There's no denying it: blues-rock is a dying art. Since the 1970s, the music scene has continually shifted away from the genre, with fewer and fewer artists coming through each year. As a result, the old guard have to carry the torch - and with those artists not getting any younger, we should cherish them as much as we can.
This collaboration may have come as a surprise to some, but when you look at the two artists separately, you'll realise that it actually makes perfect sense. Richie Kotzen has been releasing albums cemented in hard blues-rock for decades now, and whilst Adrian Smith is best known for his work in Iron Maiden, he has never made any secret of his love for blues-rock. He has listed the likes of Pat Travers and Johnny Winters as primary influences on his playing, and has explicitly stated that he "was inspired by blues-rock rather than metal."
Recorded in February 2020 before the global lockdown kicked into gear, the album is a great step back into the past - but only with the one foot. The other is planted in the here and now, evidenced by the contemporary elements found throughout the record. With the two sharing almost every duty (guitars, vocals and bass), it does feel like a truly collaborative effort and a bit of a passion project for Smith in particular.
Though Adrian has briefly dabbled in these waters before, he has never before gotten to wear his blues hat so prominently. Not only does his style of playing perfectly suit the genre, but also his voice does as well. The most hardcore of Maiden fans may remember a b-side from 1986 called 'Reach Out', a great track written by Smith's friend Dave Colwell for their brief side project The Entire Population of Hackney. Smith sings lead vocals on that track, which gave Maiden fans a small snippet of his own vocal talents, usually hidden behind the air-raid siren that is Bruce Dickinson. Track it down if you've yet to hear it.
Here, however, Smith is able to let his raspy voice loose and, coupled with Kotzen's Chris Cornell-esque tones, it makes for a superb sound which mixes perfectly with those guitars. The guitars themselves represent another change from Smith's Maiden sound; the gain has been turned down in favour of some old-school fuzz.
Behind the obvious passion that has gone into the performances, the songs themselves are a bit more of a mixed bag. The opening triplet of singles represent the best of what this albums has to offer, with 'Taking My Chances' guaranteed to become an earworm and 'Scars' being the album's big highlight. It's a gorgeous piece that really accentuates the strength of a good melodic guitar. Not everything has to be a riff.
There is a slight mid-album lull but 'Solar Fire' kicks up the pace again, no doubt due to guest drummer Nicko McBrain's typically mad playing. Whilst the drums on the rest of the album (largely performed by Kotzen, save for a few tracks by session player Tal Bergman) are fine, McBrain brings his own energy to the song and it gives the album a well-timed kick up the arse.
The only other issue is the mixing, which is odd as it was handled by another industry veteran, Kevin Shirley. Though mostly doing the job, there are a few moments where it just seems a little off, such as the quiet vocals on 'Taking My Chances' and, bizarrely, quiet guitars on 'Scars'. The two best songs, then, were slightly hindered by production issues, which is simultaneously a huge shame but also quite lucky, in that the quality of the songs themselves carry them through.
Overall, Smith/Kotzen is a simply a good blues-rock album. That it's an offering of what is, today, an increasingly rare genre makes it sound quite fresh in comparison to everything else that is currently in the release schedule. It's a delight to hear Smith in particular really wear his influences on his sleeves and give us a proper showcase of his own unique voice. For Kotzen, it's the latest chapter in an illustrious career that continues to provide us with great material. If you're a fan of either artist, it is well worth your time and with any luck, it won't be the last we hear from this duo.