35 years playing professionally, a quick stint in Deep Purple, co-founder of US supergroup Chickenfoot, and now releasing his 19th studio album… Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Joe Satriani.
If the applause isn’t deafening it’s probably because the bestselling instrumental guitarist found his audience, and has pretty much retained it, since 1987’s breakout Surfing With The Alien.
Expanding that remit is arduous and uphill. Guitarists aren’t held in the same messianic manner the way they used to be. And what more can one bring to the musical palette in the instrumental rock sub-genre to have us take note? Satriani’s guitar has a lyrical bent that at its very least ensures the average punter will give it a listen but what’s to say one album’s different from another?
After umpteen years, Satriani’s new record is no longer being released under Sony/Legacy. Externally that might cause initial concern or suspicion. However, in now being signed to earMusic, one of the leading independent labels, based in Germany, whose acts range from today’s top pop acts to longstanding rock acts possibly means they will probably pay more attention and help promote The Elephants of Mars in a way his previous label could have sat on, and took an expected income.
But again, will that challenge our musical perception, and make us part with our own hard-earned money? The PR spiel has it that the guitarist challenged himself to create a “new standard” for instrumental guitar albums to be measured against; one which would work from “a new platform of his own design,” as he terms it. “I want to show people that an instrumental guitar album can contain far more creative and entertaining elements than I think people are using right now.”
I like the “creative and entertaining” tagline, but with an instrumental that’s pretty much what the listener has to bring to the table too. You read the title and have to let your imagination go walkabout creating a video or section of a movie in your head that goes hand in hand with the sounds you here. Thus, across these 14 tracks we wander from barren deserts, fly into outer-space, and a few points in between, and that’s how I find I’m referencing most of these numbers.
Opening with ‘Sahara’ it presents itself to us like a journey across the desert sands, but one that’s gone a little wonky the way the phased guitar plays out over an undulating rhythm. This musical camel ride is then interrupted as if one were reaching an oasis and witness to an exotic dance, played in a clear toned style not too far removed from old Hank Marvin’s. Refreshed from this scene, the music traverses on with earnest vigour as Satriani’s guitar bites deeper.
Title track ‘The Elephants Of Mars’ is a stomping thrust of electronica wherein bolshy strident guitar lines are rippling over the top. It then moves towards more classically toned themes before reaching the halfway point where it becomes a slow dance Fred Astaire could’ve charmed you with, before moving earnestly into bleeding guitar hero whammy bar fusion that pumps up the blood.
‘Faceless’ while intended as commentary on modern society, is respected aurally in the context of the album as a more relaxing piece after the first two tracks. Affecting poignancy, it climaxes esoterically in an ascending scale of notes. It then turns all about face with the next couple of tracks.
‘Blue Foot Groovy’ is a Southern rock ‘n funk blues groove akin to Wet Willie getting it on with Spectrum-era Billy Cobham. This one really reaches a lot of parts I didn’t need scratching, but am glad it took the trouble! It’s technically impressive but with ever melodic guitar heroics, all hitting the mark. ‘Tension And Release’ keeps the funk alive while bringing back the wonk of ‘Sahara’ – It travels like a spaced-out loose blues jam before the sonics run for home with whammy bar and hammer-ons getting a workout, only to edge back intriguingly like a strip tease, before a final climax oozes out.
‘Sailing The Seas Of Ganymede’ comes next. This refers to one of Jupiter’s satellites that may contain more water than that on earth, Musically it ticks all the boxes for all those seeking theme music for pulp sci-fi tales rebooted for a CGI widescreen movie. Tinkering machinations and automatic doolally noises play out amidst a wider space opera feel and a little thriller mystery. While lengthy it doesn’t outstay its welcome, being vary paced with altering melodies present. From outer space to inner space, ‘Doors of Perception’ drifts in on an Indian spiced acoustic manner with gentler electric guitars piercing through.
‘E 104th St NYC’, comes across as an extended classy TV show theme tune, jazzy but contemporary as if it were about a female private eye who took meetings in coffee shops. Hm, I’ve come up with something… Anyone got a number for Netflix? ‘Pumpin’’ tips its hat to Jeff Beck/Jan Hammer collaborations of yesteryear before melting into a metal blues wail, while ‘Dance Of The Spores’ feels a companion piece to ‘Seas Of Ganymede’ but from the perspective of alien lifeforms. A little heavy, somewhat epic and again with wonky out-of-phase sounds here and there, while throwing in the sound of helicopters incoming, fairground ambiance and waltz time guitar histrionics.
‘Night Scene’ sounds more a late daytime commute to work, akin to Penguin Café Orchestra on opiates, ‘Through A Mother’s Day Darkly’ returns us to a sci-fi narrative, on a global warfare scale, then ‘22 Memory Lane’ brings us down to earth with a mid-west American equivalent to Gary Moore’s ‘Parisian Walkways’ that trips through some light dancing blues at the end. It all concludes with ‘Desolation’ where the guitar pulls at the heart strings.
There’s bits of doom and gloom, by title or mood for a couple of minutes, to reflect the times we’re living in, but overall; it’s an album of goodwilled intent. Can it expand Satriani’s existing fanbase? I don’t know. ‘Blue Foot Groovy’ is a blast, as are a number of others. I like what I hear, and it’s not laboured, and I really think that’s important in an instrumental record because it therefore has the potential to reach out and touch the first time listener in a more intimate manner.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- The Elephants Of Mars is released via earMusic and available now.
- Official Website
- The Elephants Of Mars
- Blue Foot Groovy
- Tension and Release
- Sailing The Seas Of Ganymede
- Doors of Perception
- E 104th St NYC
- Dance Of The Spores
- Night Scene
- Through A Mother’s Day Darkly
- 22 Memory Lane