Album Review: Joe Satriani - Shockwave Supernova

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I remember reading an interview with Joe Satriani in the wake of the release of his newest offering, Shockwave Supernova, in which Satriani said something to the effect of, "I knew Shockwave Supernova had to be my most melodic album yet." At the time, I discounted that statement because, well, Joe Satriani always says something like that about his albums.

The remarkable thing about this album, to me at least, is that for once the statement actually is true. Shockwave Supernova is possibly the most purely melodic work of his entire career.

For reasons that might not be entirely obvious to the casual listener, my mind draws parallels between Shockwave Supernova and his 1995 self-titled full-length LP. To me, the comparison is fitting because I believe both albums were designed to be somewhat "stripped down," by Satriani standards. Both are good albums, but Shockwave Supernova is incredibly good. If I were forced to synopsize this album in a single statement, it would be: On Shockwave Supernova, Joe Satriani finally achieves what he wanted to achieve on '95's Joe Satriani.

Allow me to explain.

For fully a decade, Joe had been releasing albums and writing music that evoked "spacey" imagery. His debut album, for example, was entitled Not of This Earth, and his breakout album was Surfing with the Alien. It's not controversial to suggest that the science fiction imagery and ambiance is important to the Satriani oeuvre. For his purposes, the "spaciness" or "sci-fi imagery" comes down to reverb, echo, and thick, electronic modulation. Whenever musicians lean heavily on this sort of sound, the music becomes a little noisy. Let's face it, in a rock or metal context, this kind of noisiness is exactly what we want to hear.

Then, in 1995, Joe released his self-titled album and took a dramatic departure. That '95 album was decidedly toned-down from his previous work. The leads were restrained and evoked much more blues and jazz. He even hired legendary jazz drummer Manu Katche to pound the skins for him. There wasn't nearly as much echo or reverb. The whole album had a very organic feel to it, as if to say, "I know I'm the space-rock guitarist, but look - I can do a stripped-down record, too."

The result was good, but it wasn't great. I found myself missing out on some of Satriani's weird tendencies. The self-titled album didn't really have any weird time signatures or funny key changes. The scales were all quite straight. It was restrained, but it wasn't as creative, and that lack of creativity ultimately proved to be the album's Achilles Heel. Three years later, he was back to space-rock with 1998's Crystal Planet (reviewed here).

What followed was a lot of experimentation - a techno album, for instance. The 2000s-era Joe Satriani was innovative, and his technique was at the top of its game. He pushed the envelope despite the fact that he is still mostly remembered as a guy who made guitar solo music in the late-80s.

Now, on Shockwave Supernova, we hear an entirely new development. The songs are carefully constructed, restrained, melodic, deliberate... and, yes, stripped-down and organic. In that respect, it is very much an album in the same vein as 1995's Joe Satriani. There are other similarities: for example, he's once again working with jazz session players like Vinnie Colaiuta and Mike Keneally (both of whom appeared on his previous effort, Unstoppable Momentum).

But, where the self-titled album sounded like Satriani's attempt to be a completely different artist, Shockwave Supernova remains true to the signature Satriani sound. This is compelling since, according to interviews, the "story" behind this latest album is that Joe wanted to write an album based on a fictitious alter-ego. It's remarkable: In attempting to write an album as a different person, Joe Satriani has managed to produce what is perhaps his most "Joe-ish" album to date, all in a more stripped-down format.

That stripped-down format allows the songs to breath. For most players, this would mean giving them room to do what they do best. Possibly playing against type, Satriani practices admirable restraint in terms of speed and note choice. In moments where we'd expect him to unleash a flurry of notes, instead he gives us a tasteful melodic phrase, and the result is probably even better than the flurry would have been.

Then there's a song like "Crazy Joe," which works the opposite way. The song opens quietly, simply, and so we expect pure restraint. Then, suddenly, Joe unleashes an alternate-picking flurry! Even so, that "flurry" is carefully constructed and outlines both melody and harmony in a playful way that doesn't sound like "just a lot of fast notes."

I'll say something else, something that might turn a lot of people off: When I first heard this album, I was struck by the fact that any of these tracks (excepting maybe the title track) sound like they could get heavy rotation on C-jazz radio stations. There is a dedication to a cool, collected ambience on all of the tracks - exactly the kind of groovy calm we'd find on smooth jazz radio. Of course, Satch always rocks a little too hard for C-jazz, but close your eyes and turn on "All My Life," and tell me you don't hear what I'm talking about. And I certainly don't mean this as a strike against the album, because I actually like smooth jazz.

All said, this is easily the best Joe Satriani record since Strange Beautiful Music, and quite possibly the best of his career. In that regard, only time will tell, but while that time passes, we have quite a wonderful album on our hands, to keep our ears company.

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