Album Review: Neal Schon - 'Vortex'.
Neal Schon needs little introduction. A former member of Santana, and co-founder of AOR legends Journey, the guitarist has achieved incredible success in the last forty years. With Journey still active and showing no signs of slowing down, ‘Vortex’ then is then a labour of love for its creator. Roping in, among others sometime Journey-man Steve Smith on drums as well as keyboardist Jan Hammer, the band have recorded what Schon says is not one, but two album new albums. With eighteen tracks spread across two CDs, it’s a release that certainly delivers value for money.
Musically, ‘Vortex’ doesn’t stray too far stylistically from the Journey template. What Schon does is paint the instrumental equivalent of Journey’s music; creating catchy, melodic songs that you can hum in the shower, only with the vocals being replaced by guitar wizardry. This may give Schon room to flex his not inconsiderable musical muscle, however it doesn’t mean that ‘Vortex’ is an album of endless, needless over the top soloing. These tracks are sonic vistas, widescreen aural tapestries, and sounds of space and depth. Covering a wide variety of styles from acoustic to jazz to flamenco and of course, rock, it’s an album of surprising variety.
The first half of the album really showcases Schon’s ability to cover all these bases convincingly. Kicking off with the eastern-flavoured ‘Miles Beyond’, its hypnotic intro lulls the listener into a false sense of serenity before being hit full force with a riff as heavy as anything the guitarist has ever recorded. With some thrilling playing, it sets the scene deceptively for what is to come. ‘Awakening’, which follows, opens in complete contrast, with dream-state acoustic picking giving way to some truly soaring soloing. Changing tack again, ‘Cuban Fly Zone’, and lead-off single ‘El Matador’ meanwhile focus firmly on Schon’s Latino influences. While the former concentrates firmly on the electric guitar, the later adds flourishes of Spanish-style acoustics, which really hammer home the overall Flamenco affect.
It may be a solo album, but it’s not only Schon who gets the chance to shine. Bringing with it a change of pace, the solo piano piece ‘Eternal Love’ – played by Igor Len - is achingly beautiful, carrying with it the essence of classic Journey ballads. ‘In A Cloud’ continues in this more relaxed vein, ebbing on the kind of pulse that could send the listener into a trance. It’s a mood that resonates throughout the album, not least on centrepiece ‘Tortured Souls’. With a running time of ten minutes-plus, it’s ‘Vortex’s hazy, melodious epic.
Disc two might be where some artists would choose to bury their weaker material. However, it’s far from the case here, as the breath-taking ‘Unspoken Faith’ proves. Unaccompanied by percussion, the keys and guitars soar, over yet another wondrous melody. With melody never taking a back seat to technique throughout the album, it all makes for a very enjoyable listening experience.
With memorable hooks, dazzling technique and a production reminiscent of ‘Extremist’-era Joe Satriani – a genre high-water mark - ‘Vortex’ is as good an instrumental guitar album that anyone is likely to make all year. There may be plenty for instrumental guitar fanatics to enjoy, however those who are not might be surprised at how much there is to enjoy. A different type of journey, but a remarkable one.
First published on uberrock.co.uk, 21 July 2015.