Joel Hoekstra
Photo by Joel Barrios https://www.norrsken.photography/

Joel Hoekstra is, for many people, “that guy”. Who is “that guy” in the Night Ranger video playing with Brad Gillis? Who is “that guy” playing in Whitesnake now? Who is “that guy” at the Trans-Siberian Orchestra concerts?  

For those familiar with those projects, the impression left is one of admiration for his guitar playing talent, but not a terribly clear picture of his personal artistic vision.  While he has four writing credits (and a hilarious, if profane, segment on the live acoustic DVD that is worth seeking out) to show for his time in Night Ranger, the legacy there and in TSO is largely interpretive, bringing other people’s words and music to life.   His first recorded work with Whitesnake was in the same vein, as he played on the “The Purple Album”, David Coverdale’s revisiting of his Deep Purple years, music indelibly stamped by the legendary Ritchie Blackmore.  Later, Joel helped co-write six songs on the studio record “Flesh And Blood”, but even then, the expectations for a Whitesnake album are clear and are less about Joel Hoekstra (or any of the guitar players for that matter) than about David Coverdale.

Despite his full schedule (currently he’s juggling Whitesnake, TSO and he has been the touring guitarist for Cher – yes, THAT Cher – for the past three years) Hoekstra is about to release his latest solo statement, under the moniker “Joel Hoekstra’s 13”.   Entitled “Running Games” this is the second “13” record, following 2015’s “Dying To Live”.  The album reassembles the 2015 core band of Hoekstra on guitar, Vinnie Appice (ex-Black Sabbath, ex-Dio) on drums and Tony Franklin (ex-Blue Murder, ex-The Firm, ex-Whitesnake) on bass, and is complemented by his TSO colleague, Russell Allen (Symphony X, Adrenaline Mob, TSO) on vocals and Derek Sherinian (Sons Of Apollo, ex-Dream Theater, ex-Yngwie Malmsteen) on keyboards.  Jeff Scott Soto (Sons Of Apollo, TSO), who shared lead vocals with Allen on the previous release, appears here primarily as a backing vocalist (though on several tracks, for example, “Finish Line”, his involvement is clearly more than simply accompaniment).

Written and produced entirely by Hoekstra, the album shows his vision to be consistent with those he’s collaborated with or interpreted in the past, but with his own personal touch.  Heavier than Night Ranger, more melodic than Whitesnake, yet clearly drawing on both for inspiration, the album is a muscular workout, driven primarily by beefy guitar and vocals, with the melodic keyboards and backing vocals sprinkled as spice over the mix. In a press release before the album, Hoekstra consciously differentiates this project from the three previous instrumental albums he’s released.  Specifically, the album is intended to be a focused consistent work, stylistically and thematically linked throughout.  The difference the vocals bring is obvious, but the secret weapon of the record remains Hoekstra’s guitar work, not the vocals, which really do best when serving as counterpoint.

Finish Line”, the opening track (and second single), has a strong Dio-vibe, and although it opens up during the chorus to something more melodic – harkening back to his bandmate Tony Franklin’s ‘80’s effort, Blue Murder – it’s harder edge sets the tone for the record.  And that’s really the one problem with what is otherwise a well-written, well-crafted, well-played record.  There are many stellar moments of very interesting music here; Hoekstra is a top-flight composer, and his production and engineering skills are well-honed.  But there are too many tracks that have a sort of generic flavor to them once the vocals come into play.  In keeping with the theme, “I’m Gonna Lose It” is a melodic, up-tempo rocker that has clear roots in Slash’s work with Myles Kennedy, particularly in the addictive intro figure.  Likewise, a song like “Fantasy” a straight-ahead rocker has an almost mesmerizing guitar figure and a solo to match, but a chorus that while good, struggles to stand out in contrast to the guitar work.  “Take What’s Mine” begins with a rather basic verse and chorus and yet boasts perhaps the albums best instrumental moment, with an extended solo spot alternating between Hoekstra’s guitar and Derek Sherinian’s keyboards; the song ends energetically with Allen vamping the song title over an excellent outro solo.

Some songs break that mold; both “Hard To Say Goodbye” (the first single) and “How Do You” find Russell Allen singing in a more emotive, less “gritty hard rock” style, and it elevates both songs.  The chorus to the latter song is almost plaintive, with the pleading “Don’t tell me!” of the lyrics complemented beautifully by the solo, the frustration and desperation of the lyrics represented succinctly in each note.  Emotionally, this is the high point of the record.  The final track, “Running Games”, is a pleasant surprise, and quite different compared to all that came before.  A ballad, its calypso-like feel is complemented by percussion from guest Lenny Castro (Toto).  The song is a beautiful apology, its lyrics asking forgiveness for his “running games”, putting the relationship second to his musical dreams and aspirations.

The album is overall meaty and a fun listen.  The degree to which one ultimately likes this record is wholly dependent on how one feels about the intersection of the vocals and guitars.  The guitar playing is at times spectacular, and even after multiple listens, the solos and instrumental interludes bring something fresh to the experience.  The choruses were mostly catchy, but for someone schooled on the roots of this music – Whitesnake and Night Ranger – the vocals, while competent, might lack a bit of the personality necessary to further lift the originality of the backing tracks.  Still, fans of propulsive fist-pumping hard rock will find much to like; those looking for something a bit deeper and original will be rewarded, but will have to turn a few more stones to get there.

Songwriting: 5 stars
Musicianship: 4.5 stars (Guitars: 5, Vocals: 4)
Originality: 4 stars
Production: 5 stars

Overall:  4.5 stars

13 Personalizado

Preorder: https://orcd.co/runninggames

“Running Games” Track-Listing:

  1. Finish Line
  2. I’m Gonna Lose It
  3. Hard to Say Goodbye
  4. How Do You
  5. Heart Attack
  6. Fantasy
  7. Lonely Days
  8. Reach the Sky
  9. Cried Enough for You
  10. Take What’s Mine
  11. Running Games
  12. Lay Down Your Love (Bonus Track – Digital)

Line-up:

  • Joel Hoekstra(Whitesnake/TransSiberian Orchestra) – Guitars
  • Russell Allen (Symphony XAdrenaline Mob) / Lead vocals, backing vocals
  • Vinny Appice (ex-Black SabbathDIO) / Drums
  • Tony Franklin (ex-The FirmBlue Murder) / Bass
  • Derek Sherinian (Sons of Apollo, ex-Dream TheaterBlack Country Communion) / Keyboards
  • Jeff Scott Soto (Sons Of ApolloTransSiberian Orchestra) / Backing vocals

Special Guests:

  • Lenny Castro (TOTO) / Percussion
  • Chloe Lowery (Trans-Siberian Orchestra) / Backing vocals
  • Dave Eggar (Evanescence, Coldplay) / Cello
  • Katie Kresek (AdeleFive For Fighting) / Violin, viola

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