2013-05-09

Album Review: Joe Satriani - Unstoppable Momentum

Few guitarists have popularized the instrument to the extent that Joe Satriani has. When I was growing up, everyone wanted to be Satch. He was a weird and fantastical (and virtuosic) combination of everything that we all loved about guitars.

There was the obvious, of course: he was an extremely fast, technical player who rose to fame in the era of 1980s rock guitar playing. Somehow, though, his music never seemed to fit well in such limiting terms. After all, the music of Joe Satriani is so heavily injected with the aural and visual imagery of science-fiction that even our parents couldn't dismiss it as "heavy metal." The ugliest thing I ever heard anyone say about him was that his music was "weird." And I can think of far more unpleasant things for music to be than weird.

Nor am I certain that Satriani himself wouldn't own up to being a "weird" artist. He's certainly a bit of a contrarian, insisting on a career playing instrumental music in a world dominated by vocal-oriented pop music... and succeeding. Even among instrumental composers, Joe Satriani is the odd one out, preferring concise, contained pop structures to the more elaborate and progressive world of his contemporaries. Where Steve Vai was building 7-string and heart-shaped guitars, using "Xavian" scales, and "walking the fine line between pagan and Christian," Joe Satriani was simply playing the blues. Yet, where Stevie Ray Vaughan was bending 13-gauge strings and playing the standards, Satriani was smiling cleverly while turning up his spacey digital delays and naming his songs after the haunting words of Robert Oppenheimer. And then he did an episode of MTV Unplugged.

At the same time, one cannot over-simply by declaring Joe Satriani as some sort of "middle step" between a more-complex Vai and a less-complex SRV. He has, in fact, injected more academics into popular music than anyone with his level of fame, teaching listeners about pitch-axes and how to use the enigmatic scale, for example. Yet when he composes music from these technical sources of inspiration, it is always with a strong focus on what his ear and his heart are telling him. This gives him that magic combination of complexity and simplicity to which so many music writers aspire.

In truth, the only way to make sense of Satch's body of work is to take note of how perfectly it stands as a testament to his love for the instrument, and that means his love for all aspects of the instrument. That's why, on any given Satriani album, you'll be inclined to hear some acoustic guitar, some 12-string guitar, the blues, some spacey special effects, squeals, fast runs, tapping, power chords, arpeggios, and so on... In short, Joe Satriani likes to pull from the full palette in order to paint pictures that only guitars can paint. The man, and his music, is his medium. This is why so many of us identify with that music.

Which brings us the the opening notes of the title track of this year's Unstoppable Momentum. Instantly, the listener understands that this album is to be a departure from the past nearly twenty years of Joe Satriani music. That understanding comes from the inclusion of fresh faces in the band. For the first time since 1995's Joe Satriani album, Satch is supported for a full album's worth of material by a drummer whose reputation for virtuosity might even rival Satriani's. In 1995, it was Manu Katche; today, it's the astounding Vinnie Colaiuta.

Rounding out the band are Mike Keneally - whose previous gigs include legends such as Frank Zappa and Steve Vai - and Chris Chaney - whose impressive body of work is a veritable who's-who of pop rock super-stardom, including Jane's Addiction, Celine Dion, Danny Elfman, Robben Ford, Hoobastank, Shinedown...

This band is capable of a bit more than some of the more expected Joe Satriani Band line-ups, certain obvious exceptions noted. The result is to create a compelling and polished backdrop for the guitar man to work his magic. This is the Joe Satriani I always liked best: the fusiony, virtuosic experimentalist. The album evokes memories of his work with Manu Katche, Jonathan Mover, Doug Wimbish, the Bissonette brothers, and so on.

This polish, this level of musicianship, this might be where some Satriani fans get lost. There is no question that the band feels different than the tried-and-true Satriani power trio involving Stuart Hamm and Jeff Campitelli. Both musicians are strong enough and personal enough in their own right that someone looking for that Satriani sound may feel disappointed that it isn't there, especially since that sound played such an important role in 2010's Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards. With an objective ear and an open mind, however, all the great Satriani idiosyncrasies are there.

And more. It seems that over the years, Satriani has developed such precision in his fingers that nearly every note is delivered with impeccable tone. Long-sustained string bends fade softly with delicate vibrato. Fast-picked passages explode, yes, but with a clarity of attack that will surprise even some long-time fans.

What it all amounts to is an album written and recorded by an industry veteran who has spent years honing his craft to mastery. With that mastery comes a level of polish that fans of the raw, bluesy Joe may find off-putting, but for those of us who love Satriani at his most sci-fi, his most fusiony, his baldest, most sun-bespectacled, and weirdest,  Unstoppable Momentum provides a stunning and fresh look into the world that was set into motion way back in 1986. The tone, the musicianship, the playful and lyrical use of exotic melodies in a pop-rock context, the constraint and brevity, the explosive pyrotechnics... everything that we love about Joe Satriani is on full display.

What else can I say? It's a great album.