Review: Neal Schon’s Universe

With 2020 coming to an end, we’re all in need of hope and healing. Let’s get that process started with music — specifically, Universe by Journey guitarist Neal Schon. I was fortunate enough to receive an early copy of this album, and it’s phenomenal! Neal is one of those artists who is incredibly talented and wildly diverse. He can play any genre of music and let his guitar sing like no other. Read on for my thoughts on his latest album, Universe.

A couple years ago, in 2018, I interviewed Neal and we talked about Universe. Here’s what he had to say at that time about the record:

You have a new solo album in the works, Universe. How’s that coming along?

At this point, I’m buttoning up all the ends on Universe with Narada Michael Walden. We just got all the sequencing and mixes final. That’s to be released later this year, probably close to when Journey’s tour gets done. Then we’re going to look to book some dates around that, at venues where we can have an orchestra. The music sounds amazing. I’m really happy with the project.

I remember when your last solo album came out, Vortex, you were pulling double-duty by opening the show with your solo music and then coming out afterward to play Journey’s set. This time around, you’re going to do a separate tour and play more intimate venues?

Yeah, that’s what we’re hoping for. There is live orchestra on the record, which is why we figured we’d go that way. It’s very melodic, powerful and majestic. There’s also some fusion on it. We did some cover tunes, but most of it is written by Narada. He produced it and played the hell out of it, on drums. We got his bass player, Buddha, playing on it. It sounds really solid and it’s probably one of the best sounding records I ever made. Kudos to those guys. His drum sound is just phenomenal. And the guitar sounds great. Everything just came together. It was an easy project for me because I didn’t have to worry about writing material. I just let him take me in a different direction.

That’s interesting. So, Narada came to you with what he thought you should work on rather than the other way around?

Well, I went to him and I said, “Write me a record, man.” He had enough free time and he said to me, “You want me to?” I said, “Yeah.” I figured he’d come back to me in a couple months and play me a couple tunes. Instead, he called me four days later and he had seven tunes written and I was like, “What?” (laughs) I thought for sure that maybe some of these songs had been sitting around for somebody else and they got shelved and he goes, “No, man. I just wrote all these right now.” He’s very prolific, fast and on-the-spot like that. It’s very cool.

Narada has worked with some amazing artists, including Whitney Houston, Elton John, and Natalie Cole, just to name a few. What’s his songwriting process like?

I don’t know. I wasn’t there when he wrote these songs. But I’ve been with him in the studio other times and it starts with him getting a drum loop going. Then he’ll go play keyboards on it. He’ll find his chord passages, and then put in some keyboard bass. Then he plays real drums on it. For my particular record, he sung the guitar melodies in certain places where he wanted the melody played. It was funny because I didn’t know that’s what he wanted. When he played it all for me, I was blown away. I thought it was outrageously cool. I said, “Let me go wrap my head around it.” I went back to my house and got comfortable with all the arrangements. I thought the melodies he sang were just a guide for me to mess around with. The first day of recording I start playing and he’s like, “What are you doing?” (laughs) And I go, “I’m playing, man.” He said, “No, man. You’ve got to play that melody.” And I responded, “Oh, you want me to play that exact melody?” It was a learning process for me in that sense. It turned out really great, so I didn’t mind being the student. There’s always way more to be learned.

Do you know approximately how many songs will be on Universe?

I think there will be 12 or 13 tracks. It’s a long record, no doubt, but it’s so well paced. It takes you in and out of all these different type of grooves. The rhythm section is so powerful but also wide open too. There is a lot of powerful, melodic guitar playing, and it’s a bit funky, too, in other areas.

What started off as 12 or 13 tracks is now an album with 15 songs. Neal told me just this week that this is “a collection of symphonic, classico, blues, R&B, rock, fusion” and his way of paying tribute to musicians he’s always admired. Below is the track listing.

Universe by Neal Schon Track Listing

  1. “Something in the Heart”
  2. “The Eye of God”
  3. “The Universe”
  4. “Caruso”
  5. “Voodoo Child”
  6. “Third Stone From the Sun”
  7. “Purple Rain”
  8. “She’s For Real”
  9. “What Has Become”
  10. “Lights”
  11. “Silent Voyage”
  12. “Chrome Shuffle”
  13. “Be Happy”
  14. “I Believe”
  15. “Hey Jude”

As Neal noted, the songs on this album are a wonderful mix of genres. I love this because it keeps things fresh. One minute I was listening to an epic slow-paced song where Neal’s guitar soars in the air like a tidal wave. The next I was being treated to a mid-tempo number where Narada’s drums kicked things into another gear, or a frenetic track like “Be Happy” that oozes intensity and emotion.

The opening three tracks — “Something in the Heart,” “The Eye of God,” and “The Universe” — are classic Neal Schon. If you’ve ever enjoyed his instrumental work — and how can you not? — then you’ll have a blast listening to these songs. “Something in the Heart” is over seven minutes long, yet it breezes by because of how compelling it is. “The Eye of God” is only a little over two minutes, but it serves as an epic segue into “The Universe,” which is where Narada really starts to shine. It’s apparent how much fun these two guys had playing together and laying down these tracks. The energy is infectious and had me moving around in no time.

“Caruso” is the the same arrangement as the version on Neal’s Grammy award-nominated album Voice. However, this time around it features a drum track from Narada, which is very cool as this was one of the standout numbers from Voice. It’s pure soul. Neal’s take on “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix is badass. He perfectly captures the nasty and raw edginess of that classic riff while also putting his stamp on this timeless rock song.

Another highlight for me on Universe is “Purple Rain.” I was lucky enough to see Prince perform live on his Musicology tour and, like Neal, I was a big fan of his work. I couldn’t think of a better guitarist to cover “Purple Rain” than Neal Schon, and he doesn’t disappoint. Neal’s take on this classic anthem is beautiful and a fitting tribute to The Purple One.

Hearing Neal Schon’s instrumental version of “Lights” — a classic Journey song he wrote with Steve Perry as a tribute to San Francisco — is absolutely wonderful. I’ve been in the crowd many times when Neal asks the audience to light up the arena with their lighters and cell phones during this number and it’s a sight to behold. Hearing this song made me long for those moments, and I know they’ll return. Until then, revel in the beauty and mastery that is the instrumental version of this Journey concert staple on Universe.

The rest of the album is equally transcendent, and it ends on the highest of highs as “I Believe” is seamlessly woven together with the final song: “Hey Jude.” Like the finale at a concert you never want to end, Neal’s rip-roaring take on “Hey Jude” is perfectly suited for his style and tone. It’s also the ultimate crowd pleaser and the perfect way to leave us all with hope heading into 2021, knowing that the healing process has begun. Universe is set to drop later this year, so stay tuned to Neal’s social media channels for more details on when this heavenly collection of music from rock’s greatest guitarist is available to buy and stream.

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