Most of those familiar with guitarist Alex Skolnick know of him through Testament, the thrash-metal band with which he’s played for two extended spells, 1983-93 and then again from 2005 to the present. He’s long lived another life, though, leading his own jazz-rooted trio with bassist Nathan Peck and drummer Matt Zebroski. Conundrum is their first release in seven years.
The most noticeable new wrinkle is in the content. Where the band’s earlier recordings each contained covers of tunes by well-known (mostly) metal/hard-rock bands, Conundrum features only one non-original composition among its nine tracks, and it’s Erik Satie’s 19th-century “Gymnopédie No. 1.” Skolnick and the trio play it straight, too—there’s no attempt to rock it up or mask its sensitive structure. With Skolnick playing acoustic, Zebroski using his brushes, and Peck going easy on bass, the recognizable melody is given a respectful treatment in an arrangement that only slightly embellishes on the dynamics built into the tune.
Other tracks, too, tone down the pyrotechnics, among them “A Question of Moral Ambiguity,” which skitters along gleefully, Skolnick taking care with his single-note leads and leaving the sparks to Zebroski, who bashes a cymbal here and pops a snare roll there for emphasis. “Django Tango,” as its title implies, projects an exotic flavor.
Only a few tracks find the trio stepping things up, although those deliberately fall short of becoming displays of speed, muscle, and bravado. “Unbound,” the opener, gives Skolnick an early opportunity to let it fly, and he burns hot on “Culture Shock” too, which lives up to its name by visiting all manner of worlds, even Chet Atkins’ Nashville. But mostly, Conundrum is about skillful, classy artistry, not going crazy simply because one can.
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