2015-01-16

Album Review: Richie Kotzen - Cannibals


Given the surprising and outstanding success of The Winery Dogs, it may be somewhat surprising that Richie Kotzen would release a solo album almost immediately after returning from a worldwide tour. But the more familiar one gets with his work, the more one realizes that Kotzen has seemingly endless energy with with to pour himself into being one of music's most prolific independent artists.

To wit, sometimes I get the feeling that there is really nothing that Richie Kotzen can't do. He is an undeniable guitar god, an alumnus of the legendary Shrapnel Records label, releasing albums early in his career (meaning as a teenager) that quickly established him as one of the most gifted electric guitarists in the hard rock world. But it wasn't until "shredding" fell out of favor with music consumers that the world got to treat itself to what Kotzen can really do. His gritty, soulful vocals proudly display his R&B roots; and yet as a rock vocalist he is frequently compared to Chris Cornell, thanks in large part to his impressive vocal range and his ability to channel the vocal grit of 70s legends like Bob Seger, Michael McDonald, Daryl Hall, or Robert Palmer.

For any other artist, being at the forefront of the rock world as both a guitar shredder and a vocalist would be more than enough. Kotzen, however, has managed to develop impressive chops as a bassist, drummer, pianist, and most recently a theramin player. His deft use of social media includes one of the best YouTube channels out there, a fact that inspired this Music As Art post I wrote two years ago.

Consider his long list of accomplishments, it would be fair to ask what a veteran artist has to offer the music world in releasing his twentieth solo album since the late-80s, today, in the year 2015. Surely a prolific artist such as he must be running out of ideas by now, right?

Wrong.

On a pure technical level, Cannibals might be Kotzen's best-produced album to date. While his earlier albums sound great, the production value on this album seems to have upped the ante quite a bit. The tones are crisp and clear, yet still display the warmth we can fairly demand from a great R&B record. The drum tones are warm and clean - no excessive reverb, putting them in the forefront of the track without being too over-bearing. The bass tones are as groovy and warm as we might want them to be, albeit definitely with more of a P-bass twist. The guitars, of course, showcase Kotzen's unique ability to create a sonic heaviness while using minimal distortion - something many other artists attempt and fail.

The songs themselves are a wonderful reprieve from the aggression and noisiness of The Winery Dogs. In the context of Kotzen's full body of work, this is an interesting and important development. 2009's Peace Sign and 2011's 24 Hours saw Kotzen exploring the harder-rocking, more aggressive  side of his artistry, which fairly definitely culminated in a rather heavy collaboration with The Winery Dogs. Kotzen seems to have recognized that the time was right for him to lean further toward his R&B side. And while he doesn't go as far in this direction as, say, 1999's Break It All DownCannibals is nonetheless deeply immersed in rhythm and blues.

This is no more obvious than on "In An Instant," which sounds as though it could have been pulled from an early Hall & Oates album, and on "I'm All In," which is a duet with the legendary Doug Pinnick of King's X. Even the album's harder-rocking songs are drenched in a thick coating of electric piano or Hammond organ tones. For fans that may have come to Kotzen from The Winery Dogs, it may be a bit of a surprise, but as I mentioned above, this transition feels like a necessary one to me. As good as The Winery Dogs is, I, for one, had started to miss the smoother, groovier stuff.

One last thing I should mention about Cannibals from the standpoint of Kotzen's artistic development. A few years ago, Kotzen decided to transition to playing without a pick, a bold and adventurous move that few veteran guitar gods would have made. While this has slowly provoked an evolution of his guitar playing, on Cannibals I finally feel that he has come into his own as pick-less guitarist. From the country-inflected explosion in the album's title track to the warmth of the big, open chords throughout the album, Kotzen's new finger-style approach feels fresh and natural. Anyone who might be less of a guitar-geek than I would never guess that they were listening to one of rock music's most impressive sweep-pickers. It would have been easy for Kotzen to stop playing fast licks when he ditched the pick, but he didn't. He developed a new arsenal of sounds to accompany his new technique. Despite all that, he anchored that new arsenal in the artistic continuity of his music. The result is a new level of artistic maturity from an already well-established musical artist.

The bottom line should be obvious by now: I could not be happier with Cannibals. It is a another invigorated effort by one of my very favorite musical artists, and I strong encourage you to buy this album and use it to decorate the air around you for a while.