After selling upwards of 80 million albums as a part of rock titan Journey, guitarist Neal Schon has released his latest solo offering, Vortex. For Vortex, a two disc set, Schon was joined in the studio by keyboardist Igor Len, and fellow Journeyman, drummer Steve Smith. Schon has the freedom and the space to explore and stretch out on his solo works, and Vortex is no exception.
Vortex offers a big, full-band sound from the outset. Nicely mixed and mastered, the songs do not bury instruments: dynamics of the songs are allowed to shine, bringing instruments to the foreground when needed and allowing them to retire into the shadows when necessary. That said, this is definitely a guitar-forward album set, with almost every song featuring the guitar very prominently (and with very few breaks). Schon handled guitar as well as bass guitar duties for the recording. With many songs over five minutes and at least one exceeding ten minutes long; this is not a set of tunes created for the vapid “top40” radio-ready crowd. Given the length of time each song remains on the airwaves, the more comprehensive, deep-listening type of fan is encouraged. The music is overall fairly relaxed, with lots of flourishes and passages of high-energy, high speed guitar.
The set begins with “Miles Beyond”, a song that initially presents two competing themes: one being a very smooth, luxe blues, the other being a darker, slightly sinister rock. About halfway through the song, the synth kicks in with more layers and the “rock” theme gets louder and much more distorted. The song builds slowly, gradually transforming into a slick, richly layered beast offering a multitude of tones, and plenty of speed.
“Awakening” opens with a swirling undertone and an acoustic “moment of clarity”. The casual tempo allows for a lot of subdivision, an opportunity Schon doesn’t pass up in the slightest. Lithe, progressive fusion ideas mesh near seamlessly with more laid-back rock backing. Finger-slides, legato races and a multitude of nicely punctuated, picked notes dot this soundscape.
“Cuban Fly Zone” is nicely syncopated, with a fusion foundation overlaid by a hard rock overtone. Nicely melodic, it’s pleasing to the ear in both an accessible ‘standard rock music fan’ way, and a more sophisticated ‘muso’ way. Like the previous tunes, there are lots of opportunities for Schon to shine. He takes full advantage of these, to lay into listeners’ ears with high speed motifs contrasted to more mellow, sustained spots.
More jazz-infused syncopation greets listeners’ ears during the introduction to “El Matador”. Acoustic guitar accents and layers peek through the rock fusion at times. This is a shorter song, managing to develop it’s ideas in under four minutes.
Lilting, romantic piano greets us, gently bringing in “Eternal Love”, a very short, but very pretty song. Here, one can appreciate the dynamics offered by one instrument under skilled hands. There’s no loud guitar, no pounding rock drums – just an alluring and nebulous melody, fading in and out of time.
After such a soft touch, naturally the pace begins to quicken again, with “In A Cloud”. Calm to start, it features some very “vocal” sounding guitar passages, from the masterful use of effects, layering, and very good engineering. More straightforward in it’s rhythm and melodic intent, this would be considered a mellow rock tune; if “In A Cloud” had lyrics, this might end up a ballad.
Interesting, nicely articulated, clean notes penetrate and accent the initial idea for “Irish Cream”. This song is one that can take ten listens to fully digest, with the intricate layering woven through an equally complex percussion line. “Irish Cream” builds very nice momentum and sustains the excitement. For the most part, the song stays firmly within upbeat rock fusion territory, but it does have a very nice, somewhat muted, bluesy coda.
More laid-back, “Lady M (Our Love Remains)” starts out with the promise of possibly becoming a barn-burning, unhurried rocker… and delivers. In this song, the bass guitar doesn’t follow the lead, so you get to enjoy a fuller, more mature song them. Trills, flying notes, and a very nicely espoused melody (complete with what sounds like Wurlitzer electric piano highlights) keep a fan’s attention piqued.
With a title alluding to the fact that this set is an amalgamation of Schon’s ninth and tenth studio albums, the first disc’s final song, “Airliner NS910” starts out ‘four on the floor’ rock. Mid-tempo, concordant, accessible, and dotted with both lofty and high-speed quips, the tune is a suitable ending for what has been an interesting trip through the foothills of lightly quirky, but mostly just fun, rock fusion.
