“Why 13?” God, Joel Hoekstra must be sick of that question, but it’s a valid point – why has he christened his latest effort with a number? Simply, Joel wanted to make the point that this is not the same Joel whose solo albums took in a much more virtuoso feel, rather this is the Joel who unleashes exquisite rock riffs with the mighty Whitesnake and Night ranger. And he’s right. Joel Hoekstra’s 13 feels like a real band, albeit one with a stellar line-up that will have hard rock fans salivating. Just look at the names – Jeff Scott Soto (Journey), Russell Allen (Adrenalin Mob / Symphony X), Vinny Appice (Black Sabbath / Dio) and Tony Franklin (The firm / blue murder) – and that’s just the core band, for there are also a number of guest musicians who appear liberally throughout the album. And yet, here’s the thing: despite the array of talent, this is very much Joel’s album and Joel proves here that the song is much more important than the people who play it. A project born of passion, this is no ego-massaging vanity project, rather it’s a group of world-class musicians rallying around a respected friend to help him create a dream album and the results are nothing short of astonishing. If you love hard rock then this album is as essential to you as oxygen. It has range (as Joel puts it, it goes from Dio-ish at its heaviest to Foreigner-ish at its lightest), it has class and it has ten memorable and remarkably concise hard rock songs that are guaranteed to brighten your day.
Place the album into your CD player and your instant reaction is likely to be something along the lines of “Holy god!” The first track, ‘say goodbye to the sun’ could easily come from the amazing Heaven and hell album, ‘the devil you know’, so powerful and metallic is the playing and delivery. It’s an amazingly assured start and whilst it demonstrates only one facet of this impressively varied album, it certainly gets things off to a hell of a start – there’s a taut, scything riff, Vinny Appice’s recognisable and propulsive drumming and a vocal performance (from Russell Allen) that simply tears from the speakers with all the power of Dio at his peak. In short, it’s a hard rock monster that will leave you bruised and battered. In contrast ‘anymore’ dials back the metallic bombast and instead draws upon the likes of Rainbow and Whitesnake with its classic rock riffing and unutterably huge chorus. It’s clear that Joel does not just have a remarkable gift for the guitar but also an intrinsic grasp of melody that grabs the listener and refuses to let go until the playing’s done, and if the devastating ‘say goodbye to the sun’ doesn’t have you hooked, ‘anymore’ certainly will. Things continue in the melodic vein with ‘until I left you’ which is pure AOR heaven, with acoustic guitar, a driving beat and the sort of layered chorus that would happily sit over an eighties movie training montage. Equally relaxed is ‘long for the days’, a track which could easily fit on the Snake’s excellent ‘forevermore’ album with its exquisite guitar work and rich vocal performance (Russell Allen again). However, don’t get too comfortable because just round the corner there’s a hard-rock demon lurking in the form of ‘scream’ with its chugging guitar riff whilst ‘never say never again’ is hard rock gold with its surging riffs, elegant solo and positive vibe.
An album that is not only musically excellent but one that also leaves you feeling upbeat is something to be treasured, and Joel’s mode of writing is one that is so rooted in positivity that it’s impossible to conclude the album without a smile on your face. Quieter songs like ‘changes’ with its throbbing bass line and impassioned vocal performance showcase Joel’s considerable talent for writing songs that strike a deep chord with the listener whilst pointing to a hopeful future, no matter how bleak the current outlook may be and then we’re back into striking hard rock territory for the hard-riffing majesty of ‘the only way to go’. However, it is the stunning title track that trumps everything with its mind-blowing vocals and Sabbath-esque riffing. An album highlight on an album where every song is potentially a highlight, ‘dying to live’ is a blistering workout that shows the band at their hard-rocking best. As the title might suggest, ‘Start again’ is a poignant and powerful power ballad with the sort of melody that can only be removed from the brain with turpentine, which only leaves the closing ‘what we believe’ to round the album out on a strong, positive note with a brilliant guest vocal from Chloe Lowery (Trans-Siberian Orchestra) whose duet with Jeff Scott Soto adds further depth to the beautifully arranged piece. It’s the perfect closer to the album and it leaves the listener very much wanting more.
With no songs outstaying their welcome, ‘dying to live’ is very much as Joel asserts, great songs, tastefully played by a group of world-class musicians, with not a hint of showboating to detract from the wonderful melodies that inhabit the songs. Joel has a remarkable knack for crafting hooks and every song here, from the heaviest blast of guitar-fuelled fury to the most relaxed, acoustic-led workout exudes class. The presence of the 13 not only gives this release a ‘real band’ feel, it is also clear that Joel focused on the art of song-writing with laser-like precision and the result is a record that will stay long on the deck of melodic hard rock fans. There is not a wasted moment, not a dull minute on this brilliant record and the only thing to hope for now is that Joel gets it together and brings these songs out on the road, because that is where they’re destined to be played. In the meantime, ‘dying to live’ is a hard rock album to treasure, and there’s no question that it will be figuring strongly in end of year lists such is the quality and skill on offer.