Monday, 13 April 2020

Joe Satriani - Shapeshifting (2020)



Country: USA
Style: Instrumental Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 10 Apr 2020
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Holy crap, Satch is up to seventeen solo albums now? I clearly haven't been paying enough attention. Then again, the ones I remember most, like Surfing with the Alien and Flying in a Blue Dream, date back to the late eighties. I must be getting old. That makes Joe Satriani even older, of course, but he's not far off sounding young and vibrant here on a baker's dozen of new tracks.

I won't even bother mentioning that his technique is insanely good, because that's been a given for decades now. Suffice it to say that he's still right on point, whatever he's trying to do. What matters now is whether what he's trying to do is going to connect or not. When you're a guitar hero throwing out another instrumental album, we have to do more than admire the technique of a master and get to the point where we just dig the music or the thing's failed completely.

And I have to say that this is a bit of both. For instance, the title track and All for Love are guitar workouts, shock horror, that do roughly what we expect Satch to do and just as well. However, it's the song in between them, Big Distortion, that connected more with me, mostly because it feels like it could be a song, if a vocalist had just wandered into the right studio and decided to jam.

The first really interesting track is Ali Farka, Dick Dale, an Alien and Me, perhaps inevitably given that intriguing title. Ali Farka Touré was a Malian multi-instrumentalist who became not only huge across the African continent but also well-known in certain circles in the US. He made lists of the best guitarists of all time in American magazines. Dick Dale took African sounds too but turned them into quintessentially American surf guitar. Both of them have passed so presumably Satch is paying homage, with the alien just icing on the cake.

It's here that I started to engage with the album, because instead of trying to make a piece of music sound like one thing, Satch seems to be trying for two at once. Teardrops refuses to be only one thing, partnering overproduced blues and handclaps with ominous spaghetti western chords. Perfect Dust is a perky country song but with a central riff right out of action cartoons, as if Chet Atkins was writing for Inspector Gadget. The first single, Nineteen Eighty, starts out like an AC/DC barnstormer and transforms into the sort of thing Eddie van Halen did during solos, experimenting with what the guitar's capable of.

I admire how Joe Satriani went for variety here. A country song like Perfect Dust is a long way from one like Here the Blue River, which is a reggae tune from moment one. Oddly, these two are perhaps the most fun the album has to offer, with All My Friends are Here tapping on their shoulder. I wonder how lively some of the other songs will feel like live, because this is one very produced album, so much so that it feels artificial and somewhat soulless.

I can't fault Satch's talent, which is as obvious here as ever, especially when he hits a groove like on Spirits, Ghosts and Outlaws, but this is so careful and technical that I lost sight of most of it. I prefer his talent to manifest as wild and loose, as if he stepped into a studio and improvised something magical for three quarters of an hour with a solid set of backing musicians trying to keep up. I want his talent to soar free like a creature of the wild. Here it's constrained in a cage with what sound like carefully prepared sonic backdrops and it's a lesser album for that ruthless care.

I'm going with a 6/10 but feel free to add a point to that if you think like a diehard fan.

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