The brainchild of British ex-pat Stuart Smith, the talented agglomeration of musicians known as Heaven & Earth recently released its third album, Hard to Kill, on independent Quarto Valley Records. It is a blues-rock tour de force, highlighted by superior musicianship, a gritty, powerhouse production, and songs that are both eminently memorable, and truly kick-ass rockers.
Smith spent the first years of his career in the United Kingdom plying his trade with a modicum of success. As the story goes, his pal Ritchie Blackmore, the legendary co-founder of both Deep Purple and Rainbow, encouraged him to pack up his guitars and move to the hard rock Mecca of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Smith took the advice, and has been a fixture on the local scene now for more than three decades.
The first Heaven & Earth album was released in the late 1990s and featured a veritable who’s who of rock lore guesting on it, including Richie Sambora, Joe Lynn Turner, Glenn Hughes, Carmine Appice, former Heart guitarist Howard Leese and current Foreigner vocalist Kelly Hansen.
A second album, Windows to the World, came out in 2001, and also was a collection of all-star players, including former Quiet Riot and House of Lords bassist Chuck Wright and former The Firm and Blue Murder bassist Tony Franklin as well as singers Hansen and Paul Shortino.
Smith met current Heaven & Earth singer Joe Retta (Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Dio Disciples) when both were asked to come together in a new version of 1970s glam rock pioneers Sweet in 2008, and a firm friendship and writing partnership was formed. Together, the pair collaborated to write the next Heaven & Earth album, Dig, which came out in 2013.
“Hard to Kill took about two and a half years to write and record, a lot of that because each member of the band has so many other things on the go. But part of it is that we have a record company that is incredibly supportive and understands that we want to take the time to make sure we can put together the best album possible. And because everyone on the band has input on the songs, the writing process takes a lot longer than the recording, but in the end everyone is happy with the final product because we know we have all put our best effort forward,” said Smith.
“We really spend the time crafting the songs and we won’t go in and record it until we feel it’s 100 per cent ready. The way I prefer to do it is if you’re on a tour and then you write songs you sort of mess around with them in sound check and you then go out and try them in front of audiences, which I have done a few times, including for Hard to Kill. By the time you get into the studio you know what you want to do on them, and what works and what doesn’t. An album, for us, is really a snapshot of an idea and one that we refine on the road.”
Hard to Kill was produced by Dave Jenkins and mixed by music industry heavyweight Chris Lord-Alge, who has worked with everyone from Madonna and Prince, to Bruce Springsteen and Smashing Pumpkins. Besides Smith and Retta, the other members comprising this incarnation of Heaven & Earth include bassist Lynn Sorensen (Paul Rodgers, Bad Company), keyboardist Ty Baillie (Katy Perry, Robbie Robertson). In live situations, keyboards are handled by Mike Mangan and drums by Steven Wilson.
Studio wise, a major addition to the band and to the album is the contributions provided by legendary drummer Kenny Aronoff, best known for his work with John Mellencamp and Bob Seger, but who is also one of the most in-demand session and live drummers on the planet. Not only did Aronoff make an impact on Hard to Kill with his exceptional skills behind the kit, but also as a songwriter.
“I met Kenny maybe a year before we started the album. I went and saw Chickenfoot at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles and he was playing with the band at the time and was the star of the show as far as I was concerned. He was just amazing. So I met him afterwards and we chatted. Then one night not long after I was at a jam night – there are all these various clubs in L.A. that have jam nights – and Kenny was there and we reconnected and we told the organizer that we wanted to jam together. We got up and I think we did Highway Star and we literally got a standing ovation for it. And the end of the song I reached over the drums and shook his hand and said, ‘you and I have got to play together. So when the opportunity for this album came up and we needed a drummer my first call was to Kenny,” Smith said.
“Kenny has got his own sound. His meter is impeccable; I don’t even think we used a click track on half the things with him, which I like. Kenny has been around a long time and he has played with a lot of amazing people, so he had developed a name over the years and it’s well deserved. He has a reputation as the ‘go to’ guy. He is quick to pick things up and he knows his stuff. But it was different with his because for most people he goes in and just does sessions, but he came in and actually wrote with us.
“I said to him, ‘have you got any interesting drum patterns?’ Because I don’t think bands really look to the drummer too much for ideas. And when I mean patterns I mean things like the drum beat for songs like Ballroom Blitz or the intro to Fireball by Deep Purple – songs that are based along a very cool drum pattern. With the song Beautiful Monsters from this album he said he had an idea and just laid out a complete track in the studio for me, so I wrote around his track.”
Musically, Smith said Heaven & Earth revels unabashedly in its influences – the rock and blues music that spawned the hard rock revolution of the 1970s.
