What do you get when you put Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Winery Dogs), Alex Skolnick (Testament), and David Ellefson (Megadeth) in a room together? Well, you get the metal powerhouse that is known as Metal Allegiance. Along with principal partner Mark Menghi, the idea has grown from an idea that began in 2011 as a group of metal’s most notable players performing cover tunes. That conglomeration has now put together an album of original material that was released via Nuclear Blast Entertainment on September 18, 2015. The standard edition offers up nine original tunes, while the deluxe digipak edition includes an additional cover song, as well as a 45 minute behind-the scenes documentary on the making of the album. A double vinyl version also features all ten songs. At it’s release the self-titled album made its mark immediately on both the Amazon Metal and iTunes charts. As the band’s bio states, “Metal Allegiance is more than just a record or a concert, it’s an experience and a lifestyle.” Screamer Magazine had a chance recently to chat with Dave Ellefson about the entire process of putting such an experience together.
So, how does an idea like this come to fruition? Well, with a little planning and connections of course. Mark Menghi, who at the time was the director of marketing for Samson (Hartke, Zoom) and Ellefson had been conducting Metal Masters clinics.The Metal Masters 5 clinic that took place in January of 2014 included a clinic of course, and ended with a massive all-star jam session of metal cover songs, with participating musicians representing some of the greatest metal bands: Kerry King (Slayer), Charlie Benante, Scott Ian and Frank Bello (Anthrax), Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big), Gary Holt (Exodus, Slayer), Chris Broderick (Megadeth), Phil Anselmo and Rex Brown (Pantera, Down), Chuck Billy (Testament), as well as Portnoy and Ellefson. Ellefson explained how that idea morphed into what would become Metal Allegiance: “In the middle of last year, 2014, Mark was no longer working at Samson and we were just talking about next steps and one of the things I said to him was, ‘Dude, we should definitely not let go of this Metal Masters concept because you’ve accomplished the most difficult part, which is you’ve got the loyalty and involvement of the best players in all of metal, as of today.’ So after that conversation he we went and trademarked Metal Allegiance, and we made the plan to launch in January of 2015. And as fate would have it, Megadeth had to cancel off the Motorboat Cruise [Motorhead’s Motorboat] in September and the promoter had called me and I said, ‘Well, I think I’ve got an idea for a way to fill the void that would still be honorable for the Megadeth fans and still keep a good, positive transition for an unfortunate situation that had happened.” He continued, “So that was where we brought Metal Allegiance in and it was able to fill the void and me and Chris Broderick were there to participate in it. It was actually on that cruise where the idea came up about recording a record. And then the next thing that came about from that conversation was should it be an original record? Should it be a cover record? And we decided to go for a record of original material. From that cruise, Mike Portnoy said, ‘Let’s come to my house in December and get started. And we can write and demo and start the recording process.’ That was how it all happened. It was all kind of a continuum, quite honestly.”
It can be a daunting task to try to coordinate the schedules of a group of busy musicians. However, the core of Metal Allegiance managed to do all of the writing together as a group, with sessions in December of 2014 and January of 2015 at Portnoy’s home. According to Ellefson, “I wasn’t able to be physically in the room for the session in 2015. So while those three guys were there, I was on FaceTime…. It was awesome because we were still working on ideas together. But this definitely was not a record where we just phoned it in. This wasn’t something where we put together an album through the internet and that was important to us because there are so many of those kind of records that get made. And I think you can hear a real connectivity with the sound of the record, the quality of the songs. It sounds like a band in the room together because it really is a band that was in the room together. Not only writing, but also for much of the tracking. We were together when we recorded it as well.”
While the core musicians in the band stay the same throughout the recording, there are additional guitars provided by more of your favorites such as Gary Holt ( Exodus, Slayer), Phil Demmel (Machine Head), Andreas Kisser (Sepultura), Matthew K. Heafy (Trivium, also appearing on vocals), Misha Mansoor (Periphery), Ben Weinman ( The Dillinger Escape Plan), Charlie Benante (Anthrax), and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (Guns N’ Roses). Rex Brown (Pantera, Down) as well as founder Mark Menghi join in on bass as well. And then of course there is the list of singers: D. Randall Blythe (Lamb of God), Troy Sanders (Mastodon), Phil Anselmo (Pantera, Down), Chuck Billy (Testament), Mark Osegueda ( Death Angel), Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil), dUg Pinnick (King’s X), Jamey Jasta (Hatebreed), Chris Jericho (Fozzy), Tim “Ripper” Owens (Judas Priest), Alissa White-Gluz (The Agonist, Arch Enemy), and Steve “Zetro” Souza (Exodus).
