Album Review : Joel Hoekstra’s 13 – Running Games

Review by Peter Coates –

Released – 12th Feb 2021

Running Games is the follow up to the Dying to Love album that was the opening Joel Hoekstra’s 13 record – as a full band line-up rather than the instrumental solo records he released prior to that. 

Hoekstra is best known as the current lead guitarist in Whitesnake and also the Trans-Siberian Orchestra project, and has also been involved in Nightranger and the original Broadway Rock of Ages musical extravaganza.  He first emerged in the Chicago club scene in the late 1990’s playing guitar in various backing bands, and made his way through a number of different channels to get to where he sits today – one of the leading rock guitarists in the world, not only with Whitesnake and TSO, but as Cher’s current lead guitarist, and has guested on a number of quality albums with Amy Lee, VHF and Michael Sweet among others. 

Joel Hoekstra handles the bulk of the creative process, overseeing production, songwriting and arrangements, and thus rafting his vision for this powerful hard rock record. Add Chris Collier’s masterful mixing and the result is ‘70s/’80s classic hard rock with 2020’s muscle. The album again features an all-star cast of musicians including none other than Russell Allen (vocals), Tony Franklin (bass), Vinny Appice (drums), and Derek Sherinian (keyboards). The amazing Jeff Scott Soto also lends a helping hand with background vocals, and Toto’s Lenny Castro helps out on Percussion.

The opening riff of Finish Line sets the scene for the whole record, a melodic rock slab of intricate guitar riffs, powered along by the bass and drums, and showing off Russell Allen’s (Symphony X and Adrenaline Mob) solid modern rock voice (reminiscent of DC himself) – backed up by the keyboards and harmony vocals.  The lead guitar work is stunning, but feels part of the music and song structures rather than simply being virtuoso soloing for the sake of it. I’m Gonna Lose It is a steadier pace rocker, and wonderfully melodic with a repeating guitar line throughout, soaring keys and a catchy chorus, while the key-change solo after the middle-eight is just breathtaking.  Vinnie Appice at nearly 65 is just as solid as ever, and shows some really deft touches in the fills here. 

The guitar lines have echoes not surprisingly of Whitesnake, but also of classic Dio and Blue Murder, but there is something in the hard-edged melodies that overlay the riffs that may be part of the Hoekstra signature. Hard To Say Goodbye is a cracking AOR rock ballad – with a feel of the Talisman and Takara sounds of TSO collaborator Jeff Scott Soto – not a bad influence to rub off!  A slight change of tempo driven by Tony Franklin on bass, and a nice off-beat drum beat on How Do You leads into an almost rock musical pre-chorus, with Hoekstra following the vocal line with chord after chord!  The solo runs over more epic drumming from Appice.

It is often easy to just throw out comparisons with other bands, and with collectives such as this, that are recorded separately over an extended time you might expect to hear multiple influences – but Hoekstra’s stamp on the whole album brings a consistency to the sound – which is undeniably a rock guitar album.  But it is one with a load of pretty solid, but multi-layered songs with some varied but excellent guitar playing, rather than a collection of ridiculous solos tacked into basic song structures. 

Heart Attack hits hard at that deliberate chugging tempo for the most part, then explodes into a keyboard / guitar frenzy for the mid-section solo, and Fantasy then brings a slightly prog-rock vibe to the guitars and vocals in the verse, before a screaming guitar break leads into the bridge.  The main solo kicks off on the keys before the guitar takes over and soars to a false climax of vocals before a final full throttle chorus.

The vocal melody in the verse of Lonely Days is perhaps not the most obvious, but the AOR-meter ramps up for the chorus and the backing vocals provide a wonderful counterpoint to the lead line – with Russell Allen really showing off as a hard rock vocalist of quality.  I love the intro to Reach The Sky, and the effects on the vocal are really effective here in the verse – with Hoekstra smashing out a dirty riff beneath it all.  He rips out some scintillating lead lines around the verse vocals, and again his punishing guitars ties in perfectly with the keyboard wizardry of Derek Sherinian.  There is another quirky middle section before two more of the anthemic choruses close out the track.

The opening to Cried Enough For You screams 1980’s hard rock before the present day metal of the pre-chorus launches us into current Judas Priest territory with a screamer of a vocal line over the monstrous riffing – this is an outlier of the album in terms of structure and feel, but the guitar solo is a ripper, and the dynamic light and shade through the track does ultimately work.  

Take What’s Mine is the only track to sneak over the 5 minute mark and Joel and Derek share the honours in the intro before a solid riff kicks in to support the verse, and the chorus is divine, with vocals, guitars and keys in perfect harmony, and some searing guitar breaks slotted into the phrasing.  Again, the lead vocal line in the verse does not quite gel in my view, but before you know it the pre-chorus and main chorus is back in all it’s glory.  The title track Running Games closes the album with the other outlier on the record, acoustic guitars with subtle beats and percussion underneath an emotive lead vocal line, and the most delicate fretwork from Joel throughout – showing another side to his talents from the rest of this quality melodic rock record.

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