The All-Star Sessions
o you're an independent record label celebrating your 25th anniversary. That's a music industry feat, and you need a product worthy of the occasion. You could release a greatest hits compilation, perhaps a double CD or a box set, and maybe throw in some B-sides and rarities. But that's so boring. Fans will already have all the tunes. Who listens to label compilations, anyway?
With The All-Star Sessions, Roadrunner Records has put out perhaps the ultimate label compilation. The original idea was for an all-star cast of musicians to record a single. The concept mushroomed into a full-blown album, with 18 new songs featuring 55 musicians from 42 bands from the label's past and present. It's a wonder no other label has done this yet (imagine the possibilities with, say, Matador—make Ira Kaplan and Cornelius write a song together. Have Stephen Malkmus sing. Cash in.)
Logistics could be one reason why this kind of compilation is rare. It's tough to make a band write music in a limited timeframe, much less get musicians from bands with different touring schedules to do so in the same room. But if any label has the resources for this, it's Roadrunner Records.
Roadrunner started in 1980 as a Dutch importer of North American metal into Europe. In 1986, Roadrunner opened a tiny New York office and gained underground recognition by breaking acts like King Diamond, Suffocation, Obituary, and Deicide. Signing Brazil's Sepultura helped the label grow significantly in the early '90s, as Arise became a top-selling thrash classic. Roadrunner went on to build a discography of some of metal's most important albums ever, such as Fear Factory's Soul of a New Machine, Machine Head's Burn My Eyes, Sepultura's Chaos A.D. and Roots, and Slipknot's self-titled debut. Roadrunner is now the highest profile metal label, with distribution through Island Def Jam, millions of dollars in yearly sales, and offices large enough to require cubicles.
For The All-Star Sessions, Roadrunner chose four "team captains": Dino Cazares (Asesino, Brujeria, Fear Factory), Rob Flynn (Machine Head), Joey Jordison (Slipknot, Murderdolls), and Matt Heafy (Trivium). Each of these captains wrote songs, assembled musicians to record them, and produced the proceedings. With so many participants, the project could have been a mess. But the results are mostly strong, and it's a treat to hear different styles come together. "The Dagger" finds Flynn's thrash riffs astride Christian Olde Wolber's (Fear Factory) signature bass tone, topped by a jaw-dropping solo from Jeff Waters (Annihilator). "Annihilation by the Hand of God" not only has Rob Barrett (Malevolent Creation) and James Murphy (Obituary, Testament, Disincarnate) on guitars, but also Steve DiGiorgio (Death, Sadus) on fretless bass and Glen Benton (Deicide) on vocals. How about Dani Filth (Cradle of Filth), Mike Smith (Suffocation), and Sean Malone (Cynic) all on the same song? Sick, sick, sick.
The songwriting here isn't especially deep, but the performances are fierce, sometimes more so than on the players' own albums. Metal is chops-oriented, and mutual respect and friendly competition are evident here. "Constitution Down" is a feast of guitars, with hot solos from Barrett, Murphy, and Andy La Rocque (King Diamond). "The Enemy" will induce headbanging in even dead people, and shows how much Cazares' riffs are missed in Fear Factory now. At 18 songs, this compilation runs long, and some of the latter cuts fall flat. Still, it's fun to see what these dream lineups come up with.
The biggest surprises are Jordison and Heafy. Jordison is all over the place, playing not only drums but also guitar and bass, and proving himself an able songwriter and producer. His "Tired 'N Lonely" is one of the album's highlights, a cowbell-driven, delightfully sleazy slice of glam rock. Heafy not only contributes anthemic vocals to "The End," but is also the best songwriter of the captains. Like Dave Grohl on his Probot project, Heafy has an uncanny ability to mold a song to its singer. For "I Don't Wanna Be (A Superhero)," he pumps out Bad Religion-esque riffs behind current Misfits vocalist Michale Graves. On "Dawn of a Golden Age," featuring Dani Filth, he pulls off credible black metal, while "In the Fire," featuring King Diamond, is the best song his band Mercyful Fate never wrote. The kicker is that Heafy is only 19. This kid (and his band Trivium) is the future of metal.
The All-Star Sessions comes with a making-of DVD. It has the usual promotional fluff, but it also shows the recording process with the team captains, and it's heartwarming to see the delight the musicians have in playing with each other. Between the DVD and the copious liner notes, which include photos and bios of the artists, this compilation is a satisfyingly total package. Roadrunner has lost street cred in recent years with forays into nu-metal (Coal Chamber) and hard rock (Nickelback), as well as some business practices characteristic of major labels. But The All-Star Sessions should help restore Roadrunner's shine. It's a great idea, it's executed well, and it's truly one of the metal events of the year.