The reinvigoration of Exodus was tragically put on hold in 2002 when original vocalist Paul Baloff suffered a stroke while riding his bike and lapsed into a coma, eventually being taken off life support at his family's request. While Holt was pained by the loss of his old friend and bandmate, he was determined to soldier on: "I felt like I still have something to prove, even if I don't. I still keep a chip on my shoulder."
Billy recovered fully in 2003, and Testament was offered a slot at a metal festival in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Reenlisting the participation of Skolnick, who had left the band to pursue his interest in jazz, Testament rediscovered the pleasures of touring for new audiences and found itself poised to regain some of its past glory. As Billy explains, "The whole music business is all about timing. The reunion show that brought people together again enabled people to put their problems aside, to do it for the music. The reason those bands weren't touring was that the climate of metal wasn't right.
"I think the bands like Shadows Fall, Trivium, and Chimaira all these bands making names for themselves by bringing back our style of music its perfect for a band like us," he continues.
By the time this article is published, Testament will have played two sold-out shows at the Independent, a triumphant homecoming in a city eager to acknowledge its extensive thrash history. On April 29, they will release their first album of new material in nine years, The Formation of Damnation, on Nuclear Blast, a label that is also the new home of Exodus, who released The Atrocity Exhibition ... Exhibit A in October 2007.
Billy describes the Testament release as a return to form, with more traditional thrash elements replacing the midtempo brutality that defined their '90s material. "We hadn't written a record that had lead guitar sections," he says. "We have Alex Skolnick back in the band it was feeling good, like it used to. I wanted to sing more, not do death metal vocals. I wanted it to be heavy, but have catchy melodies." The few tracks that Nuclear Blast has divulged to journalists confirm his analysis: they include scorching Skolnick shred and singing that is at times almost hooky.
The Atrocity Exhibition is a more modern-sounding recording, appropriating the blast beats and Byzantine song structures of death metal and continuing the trend established by the act's two other recent releases, 2004's Tempo of the Damned and 2005's Shovelheaded Kill Machine (both Nuclear Blast). This evolution has its detractors, much to Holt's frustration. "Some people want me to write Bonded by Blood over and over again," he says, "But I can't." Despite the protestations of the purists, Exodus's recent material is invariably successful at adapting the techniques and innovations of a new generation of metal without compromising the group's essential sound.
Both bands will continue to tour voraciously throughout the spring and summer, eager to win over new fans with their daunting chops and undimmed energy. According to Holt, their hard work on the road is already paying off. "It's a change for us to look out in the audience and see kids that are 17 or 18 years old," he says. "In the last five years we've been beating ourselves to death on tour and we've acquired a new audience. The old guys all have mortgages and their wives won't let them go to shows anymore." This time around, even the subprime lending crisis is unlikely to deter Exodus and Testament. Far from being nostalgia acts, the two bands have relied on their competitive natures to keep their music on the bleeding edge of metal, refusing to sacrifice even a lone beat-per-minute to old age.