[4 May 2006]
Lyricists have it rough when it comes to songwriting. They have to convey thoughts in words that make sense, put it into a structure that co-mingles with a piece of music, and use either rhyme or pentameter or both. But what if you had to convey thoughts, emotions, moods, etc. without the benefit of words?
Of course, the concept is as old as music itself. Classical music has been, is, and always will be about moods and atmospheres set to music, sort of like a blank musical canvas which allows the mind to paint its own picture. But in classical music, there’s a variety of helpers: strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion each set their own particular stage and coax each other along. Try to set the same sort of ambience with a single instrument doing all the work—not so easy, ay? Well, pianos have a rep for doing just that, since they are associated with classical forms. But how about a guitar—an electric guitar at that? How many artists since the advent of the amplified axe have been able to convey sonic landscapes strictly by the six (or seven) strings at their fingertips?
Those artists who ply their trade either totally or as a majority as instrumentalists have a bigger challenge than most. It’s a guitar, but by technique and by assisting equipment (pedals and such), that guitar becomes THE voice. It has to speak in several different atmospheric languages, conveying different moods, giving off muscular solos to emphasize points, but not to the extreme where the point becomes overbearing. Restraint is just as (if not more) important than technique. It’s a musical tightrope few dare to walk, let alone make their career. Some, like Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen have done this to a certain degree of success, but the master of turning a guitar into a voice is Joe Satriani.
Hard to believe, but in July, Satriani will be 50 years old. It seems like it was only yesterday that the Long Island native set the world on its ear as he was christened the next guitar God after his coming-out album, Surfing With the Alien. That sophomore effort actually came out in 1987, and came after stints playing with the likes of Greg Kihn and David Lee Roth. But even before that, Satriani picked up his guitar playing technique to the point where he was giving lessons and pointers to the likes of Vai (another Long Islander), Kirk Hammett (Metallica), Larry LaLonde (Primus), David Bryson (Counting Crows), and jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter.
Surfing gave Satriani worldwide exposure, and he’s parlayed his playing to a long-standing career. Shortly after Surfing, he plied some of his vocals to Flying in a Blue Dream. Though not bad, he wisely decided that in the future, he’d clam up and let his guitar do his speaking. Over the course of time, Satriani’s work was always listenable, but there were a few dead spots on his subsequent albums, where some songs kinda sounded like each other, or related to earlier works. That all changed with the stunning 2002 release, Strange Beautiful Music. On that album, Satriani painted a different musical landscape for each song, and also showed restraint and discipline in his guitar playing. This is not to say that he altered his playing one iota—he still soloed fast and furious at times—but his solos were short and direct, and never strayed away from the chorus or theme at hand. He also kept the songs in a short range, while noodling was kept to a bare minimum. On that album, every note had a purpose, even in his solos.
After the success of Strange, the biggest question was whether Joe Satriani could come up with more unique landscapes without rehashing. One listen to Super Colossal will answer that question with a resounding YES! There are 13 new ideas encapsulated on the album, each with its own identity—and no, you haven’t heard these before. If you want to know exactly how Satriani has expanded his credo, start off by playing the 13th and final track, titled “Crowd Chant”. Guaranteed, it’ll be a fun experience when he does it live, and it shows Satriani’s sense of humor. He has a group of people vocally mimicking a series of notes throughout the song (lots of “ohhhhhhhh’s” and “ahhhhhhh’s”), all with a pounding beat. It’s both hilarious and appealing at the same time.
For those who prefer to wait for “Crowd Chant” to be the final piece of the puzzle, that’s cool—there’s enough to listen to in the interim. The title song starts things off, and is the designated single. Okay, the intro’s drums sound a little like Billy Squier’s “The Stroke”, but that abates quickly and the song moves along at a solid pace (there’s even piano as a rhythmic enhancer). Except for drums, Satriani played all the instruments on the album. A solo shows dexterity, but it fits the mood, and doesn’t ponder—Satriani gets right back to the melody.
There’s faster-paced, solid “rock” songs, such as “Just Like Lightnin’”, where Satriani seems to playfully use his speed as part of the melody. A brief Eastern Indian opening quickly melds into a straight-ahead rocker on “Redshift Riders”, one of the best songs on the album. But Satriani can also make his guitar cry, and on the following song, “Ten Words”, he does just that. (In the liner notes, he said he wrote the song about the 9/11 tragedy.) “It’s So Good” is the one song that arguably sounds like early Satriani, but it’s got its own feel.
Satriani’s playing is crisp and sharp, as usual. And except for “Crowd Chant”, there’s nothing of an eccentric nature on Super Colossal. But there isn’t a dud in the bunch—every song has its own personal expression, and is unique to the Satriani canon. There’s enough diversity on here to keep one’s interest, and long-time Satriani fans will adapt to Super Colossal like they have with all his other work. For curiosity seekers, this album is an excellent representation as to why Joe Satriani is one of the best guitarists in music today—even if he doesn’t say so himself.