In the hands of a lesser artist, the thought of a double disc, all-instrumental album would seem to be a daunting prospect. However, in the hands of Neal Schon, the Journey guitarist who has, to date, sold some 80 million records, there is no question that the listener will be treated to a wide range of imaginative riffs and soundscapes. Dedicated to Schon’s wife and featuring tracks inspired by a number of Neal’s heroes including the legendary Miles Davis (on opening number ‘Miles beyond’), Neal describes the album as “bold. There’s love, there’s definitely fire and an element of danger. And the energy level is off the hook.” All of which is exactly what you need, of course, in an instrumental album if it is to hold the attention from beginning to end. With keyboardist Jan Hammer (Mahavishnu Orechestra, Jeff Beck and many more) and drummer Steve Smith (Journey) on board for the ride, ‘Vortex’ is a lengthy, complex and fascinating musical journey (pun slightly intended) which speaks to music fans beyond genre boundaries and which proves, as if any further proof were needed, that Neal Schon is one of the most talented and visionary guitarists of all time.
Opening with ‘Miles Beyond’, CD one sets the album’s tone of relentless musical innovation, and it’s a hell of an introduction to such a lengthy album, immediately raising the bar of listener expectation as Neal delivers a piece that, amazingly, captures much of what made Miles Davis such a visionary musician. With its rich eastern feel, astounding guitar work and layers of shimmering keyboard, ‘Miles Beyond’ effectively captures the same exotic atmosphere that runs through latter day Miles greats like ‘Agharta’, adding a touch of heavy, Dream Theater-esque riffing for good measure. After such a start, the album moves to the part ambient, part acoustic introduction to ‘Awakening’, a relatively short piece that never ceases to amaze as it moves through a variety of moods and atmospheres. Sticking firmly to jazzy territory, ‘Cuban fly zone’ has a dark undercurrent and a restless beat, and whilst Neal is the star of the show, the other musicians all shine in their respective roles with Steve Smith in particular demonstrating his unique talent without ever appearing flashy. The Spanish inflected ‘El Matador’ utilises acoustic guitars and graceful solos to capture an authentically Mediterranean feel whilst the pace slows with ‘Eternal love’, a contemplative, piano-led piece that feels like the soundtrack to the closing moments of a dark, romantic fantasy (Dr Zhivago, perhaps, or Anna Karenina). Things pick up again with the airy ‘in a cloud’, a thoughtful piece that cruises on a mid-tempo beat through the upper stratosphere. Recalling early U2, ‘irish Cream’ takes a delight in reverb that would have the Edge in rapture whilst Steve’s taut beats keep the piece moving forward. ‘Lady M (Our love remains)’, written for Neal’s wife, is, as you might expect, a lovelorn piece shot through with some spectacularly seductive guitar work and the first disc spins to a close with the blistering ‘Airliner NS910’, a rapid-fire piece of music that demonstrates the remarkable power that Neal has at his fingertips.
The second disc pulls no punches, opening with ‘Tortured souls’, a lengthy workout that starts with pounding drums and which, once again, showcases Neal’s ability to create music with a huge, cinematic feel despite the absence of lyrics. The appropriately titled ‘Schon & Hammer Now’ sees Neal giving his guitar a monstrous workout over a driving beat, the track a labyrinthine piece that should be mandatory listening for anyone with a desire to take up lead guitar. ‘NS Vortex’ is a slower piece with elements of Pink Floyd’s DNA written into the keyboard and rolling tom introduction, only for the band to wrong-foot you, suddenly launching into a furious mix of twisted jazz and hard rock. ‘Unspoken faith’ similarly echoes the work of David Gilmour and latter day Pink Floyd with its gorgeously fluid guitar work and when it segues into ‘Twilight and spellbound’, a wonderful track that neatly veers between the mellifluous sound of the early evening and the darker underworld of magic, it’s hard to contain the feeling of elation engendered by the music. ‘Triumph of love’ (the second of two songs written for Neal’s wife) once again features some of the album’s best guitar work (no mean feat) as Neal pours his heart and soul into an epic, windswept performance that is infinitely replayable. A short, pastoral piece played on acoustic guitar, ‘Mom’ is unspeakably gorgeous, whilst ‘talk to me’ is a pulsing beast that builds steadily over its eight minutes, offering up some of the album’s most satisfyingly heavy riffs. The album ends with the subtle, beautiful ‘white light’, another piece played on the acoustic guitar and a suitably elegant end to an album that never fails to impress.
Whilst most artists would balk at the prospect of a double instrumental album, Neal Schon makes it sound easy by virtue of offering up an immensely varied set of songs. Here’s you’ll find music that is vibrant, immersive and spectacularly played. With so many songs clearly written from a very personal perspective, Neal successfully embodies the music and whilst it is an album for which the term ‘virtuoso’ was invented, it never feels forced or overly flashy. If you want to hear the guitar work of a genuine master, then ‘Vortex’ must surely be your next stop. A wonderfully diverse set of impeccably played songs, the album’s strongest strength is the fact that each song has a unique power and presence of its own, with the listener never getting lost amidst a flurry of ill-thought-out guitar histrionics. ‘Vortex’ is a pleasure to listen to; a jazzy, endlessly entertaining record that cements Neal’s reputation as one of the planet’s finest guitar players – well worth checking out.