In music (as in life), some of the most exciting developments aren’t planned and couldn’t be even if you tried. Metal Allegiance – and my role as guitarist/songwriter/co-producer – is one such thing that, to use two common phrases “just happened” and came “out of nowhere.” It was the result of two other terms that, until recently, were seldom ever heard in the same sentence: “heavy metal” and “cruise ship.”
The story of Motörhead’s “Motörboat” in 2014 (one of the final voyages of our spiritual guru Lemmy) – along with MA’s last minute addition to the lineup, my randomly sitting in, talks back on dry land a week later in which I was officially brought on board (pun not intended) and the subsequent, secret mission to shift the project from “all star cover jam” into one that creates new, original music – has been recounted in many interviews and is easily “Google-able.” The same goes for descriptions of our live shows. Instead, I’ll use this forum to discuss a few personal highlights.
One is working in the studio (sometimes in person, sometimes remotely) with fellow artists whom I’ve never had the chance to collaborate with before. Some I’ve only gotten to know fairly recently (Trevor Strnad, for example), others I’ve known since my early days on the music scene (Mark Osegueda and Gary Holt for example) and most are somewhere in between. All, however, are folks with whom I’d never recorded and might not have had the chance to otherwise. Normally, doing so would require forming a whole new project and a time commitment that is unrealistic (so many of us have crazy schedules these days – myself as much as anyone). With MA, however, there is the far more realistic goal of tracking one song for each artist (with occasional exceptions), not counting those of us who have laid the groundwork (myself, Menghi, Portnoy & Ellefson). Exploring the creative process with a vocalist or guitarist you’ve never been paired with before and helping nurture their contribution – which includes offering constructive guidance when appropriate and knowing when to keep quiet and just let that person do his or her thing – can be every bit as fulfilling as playing an instrument yourself.
On that note, let’s look at my own playing for MA. While most of my projects outside of my main band have been improvisational (with musicians who specialize in jazz and other genres), I’d already been thinking of one day recording the metal side of my playing – beyond the scope of what listeners are used to hearing with Testament – when, as if on cue, MA showed up. Since then, our albums have sparked solos that I’d count among my favorites (“Terminal Illusion” currently near the top of the list) and most notably, opened up a platform for my rhythm playing. To elaborate: Testament follows the blueprint for modern heavy bands in which one guitarist is the main soloist and the other as the “riff guy” ie James Hetfield, Scott Ian; I’m primarily the soloist while Eric (Peterson – who easily holds his own with James and Scott as a riffer- imo) records most of the rhythm. This works great for Testament – it is the established sound and I wouldn’t wish to change it. At the same time, it is also nice to also be able to point listeners to some crunchy riffs recorded with my individual tone, as heard on the Metal Allegiance albums.
Finally, as fun as our big blowout shows are (which can have around a dozen or so players), special mention should be made for the times MA scales down into a small unit in order to pay tribute to a specific album. Most recently it was “Black Sabbath” (Halloween weekend at the Brooklyn Bowl). Others have included “Made in Japan” (Deep Purple) and “Van Halen” (with Wolfgang himself sitting in on a few tunes). In each case, I’ve found that studying these records with highly trained ears is vastly different than doing so in your formative years. There are numerous subtleties I’d never caught before – from Iommi’s positioning, slides on certain chords and slight alterations of the same riff (depending on whether there are vocals) to Blackmore use of right hand finger plucking (on riffs as well as solos) to Van Halen using the exact same lick patterns throughout several songs, yet cleverly disguising them so they sound distinct – that can only be recognized after many years of playing experience. It’s also fun to tap (pun not intended) into these 6-string kings’ tones, from using a classic Phase-90 pedal and custom built “Frankenstein” guitar (Van Halen), to restoring the ‘68 Gibson SG I’d acquired long ago, now transformed from “fixer upper” to “fabulous vintage instrument.” It is great to have an excuse to explore this music on a deeper level and doing so helps inspire the original tracks we create for MA.
Whether large or small, any Metal Allegiance concert – let alone an album – is not easy to put together. Credit is due to Mark Menghi, whose brainchild this is and who somehow finds the drive to outline the plans, move them forward and be a taskmaster when necessary. A former leader of the US Congress (Trent Lott), famously compared his job to “herding cats.” I imagine Mark can relate.
Photo Credits: Main photo and photo w/ Gibson Guitar by Scott Diussa. Motorboat Photo by Stephanie Cabral. Blythe/Menghi/Portnoy/Skolnick photo by Mark Menghi’s iPhone. Full band with crowd photo by armyofonetv.com