2015-11-24

Album Review: Joe Satriani - Crystal Planet

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Perhaps 1998's Crystal Planet is a more remarkable Joe Satriani album in hindsight than it was at the time. When it came out, I remember that what stood out most was the album's techno influences. In retrospect, however, that fact seems quite surprising to me. Listening to it now, almost twenty years later, I hardly notice anything "techno" about it; it sounds like a perfect continuation of the groundwork laid by, say, The Extremist.

But in 1998, the music world had not yet gone "full techno," so adding some digitally delayed keyboard patches here and there, shooting an album cover on a solid white background, etc., was enough to be called techno back then. Or at least, that's how I remember it.

Crystal Planet also represented a bit of a "return to form" for Joe Satriani, whose previous studio album (1995's Joe Satriani) was a deep dive into softer, bluesier territory. After having released that starkly contrasting album, and then embarking on a fabulously successful (and ultimately legendary) series of G3 tours with Steve Vai and Eric Johnson, Satch seemed to have been ready to get back to the business of putting out Joe Satriani solo albums more in line with his iconic early albums.

The influence of the G3 tours also made itself apparent on this album. If criticism can be made of one of the music industry's greatest gutiar players, it might be that some of his material - especially the 90s material - hasn't always seemed to push him very hard. That criticism seems to have been vanquished by Crystal Planet, which features a Joe Satriani at the absolute top of his game, in terms of pure chops.

While this album doesn't feature any of the most famous Joe Satriani songs, there are some real hidden gems worth going back to often.

First, "House Full of Bullets." From the name, we expect a fast-paced, hard-hitting rocker; instead, we get a groovy mid-tempo number perfect for a slow drive down the beach. The groove is deep, the rhythm is impossible not to bob along with. Satriani plays the verse's rhythm figure and its lead melody at the same time, somehow deepening the groove, and giving the song an explosive "power trio" feel. While the solo isn't the most physically ambitious, it features a number of surprising-and-delighting improvised jazzy lines that demonstrate Joe's prowess not only as a rock god, but also as improv musician.

Then there is "Raspberry Jam Delta-V," featuring an opening phrase played on Joe's Whammy pedal, heightening the impact of the "techno" feel of the album. We almost expect drum samples to come in, along with a pulsing keyboard bass. Instead, we get a nice, live-sounding drum groove played by Satriani's longtime skin-pounder Jeff Campitelli. With the word "jam" right there in the song title, we certainly have expectations of a less song-structured, more free-form Satriani piece, and to a large extent that is exactly what we get. Then, suddenly - a break in the action. The keyboards swell and there is a brief moment of thick harmonic interjection. Call me nuts, but I love stuff like this. Satriani so rarely takes time to dive deeply into weirder, more harmonically dense territory, and yet here he does it right in the middle of what is otherwise a full-on improv jam. The result is something totally unexpected from a guitar god: the free-form parts feel like a dance song, while the boldly composed segments of the piece sound like techno music... all that despite the song really being neither. This is a clear case of Satch-experimentation that just simply works.

For my money, though, the best song on the album is "With Jupiter In Mind." Here, Satriani displays the cogent thoughtfulness with which he structures melodies, the very attribute that has made him a mainstay of the guitar industry since the 80s. The rhythm tracks echo into deep space as the melodies twist and turn, as though through outer space. One really gets that classic Satch spacey vibe. While the chord cadences of the piece are not quite as complex as they seem, the structure of the melodies is so carefully thought out that they bring out absolutely everything the song has to offer. This is Joe Satriani at his absolute very best.

When it's all said and done, after all these years, Crystal Planet has made itself out to be a really great Satriani album, featuring some of the best melodies and guitar work of his career. While it doesn't seem to have made as wide an impact as some of his more iconic albums, I'd place this one on par with anything else he's released. Thus, Crystal Planet is a really great contribution to a storied career.