Testament's Alex Skolnick Goes Global with 'Planetary Coalition'

Fans of Alex Skolnick’s shredding in Testament might be shocked by his new album, Planetary Coalition, a collaborative world-music project driven by Skolnick’s crystalline, beatific acoustic guitar and assimilationist composing skills.

But it’s not a case of a metal jaguar changing his spots; Skolnick is simply displaying all of them for the first time.

“With respect to all other projects I’ve been involved in, this album best represents who I am as an individual artist,” he says. “Sure, I love playing heavy electric guitar, but this is me directing, composing, producing and playing acoustic guitar on every one of these 14 tracks. I’ve always had a strong relationship with the acoustic guitar; it’s just not the instrument I’ve had a high profile with.”

Even while taking lessons with Joe Satriani in his teens, Skolnick was falling under the spell of acoustic guitar in a world-music context. Sources included the recordings of John McLaughlin’s Anglo-Indian supergroup Shakti and tracks like the Al Di Meola/Paco de Lucia duet “Mediterranean Sundance,” from Di Meola’s influential 1977 album, Elegant Gypsy, as well as Eddie Van Halen’s “Spanish Fly.”

But starting in 1985, when Skolnick joined Testament at age 16, his investment in metal yielded dividends. Testament’s casual fans might not know that after Skolnick left the band in 1993 and performed with Savatage and Ozzy Osbourne, he relocated from his native Berkley, California, to New York City to study at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.

Besides forming the jazz-rooted Alex Skolnick Trio and reuniting with Testament in 2005, he’s worked as a sideman. His gigs have included tours with vocalist Ishtar, of the French-based band Alabina, as well as Egyptian artist Nader Sadek and Jewish folksinger Debbie Friedman. Skolnick also pasted down a solo for guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela’s 2009 smash album, 11:11.

Living in Brooklyn’s cultural melting pot helped, too. For one thing, Skolnick’s collection of music from Turkey, Greece, Spain, Cuba, China, France and elsewhere grew, which in turn provided inspiration for the music on Planetary Coalition. At the same time, the city provided him with greater access to musicians from those climes.

In 2012, Skolnick debuted a performing version of his Planetary Coalition band at the annual Make Music New York Festival, sponsored by Guitar World. But recording the Planetary Coalition album was more complicated. Most of the songs were cut live at Spin Studios in Long Island City, which required Herculean scheduling.

“I wanted to capture the energy that happens when musicians play together, and real performances are an inherent part of the traditional cultures the music on this album represents,” Skolnick explains. “The biggest obstacles were being able to write in all the styles represented convincingly—each form required many hours of dedicated study so I could compose authentically—and getting 26 musicians from around the world into the studio.”

There were lucky breaks, like when Rodrigo y Gabriela got a day off after appearing on Letterman and joined Skolnick to record the furious “Playa La Ropa,” which pits his flamenco-fired steel-string Martin JC-16 against their nylon strings.

Dropbox did the rest, even helping Skolnick cross a war zone by allowing Palestinian oudist Adnan Jouban to collaborate digitally with Skolnick on the richly textured “Rock of Ramallah,” which features Skolnick’s only ripping outburst of electric guitar, followed by “Negev Desert Sunset,” which features Israeli percussionist Gadi Seri. At the opposite end of the sonic spectrum is the gently hypnotic “Alla La K’e,” where Skolnick and vocalist/kora master Yocouba Sissoka spin gorgeously swirling lines around a traditional Malian melody.

“I’m not doing this for any reason other than to create something that’s beautiful,” Skolnick says. “All of these musicians are wonderful people and great collaborators, and they’re proof that boundaries—musical or otherwise—don’t need to exist.”

GUITARS Yamaha NCX200R, Martin JC-16, Yamaha LJX26C, ESP Alex Skolnick Signature Model, Godin Inuk 11-string
AMP Budda AS Preceptor Signature Model
EFFECT Tone Concepts Distillery
STRINGS/PICKS D’Addario EXP26 steel acoustic (.011–.053), Pro Arté nylon (.028–.043), NYXL electrics (.011–.049), Dunlop Ultex picks

Photo: Javier Villegas

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