2016-02-22

Album Review: Richie Kotzen - Break It All Down

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

On first blush, and especially in the context of the late-90s when guitar heroics were a bit of a loaded question, the 1999 Richie Kotzen album Break It All Down feels like one of those albums that guitar-guys were doing back then. You know, it's stripped-down and it's bluesy. It's almost grungy. If you didn't know a lot about Richie Kotzen, you'd be tempted to think, "Oh, I get it - 80s shredder is trying to get a hit by releasing a blues album."

This was, in fact, my first impression of the album when I got it back in... well, it must have been about 1999, actually. There was a lot of this sort of thing going on. The most vivid example I can think of is Joe Satriani's Joe Satriani album, which was such a bluesy, stripped-down album that it nearly alienated his fans. Heck, even Dream Theater was going bluesy and writing with Nashville songwriters. It was just one of those things, you know. It was happening.

My mistake was believing that this was what Richie Kotzen was doing at the time. In the context of his body of work, Break It All Down is certainly stripped-down, but this isn't a case of a shredder-gone-blues. This is a case of an R&B songwriter trying out some new sounds. In hindsight, this album is a major artistic achievement.

The opening track, "Break It All Down," is important because it sets the stage for what I believe Kotzen wanted to accomplish with this album. His prior albums, aside from being a bit "shreddier," also featured some straight-ahead instrumentation. By this I mean that his early work typically involves a rhythm guitar track, a lead guitar track, some basic vocals, maybe a keyboard here and there. On this album, there are often three or more rhythm guitar tracks per song, in addition to a keyboard or organ track, and every instrument is playing something slightly different. The impact is massive - even though the guitar tones are cleaner, they sound huge because of the complex orchestration of the songs.

And yet, in true Kotzen style, the arrangements never get away from him. This isn't complexity for the sake of complexity, nor is it one of those, "Let's play with an orchestra!" cheeseball moves. No, this is simply an artist finding his footing and coming into his own as a post-Shrapnel Records guitar god who always wanted to play soul music. Comfortable in his art, Kotzen uses the songs on this album to explore a different aspect of songwriting, moving away from the guitar-centric nature of his earlier work, toward a more full-band sound.

Boy, does he nail it! The guitar tones are warm and juicy. He leans heavily on tube-driven vibrato and deliciously boutique single-coil tones that occasionally rival SRV. The keyboard tones establish a warm, analogue backbone to songs, allowing each guitar track to leave some space between the notes without the song losing something. (Check out the killer leslie tones on "You Don't Know!") The drums are particularly warm on this album, something that gives it a genuine throw-back feel, back to the soul music of the 70s. But for me, this album is basically a lesson book on how to write arrangements. That's really where the album shines. Every time I listen to these songs, I hear something new.

All the same, this might be the first album in the Richie Kotzen oeuvre that does not feature extensive guitar shredding. As such, it may be a challenging album for those who are only drawn to Kotzen because of the guitar playing. For those who love the vocals and the songwriting, though, this is not just a good album, it's one of his best. At least for my money.