Smith/Kotzen – Smith/Kotzen (Album Review)

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March 26th brings the release of the much touted and teased collaboration between Adrian Smith and Richie Kotzen. Recorded on the Turks & Caicos Islands in February 2020, the album was co-produced by Richie and Adrian, and showcases the roots of both six-string extraordinaire, while bringing their influences to current times.

Adrian and Richie’s friendship started years ago almost by accident, and at one point, at Adrian’s wife’s suggestion, they decided to write a song. The chemistry between the two was so obvious that it soon developed into a full album, written on a very collaborative style, or as Richie would define, “a kind of circular motion”. Both musicians also share lead vocals on all songs, and trade off on guitar and bass duties throughout the record. Tal Bergman, Richie’s longstanding friend and touring partner, takes on drums for “You Don’t Know Me,” “I Wanna Stay” and “‘Til Tomorrow,” with Richie picking up the sticks on the other five songs. On “Solar Fire”, we have a very special guest: Mr. Michael Henry “Nicko” McBrain, who has been beating the skins for Iron Maiden since 1983, brings out his past experience with Streetwalkers and Pat Travers Band on this upbeat track.

On paper, the timing of this album was perfect: it was recorded on what would be a break between Iron Maiden dates for Adrian Smith and the end of a touring cycle for Richie, after playing on the Monsters of Rock Cruise. The idea was to release it early on in 2021 and do a few dates to promote it. However, as we all know, humanity is still dealing with the mess it’s got itself into in 2020, so touring right now seems unlikely. Rather than waiting for a time when it’s safe to tour, the decision was made to put it out now, and the pair will take this endeavour on the road at a more convenient time. For now, we are summoned to appreciate their chemistry in the studio, and to experience their offering through the nine songs in this release.

Fans have been lit up with anticipation for the pair’s collaboration for the longest time. This was fueled by the cryptic (and sometimes less so) posts that both guitarists have made on social media in the past year. December saw the reveal of the promising first track “Taking My Chances”, coincidentally on the same day we published our interview with Adrian (which can be seen here). The song was received with great excitement, and appropriately set the scene for the full release, effortlessly proving that rock and metal can be put side by side and coexist harmonically. A totally different beast, in the form of the song “Scars” was released on February 23rd, and shows the duo exploring the darker side of the blues on a grungy track, and a vibe that mixes Soundgarden and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

 The third song that the public already knows is “Running”, an up tempo number with tinges of Lenny Kravitz and a pop accent, epitomized in an extremely catchy chorus. So far so good, and the palpable perception is that the making of this album was a very fluid process, where the songs seem to write themselves. A stark contrast with projects put together by record company executives, where sometimes the artists don’t meet and/or don’t even get along. This is the real deal, and a perfect escape from each musician’s “day jobs”.

Next up on the tracklist is “Some People”, a mid tempo funky rocker which is perhaps the song where the vocal trade-offs between Richie and Kotzen work best. The solos here are perfect balance between soulful and flashy, and the mix – done by no other than Kevin Shirley – leaves a welcome breathing space. This is followed by “Glory Road”, where both players wear their bluesy roots on their sleeves and talk about what it’s like to live out on the road while trying to make it in a band. The chorus on this song will stay in your head for days, and this promises to be quite a moment on their live set.

As mentioned before, “Solar Fire” presents Nicko on drums, and his heavy fills bring an extra oomph. This song has tinges of Deep Purple’s “Space Trucking,” combines with American classics like Grand Funk Railroad and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and maintains the overall upbeat vibe of the record.

Perhaps in an effort to counterbalance the general cheerful mode of the album so far, they hit the brakes on “You Don’t Know Me”, a moody, heavy and down-tuned number, which is like a candle slowly burning. This is another strong candidate to being extended on a long jam on the stage, where Adrian and Richie can trade solos. The longest song on the whole album, it includes a false ending at the five-minute mark, after which an inspired solo from Adrian comes in.

The feeling that this whole album was done through jams without overthinking the ideas, which is already apparent on “Taking My Chances”, is even more evident on “I Wanna Stay”, an evocative song with a pop accent, where Richie takes on Adrian’s Jackson guitar on the solo. The funky “’Til Tomorrow” closes the record on the most positive of notes, and the urge to press repeat is irresistible. This is one of those albums that you can listen to for hours on end, and it’s ideal for a road trip.

If there’s one word that could define this collaboration, it would be “organic”. Nothing here sounds forced or over-analyzed, and the risk of one artist competing with the other for the listener’s attention is quickly dismissed. In a world when albums sometimes sound like they came from a production line, rather than from the hands of an artist, this is a welcome change of pace. It’s a treat to hear Adrian’s vocals in the forefront yet again, and his velvety tone contrasts really well with Richie’s high register. Guitar-wise, Richie comes in with his usual style, which can be defined as “light speed-with soul” while Adrian brings out the part of his arsenal that is usually suppressed in Maiden, in favor of the more aggressive style of his main occupation.

The end result of Smith/Kotzen is way bigger than the sum of its parts, and sounds like an homage to the artists they listened to growing up, while giving it a modern edge for the 2021 listener. It’s a rare occasion when two musicians of such caliber join forces and deliver such a promising album. In the history of rock and metal we had other examples where pairings like this worked well: Coverdale/Page,Hughes/Thrall,Allen/Lande…with Smith/Kotzen, although their “day jobs” have immense gravitas and pull, one can easily see this turning into a viable touring entity in years to come. If there’s one band to look forward to when shows are a possibility, this is it!

Released By: BMG
Release Date: March 26th, 2021
Genre: Hard Rock

Band Members:

  • Adrian Smith / Guitar, Vocals
  • Richie Kotzen / Guitar, Vocals, Drums
  • Nicko McBrain / Drums (Solar Flare)

“Smith/Kotzen” track listing:

9.3 Excellent

Adrian Smith takes a break from the darkness and the beasts of Iron Maiden and pairs up with Richie Kotzen for an organic collaboration, which harks back to their bluesy roots of the 1970’s and gives them a modern edge. Together they brought out the best in each other’s playing and singing, and produced a gem of an album. A guaranteed presence in many “albums of the year” lists!

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 10
  • Originality 9
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