Let’s get one thing straight from the go: I’m not exactly a die-hard fan of instrumental shredding, regardless of the genre or the instrument. Yet, there are very few artists that make me prick up my ears every time they release a new album. The American keyboard wizard, Derek Sherinian, is one of them. His signature sound is quite an intriguing mixture of modern fusion jazz and progressive rock with the occasional metal edge and, yes, his albums contain a fair amount of shredding, by default – but it’s always conducted with elegance and grace. His previous outing “The Phoenix,” released in 2020, was quite a feat of ear candy, so I was expecting nothing less impressive when “Vortex” came out on July 1st, 2022, via InsideOut Music. His latest effort continues to show that Sherinian not only has the technical prowess to boldly go where others might not dare, but also showcases an almost insane level of diversity: his Hammond grooves resonate strongly with the air of Jon Lord and when he fires on all cylinders, his shredding triggers flashbacks by turns of Steve Vai and SNARKY PUPPY.
The new outing kicks off with the title track, featuring Billy Idol‘s trusted, long-time axe-meister Steve Stevens on guitars. The song is a high-energy hard-rock punch in the face. If the sheer feel-good vibe and catchiness of the main riff did not make you shuffle your feet, I would seriously doubt that you were really paying attention. There’s something endearingly old-school about this hard-rock riff-a-thon and the same holds true with the follow-up track, “Fire Horse,” featuring funk-metal veteran Nuno Bettencourt of EXTREME on guitars. The solo trade-off between Sherinian‘s Hammond chops and Bettencourt‘s funky wah-licks sounds pretty damn delicious. Also, the song’s main motif resonates rather nicely with the sonic aura of EXTREME‘s most critically acclaimed 1990 outing, ”Pornograffiti.” It shows that Sherinian sure knows how to choose exactly the right collaborators for his songs.
After two hard-rock bangers, it’s time for some off-kilter fusion-jazz mayhem: enter the song, “Scorpion.” The song is crafted around nothing short of a mind-bending piano motif that bounces to and fro in what first sounds like some differential-math time signature, but turns out to be straight-up 4/4. The syncopation is pretty wicked, to say the least. The cubistic piano gallops forward in a somewhat Thelonius-Monk -like manner, being simultaneously reminiscent of the song “Dragonfly” on Sherinian‘s previous full-length. Somehow, by way of some black magic, no doubt, this keyboard wizard makes it sound like the most natural thing that funky hard-rock riffing is followed by a moment of fusion jazz. Bassist Tony Franklin drops a brief but inspired bass solo. I must say that in spite of bass solos being, by default, slightly dubious and shady endeavors, I could have listened to Franklin‘s soloing a bit longer. His phrasing and bass tone are pretty sublime throughout the album, but especially on this track.
The ghost of fusion jazz decades gone by intensifies a notch on the follow-up track, “Seven Seas,” which features Stevens on guitars once again. The song is crafted around a walking-bass type of motif in 7/8 time signature, upon which Stevens drops his crazy guitar legatos. The song is balancing between progressive rock and fusion jazz mayhem rather brilliantly. The song resonates with the air of both Pat Metheny and the late Finnish prog-maestro Pekka Pohjola. Me likes! With a little bit more Slavic melancholy, the song would easily have taken off on a similar tangent to Lauri Porra‘s solo stuff.
On “Key Lime Blues,” Sherinian shows his proficiently funky clavinet skills, while guitarists Joe Bonamassa and Steve Lukather (TOTO) let rip with their six-stringers. The main motif is layered thick with Steve Vai vibes and, for a ”blues” song, there’s quite a lot of shredding but, probably because the pyrotechnical stuff is laid down with style, it does not sound out of place at all. While there are robust blues elements, the emphasis is maybe more on the rhythm part of rhythm & blues – the track sounds funky as hell.
If the previous track sounded funky in the blues framework, “Die Kobra” does the same with an orientally flavored hard-rock approach. The song features nothing short of a legendary pair with Michael Schenker (SCORPIONS) and Zakk Wylde (BLACK LABEL SOCIETY, OZZY OSBOURNE) on guitars. The riffs punch hard – or sting like a cobra to be more precise – and the funky hard-rock groove is just as mesmerizing as the snake charmer’s magic flute. During the guitar-solo section, the grinding mellows out a bit, but soon switches back into high gear. I cannot tell the guitarists apart, so I guess that merely proves further that the delivery is consistently brilliant.
The fusion jazz momentum reaches its peak on “Nomad’s Land,” featuring pedigree jazz guitarist Mike Stern, whose résumé boasts collaborations with jazz institutions such as Miles Davis, the Brecker Brothers, and Billy Cobham. The song is a breathtaking fusion onslaught, something like SNARKY PUPPY but on steroids, and for the prog aficionados with modern fusion jazz as their guilty pleasure, this track is pure ear candy.
The album brings things to a closure with an 11-minute prog epic entitled “Aurora Australis,” featuring the guitarist, Bumblefoot, best known for his work with bands such as GUNS ‘N’ ROSES, ASIA, and SONS OF APOLLO. The song is a genuine everything bagel like a true prog-rock epic should be, channeling the spirit of progressive dinosaurs from the past in nothing short of a haunting manner. The staccato riff-section, in particular, may trigger nice flashbacks of the “Watcher of the Skies”-era GENESIS. Is there a better way to end an instrumental prog album layered thick with fusion jazz? I think not.
Like I said in the introduction, instrumental shredding is not exactly my go-to genre of progressive music but, once again, Derek Sherinian proves with his new album that his signature take on the subject is something worth noting. The sheer versatility and the no-holds-barred sort of creativity oozing from the songs make listening to his trademark shreddings a highly enjoyable experience. Once again, he further showed that he sure has a knack for picking just the right collaborators for his songs. This album is exactly the type of sonic vortex that I don’t mind getting sucked into.
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- The Vortex (feat. Steve Stevens)
- Fire Horse (feat. Nuno Bettencourt)
- Seven Seas (feat. Steve Stevens)
- Key Lime Blues (feat. Joe Bonamassa & Steve Lukather)
- Die Kobra (feat. Michael Schenker & Zakk Wylde)
- Nomad’s Land (feat. Mike Stern)
- Aurora Australis (feat. Bumblefoot)
Derek Sherinian – keyboards
Tony Franklin – bass
Simon Philipps – drums