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It sounds like the setup for a punchline: “What would happen if three famous musicians and a nobody got in a room?” asks Mark Menghi.
In this instance, the answer is Metal Allegiance. What started as a live supergroup for cover songs has grown into an album of original material helmed by said high-profile rockers. It drops on September 18, and is made up of contributions from 25 metal artists, many of whom are appearing Thursday night at the record release show at the Best Buy Theater.
That fateful room where the album gestated was in the Poconos, at the home of drummer Mike Portnoy, known for his work with Dream Theater and the Winery Dogs. It was December of 2014. Guitarist Alex Skolnick (Testament) and bassist Dave Ellefson (Megadeth) were the other two famous musicians present. The “nobody” was Menghi, both a bass player and a music industry professional who’s worked on the business side for fifteen years. Although everyone had played together in an all-star jam on the Motörhead’s Motörboat cruise that fall, they’d never collaborated on songwriting. They were creative strangers, working without a record label or a producer, and no one knew how the experiment would turn out.
“When I went out to do the writing session, I didn’t book a return ticket,” says Ellefson. “I thought if we all get in a room, and we hate each other, and we can’t stand the music we write, I’ll probably be home tomorrow. But if we get in the room, and there’s just a lot of love, and it’s all flowing naturally — which is exactly what happened — then I don’t want to lock myself in and have an ending to the party.”
For a week, the group began each day by drinking coffee, discussing their favorite albums, and improvising. “It felt like a sleepaway camp,” says Skolnick. He remembers the initial plan was to include some covers, “but then the writing just wouldn’t stop,” he says. “It was like the genie was out of the bottle.”
The four core members lacked a singer, yet vocal melodies and lyrics sprang forth organically during the process. “The guys kept asking me, ‘When is your flight home?’ ” says Ellefson, “and I said, ‘I don’t know. I didn’t book one. We’re truly on a destination to nowhere.’ ” Thus, the sixth song on the album came to be called “Destination Nowhere.” “The vocal ideas were coming even as we were playing the music that first time around, at Portnoy’s,” says Skolnick, who wrote lyrics and recorded guide vocal tracks for several songs but jokes, “I would never hire myself” as a singer. The exception to the process proved to be “Dying Song,” now a single with a music video; for this, the group gave vocalist Philip H. Anselmo (Down, Pantera) free rein, sending him only an instrumental track. “We didn’t know what he was going to come back with,” Skolnick says, “and when he sent it back, we flipped out.”
Some guest artists opted to record their parts in person, with Skolnick and Menghi serving as directors at Sabella Studios on Long Island. Mark Osegueda (Death Angel), Randy Blythe (Lamb of God), and Gary Holt (Exodus, Slayer) were among them. “We were calling up friends, basically,” Menghi says, explaining the pitch. “We don’t have a lot of money. We’re doing this all ourselves, and at this point, there’s no label. We could pay you a few bucks and call it a day. They all agreed to it.” The four key songwriters self-financed the operation until Nuclear Blast picked up the album for its release.
Menghi has been masterminding the Metal Allegiance project, in various live incarnations, since 2011. His goal, he says, is to bring the metal community together and to show that different styles of metal can coalesce. “It’s a unity. It’s a brotherhood/sisterhood,” he explains. Ellefson weighs in: “Rather than being some drunken, late-night all-star jam, because it’s under the auspice of Metal Allegiance, it actually has some structure and an identity to it….It isn’t just ‘Here’s another bunch of famous guys, half-cocked, blazing through some standards.’ ”
How the new songs translate live will be revealed at their debut Thursday night. Joined by at least eight of the artists on the album as well as some special guests, the four songwriters will perform their original creations for the first time in front of an audience. “As metal music, sometimes the true litmus test is how it responds in the actual live setting,” says Ellefson. Fortunately, the recipe seems foolproof. As he puts it: “It’s by metal fans, for metal fans.”
Metal Allegiance takes over the Best Buy Theater on September 17. For ticket information, click here. UPDATED: There will be a second show at Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn on September 18. For ticket information on the second show, click here.