“I do see a lot of people who say they don’t like using labels, but I do see the point of putting a label on something because it describes us to a tee. We are hard rock blues band. Heaven & Earth has always been a band where we don’t just do hard rock or ballads or blues, we do a little bit of all of that. And that was sort of my intent from the first Heaven & Earth album. When we were recording that first album, the producer Pat Regan (Frehley’s Comet) said no one was going to buy it because it was too diverse. I disagreed and said when I was growing up bands like Led Zeppelin would put a reggae track or a folk track on an album. Deep Purple did a country and western song on Fireball and Jethro Tull would do all sorts of interesting things,” he said.
“I like that diversity. I don’t like bands that bring out these albums where it’s all the same all the way through, where there are no ups and downs or any sort of dynamics. So I have no problem calling Heaven & Earth a hard rock blues band influenced by bands like Deep Purple, Bad Company and Cream.”
While many of the original song ideas come from Smith and Retta, the process for writing within Heaven & Earth, as exemplified in the aforementioned conversation with Aronoff, is quite collaborative.
“The first way that I love doing it is I will sit on my couch for hours playing guitar and if I come up with a good riff, I will get my iPhone and I will record about 30 seconds of that riff, so I would have hundreds and hundreds of these riffs on my phone. Then when we all got together I would go through it and play some of them and people would pick out parts they like and it would spark a jam and in many cases everything else would start to fall into place and the other guys had their input. For example with the song The Game Has Changed [the first single from the album] I came up with that main riff and then Lynn Sorensen came up with the verses and they were something that I would never have thought of,” Smith explained.
“But because Kenny, Ty and Lynn had so many other commitments, it was hard to get everyone together so for other songs, Joe and I would get together and we’d write and then would just basically present nearly finished songs to the rest of the band.”
Retta does most of the lyric writing for Heaven & Earth, although Smith had a turn on the very personal song Bleed Me Dry.
“Well, I was involved with someone who was basically using me to get a Green Card to stay in the United States and I caught them out. Like any break up, it was very traumatic and I was very angry at the time so I put that anger into the music,” he said, adding that record company president, and close friend Bruce Quarto came up with the title for The Game Has Changed.
“We usually talk for about 40 minutes to an hour every day and we were just talking about the music industry one day and how you have to find different ways to survive as a musician these days. And he said, ‘yeah, the game has changed.’ And I thought that was a great title and sent the idea and some of the things Bruce said to Joe who did an amazing job, because all we really gave Joe was the title and a couple of key phrases.”
When the band was touring Europe recently, they went to see Kenny Aronoff playing as part of John Fogerty’s band and Smith said seeing that show and hearing Fogerty’s distinctive sound inspired him to write the song Bad Man.
“After the show, on our tour bus, I wrote the main chorus riff for that song because I was really inspired by John Fogerty’s sound. And Joe thought it was a good idea and a good concept because he is always writing songs with getting placement in movies in mind. You’re not going to get a lot of money selling CDs these days so you have to make money doing touring or licencing songs for movies or TV or commercials. With songs like Anthem and Bad Man, these are great for that purpose, but they’re also really killer songs to play live,” he said.
While Smith said he and Blackmore have not spoken in years, the influence of the mercurial axe master still holds great sway over his life and career. Indeed, it was seeing Deep Purple live back in the early 1970s that convinced Smith to change musical direction in his own life and career.
“Growing up, I was classically trained and I really had no interest in rock music. My father was a jet fighter pilot on the Royal Air Force and some friends on the RAF base said they had some spare tickets to a concert and asked if I might want to go. I wasn’t interested but my parents kind of made me because they wanted me to give them a little peace,” Smith said with a chuckle.
“There were a lot of acts on the bill and I thought it was pretty boring until they announced the headliner which was Deep Purple. And it was around the time that the In Rock album was big and they opened with the song Speed King. So this guy dressed all in black just comes running forward and he’s playing the most amazing classical runs, which nobody else was doing in rock music. He was the one who single-handedly developed the neo-classical style. There was so much emotion and volume, it just blew me away. And that turned me onto rock and roll. I was 14 at the time, and soon I also discovered Pink Floyd and Free and Cream. I used to have pictures of Deep Purple and Ritchie all over my walls and then at 19 we met and became friends because we had a lot in common because of our classical backgrounds.
“He sort of mentored me and taught me a lot, not so much about playing, but mostly about the attitude towards the guitar and how you approach it and how you approach a solo.”
The mentoring paid off as all the Heaven & Earth albums have been critically acclaimed and garnered for Smith a lot of respect from his peers within the music industry. He said he plans on taking Heaven & Earth on the road throughout the winter of 2017-2018, hoping to bring the band outside the confines of North America and into markets such as Europe, the Far East and South America, which really appreciate their brand of hard rock music.
For more information on Heaven & Earth and Hard to Kill, visit www.heavenandearthband.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at email@example.com.
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