Keyboardist Derek Sherinian has more than made a name for himself. After all, MusicRadar.com deemed him “A true shredder, his virtuoso playing has seen him dubbed the keyboard-playing version of Eddie Van Halen,” in 2020. Moreover, in 2021 he was voted Greatest Keyboardist Of The 21st Century, and the eighth Greatest of All Time by the same site, and Prog Magazine saw him voted the ninth Greatest Keyboardist Ever. But then you don’t rack up a resumé such as his without some serious chops, having worked with the likes of Dream Theater, Black Country Communion, Billy Idol, Whitesnake – David Coverdale stating in 2020 “Derek plays like the son of Jon Lord”, – Kiss, current band Sons Of Apollo, and Alice Cooper – who in 1989 called him the “Caligula of keyboards”!(not sure what he was getting at there!!)
With a diverse discography that puts even the hardest working musician to shame, he has spent more than thirty years building a reputation as the go-to for those serious about the keys on their record, at the same time releasing a string of solo releases, each one more accomplished than the last. Starting with 1999’s Planet X, his most recent release was 2020’s The Phoenix, his first in nine years and re-establishing him as a force to be reckoned with in the solo arena.
In 2022 he returns with the mighty Vortex, eight tracks built on his signature chameleonic sound that blends rock with elements of funk, prog, and jazz, which he started writing even before The Phoenix was finished. “Vortex is a continuation of The Phoenix,” he states. “However I feel the composition is stronger on the new album, and I would describe it as a modern day 70s style fusion record, but with newer heavier tonality.”
Happy to relaunch his musical relationship with drummer Simon Phillips with The Phoenix, the two once again worked closely on Vortex, with Phillips co-writing and co-producing alongside sitting behind the kit and providing the dynamic rhythmic backbone. Joined by bassist Tony ‘The Fretless Monster’ Franklin, the core of the record was in good hands. When it came to guitars, Sherinian has recruited a ‘who’s who’ of great players, some of whom he had worked with before – Steve Stevens, Joe Bonamassa, Steve Lukather, Zakk Wylde, Sons Of Apollo bandmate Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal – and a few new allies, in the form of Michael Schenker, Mike Stern and Nuno Bettencourt!
“The choice of guitarist works itself out in the writing,” he explains. “Also, like in the case of Steve Stevens, we co-wrote the song together, so it was natural for him to play on it.” Of his new collaborators, he says of Bettencourt, who appears on the scratchy “Fire Horse”, “I have always been a fan of his playing, and I am glad that we finally got to record together. He has the Van Halen swing and swagger to his playing that I love. We were both born in 1966, the Chinese year of the Fire Horse.” When it came to Schenker’s inclusion it was a no-brainer. “Michael Schenker has been one of my heroes for many years. He asked me to play on his Immortal album, and in return, he agreed to play on “Die Kobra”. I wanted to write a great song inspired by my favorite Schenker tracks. Zakk Wylde added some great additional parts to the song, and Tony Franklin and Simon Phillips sound great, as usual.”
Across the eight tracks, a lot of sonic ground is covered. The opener The Vortex (featuring Steve Stevens) is a high-octane thriller, it sets the marker for the sheer calibre of stellar musicianship exhibited throughout this collection. Then we have Fire Horse (featuring Nuno Bettencourt), a real battering ram slab of jazzy prog. The high-speed dualling / interplay here between Derek and Nuno is simply staggering!
Scorpion brings the vibe down slightly, with some lovely jazzy piano licks (see video below). Such a crystal clear production, credit has to go to the backroom team. Seven Seas (feat. Steve Stevens) continues that slightly more laid-back feel whilst simultaneously driving along at a fair old pace. There’s definitely a “beside the sea” feel to this, immersing you in a stream of jazz lines that blow hot and cold alternately. For some reason, I felt a sense of a revved-up version of the Doors’ “Riders On The Storm” to this, even though it’s really quite different!
Key Lime Blues follows, featuring Joe Bonamassa and Steve Lukather, a bouncy, sassy, jazz vibe that Joe and Steve clearly love being part of. Die Kobra (with Michael Schenker and Zakk Wylde) swirls in with a touch of sitar and continues in an Indian-influenced vein. It still bowls along at that stacatto pace that Derek loves before a slower, bluesy bridge section shows Schenker’s shimmering talents to the fore, then we’re back to the roller-coaster ride. Lovely stuff! Nomad’s Land features Mike Stern, and I’m less taken by this track if I’m honest. But all is redeemed with the 11+ minute, complex, sprawling closer Aurora Australis, featuring Bumblefoot. This builds and builds, an extended work-out that feels like a musical journey across the heavens!
Sherinian is not happy to stick to one style, yet blends them all to work as a cohesive whole, the album having a strong sense of flow to it. You have less and less instrumental Metal albums out there but Vortex is a fine example of how to do it right. It’s not too long, nor drags on forever, its length is its basic strength. The guest musicians are simply superb, providing Derek Sherinian with a really classy platform to show off his unique talents and prove that he is one of the best out there to ever do it. Okay! I have to confess at this point I’m not the world’s great jazz-prog fan, with much of what even ‘Greats’ like King Crimson produced leaving me cold. But I have to say I’ve really enjoyed the sheer quality oozing from this album, the key (huh!) thing being that it never (well, maybe once…) over-complicates things to the point of being boring!
With plans to play some shows in support of the album this fall, Sherinian is rightfully proud of what he has achieved with Vortex, maintaining the high standard he has set across his career. Looking back across the decades, he is humble and pays tribute to one of his most enduring working relationships. “After 30+ years of doing this, I feel blessed to play with the best players in the world, and be able to have them guest on my record. I am especially grateful to work with Simon Phillips.”