Review: Alex Skolnick’s Planetary Coalition – The Sounds of World Cultures

Alex Skolnick is a very well-respected figure in the world of metal and hard rock. A long-time lead guitarist for the thrash metal band Testament, as well as being a touring guitarist with Savatage and holiday-season rock gods, Trans Siberian Orchestra, has netted him worldwide accolades for his performance and composition abilities which are often fierce, extreme, and extremely melodic at the same time.

Some years back, he decided to take a hiatus from Testament to pursue what was a fledgling passion of his – Jazz. Having studied the extensively, he put together his own eponymous jazz trio, and released two albums before rejoining Testament for a major comeback. Despite having a foot firmly in the world of blistering thrash metal, Skolnick hasn’t relinquished his love for Jazz, nor has he turned his back on a wide range of other influences audible in his playing.

Now he has released “Alex Skolnick’s Planetary Coalition”. It’s an eclectic collection of extremely well produced, well written and well played songs, largely instrumental, that celebrates the many diverse musical traditions of cultures around the world. Helping Skolnick along on his mission is a gathering of absolutely excellent musicians from many countries, some of whom are virtuosos in their own right, yet mostly unknown to Alex Skolnick’s usual fans.

The songs really pulsate with life and are capable of transporting you thousands of miles across oceans to lands far away. The songwriting is lively, enthralling and dramatic, despite the instrumental nature of most of these songs. Skolnick and his accomplices have succeeded in crafting textures that are vividly and expertly painted using a wide range of instruments, from Indian tablas and santoors, to the Chinese pipa, and Arabic oud and riq drums. This variation of timbres and tones adds real depth of character to the songs which also feature a rich smattering of steel and nylon-strung guitars, piano, accordion, violin and other instruments more conventional in western music.

Skolnick’s playing in particular is extremely interesting to see in this ever-changing situation of country-hopping musical traditions. While his core style is very much in-tact, and very recognizable to fans of his work, it’s a joy and a treat to see how versatile he can be. Though he mostly sticks to steel-string acoustic guitars on this album, his playing effortlessly transitions in and out of musical genres, all while still showing off his unique style, sometimes reminiscent of Randy Rhoads, Al DiMeola, and even John McLaughlin. Sometimes he plays fast and furious, and other times he takes a back seat and plays simpler, less complicated passages, but his composition always fits the songs just perfectly, accenting and exciting at just the right times.

That said, this is certainly not an album just for guitar-nerds.  It is as experimental, thought-provoking and intellectually challenging as a Pink Floyd or King Crimson album, yet retains a simpler musicality that anyone can appreciate.

As a person born into an Indian family, who grew up in the Middle East, and moved to first English-speaking, and then French-speaking Canada, I can honestly say that my experience of music is diverse. Many of the Eastern-, Arabic- and African-influenced songs on this album take me back to my childhood in the Middle East, surrounded by a whirlwind of sights, smells, sounds, cultures, foods, and peoples from all over the world. Throughout the album you can hear a myriad of different musical references and cues, from the Indian Classical/Jazz Fusion stylings of Shakti, to flamenco legend Paco De Lucia, Arabic folk music, elaborate cinematic soundtracks from contemporary Chinese kung fu movies, the smooth sounds of Pat Metheny, the Gypsy Kings, spicy Cuban Jazz, and even the weighty Egyptian-themed acoustic stylings of Karl Sanders. All this is set against the bedrock of Alex Skolnick’s unmistakeable sense of rhythm, melody and musical drama which masterfully holds the album together and provides a distinct thread to follow along with as you are guided from one culture’s music to another.

Put simply, if you relish the sounds of world cultures, or want to challenge yourself as a listener of music in general, you should listen to this. And if you’re a fan of Alex Skolnick, you should definitely pick this up. It’s an extremely rewarding listening experience.

Rating: 9/10
Runtime: 14 tracks, 1hr 14mins
Favourite tracks: Island in the Sky, Playa La Ropa, Back to the Land, Rock of Ramallah.
Category: World Music.
Label: ArtistShare

Special thanks to guest contributor Ryan Sequeira for this review