It’s turning out to be a terrific year for heavy metal, what with hotly-anticipated releases from Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, and other greats finally making their way to eager ears around the globe.
As if that wasn’t cool enough to round out your 2015, Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick has summonsed a stable’s worth of thrash titans for the inaugural album by Metal Allegiance. The sometime super-group—which has featured members of metal’s “Big Four” alongside other luminaries of the genre—was formed in 2011 as a (literally) star-studded celebration of metal music and culture.
But this is the first time any configuration of Skolnick’s consortium has committed original tracks to disc. Boasting nine lengthy new guitar-laden compositions and one hellraising homage to a fallen rock deity, Metal Allegiance is one monolithic slab of raging rock glory that brings out the best from every contributor—each of whom is already hailed as a hero in his (or her) own right (and fulltime band), but takes it to the next level when teamed with all-stars from other popular acts.
It’s as if Skolnick were a head-banging Captain America who called upon his heavy metal Avengers to assemble in a bid to salute—and safeguard—their music for the masses.
The best part about the group’s eponymous Nuclear Blast debut is the complete lack of filler. With the exception of Skolnick on guitar and Mike Portnoy (Dream Theatre, Winery Dogs) on drums, most participants only appear on one (or two) cuts—which means they brought their A-game the proceedings, whether they popped into the studio or submitted digital files from the road.
Indeed, the slamming, dud-free track list gives one the impression that Skolnick’s guests accepted his invitation determined to deliver their best, if not flat-out crush any “competition” in a friendly game of one-upping other submissions.
That passion makes Metal Allegiance and everyone involved (fans included) a winner.
To wit: Six-minute opening salvo “Gift of Pain” packs a killer vocal from Lamb of God’s gravel-throated front man Randy Blythe and features the first of many muscular bass lines by Megadeth rhythmist Dave Ellefson. Skolnick’s rapid-fire riffs rake across the cranium like crosscut saws as Portnoy pummels his kit, producing solid bedrock for Blythe’s seething:
“I sat alone for so long,” Blythe barks. “You took the best of me and left behind a broken man.”
Skolnick’s solo scorches, too—but Slayer’s Gary Holt likewise turns in a terrifying, tremolo-ravaged run (that made Alex bust into a Cheshire smile in the accompanying music video).
Mastodon’s Troy Sanders takes the mic on the even longer “Let the Darkness Fall,” whereon he laments lethargy (and ponders the beasts under everyone’s mental basement stairs) as Portnoy kicks up a fury over the nougaty grooves laid down by co-bassists Rex Brown (Pantera, Kill Devil Hill) and Mark Menghi. There’s a poignant, clean bass break and a pretty electric guitar solo (and flamenco acoustic fill), too, which lends a symphonic feel to the piece and enhances the overall dynamics: No one-trick tirades here.
Pantera / Down / Superjoint singer Philip Anselmo checks in on “Dying Song,” whose lovely guitar arpeggios percolate over Menghi’s low rumble until the coda—at which point Skolnick and Portnoy shift into high gear, blinding scales raining over tumultuous toms and sibilant cymbals. Testament’s Chuck Billy plays ringmaster to Skolnick’s riff-a-rama and Portnoy’s frenetic percussion on “Can’t Kill the Devil.”
Death Angel’s Mark Osegueda partners with Lacuna Coil’s Cristina Scabbia on “Scars,” whereon palm-muted power chords provide a soundtrack to their reap-what-you-sow parable. Skolnick doubles his lead guitar, effectively harmonizing with himself, Iron Maiden style, as the “winter of discontent” coalesces ‘round the harmonizing singers.
Matthew Heafy joins Skolnick and Ellefson on “Destination: Nowhere,” whose “world of hypocrisy” is chronicled by Portnoy’s pile-driving flams and distorted guitar feedback. Heafy’s perplexed pilgrim follows his own philosophy, thank you very much, bucking trends to transform from jaded journeyman to self-actualizing soul-searcher as the cadence quickens. Western-tinged “Wait Until Tomorrow” benefits from tag-team vocals by dUg Pinnick (King’s X) and Jamey Jasta (Hatebreed, Kingdom of Sorrow).
Thematic “Pledge of Allegiance” contains molten hot lead guitar measures by Skolnick, Holt, Andreas Kisser (Sepultura), and (Anthrax drummer) Charlie Benante, and another praiseworthy vocal by Osegueda.
View the making of “Pledge of Allegiance:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3V5z59dwek
But the piece de resistance is eight-minute instrumental epic “Triangulum,” whose multi-movement guitar cycle tells recounts a tale of creation, evolution, and destruction—with help from a half-dozen bona fide guitar gods. Pitching in their two cents with Benante and Heafy are Misha Mansoor (Periphery), Ben Wienman (Dillinger Escape Plan), Phil Demmel, and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal. The fret work (and melodic leitmotifs) are alternately flashy and cosmic, dark and dirty, bluesy and brutal—and come drenched in reverb, echo, and wah-wah where appropriate. The judicious arrangements render “Triangulum” more than mere showpiece: This is emotive guitar exposition at its finest.
The gang pays tribute to the late Ronnie James Dio by signing off with the elfish one’s anthemic “We Rock.” Accompanying Osegueda and Billy on the microphone here (at least on the fist-pumping refrains) are Chris Jericho (Fozzy), Steve “Zetro” Souza (Exodus), Tim “Ripper” Owens,” and Alissa White-Gluz. Meanwhile, Skolnick receives assistance in the guitar department from Holt, Demmel, and Kisser.
Super-groups come and go, but a certain kind of magic can happen when you toss a gaggle of already-successful shredders into a room for what they know may be a onetime collaboration. People let down their guard, and no single player (save Skolnick) shoulders all the blame for any foul-ups (not that there are any). Conversely, all musicians share in one another’s conquests and coups.
Sure, Metal Allegiance is a slammin’ star chamber of high-decibel demigods—but it’s more the product of a metal mutual admiration society than a head-cuttin’ session. A who’s-who of hardcore heavyweights, a coop of cranium-crushing crusaders, and Category Five maelstrom of metal muster worthy of your digital dollar.
Metal Allegiance in stores and online: http://media.nuclearblast.de/bands/Splash/metal%20allegiance/retailers/index.html