Most fans of rock and roll have heard of arena-rock sensation Journey, and this is where they’ll realize they’re familiar with guitarist Neal Schon already. What they may not be aware of is that Schon has a vibrant career as a solo artist as well. So U is Schon’s latest ‘solo project’ release. This nine-track record contains seven songs with vocals, and two instrumental songs. On this release, backing up Schon are Marco Mendoza (Black Star Riders) on bass guitar, and Deen Castronovo (Journey) on drums. Jack Blades (Night Ranger, Damn Yankees) contributed additional songwriting ideas and assistance on some of the tracks. So U is designed to cast a broad net to appeal to a large portion of rock music fans: it isn’t too esoteric, nor is it too commercial – it balances accessible listening with diverse ideas.
One of the best things about ‘high end rock’ releases is that they are beautifully produced, well-mixed, and enjoyable at any volume. So U is no exception. Turning the volume knob to the right might make it easier to appreciate some of the nuances or production layers in the songs, without muddying up the tunes. This is a trio format, but it’s a power trio of skilled, seasoned musicians. The band hasn’t skimped on flourish: this is a slick, energetic record featuring a nice variety of sonic vehicles. There are even rare keyboard accents added in to certain parts, like a sonic spice. So U is a melodic medium: a catchy, middle of the road approach that is easy to upscale.
With So U being the output of a power trio, each musician’s role is well-defined, with fewer layers to listen through. One of the first motifs noticed is Schon’s heavy-hitting, “high-speed guitar”. Some of the lead playing is stratospheric: what we’d expect on an album from one of the masters of shred guitar. Most of the guitar solo breaks take off at about a hundred miles an hour and soar: while he is more then capable of it, this isn’t a study on “making one note sound great”. With so many rock players focusing on “tone” at the expense of technique, hearing someone play at speed “just because he can” is a welcome change of pace; a joy to listen to. Leads and solos aren’t off-putting to “anti-shred” fans though – these songs are all built on solid rock. On the jazzy, Latin-flavored “Exotica”, the most esoteric song on the record, Mendoza’s burly, adept bass work is both outstanding and easily audible. The wicked chops of Castronovo shine deftly throughout, but again it’s the instrumental “Exotica” where you’ll notice his mastery of odd time and quirky fills.
Highlights of the album include an updated-sounding “modern ballad”, “Love Finds A Way”, and the rocker “Serenity”. “Love Finds A Way” features a different vocalist from the first three of four tracks. It stays melodic and tasteful throughout. It keeps a gentle touch: it’s not really that ‘tear you in half’ hyper-emotional power balladry… it’s got just enough rock, and just enough sweetness to keep it’s distance. Reminiscent of Journey, naturally, “Love Finds A Way” encapsulates some of the melodic sensibility that “children of the 70s and 80s” were exposed to while growing up. “Serenity” is a driving, uptempo tune, which reminds one immediately of millennial power pop, and… Journey. Featuring the same vocalist as “Love Finds A Way”, it’s highly melodic, accessible, and too short! One of the aforementioned production extras is a neat little guitar flourish in the choruses. Happy rock & roll, “Serenity” is outsized, easy to get in to and easy to like: highly reflective to the days of larger-then-life sound. A modern arena-rock type anthem, it also features nice vocal harmony lines. If this doesn’t end up a radio single, then who knows.
Criticism: One of the disadvantages of digital pre-releases is that sometimes you don’t get all of the album credits, so it’s difficult to add the proper details (such as who’s singing lead on what track, for So U) in some spots. That would have been nice to know, so it’s disappointing that it’s not included in the “reviewer’s version”. Retail and physical copy purchases, of course, will include that information.
For the most part, So U is straight-ahead rock and roll, with few surprises to catch a casual listener off guard. One of the most enjoyable facets within the album’s nine songs is, as expected, the guitar work from bandleader Neal Schon. This is a release with no production weaknesses, nicely designed and fine-tuned for a classic, rock and roll loving audience. Moods ranging from relaxed to highly energetic and enthused flow smoothly from the speakers. Too straightforward for the “eclectic jazz” crowd, So U caters to fans of seasoned professional musicianship and high-end guitar: superb playing presented in a friendly “middle of the road” rock context. It’s good stuff!
Take a Ride
What You Want
Love Finds a Way
On My Way
Neal Schon – guitar, vocals
Marco Mendoza – bass guitar, vocals
Deen Castronovo – drums, percussion