It’s time we stop talking about everything Alex Skolnick does in relation to Testament.
It’s time we stop talking about everything Alex Skolnick does in relation to Testament. True, he still tours with the legendary thrash giants, but his jazz and world music ventures should not be framed as “thrash dude reborn” anymore. His guitar-bass-drums-centered Alex Skolnick Trio packs plenty of power and musicality on their own without needing to tip the hat to their frontman’s head-banging past. Conundrum, the trio’s fourth album and their first without a genre-twisted heavy metal or hard rock cover, displays the depth of their trio interplay. With a history of Ozzy, Scorpions and Rush tunes done up as swing and Latin numbers, their latest is a refreshing release from this tight, spry jazz fusion trio.
“Unbound” opens the album with a chorus-washed, slapped and tapped intro before setting into a steady funk groove. Skolnick’s solo builds from angular intervals to bluesy squeals, climaxing in a burning run up to his guitar’s high register, all the while shredding without sounding self-indulgent. Title track “Conundrum” alternates moods from spacious arpeggios to rock fusion to downtempo funk and back again. The flow between vibes is effortless, a testament (pun half intended) to the trio’s musical trust and connection.
“Django Tango,” with its sexy rhumba groove and slinky guitar solo, gleefully recalls themes from 1960s spy films without sounding pastiche or clichéd. Erik Satie’s ubiquitous “Gymnopedie No. 1” is the album’s only cover, rendered here as a breezy waltz that retains the sleepy spirit of the original piano work. Skolnick swaps electric for acoustic guitar here, giving him a score of subtle timbral changes. Going acoustic here gives each melodic run and chord strum a gentle gravity that electric can’t convey.
While guitar-fronted jazz fusion trios tend to lean on the aggressive side of the sonic spectrum, Skolnick’s group shines with their versatility and variety of moods. Backed by Nathan Peck on bass and Matt Zebroski on drums, the trio wades their way through dynamic extremes with ease and expertise. From the distorted drive of “Unbound” to the ethereal ambiguity of “Key of Sea,” Skolnick, Peck and Zebroski work like a group who want to play music, not simply solo over tunes. The country-fried pickin’ in “Culture Shock” would come off as pandering were it not for the shifts in groove and pulse that turn on a dime.
Skolnick’s band evades most of the trappings of power fusion trios. Put a guitarist, bassist and a drummer together, add some distortion and double kicks and smart money says they’ll take things to 11. The jazz world owes much to guitarists Scott Henderson and Guthrie Govan, yet it’s easy to cringe at six-string clones who try to cop their style with gobs of distortion and a lack of nuance. Thankfully, tracks like the shamanistic “Dodge the Bambula” and the bluesy “A Question of Moral Authority” infuse Conundrum with a nuance that’s lacking in lesser bands.
Yet despite its musical qualities, Conundrum does not break any new ground. It’s an album of tunes, straightforward compositions that let the band groove and improvise, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. Some of the song structures are delightfully unorthodox—most notably the title track’s triptych of contrasting vibes–but the record’s ambition only goes so far. Nonetheless, Conundrum delivers shredding solos and subtle atmospheres in spades. It’s a shame Skolnick does not get enough credit in the guitar community: few can balance thrash and nuance as well as he can.