Thursday 18 August 2022

Joe Satriani - The Elephants of Mars (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Instrumental Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Apr 2022
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As with any Joe Satriani album, and this is his eighteenth, there's a lot here, but it plays far more consistently for me than last time out, on 2020's Shapeshifting, and it has a lot more soul too. Yes, it's still very carefully produced indeed—and I'd prefer a Satch live in the studio approach, even if there's going to be a lot of overdubs done afterwards to complicate things—and thus always feels at least a little artificial, but there's a lot more soul here than last time.

Mostly, the variety here is in the backing tracks, which can almost be separated from what Satch is doing over them. Those backing tracks run all over the musical map, from rock to dance to metal to funk to jazz to classical to ethnic; you name it, it's probably here in some form. Every track sounds different to the one before it and the one after it and I'm sure that was done deliberately enough to affect how the track listing was built. However, the solos are far more consistent in tone, even if Satch is experimenting with guitars and pedals and effects throughout. He's definitely fed through some sort of synth on Pumpin' for a start.

It's telling that this is a long album, twenty minutes longer than Shapeshifting, but it feels shorter because it's never boring for a second. Could it be shorter? Sure. Do I care? No. There are fourteen tracks on offer and they do a great job of exploring the album's overall vibe through a mountain of diversity. Sahara starts out Indian and adds a driving bass riff; there's a further sitar feel later on Doors of Perception that sounds like a raga turned film soundtrack. They feel just like Joe Satriani songs with a different flavour added to the usual recipe. And so it goes.

Where Sahara is laid back and evocative, The Elephants of Mars is sassy and urgent, though it has a neat shift to quirky and unusual in its midsection. The most quirky and unusual is surely Dance of the Spores, a classical piece filtered through the circus, especially during its second half. It's the highlight of the album for me, not least because it shines at both quirky chaos and a mellow groove. These apparent contradictions are eveywhere here. Night Scene could be Vangelis until it erupts onto the dancefloor. Blue Foot Groovy is slow and funky, but ends up in chicken pickin' southern rock territory.

Joe Satriani has been influenced by as many great guitarists as he's gone on to teach, but two are quick to mind here. Jeff Beck is one, because of the sheer variety on offer; Beck never sounded the same from one album to another, beyond being breathtaking. Satch emulates that in microcosm in the different approaches he takes here. The other is Allan Holdsworth because there are swathes of this album that leap headlong into jazz fusion, especially as the second half starts, with E 104th St NYC 1973 and Pumpin'.

And that leaves some pieces that get more unusual the more we think about them. There are two that leap out for me. The first is Tension and Release, which sounds like Black Sabbath but played in a completely different way, stripped of its distortion and reverb and turned into a backdrop for a guitar solo. I've never heard a song before that sounds so much like Sabbath without emulating the tone that they invented. The other is Through a Mother's Day Darkly, which is more ambitious than anything else here, with the guitar more closely entwined with the backing music, especially during the narrative sections. There are no singers on this album but this one has a lot of words.

So, hey, there's a lot here. I know, you're shocked, right? What's important to know with this one is that it a) sounds completely like a Joe Satriani album so, if you're a fan, you'll want to pick this up, and b) it works much more consistently than last time so, if you're not a fan, you may want to give this a go, unlike Shapeshifting. It might convert you from non-fan to fan. That's underlined by the fact that, while Dance of the Spores easily remains my favourite piece even after multiple listens, I couldn't tell you what comes next and there are thirteen choices to pick from. Maybe that means I should give the album an 8/10 instead of a 7. I'm almost there.

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