It's been twenty-two years since Supernatural, the rebirth album of Carlos Santana, and this one is a fresh attempt to recapture that magic. And I don't say that as a commentary on anything he's put out of late, just that it's another collaborative album that clearly aims to give the veteran guitarist a set of opportunities to play with diverse musical talents and see what sparks. Some of it sparks very well but, perhaps inevitably, not all of it does and there's no obvious single here in the vein of Smooth, not even the Rob Thomas track, Move, which is decent but, well, not remotely as smooth as Smooth.
It starts out surprisingly experimental, with Ghost of Future Pull a symphony for what sounds like saw and bicycle bell, but that recognisable guitar tone shows up and grounds it all as the intro moves into New Light. Then there's a quintessential Santana jam in Santana Celebration, which sounds like a Rio carnival with guitar wailing over the top. It's as lively as you might imagine from that, even when the guitar is replaced by keyboards and drums as solo instruments. It's a wild and glorious piece of music.
Rumbalero is kind of a wild and glorious jam too, though it doesn't seem it for a while. This starts out as electronica with an overt Latin feel that doesn't entirely come from the Spanish vocals. The guitar is very recognisable, though, and gradually the carnival spirit takes over as it builds. I liked where this one went, even though it hardly started out on comfortable ground for me. That's the best thing that I can say about this album, by the way. It took me to musical places I wasn't familiar with but found the common ground with what I know that made them accessible and enjoyable.
The guests on Rumbalero are Santana's son Salvador, who has run his own band for decades and done quite the variety of collaborations himself, and Asdru Sierra, the lead vocalist, trumpeter and pianist in the Latin fusion band Ozomatli. What Santana does with this song sets the stage for a set of similar approaches to other guests and other genres of music as the album runs on. He tends to let them lead the way in the style of their choice but chips in with his guitar and grows with the song to create quite a synthesis of sounds.
And these guests are very varied indeed. Some are established names, some of whom have been very famous musicians as long as Santana himself. That's versatile singer and organist Steve Winwood on a very odd cover of Whiter Shade of Pale that seems unnecessary. That's late jazz pianist Chick Corea on All Together, with his wife Gayle Moran Corea creating a conglomeration of voices in Angel Choir. Their presence makes it odd to realise that the oldest sounding song here is Mother Yes, with zero guests. I could believe that this was an early seventies Santana song, especially given that his current singer in residence, Tommy Anthony, channels Jimi Hendrix with his vocals.
A little less established than Winwood and Corea but still massively established are Diane Warren, an incredibly successful songwriter and singer for Debarge, on She's Fire, and a pair of thrash legends on America for Sale: Kirk Hammett, the guitarist in Metallica, and Marc Osegueda, lead singer for Death Angel. It's not a thrash metal song at all though, both those guests playing outside their style. I think Hammett simply has a blast trading licks with Santana while Osegueda sounds more punk than metal with his vocal. The result often sounds like heavy Chili Peppers.
Given these guests, it might be surprising to find that my favourite songs are Rumbalero and Joy, the latter featuring a solo country singer called Chris Stapleton. I also dug Peace Power a lot too, which is a heavy funk song led by Corey Glover of Living Colour that sounds rather like Lenny Kravitz jamming with the MC5, not only because of its black power lyrics. Even without thrash metal legends on it, it's heavier than America for Sale and more memorable too.
And, as you might imagine from this review, this is something of a patchwork album. When it works, it works really well, even if it that's not on the songs I might be expected to like the most. I'm hardly the world's greatest fan of Latin electronica or modern male country singers, but I really dug Rumbalero and Joy, with the instrumental Santana Celebration even better still. I even like Break with Christian soul singer Ally Brooke and She's Fire, with a hip hop lead vocal by G-Eazy.
When it doesn't work, though, it doesn't do much at all. There's almost an hour of music here, with no fewer than thirteen songs between the intro and outro. To be brutally honest, I've forgotten a few of them already even after two listens through the whole album this afternoon. That's not good and it's certainly neither a blessing nor a miracle.
It's a worthy album though, even if that's primarily through opening your ears to sounds you've never heard before. After all, it's a pop, rock, electronica, jazz, funk, alternative, soul, hip hop sort of album and there aren't too many of those out there for obvious reasons. I'm happy that Santana seems set on making quite a few of them. Best of luck to him.