Immaculate and essential

Both Richie Kotzen and Adrian Smith are successfully established artists, so to combine forces to create a new album is a promising proposition. The Smith/Kotzen project stems from an ongoing friendship and jamming sessions in Los Angeles, when time permitted. Prompted by others in their immediate circle, they soon came to the realisation that they could co-write some great material as a side project, outside their usual career bands Iron Maiden and The Winery Dogs.

Sharing duties across the board, which even includes the production aspects, has generated an almost cottage industry-style album. Of course, the clout of Smith’s day job allows him access to the highly sought after producer Kevin Shirley for mixing duties. They’ve also been able to bring in guest drummers from their own bands to play on several songs. However, for the most part, the duo cover all the bass, drums, vocals and guitar duties plus any other additional instrumentation.

Anyone expecting a shred fest from the early days of Kotzen’s career will have to look elsewhere as, while there are plenty of solos, it is not in any way pushing into over indulgence. On the other hand, if well-constructed blues based hard rock songs with a decent splash of funk, a sprinkling of pop melodies and lush, analogue sounds from the 70s is a more appealing prospect, then this release is going to be highly sought.

Familiarity with each artist’s style generally makes it easy to work out who is playing or singing which part, although there are some overlaps, which is why the combination of the two is such an excellent musical match. Kotzen’s voice has a smoother tone to Smith’s more raspy delivery but overall both voices have excellent vibrato and projection.

Kicking off the album with the debut single Taking My Chances, there’s a nice bit of flanger effects and brief synth style delay figure from late eighties Maiden. The track has a solid groove even if rhythm figures flirt ever so slightly with fusion rock. Vocals are clean yet soaring, with backing vocals and some doubling for extra power, whilst guitars trade off solos with a judicious approach. Smith’s wah pedal tones and expressive blues rock playing works perfectly against Kotzen’s fluid, semi sweeping fingerstyle excursion that have an element of that rich Lukather or Vai reminiscent tone, with tasteful harmonising effects.

Running continues with a groove and Kotzen’s vocal delivery coaxing some distinctive tonalities similar to the late, great Chris Cornell. Those familiar with Kotzen’s recent back catalogue will already be aware of that aspect but in context of this project, Smith’s backing vocals nicely complement Kotzen’s lead vocal range. Once Smith’s delay effected guitar solo commences, it is a brisk paced affair and soon morphs into a drier sound, changing the tone to a more close sounding attack, but the briefly extended outro solo has some exquisite vibrato with a fade out above the other instruments, harking back to eighties era, guitar heavy mixing techniques. It’s a subtle method of focusing on the key instrument in the song even as other track layers have a shimmering quality to them, such as sustained chords.

Scars is another strong track. Slightly longer, there is depth to the instrumentation and it builds from a gentle arpeggiated figure, as lead guitar volume swells usher in bluesy rolled back tone from Smith and bursts of aching, guitar brilliance from Kotzen. Vocal performances are powerful, either as trade-offs or in duet fashion, tastefully embedded into the melody of the track. Guitar soloing interplay weaves together effortlessly and is backed with Kotzen’s studio drum and cymbal work, not overshadowing the increasing post chorus soloing trade-offs, delivering a tight outro fade out. It’s the kind of outro material that radio announcers would irritatingly talk over or would be edited out, back in the day, but which actually makes the track something truly memorable.

The next two tracks really give off a vibe of concluding side one of an album released in the glory days of the vinyl format. Some People has that spatial, funk rock vibe with phasing effect guitar sounds that pop out against a slinky bass line as the vocal melody builds into a strong chorus. There’s a pop sensibility which offers variety but maintains the album pace thus far and some stinging yet smooth guitar sounds with bite, flair and conviction on chosen musical notes.

Similarly, next track Glory Road has a stripped back blues rock vibe with Smith’s melodic yet partially leathery vocals being bolstered by Kotzen’s smoother but no less empowering vocal track. It’s a vocal led song but the guitar soloing pre-bent notes and trade-off are brief yet succinct, with an enticing sense of style and tone that only years of experience playing in excellent rock bands could produce.

Looking at Solar Fire as the commencement of the second side, everyone’s favourite zany yet efficient skins man and Sooty bass drum mascot enthusiast, Nicko McBrain, guests for the drum spot. He adds some distinct punch and push pull flow to the track. The almost double stop guitar riffs pump along as a Kotzen seemingly replicates slide guitar styles mixed with legato runs. The song has a similar feel to Audioslave’s Original Fire, with a hint of Led Zeppelin or early John Fogerty material.

The trade-off solos in Solar Fire are within the fast blues rock realm and the energetic virtuosity is great. Clearly, Kotzen and Smith inspire each other without being overly competitive, adding to the quality of performances. Kotzen’s vocal has some falsetto Glenn Hughes moments here, giving the already beefed up song a seventies funk rock vibe. It’s certainly a deeper cut but also an album highlight.

For the album’s last three tracks, Kotzen’s touring partner Tal Bergman takes on drumming duties. You Don’t Know Me sees around seven minutes of Kotzen and Smith spreading their musical wings, stretching out with a slower paced song that has a strong shared melodic chorus, with added vocal contributions. At about the halfway mark, an extended guitar solo over a full verse figure creates a climactic sense to proceedings, followed by a laid back rhythm section figure as guitars and drums work together to rebuild the song intensity. It’s great track, highlighting the different signature soloing aspects of both guitarists as they improvise freely.

The introduction of I Wanna Stay hints at that tasteful harmony guitar delivery that Smith has great aptitude for in many a classic Iron Maiden track. The similarity ends there though as there are no galloping rhythms forthcoming in this track. It is a slow burning, almost country or Americana tinged piece as dirty rhythm guitar chords back an angst filled vocal delivery. The emotive skill is further enhanced with a unique, almost Allan Holdsworth inspired solo from Kotzen, with outside notes, passing notes and chromatic runs, executed with masterful precision. Smith’s solo has a more poetic approach as notes slide in and out of harmonically based phrases that rise and fall with the feel of the song.

The final track, ‘Til Tomorrow, is both haunting and a free flowing piece with more extended soloing, closing out the album in fine style. All the hallmarks of song structure are here, including the build to a higher register chorus, pushed higher by moody, more restrained verses. The combined vocals are suitably understated as the lived experience lyricism of the song dictates. The guitar solo trade-offs closing out the track scream with expressive emotion that few guitar players could hope to match.

The beauty of this debut collaborative album from Adrian Smith and Richie Kotzen is that it is not predictable. Obviously, bursts of musicianship are present but it is the song craft and the variety therein that is spectacular. Sonically, it is fantastic and the arrangements, instrumentation and overall mastering delivers a great song order, well suited to a complete listening session.

There is not one weak track on here and it’s a testament to their mastery of both guitar playing and song writing that artists of this stature, who rose to fame easily a generation ago are able to be inspired to work together and deliver something special. Given this was all probably recorded around a year ago, hopefully another batch of songs from this duo will transpire down the track. Smith/Kotzen is an immaculate debut album release and essential for fans of both artists.

1. Taking My Chances
2. Running
3. Scars
4. Some People
5. Glory Road
6. Solar Fire
7. You Don’t Know Me
8. I Wanna Stay
9. ‘Til Tomorrow