I had never even heard the name Joel Hoekstra before I picked up Night Ranger’s brilliant album Somewhere In California back in 2011. As a big Night Ranger fan I found it most worrying that a brilliant guitarist like Jeff Watson wasn’t in the band no longer so the this Joel dude had to be really damn good to fill those shoes. Well, judging by his work beside Brad Gillis on said album and the follow-up High Road (2014, reviewed here), Joel fit the Night Ranger camp like a glove. His easy-going and happy outlook approach also fit the mold like a charm. I had the pleasure to witness Night Ranger in concert at Sweden Rock 2014 and Joel impressed me lots. Earlier this year, Hoekstra got the spot as the guitar player in Whitesnake after Doug Aldrich (Dio, Hurricane, Lion, Revolution Saints) left the band. Too bad, I thought as I thought that Hoekstra was perfect for Night Ranger, but of course I get why he switched, Whitesnake is a great gig that brings in the dough on a world-wide basis, which Night Ranger do not. They should, but don’t. A quick google on Joel Hoekstra told me that as a music nerd as myself, I should have known about Hoekstra long before I saw his name on that Night Ranger CD. Joel Hoekstra has a past playing on tour with giants such as the Trans Siberian Orchestra – a big favorite of mine – and has also recorded with Jeff Scott Soto and Amy Lee (ex-Evanescence) and played as a touring member with Dee Snider and Survivor keyboards player / guitarist / bassist Jim Peterik. He has also released three solo albums prior to this one – Undefined (2000), The Moon Is Falling (2003) and 13 Acoustic Songs (2007) – but his latest studio recording, this album not counted, is Whitesnake’s latest Deep Purple cover album, the underwhelming The Purple Album (reviewed here). But as I really hasn’t gotten to know Hoekstra musically – both Whitesnake and Night Ranger already have their brand – this album is the one to do it. To help him out vocally he has brought in his pals Jeff Scott Soto (Talisman, WET, Yngwie Malmsteen, Axel Rudi Pell) and Russell Allen (Symphony X, Adrenaline Mob, Allen-Lande) with Vinny Appice (Black Sabbath, Dio, WW III) on drums and Tony Franklin (The Firm, Blue Murder, Whitesnake) on bass. questing on keyboards is no other than Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater, Alice Cooper, Yngwie Malmsteen). So it’s a well-known bunch of musicians that has teamed up behind Hoekstra. But I’d really like to hear what Hoekstra’s lead vocals sounds like. I mean, I hear his backing vocals and judging by those, he has a good voice.
But what’s interesting is to hear what the music sounds like when Joel get to decide for himself. Since I haven’t heard any of his old solo records, this is all new to me. I have heard that those records are more in a fusion / jazz / hard rock vibe and mostly instrumental, but that this album is more song and melody oriented – more up my alley, to be frank. Opener “Say Goodbye To The Sun” tells me that that is the case. Russell Allen sings on it and the whole tune sounds as if Allen might have a song writing credit on it. Think of a more straight forward hard rock version of Symphony X and you’re pretty close. Great tune that gives a good taste of what – hopefully – is to come. “Anymore” is really good as well. Memorable melodies and a melodic hard rock song with some great vocals from Allen. Part of the song would be perfect for a future Whitesnake album, if with Whitesnake we talk about are their two latest albums of original tunes. “Until I Left You” is more of a pop-metal song that fits singer Jeff Scott Soto like a glove. In the late 80’s, this one could have been a big hit – great! “Long For The Days” is a ballad that sound wise belongs in 1991, but Allen’s voice makes for a different vibe and removes the somewhat stereotype 1991 touches. The song moves in the line’s of Whitesnake’s “Is This love”, but this one is better. “Scream” was the first video / single from the album and it makes me think of Soto’s old band Talisman and not just because of Soto’s voice. It’s a heavy, but melodic rocker that should go down well in melodic rock territories. Think Russell Allen singing in a melodic hard rock band in 1989, catchy hooks, big choruses and melodies that seduces all the ladies and viola – now you know what “Never Say Never” sounds like – I love this stuff. “Changes” – sung by Allen – is a Whitesnake-esque ballad that wouldn’t have felt wrong on their 1987 album – even Joel’s guitar sounds a lot like John Sykes here. Not a bad thing though as the song is really good. “The Only Way To Go” also sounds like Symphony X had they been a melodic hard rock band in 1990. I quite like that idea, actually. The title track is a darker and heavier piece of melodic hard rock sung more in the vein of how Allen usually sings in his day job or in Allen-Lande. It’s still a very memorable tune and a very good one. “Start Again” is a stand-out track here as it is the most pop / AOR / soft-ish tune on the record. The influences from bands such as Journey, Kansas, Styx and Foreigner are pretty clear and as we all know, this is Jeff Scott Soto’s domain and he does this kind of stuff so brilliantly. This is a hit – or at least it should be. The closing track is called “What We Believe” and is an acoustic based hard rock ballad that holds a darker, folk music vibe that takes on a Led Zeppelin trip towards the end – brilliant. It also holds a brilliant duet between Soto and Hoekstra’s Trans Siberian Orchestra band mate, the amazing Chloe Lowery. I must check her out closer – that voice is not to be missed. If you want to spend some extra green on the Japanese version of this record, you will get a bonus track called “Never Want”. It’s sung by Soto and sounds like ZZ Top goes AOR back in 1986, if you can imagine that. It’s a great song, though and it should be for everyone, not only one market. But that’s the way it is, I guess. Japan is probably the only market that still buys lots of CDs still.
This album is really, really good and there isn’t one bad song on it. However, Hoekstra has hardly invented the wheel again, this is melodic hard rock and I guess there is a reason for Hoekstra ending up in bands such as Night Ranger and Whitesnake. But I don’t have a problem with that, this kind of music, if it’s written, recorded and performed well won’t ever get boring in my world and Hoekstra and his band has done just that. The only problem with using vocalists like Soto and Allen is that they put so much of their personal mark on the songs that it’s hard to figure out how much of the songs’ arrangements, style and melodies that are Hoekstra’s and what is Soto’s / Allen’s. That’s one reason I would like to hear Hoekstra himself sing, it gets more personal that way or maybe use a singer that hasn’t already sung on countless of other projects. As a player, Hoekstra is brilliant. His playing is based on heart, soul, feel and emotion more than technique even though he can be really technical as well – that’s a thing that bodes well for his involvement in Whitesnake. You like good songs? Addictive hooks? Big groove? Great choruses? Killer musicians? Well, then this is for you. My only question is this, why is the project called 13?
1. Say Goodbye To The Sun
3. Until I Left You
4. Long For The Days
6. Never Say Never
8. The Only Way To Go
9. Dying To Live
10. Start Again
11. What We Believe
12. Never Want (Japanese bonus track)