Monday, 22 February 2021

Joel Hoekstra's 13 - Running Games (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Feb 2021
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For those who don't know the name, Joel Hoekstra is the current guitarist with Whitesnake who tours with both Cher and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This is the second album from his own band, following a 2015 debut, Dying to Live, and it features the same stellar line-up of musicians as before. Ironically, it may be that Hoekstra is the least experienced of them, his first album being solo instrumental guitar music, appropriately titled Undefined, back in 2000, eight years before Night Ranger and six further years before Whitesnake. That means that there's a heck of a lot of experience here to draw from!

Russell Allen handles the lead vocals, as he has with Symphony X since 1995. That's the legendary Tony Franklin on bass, whom I first heard in the Firm back in 1985, alongside Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers, and he's been a very busy man ever since. Derek Sherinian is behind the keyboards and you may know him from his work with Alice Cooper, Dream Theater and Black Country Communion; merely two weeks ago I was listening to him on the new MSG album. And, without forgetting the suddenly omnipresent Jeff Scott Soto on backing vocals, who's still ahead of the pack for my album of the month with W.E.T., there's Vinny Appice on drums, who started out with John Lennon and has been a force to be reckoned with ever since, playing for Rick Derringer, Black Sabbath, Dio and more.

Very few bands can boast that level of experience and unbridled talent but bands need more than that to sound good. Fortunately whatever that X factor is, this band has it. Whether they're playing with a heavy Dio feel on Finish Line, which sometimes resembles those Dio opening stormers like We Rock or Stand Up and Shout, or a little softer on I'm Gonna Lose It, which is a bit closer to Hoekstra's work in Whitesnake, they play in a consistent melodic hard rock style, as tight as you'd imagine, with perhaps more of a focus on hooks than riffs but plenty of both.

What works best is that this really does feel like a band, even with Hoekstra's name on the cover. He's obvious throughout, of course, but he's not dominating the way that, say Yngwie Malmsteen did on a couple of albums that Jeff Scott Soto sang on back in the eighties. There are points where this feels as if it's Hoekstra's band, but others where it feels like Allen's or even Appice's, who's so utterly on point here that it feels like he's playing in slow motion so as not to overwhelm. The mix is superb, so it isn't difficult to track any of these musicians, even Franklin, and they're all worth tracking. While each has their moments to shine, they support each other well here, both stepping up and getting out the way.

I think my favourite song here is Heart Attack, a little closer to the Whitesnake approach than the Dio and with some added sass. All these songs are worthy but the best ones really nail the groove they're aiming for and that one does. Fantasy does too, albeit a different groove with strings that remind of Led Zeppelin and Rainbow and a cool keyboard solo from Sherinian that marks it apart from its peers. I'd call out Cried Enough for You too, as it's almost like a Metal Church song covered by Dio, without the level of crunch but with even more of a brooding nature.

But hey, not everything needs to thrill us here. There are eleven songs on offer, twelve if you count a bonus track called Lay Down Your Love, and they're highly consistent in quality. The question is more about which songs elevate beyond that than which don't reach it, because there are no duff ones here, just ones that might not speak as much to our individual tastes. For instance Lonely Days isn't a bad song at all, doing that Fantasy string thing with guitars, but I'm less sold on it because it's somehow a classic rock stomper and a laid back melodic rock song at the same time and it doesn't work for me. I'm less fond of the title track too, even though it does the laid back melodic rock song thing on its own very well indeed.

I haven't heard Dying to Live but, on the basis of this album alone, Joel Hoekstra already has his own supergroup in place for whenever that long Cher tour ends or David Coverdale decides to refresh the Whitesnake line-up again. The 13 don't have the hit singles those acts can rely on, but they would be worthy support for either and a bunch of people ought to show up just to see them.

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