Album review: NEAL SCHON – Universe

NEAL SCHON - Universe

[Release date 11.12.20]

Neal Schon pops up in my Twitter feed every so often, his guitar emoting against a frequently funky undertow in his latest home video.  He remains both enthusiastic and engaging.  Even if the camera position and the baseball cap remains static, Schon’s career never does.  He’s been busy refurbishing the latest  iteration of Journey the band he formed and has remained with since 1973, following his early sojourn with Santana.

Schon remains one of the true guitar artists of his generation, right up there with the Satch’s and the Lukes but his solo albums are at times patchy and in more recent outings a real tune is often sabotaged by sheer technique.  This is particularly evident on ‘The Calling’ (2012) and ‘Vortex’ (2015).

‘Universe’ follows a seemingly current trend of mixing a few covers with originals.  We can expect a similar approach with Steve Lukather’s new solo album due in February.

The opening piece ‘Something In My Heart’ takes us back to the guitar-plus-rich- orchestrated-backing that was evident on his debut solo album ‘Late Nite’ in 1989. It’s a great example of his controlled vibrato and coruscating, florid figures.

The title track, though, is less like Schon more like Satch.  It’s deftly executed, with the wah guitar supported again by rich orchestration.

‘Caruso’ is another great torch ballad (originally on the album ‘Voice’ in 2001), a wonderful and lyrical piece that is right up there amongst his finest.

Whilst listening to this album, another great guitarist came to mind: Jan Akkerman.  It all comes down to good taste and Schon’s album, and guitar playing, has this in droves.  Always fluid, silky smooth and going places.

The covers are played pretty straight and reminded me of Schon’s work with Paul Rodgers in the early 1990s when he played a live Hendrix set.   Here we get ‘Voodoo Child’ and ‘Third Stone From The Sun’.

‘Purple Rain’ as you might expect is a great vehicle for Schon’s sonic searing  and another faithful copy.  The only issue with several covers, when played straight, if you don’t particularly like the tune they won’t demand more frequent play.

The remaining tracks are all originals.  ‘She’s For Real’ is a wonderful fusion piece that once again features excellent orchestration giving it a retro soul fusion feel in places.

It may come as no surprise, then, that the album producer Narada Michael Walden is no stranger to soul/jazz fusion himself.  And I think on ‘Universe’ he has reined in some of Schon’s excesses. Walden’s influence is also evident on the Mahavishnu inspired wig-out ‘Be Happy’.

‘Silent Voyage’ is another slow building ballad and real highlight whilst ‘Chrome Shuffle’ has a great groove.

It is very difficult to sustain a wholly instrumental album but this album grabs and holds the listener’s attention.  And it’s well over an hour playing time!

For Schon lovers, and those who appreciate guitar greatness,  ‘Universe’ is an all embracing experience.  They’ll love it. *****

Review by David Randall

Albums that time forgot (Late Nite, 1989)

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