Joe Satriani: Super Colossal

Lou Friedman

There is a very good reason why Joe Satriani has a reputation for being one of the best guitarists alive: because it's true.

Joe Satriani

Super Colossal

Label: Epic
US Release Date: 2006-03-14
UK Release Date: 2006-04-24
iTunes affiliate

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.