Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Re-Machined: In The Studio with Vai, Hughes, Smith, and Doley - A Producer's Perspective with Fabrizio Grossi

My day was made considerably brighter yesterday when I received a guided tour from producer Fabrizio Grossi of the Deep Purple classic track Highway Star as performed by Glenn Hughes, Steve Vai, Chad Smith, and Lauchlan Doley for the soon to be released Re-Machined: A Tribute To Deep Purple album.

This track has completely floored me. It is the most exciting slice of rock and roll I have heard this year. It did what I did not think could be done - it excited me in the same way that the original track had when I first heard it at age fifteen. I rarely get goosebumps from rock these days, but this raised them on several occasions.

I first heard about the track in a message I received from Grossi:

"Hey Tony, I just finished up the dream of a life time. I was able to unite Glenn Hughes with Steve Vai and Chad Smith on a cover of Highway Star for the 40th anniversary of Machine Head. Producing and mixing these guys has been incredible, and the result is MIND FUCKING BLOWING! Wait til hear the CD, you won't freaking believe it. Glenn is god-like and Vai sounds like Brian May is doing crystal-meth while emulating Hendrix!"

He wasn't exaggerating a bit, either.

The song begins with Vai taking the reins and spinning out a brief intro that signals his willingness to add to and not just ape the original. This take is true to the original in all the spots that you need and wish to hear, but there's plenty of what makes Vai great on tap as well. I've heard some fantastic renditions of Highway Star from other great guitarists, but I feel good in stating that only one player has ever owned it like this, and he wrote the song. I think Ritchie would nod approvingly, and he's not really one known for his nodding.

I asked Fabrizio about tracking the guitars:

"We recorded for, I would say about a couple days in total. All the guitars were done at the Melody Hut, Steve’s new studio, which is nothing less than a guitar sanctuary! I love his work on this because it was respectful enough with Ritchie’s landmarks parts, but able to turn the whole thing around and make it sound just like Vai. For long time I've wanted to hear him on a power vocal track, and this was just the confirmation of why I’ve always been drawn to his music. It’s not just the guitar playing, but it’s the overall orchestration concept of guitar overdubbing behind this man, that makes him who he is."

Vai elaborates on the solo sections very little, but when he does it is astounding. He adds some harmony licks that have me grinning from ear to ear, and his replication of Blackmore's dizzying hammer-on display is truly mind blowing. Even his rhythm playing under the solo is pure excitement. I've yet to hear the Chickenfoot rendition, but I'm certain that while the guitar heads debate the relative merits of Steve versus Joe, the true fans will be glorifying in having both to enjoy. Highway Star is a song that I've been somewhat tired of hearing after years of classic rock radio, but Steve and his consorts have given it a great new reading.

Glenn Hughes is still on fire. He's been sizzling for the last few years, having returned to his hard rock roots after years of forging new fields of heavy funk. On many of these outing he's been joined by his brother-in-arms Chad Smith, who is ferocious here. Fabrizio Grossi responded with a laugh when I asked about the rhythm team of Smith and Hughes, and the tune's incredible drive:

"That was done with Glenn and Chad interacting on the rhythm wall, they were playing in front of each other and it was pretty 'sick' watching these two going at it. Then everything else was overdubbed, but still approached with a very live feel. The song wasn’t played to a click or anything, and you can hear it, but it “pulls” like a mother, and that’s it’s beauty."

Hughes's vocal is something to behold - I got my first set of goosebumps when the 61 year old singer totally nails the classic Ian Gillan screams that ring in the first verse. Hughes hits this cut head on, and comes as close as anyone could to making this his own - much like with Vai's contributions, I had hoped that this bunch would take a few liberties with this classic that everyone knows so very well, and my wishes been accommodated. After my first listening, I asked the producer just how much direction he offered, or Hughes required:

"Considering that pretty much everything that comes out from Glenn’s mouth when he sings is a great take to begin with, we didn’t really sweat it that much. But I did tell him that I wanted his stamp on the song and not a mere copy of Gillan’s original performance. I just had to make sure he was gonna go for a “bigger than life outburst of personality” type of take. Once we cleared the concept, it was downhill and within one hour the magic was done. I love when I can help Glenn to quickly get into that mode, because once he gets where you wants to go, as some Texas boys used to say, it’s a 'vulgar display of power' from there on!"

Anyone who has ever heard Highway Star loves Jon Lord's organ playing - especially the fleet fingered solo that has thrilled us for the last forty years. When I first heard that Hughes, Vai, and Smith were tackling this literal Everest of Rock, I wondered what they were going to do about paying their propers to the late, great Lord. Would Vai do all the heavy lifting, or would they find someone willing to take a stab at it? Lauchlan Doley got the call, and his playing will make you very happy. Grossi on Doley:

"Lauchlan's keyboards were done before Jon’s passing, and they were another great addition to the final result. It’s difficult to balance out a huge organ sound with Vai’s wall of six-strings, but I am really happy with the result, it’s very organic."

Fabrizio Grossi is about to see his stock go up - this cut, off this record is going to change the way the world looks at tribute albums.Of course, I'm not so foolish as too imply that this cover in any way eclipses the original - Deep Purple created perfection with this track, of that there is no question. What I can say is that Grossi has captured the essence that made the track great, and he allowed Vai and Hughes to do what they do better than anyone. They are two of the most unique artists to ever tread the world of rock, and their performances here are nothing less than great. It's tough to take on such a bona fide classic, but this lot has done it a great honor.

I see that someone has thrown up a YouTube of this track, and I must warn you that it does not come close to capturing the sound of what Grossi so graciously shared with me yesterday. It is a stream off what sounds like a bad phone connection. I can tell you that the sound of this is just glorious, and you are about to be amazed when you hear the record.

Thanks to Fabrizio Grossi, Glenn Hughes, and everyone involved with this project.

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