Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Neal Schon - The Calling: A Guitarist's Journey

I love this record - Schon recorded it in just four days at Berkeley's famed Fantasy Studios, and it reveals just what a monster of a guitar player the guy has been for a great many years. The instrumental wizardry he possesses doesn't get much airtime when he wears his band hat for his day job as songwriter/sizzling soloist with the melodic rock institution that is Journey, and it's as much magic as there is in the possession of any shredder, or fusionist you'd care to name.

The Calling is just that. Neal Schon has been a guitar star since he joined Santana at the tender age of 15, after turning down Clapton's request that he join Derek and The Dominos. In 1973 he formed Journey, and there's been no looking back. If he hadn't made that slight misstep, he just might have heard his name mentioned alongside Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Al DiMeola when guitarists sit around talking about the greatest players of the era. As it is, he must somehow find solace in the fact that he's sold more than 75 million records. I imagine he sleeps well at night, especially as all those players I mentioned love his playing.

Steve Smith slams down a solid beat and some steam driven high hat work, and the metallic fusion of The Calling is called to order. Schon riffs heavily, carrying the tune's basic structure before he steps on the gas and combines wicked melodicism with a encyclopedic display of sheer virtuosity. Schon's pyrotechnical display of fireworks is astonishing.

High concept composition is the main course, and Carnival Jazz is one of the featured dishes - this tune is dizzying syncopation, memorably melodic, and again Schon fires off salvo after salvo of molten hot licks that are as entertaining and they are mystifying. He's playing with the speed and ferocity of a kid, but with the supreme knowledge and wisdom of a veteran jazz man. Igor Len show up and provides some serious piano underpinnings that keep one looking down into the tunes undercarriage and smiling at what gems lie there. Quite a trip for the musically adventurous.

Six String Waltz is a wonderfully romantic ballad, easily as engaging as any Journey hit, in terms of beauty and Schon's fielty to the high art of melody. This one will have you hitting repeat again, and again.

Big, big drums and a Middle Eastern twist of underlying strings are up next, and suggest a slight nod to Kashmir, as the guitarist gets heavy - this is as close to metal as it gets, and then some sophisticated changes and Smith's incredible stick work kick things up a notch into that high concept composition trip I mentioned earlier. This may have been recorded in four days, but there's many lifetimes of serious musicianship on display here. It's like Schon has chosen to knock the chip off the shoulder of those who would rather write about his personal life than his artistry. Back Smash is big, smart rock.

Fifty Six (56) sees the return of Schon's old fusion jousting partner Jan Hammer, and the two got at it like a couple of space age knights of the round table. Reminiscent of Chick Corea and Al DiMeola in the days of Return To Forever - the technology is of today, but much of what they are playing smacks of classical composition sped up to  warp speed. There are chop galore, but never at the expense of the music.

True Emotion is another large dollop of string bending, thick syrupy tone, and a sense of whimsical nostalgia - love lost, or found. It's a touching piece of melody that suggests many available
possibilities - how you respond to this tune, where it will have you go emotionally, will be up to where you are at when you hear it. It could be joyful, or just as easily tearful. Either way, it's a sweet way to get there.

Jan Hammer returns for Tumbleweeds, and you remember instantly his days in Jeff Beck's band - his synth playing always captured the histrionic twists and turns of the master mechanics finest jazz moments, and they do the same for Schon in this context. The guitarist returns Hammer's solo with a furious volley of funk fueled fire. The whammy bar gets a wicked workout, then Hammer returns it with an icy cold blast of Arp madness. If you miss great synthesizer playing, look no further. These two sound like they never stopped playing together, a fabulous combo they make. I hope they don't wait so long before they get together again.

Science fiction soundtracks could learn a thing or two from Primal Surge - it's very cinematic in scope and suggests terrains we've never seen and creatures never envisioned. If things don't work out for Schon as a pop star, maybe he has something here he can fall back on.

Ronnie James Dio and Neal Schon are two names you don't normally see in the same paragraph, but Blue Rainbow Sky was written as a tribute to the fallen singer on the day of his death, as Neal sat and looked out at the night sky and considered the temporality of this life. We live, we give, we die. This one is another beauty - majestic, larger than life, and somewhat mystical - yup, that was Ronnie, all right. A rainbow, in the dark.

Transonic Funk is straight up swagger - Schon digs in hard and pops the strings, getting the distortion to punch out his message with great command. Smith, who's playing on this album is never less than fantastic, slows the pace down just a bit, and rides just behind Schon like a rider holding back the bridles on a race horse. But he can only hold him back for so long, and before you know it they are careening down the twisting hills and heading for a wah soaked valley. They've found the way home.

Back at home for the night, Schon turns down the lights, Smith returns to his ride cymbals and they gently coa the record to a close with Song of the Wind II. The original Song of the Wind was a tune off of Santana's Caravanserai album, Schon's last with the band, and this seems like a good place to wrap it up, remembering that this is indeed, The Calling.

Schon recorded this album while on a break from some Journey tour dates. He's now back on the road with the band, but it would sure be great if he could get out and do some dates as just a guitar slinger. He deserves to hear his name right along side some of the other great guitar gods, and see his name mentioned when talk is of the true greats of the guitar.

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