Thursday 15 September 2022

Derek Sherinian - Vortex (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Jul 2022
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Here's something interesting from a name you may not know but a talent that you probably do. It might appear to be another instrumental guitar album, and it certainly includes large amounts of guitar solos, but Derek Sherinian isn't a guitarist. He merely plays his keyboards as if he is, with an array of very recognisable talent jamming along on guitar. This approach comes from very diverse background, his first three professional jobs being with jazz drummer Buddy Miles, rock icon Alice Cooper and prog metal legends Dream Theater.

I didn't hear a lot of Alice here, but I was often reminded of an inventive jazz fusion take on Dream Theater. It's primarily hard rock rather than metal, but it does heavy up at points, unsurprisingly a lot more on Die Kobra, with guests Michael Schenker and Zakk Wylde, than on songs featuring the likes of Nuno Bettencourt, Joe Bonamassa and Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal. The only guitarist to show up more than once is Steve Stevens, of Billy Idol fame, and he helps set the album in motion with a lively and spirited title track, which isn't wildly different from his other contribution, Seven Seas.

It's a good starter because it's warm and welcoming, but I think Fire Horse, featuring Bettencourt, still best known for his work with Extreme, is an even better way to continue. It starts out firmly as hard rock but quickly finds a bouncy jazz fusion riff that feels like it could have been lifted from an iconic seventies jazz fusion album. It focuses initially on guitar but becomes a very palatable duel between Bettencourt's guitar and Sherinian's keyboards. It's my favourite piece here and it gets a little more favourite every time it comes around.

I should mention that not everything is guitar and keyboards. There's a very noticeable bass from Ernest Tibbs on Fire Horse and he's one of five bassists here, the name I recognise most being that of Tony Franklin. The most obvious here may be Ric Fierabracci, even though he's only on one track, Scorpion, perhaps because it's the only one without a guitarist. I didn't know the name, but he's a massively experienced talent who's played with everyone from Tom Jones to Shakira, but perhaps more typically for jazz names like Chick Corea and Billy Cobham. In many ways, he plays lead guitar on Scorpion; he just happens to be using a bass while he does it.

Bonamassa's track also features Steve Lukather of Toto, which is an intriguing pairing. What they conjure up in Key Lime Blues is something in the vein of Fire Horse, but with weaving guitars set to a much funkier backdrop. While this often jazz over rock and often rock over jazz, there are plenty of other genres in play, a dabble in metal here and there and a few dabbles in funk being the most obvious. Nomad's Land is funky too, though as much because of Ernest Tibbs's work on bass as for Mike Stern's guitar. That's as jazzy as you might expect, with a central riff that feels like a jagged, deconstructed and rebuilt version of Herbie Hancock's Rockit.

I knew all the guitarists here, except for him, so it wasn't too much of a surprise to find that he has stayed primarily in the jazz world, albeit from jazz rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears to work with the likes of Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius and Miles Davis. The sheer diversity on this album is perhaps best highlighted by Nomad's Land being right next to the much heavier Die Kobra. Both are rooted in jazz, but they feel like they come from different genres and different eras, but not sounding out of place in each other's company. The dots connect in a lot of ways.

The most unusual song here, excepting Scorpion with its deliberate omission of guitar, is the closer because of its length and its approach. It's Aurora Australis, the guest guitarist is Bumblefoot and the ensuing organised chaos is over eleven minutes long, which is close to any two of the others. It starts out as a solo piano piece, with a little percussion—all the drums here are provided by Simon Phillips, last encountered guesting for Lalu and MSG—but it grows and keeps growing. There are a few surprising instruments here, including an obvious sitar to kick off Die Kobra, but the theremin of Armen Ra that's on five of these eight tracks, is most noticeable on this one.

And so there's a lot of variety here, wrapped up in prog rock/jazz fusion clothing. It sounds like an agreeable album from the outset but everything is done so effortlessly, not just the playing of the instruments but the way that they weave together and the way that the musicians were chosen so well, that it's almost inevitably a better album than we think it is. After one listen, it's obviously a very good album but it's only as we start to climb inside it after a few more times through that we come to terms with just how good it is.

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