line-up of Testament coming together after the addition of fleet-fingered guitarist Alex Skolnick and Souza suggested Chuck Billy take his place. The band's 1987 debut The Legacy established the quintet as a force to be reckoned with on the international metal scene. Their follow-up efforts The New Order in 1988 and the next year's Practice What You Preach would further refine their sophisticated high-octane sound and progressively more political lyrics.
Both bands would face challenges as grunge rose to become the dominant form of heavy music as Exodus and Testament soldiered through line-up shifts and hiatuses. The historic 2001 Thrash of the Titans benefit for Billy and Death founder Chuck Schuldiner (both men were undergoing cancer treatment at the time) brought together a who's who of thrash metal greats from the Bay Area and elsewhere for a full day of music.
The concert served as a catalyst, spurring the reunion of the potent early line-up of Testament as well as the reformation of Exodus with Souza and Death Angel. All three seminal thrash acts have continued to put out vital new albums ever since. Though Souza and Exodus had an acrimonious parting of the ways after releasing their 2004 album Tempo of the Damned that led to Exodus recording and touring extensively with replacement Rob Dukes, last year the band announced that the singer was returning to the group.
Testament and Exodus have teamed up to embark on the Dark Roots of Thrash II Tour that will feature headliner Testament playing its first to classic albums The Legacy and New Order in their entirety along with other early favorites from 1989's Practice What You Preach. The road trip kicks off with a hometown show at the Regency Ballroom on Wednesday, April 1. KTVU spoke with local legends Billy and Souza about their long history together that includes continuing collaboration on lyrics for Testament songs, the history of thrash in the Bay Area and their plans for the tour.
KTVU: So Chuck, you came into Testament after Zetro left Legacy, but I was wondering how far before that you knew each other? Were you a recommendation to take over?
CB: No, it wasn't through the management. The band and Rob [Dukes] – the previous singer – before we got involved with Exodus, they had history with him. Without going to deep, we didn't know much about that. All we knew at that point was that we were getting ready to do a new record and that possibly Rob might not be on this one.
CB: It's strange though. What would have happened if I didn't get sick and that show didn't happen? All these great records that these bands made – Exodus and Testament and Death Angel – all this great music that we did since then wouldn't have happened. It was something strange that the universe took over and put together for us, I guess. We all pulled through it. I'm still here and I'm grateful for everything that happened and the support.
To me it begs the question – especially since I missed out – have you guys thought about doing something on a similar scale or even bigger? You don't need Metallica to put on a big metal festival in the Bay Area with all the bands that are here…
And if I can plant a seed towards that happening, I feel like I've done my job...
CB: It's been planted! [laughs]
Just floating around in the Caribbean instead of doing it in the dirt! I know when we spoke Zet, you also talked about the idea of joining Testament onstage. Does that happen pretty regularly?
CB: When we're at home, Zet will come up. On this tour, we've already talked about it, like "What song you coming up, Zet?"
ZS: And I've already put it out to all the fans: the crowds have to be good! So if they're good for Testament and Exodus and they're roaring, then that's an extra special prize we'll throw up. If they're not raging too hard…
CB: It'll be interesting, because there are some songs that we regularly put in the set that he'll come out and sing, but [this tour] there are some songs that we haven't played in forever and he probably hasn't sung in forever, and I haven't. So it'd be fun to throw one of those at ‘em. Raise the stakes a little!
That's something you hear more in punk bands as far as having two distinct lead singers, but that's something you guys did in Dublin Death Patrol anyway. The idea of getting to hear the classic Testament stuff with both of you sounds great. And speaking of Dublin Death Patrol, I know you both have pretty full dance cards between Chuck still having an album in the works with Testament and Zet still touring for Blood In Blood Out with Exodus…
ZS: And writing new Testament with him! [pointing at Chuck and laughing]
Right, so I imagine Dublin Death Patrol is kind of on the back burner. But do you see yourselves doing something with that band again?
CB: Well, the Dublin Death Patrol stuff was always for fun. It was a bunch of friends who grew up in Dublin getting together just to play some music. It was never about putting out a record or going on tour, but somehow it morphed into doing two albums and touring in Europe.
And the last trip we did in Europe, we played in front of Heaven & Hell and Ronnie James Dio came back and said hello to all the boys. We had a great slot and we thought, "You know what? I don't know if things are going to get better than today! We're playing in front of 45,000 people or whatever it was, opening up for Heaven & Hell. Why don't we just call it a day?" We all had our wives there and it was a great trip and we were like, "It's not going to get any better than this."
So we kind of just put it to the side. That's not to say that we might not ever play again. It would be fun to do a couple of shows in the Bay Area, as long as we kept it back to what we wanted originally: just for fun.
Any word on where you stand with the new Testament album?
CB: We're about six tracks in on the demos. Me and Eric are doing all the writing right now, so when we see everybody next week, it'll be the first time that we're all together as a band to hear the demos together. And we're going to be together for the next three months, so hopefully there's a lot of time to hash it out. When we come off the road hopefully we'll be prepared to go right into the studio. There are a lot of thrash songs being written, so I think there are some more other songs that need to be added to the set.
And I wanted to ask you Zet, having the longer set on this tour, will you be playing more songs from the new album will you be playing? I saw you opening for Slayer at the Fox and it was great, but I just wish you had longer to play…
ZS: It was just a taste!
Yeah! Just a morsel. I was also wondering if, given the material Testament will be playing, did you guys think about older songs to revisit?
ZS: We're coming back with new songs, so you'll probably see three or four from the new record. And then there's always the classics we have to do. We always have to play "Bonded By Blood," or course, and we'll play "Toxic Waltz." And we're going to play some songs from the last three albums that I didn't sing on, so it's going to be a good bevvy of what Exodus has done over the past 30 years.
You also alluded to this already, but if Gary Holt is with Slayer, Exodus is not necessarily on the sidelines. You have someone to fill in already?
ZS: Yeah, he actually came with us to Australia. Gary's father was really sick and Gary was really kind of nervous before the rehearsals before we went to do the Soundwave Festival. So we decided "Hey, why don't you stay here?" We've got a guy who has actually filled in in the past. He's the other guitarist who plays in Heathen with Lee. His name is Kragen Lum and he's an awesome shredder. He knows the songs and fits in really well. So it's no secret Kragen is coming out. Gary actually has to leave with Slayer I think on April 23rd, halfway through the American tour, so Kragen is coming in and taking over. He's a great guitar player and we're very excited to have him.
So what are the summer plans for Testament and Exodus?
CB: For us, we do the five weeks here in the U.S., take about a week off, then do five weeks in Europe. And then, hopefully, this summer we'll be in the studio. [laughs] That's the plan. We're kind of leaving a three month window open, just in case we're ready to go in the studio.
ZS: That's interesting, because we go all the way until the end of June. And early today, I'm telling my manager [gestures at Chuck], "Books us more shows! We need to keep going!" So it's kind of ironic. We're going to keep playing and keep touring. We're going to go back to territories where we've been. We may go back down to South America, back to Japan. Definitely Europe, it's like a second home to us. And we'll try to stay in the States and keep doing it. Blood In Blood Out is a great record and we want the world to hear it.