Take two talented and respected guitarists, (pre lockdown) put them in a studio and just let them loose…that’s what happened back in February 2020 when Adrain Smith and Richie Kotzen decided to combine their formidable talents. Enduring the hardships of the Turks & Caicos Islands(!) as it has a full studio available, they co-wrote all nine songs on this self-titled release, sharing lead vocals, guitars and bass duties throughout.
The album features special guest performances by Adrian’s fellow Iron Maiden bandmate Nicko McBrain on drums for the track ‘Solar Fire’, and Richie’s longstanding friend and touring partner Tal Bergman on drums for ‘You Don’t Know Me’, ‘I Wanna Stay’ and ‘‘Til Tomorrow’, with Richie drumming on the other five songs (guitar, bass, vocals and drums!)
I’ll let the duo explain:
“Richie and I started working together a couple of years ago. We’d been jamming as we’d been friends for a few years before that. We both share a love for classic rock and bluesy rock so we decided to get together and start writing some songs and it went from there. Pretty much everything on the album is handled between Richie and myself including the production. We had developed a really strong idea of how we wanted it to sound and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. There’s a lot of cool songs on there that we are really happy with.”
Richie Kotzen reveals the writing processes: “We had a very fluid process in writing. Sometimes Adrian would send me a riff and I would immediately hear some kind of melody or a vocal idea. And sometimes it was the other way round so it was a kind of circular motion. We’d get together whenever we could and throw some ideas around and it just evolved, which was great because there was no pressure and nothing other than just a natural course and I think the record really speaks for that.”
Now I have to admit that I stopped collecting Iron Maiden albums after Number of the Beast and I am a bigger fan of Richies work post Mr Big…especially his wonderful 2003 solo album, Slow; oh, and his version of Strange Brew (this appeared on LA Blues Authority Volume 5: Cream of the Crop in 1994) is simply brilliant.) In saying that, there is no doubting the phenomenal abilities they both display on all of their recordings and, as a guitar gourmet, I was looking forward to hearing their talents blending and battling on this new album.
Kicking off with the rock solid Taking My Chances, we get the first taste of the skills they bring as the riff leads into some accomplished, melodic vocals…nowhere near Iron Maiden but then why have three when two does so much more? It also demonstrates that they both approached this from the songwriting angle and not just guitar orgasms…we do get those too as, after a rather confusing bridge, they take turns to make the strings sing.
Next up is the heavy riffed Running, it has a great vocal melody with plenty of guitar phrasing that lifts and doesn’t obscure the structure. The bass behind the effortless solo is almost as good too this is the current single and third to come out.
Scars has a blues structure, that I feared was going to stray into Bon Jovi territory; the good news is…it didn’t, instead the space allowed for the vocals is backed with suitable guitar emphases and the solos…well, needless to say, they’re very good but short; they have depth and feeling…sort of crunchy nut rather than shredded wheat!
Some People is more blues-based rock with the tiniest hint of funk in some of the chordings…but overwhelmingly, it is a crafted song that happens to have serious quality guitar work throughout. Listen for the bass doing in with the guitar before a tasty solo section.
Glory Road isn’t a Gillan cover, but a road story and suitably encased in the blues; the opening phrasing and rhythm evoke Free and is a superb song from first note to last…add in the catchy as a catchy thing chorus and it cannot fail. Solar Fire is next and, when I first heard it, I couldn’t help but imagine Purple doing CCR! It is still very original and Mr McBrain’s drumming touch is obvious but collaborates fully with yet another genius bass and more lovely guitar playing and solos to listen to again and again.
You Don’t Know Me slows down a bit and increases the weight too and not the usual obligatory ballad but a Dio like construction…and very good it is too with the solos relatively restrained but packed with class. I Wanna Stay delights in some lovely duetting and, with the spaces for the vocals, it nods to The Ash as well as a heavy pop layer that would have seen this be a hit when such things existed.
’Til Tomorrow wraps it all up perfectly as all of the previous superlatives come together on a complex song that has a hint of prog, a tint of Heep perhaps, but overall a very strong bluesy rock song with guitar wizardry not wankery that so many seem to achieve so effortlessly.
If you approach this expecting anything Maiden or MR Big or Winery Dogs you won’t find any of that…you will find two guitarists sharing equally the delivery of music away from those influences. It is a heady, thoroughly enjoyable romp through nine varied tracks that all have a blues and/or early rock feel and all have quality stamped proud.
Nor is it Smith/Kotzen all about two guitarists showing off…as I said, the song is the prime mover but there is an ample sufficiency of tasteful, thoughtful and meaningful solos for guitar freaks like me to be more than happy.
Bluesdoodles rating: 4 Doodle Paws – A Wonderful blues/rock album from two accomplished songwriters that happen to be damn good guitarists too.
Taking My Chances
You Don’t Know Me
I Wanna Stay
Mixed by Kevin ‘Caveman’ Shirley.
(The iTunes run on track this time brought me some excellent early 70s heavy rock from the nigh on unknown but brilliant Smokestack Crumble with Whisky Macaroni (A recipe I can recommend!) and the eve more excellent Got A Bad Leg.)