A mighty impressive list, to be sure. When asked how the singers for the project were chosen, Ellefson explained, “We had sort of this big heavy metal orchestra in our Rolodex from our Metal Masters performances, so we knew the people who had the right temperament for it and brought the right sort of musical fortitude to the table, so that was kind of our first go-to list… As we would write a song, we’d go, ‘Man, it’d be so cool if we could get Troy Sanders to sing on this’, and we’d write another one and go, ‘Man, this song is just screaming out to get Phil Anselmo involved.’ And on and on down the list. Even when we were in the studio and we had tracked Scars… I had this idea that I wanted to try to do some sort of a duet with Cristina Scabbia because we wanted her on the record… Once we started getting the lyrics lined out, that really spoke to the idea of having Mark Osegueda and Cristina work together on that, which I think is really cool. And it’s not something that’s easy to put together with a duet. But again, these songs and the lyrics, they’re the ones that really told us which singers to go after.”
For many people, the term “supergroup” probably comes to mind when seeing such a massive list of influential performers. But Ellefson emphatically states that that is definitely not a term that they agree with. He said, “No! Absolutely not. This was never intended to be some big, collective, all-star, super extravaganza. First of all, most of those groups are put together- let’s get a bunch of famous names and then they realize, ‘Uh-oh. Who can write songs here?’ And that’s why those things are so reverse-engineered and most of them don’t do very well… We had all played together, and we realized that between me and Portnoy and Skolnick, first of all, we just liked each other, you know? We liked hanging out with each other and we had a good vibe in the room together. We had played together on Motorboat, so we knew where each other’s strengths were musically. We didn’t even really know Mark Menghi’s strengths until we got over to Mike’s house in December and we started writing and he started bringing in these riffs. And what we found was, between the four of us, we each brought very different skills and very different sounding ideas to the table and that’s what made it work. There’s four guys all wanting to write a metal record, but all viewing it a little bit differently. So it wasn’t like we were all bringing death metal to the table, or all bringing melodic metal or something. So we really could bounce things off of each other and to me that is the true sense of collaboration.”
One of Ellefson’s favorite tunes on the album is Can’t Kill the Devil. As he explained, “Partly because it was one of the first lyrics that me and Mark Menghi started working on. I think the riffs are terrific and then once we got the vocal performance from Chuck Billy, to me that just screams 1984 thrash metal. And I’m like a teenage kid again when I listen to that track.”
As one could imagine, getting together everyone involved to film a music video could really be a scheduling nightmare, so several of the videos that have been put out have been lyric videos. As Ellefson explained, “ Yeah, it’s pretty challenging, quite honestly. And to be honest with you, the lyric videos have actually been pretty fun for us because a big part of metal is also the image. And think, the imagery that we have inside of the record, which comes from Can’t Kill the Devil and Gift of Pain, you know, there’s almost a mascot type of feel inside of the artwork of the record, so we’re able to continue that thought as we go into the lyric videos. And I think it’s also cool that the lyrics get to be put to the forefront with these videos that we’re putting out. Because there are so many different singers on the record, I think with the lyric videos it’s actually a good way to highlight those vocalists that are performing on those particular tracks.”
Recently, the band released a lyric video for the song Scars, a vocal duet with Mark Osegueda and Cristina Scabbia, and a tune that Alex Skolnick penned the lyrics for. “We were really heavy into the lyric writing phase. Mark Menghi and I had started with Can’t Kill the Devil and Pledge of Allegiance, Mark was working on Gift of Pain, and Alex and I had started to ping some ideas back and forth on Destination:Nowhere. Scars was on the table and Alex really took the ball and ran with that one, to the degree that he was very committed to the concept and it was one of the moments in the collaboration where I just went, ‘Ahh, this is kind of cool. Alex really feels committed to this’, and I actually had to back off from it,” Ellefson said with a laugh. “And just kind of let Alex take it and run with it… I admire that when he gets really committed to a musical or a lyrical idea, he really puts a stake in the ground and draws a line in the sand. So it’s cool because this is really a strong lyrical moment for Alex with both the lyric, the vocal melody, and even producing the vocal tracks with Mark and Cristina.”
