Two years ago, I was one of those lucky people present at the Birmingham Symphony Hall when Joe Satriani, with Dan Patlansky in support, reduced the venue to so much rubble. There was a time when the thought of an hour and a half of instrumental set would have made my blood run cold, but that was before I witnessed the expressive power of a virtuoso guitarist who understands that fret-board mastery has to be tempered by song craft if it is to enthral an audience. Certainly, the last two Joe Satriani albums have proved to be short, sharp displays that manage to both dazzle in a technical sense and rock the audience at the same time – no mean feat. Now back with a new album, his sixteenth, Joe continues to explore alien worlds, the gleaming production as polished as the bridge of the Enterprise, his solos as fast and proficient as any warp speed manoeuvre. It proves to be the most immersive Satriani album yet and it promises great things of the tour scheduled for early in the year.
Perfectly titled, ‘Energy’ is a lightning bolt of pure guitar rawk! You can hear Joe playing this off against his Chickenfoot sparring partner Chad Smith, whose presence on the album provides Joe with a truly massive foundation upon which to rest his riffs. Throw the unstoppable Glenn Hughes into the mix as well, and you have a sure-fire recipe for success. As ‘Energy’ progresses, so the driving riff and frenetic percussion providing the perfect backdrop for Joe’s typically expressive soloing – it’s one hell of an opening! With Hughes’ heavily fuzzed-up bass line recalling the robo-rock of Muse’s ‘black holes and revelations’, ‘Catbot’ is an awkward beast, made up of malfunctioning servos and feline intuition, Joe’s guitar work drawing on jazz and even a touch of Pink Floyd-style funk (think ‘another brick in the wall part 2’). Definitely a highlight, ‘thunder high on the mountain’ is a very different sounding piece moving away form the the sort of alien landscapes for which Joe is justly famed and depicting a more human, earthly landscape. Packing a powerful punch, thanks to a central riff of magnificent power, the track is simply awesome in the literal sense of the word. Maintaining the urgent pace, and despite its fragile title, ‘Cherry blossoms’ is backed by an industrial rhythm that rumbles away like some intangible threat, hidden behind a superficially beautiful landscape. The guitar work here is mesmerising – delicate and gossamer fine – but when it explodes, and explode it does, you can feel the landscape blaze into life. Taking a sharp left turn, ‘Righteous’ emerges from thunderous toms to head down a melodic path that is closer in feel to an eighties soundtrack than a modern rock album. You can easily imagine it playing over the credits to some long-lost action movie, whilst ‘smooth soul’ recalls the soundtrack work of Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen (Lethal Weapon).
Having changed down a gear on the preceding two tracks, what’s needed to kick start the second half of the album is a knock-out punch, and that is precisely what ‘headrush’, living up to its name, delivers. Plunging the listener into a cauldron of rapid fire licks, it sees Joe positively sizzle on the fret-board as he dishes out a super-charged blues number with Faustian precision. ‘Looper’ adopts a funky pose, somewhere between Harold Faltermeyer and Glen Frey, once again conjuring an eighties vibe. After our brief grounding, we head back out into space for ‘what happens next’, a slow, synth-heavy piece which offers a more reflective style of soloing from Joe. Maintaining his penchant for whimsical song titles, Joe treats us to ‘super funky badass’ next, and it does exactly what it promises, conjuring up a swamp beast that shoots death-rays from its eyes even as it stomps around in its Bootsy Collins-style stacked heels. Edging ever further into the realms of the preposterous, ‘invisible’ opens as a grand rock tour-de-force in the style of Queen, before introducing a syncopated beat and some shimmering, guitar work that conjures up images of green ladies and far-flung alien courts with a strangely jazzy flavour. The album ends with ‘forever and ever’, a strangely poignant piece of music that sees Joe at his most sensitive.
It’s the power of suggestion, I’m sure, but whenever I hear Joe Satriani albums, I tend to think of them in terms of sci-fi movies, even if Joe’s stated aim was to move away from such imagery. If this album were to be a soundtrack, I’d probably place it next to Star trek IV, which opens and closes in space, but which spends the bulk of its time on the planet earth, circa 1984. The album opens with Joe’s typically extravagant sounds, albeit detailing the farthest reaches of the human, rather than an alien, experience but, by the time we reach ‘Righteous’, we’re firmly grounded on a bright, whimsical earth that I’m not even sure exists anymore, but which I certainly have a sense of nostalgia for. There we remain until the title track takes us out into the unknown once more, for the last third of the record. What really shines through is the sense of fun that Joe and his band have whilst recording. There’s an energy that flows from these recordings which is entirely impossible to fake, and if the absence of vocals initially puts you off, the wild melodies and exquisite guitar work more than makes up for it. Joe Satriani may be a virtuoso, but he’s a song-writer first and foremost, and that’s what has kept him at the forefront of his game for the last thirty-odd years. Coming off the back of two stunning albums (2013’s ‘unstoppable momentum’ and 2015’s ‘shockwave supernova’), ‘what happens next’ still manages to eclipse them both in terms of variety and the sheer sense of joy in the performance. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’ve got missing red shirts and some whales to catch… 9