The second disc opens with a song title fit for a metal band, “Tortured Souls”. What could be a metal tune turns into a more symphonic, consonant, relaxed tune, quickly. It’s slightly reminiscent of “Miles Beyond”. A very nicely orchestrated bass guitar line provides a solid foundation and a nice ‘deep listen’. At over ten minutes long, the song has a lot of room to grow, and expand, but it chooses to stick with variations on the fairly narrow theme developed within the first two minutes.
The second of three songs to feature his name or initials in their titles, “Schon & Hammer Now” starts out with a quick-grab, dirty hard rock leaning. Friend and collaborator, keyboardist Jan Hammer guests on this track. Listen to how the first idea expansion sounds like a vocalist could ‘scat’ over it in the live concert setting for even more excitement. Like a conversation, this song digresses from it’s original idea into something marginally different, but still along the same vein.
“NS Vortex” collectedly slides in, offering a very creamy, melodic passage to ease listeners into the tune. That’s the eye of the storm: an overcast theme sneaks in, restrained by using less distortion then say, for traditional metal. It only gets heavier from there. Don’t let those smooth, high pitch fusion overlays fool the ear: the song remains dark, engaging, and vaguely twisted. Featuring several drum solos, and some of Smith’s more aggressive percussion work, this tune is modern hard jazz flavored at times.
At 1:55, “Unspoken Faith” is a short, sweet song sans percussion; a highly melodic, soaring dwarf set among behemoths.
“Twilight † Spellbound” starts with a funky beat and a mild fusion motif. After about a minute, it switches to a darker, much more hard rock sound. Another meander and it’s working through some slower rock with a blistering lead overlay. The song is an idea conglomerate, challenging a listener to keep pace with it’s moderately fleeting tangents. There is a brief spoken-word sample passage, which refers to the NS Vortex, near the end. The pitch swoops downwards as the song fades out.
Cinematic, atmospheric, deep notes greet listeners’ ears to start “Triumph Of Love”. Almost a ‘marching’ or ‘military’ theme predominates in these first few precious seconds, but that’s just the introduction. The song features more of the soaring, emotionally charged notes that mark some of the other placid tunes in the set. Sensibly, the introductory theme does recur twice throughout the song, with the second reprise giving way to an odd shift: a fluid, modern fusion lick. Melodic, varied, and enjoyable, this is a pleasant song.
“Mom” is up next. Confident acoustic guitar layers present a pretty melody. Like “Eternal Love”, this is a short, lovely, single-instrument song without percussion; offering a simultaneously palate-cleansing and uplifting listening experience.
Hints of rock start “Talk To Me” off on the positive. Another longer song, this offers heaps of room to muscle around a lot of notes. As far as rock goes, this is more of the sweet-sounding touch then the brow-beating heaviness. With flavors of high-speed guitar interspersed, the tune explores a few different themes, switching gears halfway through. As a treat for metal fans, there’s even some double-bass drum action and nicely crunchy guitar work near the end.
The final tune in the set, “White Light”, starts off with some beautiful and richly melodic notes and chords on acoustic guitar, backed by synth. It sounds like this might be another exploration, primarily written to express the range and dynamic of a single instrument. A breath of fresh air to close the set, this short and gorgeous song is like sitting in a sunny meadow in the springtime.
This is definitely a guitar-forward set of songs, created to release Schon’s playing pleasures, and for fans of “guitar friendly” music. The only critique would be that some listeners like “music with singing”, and eschew instrumental albums. Those potential fans are really going to miss out by passing this by. For someone looking to check out some generally higher-speed, upbeat, muscular rock fusion with accents and elements of Latin, jazz, folk, and even metal, Neal Schon’s Vortex will hit the target. To dive in, this is a lengthy listen, requiring a larger time commitment. The all instrumental, 18-song set is mostly dyed-in-the-wool rock; far more complex then Journey’s radio-rock arrangements. For fans of well-performed instrumental guitar, or less ‘moody’ rock fans in general, Schon’s latest solo material does not disappoint in the slighest.
Track Listing (2 discs):
Cuban Fly Zone
In A Cloud
Lady M (Our Love Remains)
Schon & Hammer Now
Twilight † Spellbound
Triumph Of Love
Talk To Me