For those who pick up the Deluxe Edition of the album, there is an additional track that some might recognize, as it is an all-star cover tribute of Dio’s We Rock. Ellefson also explained how the decision was made to add a cover song to the album. As he shared, “That was an idea that came from our second writing session. We talked about some of the cover songs that we had played already that we really liked; which ones, if any, should we put on the record. What’s funny is that We Rock was a song that we had never played before. We had never played it live. And I think because it’s our hero, Ronnie James Dio, made it special because we hadn’t played any Dio songs up to that point. Certainly the title, We Rock, is a collective force and that’s why once we chose that song, the next discussion was, ‘Who’s going to sing on it?’ and we thought, ‘Since it’s “we”, why don’t we have a whole bunch of different singers on it?’ It also opened up an opportunity to have people that we weren’t able to get, that we couldn’t fit into the other songs. We made We Rock this kind of We Are the World of metal, where we could invite people in that were our friends to sing. ‘ You sing a verse, the next person will sing a chorus, we’ll have someone else sing the second verse.’ We were able to really ping pong it back and forth and then by the end, we were hitting the choruses where everybody was singing on it together.”
A look at the band’s website currently lists a handful of shows, including a New Years’ Eve Bash and some Soundwave Festival dates in Australia. With such a collection of musicians, is it even possible to get everyone together for shows? Ellefson answered that question by saying, “Well, one of the things we realized with Metal Allegiance is that the four of us, at least to this point, are the ‘Core Four’ as we call it, of the writing team of Metal Allegiance, but as history shows, the performing core usually will always consist of one of us, if not all of us, and then also flanking it out with some of the other brothers and sisters of the neighborhood. Part of that is due to necessity, because of who is available, but it also is part of the creative fun of putting shows together with Metal Allegiance, is that it’s always this question of, ‘I wonder who is gonna be there at this show?’ And I think that’s kind of a fun question mark to put out to the fans because you really probably will never see the same Metal Allegiance show ever twice in a row.”
Don’t worry, as this is only the first installment as far as Metal Allegiance albums go, and the guys have already started to plan what’s to come next. As Ellefson said, “Yeah, we are definitely planning on continuing to make more records, and in fact, we were just talking about, as we are looking at our next year coming up, we’re excited about getting back into the studio and writing some more tracks again. And again, part of what made the first records so special is that we were all collectively at this point in time where the year was winding down, our calendars were open and it made for a very relaxed, enjoyable environment. It wasn’t like we had schedules up against our backs and we didn’t have other things clouding the horizon for us. So I think that is also part of it. It has to be loose and organic. And Metal Allegiance is about having fun, so I think having fun with it is definitely at the top of the priority list.”
As a side note, as readers of Screamer may or may not know, Mr. Ellefson was actually a columnist for this very publication at one time so he took a few moments to chat about that experience. “It’s funny. Dave Castagno [publisher/editor of Screamer], when it was a print magazine, back in I think ‘91 or ‘92, he gave me my first editorial job; my first journalist job, writing a column for the magazine. And it was great, I really enjoyed it. I had just gotten my first Macintosh computer and I was using it for everything, and I found that I was very prolific in my ability to get my thoughts on paper as a columnist and talking about music and music business. Quite honestly, from that job that I had working for Screamer, I then went to writing what started the manuscript for my first book, which was Making Music Your Business: A Guide for Young Musicians. And from Screamer, I actually then got a job writing for Bass Player Magazine, and the editor of Bass Player Magazine at that time, Jim Roberts, he actually was the editor for my book and got my book signed to Backbeat Books, who were the publisher for Bass Player Magazine at the time. So it was kind of one of these things where I never fancied myself a journalist, but just saying ‘Yes’.” So Screamer, I’ve gotta say, really gave me my start.” Ellefson also released in autobiography, My Life With Deth: Discovering Meaning in a Life of Rock & Roll, in 2013.
To coincide with the release of the lyric video for Scars, Metal Allegiance and ESP guitars have also launched a contest to win an Alex Skolnick signature guitar, which is the same type that was used record Skolnick’s guitar parts on the album. The contest can be found below: