Jan 06

What Do You Believe That You Cannot Prove?

I wrote this for John Brockman’s 2005 Edge Question. Can’t see
any good reason not to blog it as well.


I believe that nature is understandable, that scientific inquiry is
the sharpest tool and the noblest endeavor of the human mind, and that
any “final answers” we ever get will come from it rather than from
mysticism, religion, or any other competing account of the universe.
I believe these things without being able to prove them despite — or
perhaps because of — the fact that I am a mystic myself.

Science may be the noblest endeavor of the human mind, but I believe
(though I cannot prove) that the most crippling and dangerous kind of
ignorance in the modern West is ignorance of economics, the way
markets work, and the ways non-market allocation mechanisms are doomed
to fail. Such economic ignorance is toxic, because it leads to insane
politics and the empowerment of those whose rhetoric is altruist but
whose true agenda is coercive control.

I believe that the most important moment in the history of philosophy
was when Charles Sanders Peirce defined “truth” as “predictive power”
and made it possible to talk about confirmation of hypotheses in a
non-circular way.

I believe the most important moment in the foreseeable future of
philosophy will come when we realize that mad old Nazi bastard
Heidegger had it right when he said that we are thrown into the world
and must cope, and that theory-building consists of rearranging our
toolkit for coping. I believe the biggest blind spot in analytical
philosophy is its refusal to grapple with Heidegger’s one big insight,
but that evolutionary biology coupled with Peirce offers us a way to
stop being blind. I beleve that when the insights of what is now
called “evolutionary psychology” are truly absorbed by philosophers,
many of the supposedly intractable problems of philosophy will vanish.

I believe, but don’t know how to prove, a much stronger version of the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis than is currently fashionable. That is, I
believe the way humans think is shaped in important ways by the
linguistic categories they have available; thinking outside those
categories is possible but more difficult, has higher friction costs.
Accordingly, I believe that some derivation of Alfred Korzybski’s
discipline of General Semantics will eventually emerge as an essential
tool of the first mature human civilizations.

I believe, but don’t know how to prove, that Julian Jaynes was on to
something very important when he wrote about the origin of
consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

I judge that that “dark matter” is no better than phlogiston as an
explanatory device, and therefore believe without being able to prove
it that there is something very deeply wrong with the standard model
of cosmology.

I believe, but cannot prove, that the “knowledge interpretation” of
quantum mechanics is pernicious nonsense, and that physical theorists
will essentially develop some testable form of nonlocal realism.

I believe, but cannot prove, that global “AIDS” is a whole cluster of
unrelated diseases all of which have been swept under a single rug for
essentially political reasons, and that the identification of HIV as
the sole pathogen is likely to go down as one of the most colossal
blunders in the history of medicine.

Much of the West’s intelligentsia is persistently in love with
anything anti-Western (and especially anti-American), an infatuation
that has given a great deal of aid and comfort to tyrants and terrorists
in the post-9/11 world. Besides these obvious political consequences,
the phenomenon Julian Benda famously called le trahison des
clercs
has laid waste to large swathes of the soft sciences
through ideologies like deconstructionism, cultural relativism, and
postmodernism.

I believe, but cannot prove, that le trahison des clercs is
not a natural development of Western thought but a creation of
deliberate propaganda, directly traceable to the successes of Nazi and
Stalinist attempts to manipulate the climate of opinion in the early
and mid-20th century. Consequently I believe that one of the most
difficult and necessary tasks before us in the next half century will
be to banish the influence of totalitarian nihilism from science in
particular and our culture in general.

I know how to prove, or at least convincingly demonstrate, that
open-source software development produces better results than
secrecy and proprietary control. I believe that the same advantage
applies to any other form of engineering or applied science in which
the limiting factor of production is skilled human attention, but I
don’t know how to prove that general principle.

Jan 06

A Unified Theory of Male Slobbishness and Female Preening

It’s all about asymmetrical investment, boys and girls….

One of the hot topics in the blogosphere recently has been the difference between male and female standards of attractiveness, and what this has to do with feminism and “the beauty myth”. Ann Althouse has been having fun at the expense of Laura Kipnis’s column bemoaning the grip that beauty has on women. Sissy Willis and has connected this issue to a gripe by Andrew Sullivan that women ought to demand that men turn themselves out better.

The bloggers rightly see the differing incentives attached to sexual selection as the key to understanding these differences. Those differences are the reason that the many forms of un-PC behaviors that Ms. Kipnis decries aren’t going to go away short of a genetic reengineering of human beings.

What’s missing, so far, is a unified explanation of why those incentives are different. This turns out not to be complicated, and understanding it helps us grasp some interesting and entertaining subtleties in the situation.

The central fact that controls the the preferences of both sexes is that bearing children is difficult and dangerous for women, but fertilizing a woman is almost trivially easy for a man. Furthermore, the female investment in childbearing is front-loaded (proportionally more of the risk is before and at birth) while the male investment is back-loaded (proportionately more of the risks and costs are incurred after birth).

Moderns living in a largely disease-free environment seldom realize how cruel and pressing these differences were over most of our species history. But before modern sanitation, death in childbirth was so common that men wealthy enough to afford it expected to have several wives during their lifetimes, losing many of them to childbed fever and other complications.

Also relevant is the extremely high rate of childhood death from infectious diseases and parasites that was characteristic of premodern societies. Disease resistance in humans is highly variable and generally increases with genetic mixing (the same reason a mongrel puppy or kitten is less likely to catch a disease than a purebreed). Thus, both men and women have instincts intended to maximize genetic variety in their offspring in order to maximize the chances that some will survive to reproductive age.

Our instincts evolved to cope with these patterns of life and death. The next piece we need to understand those instincts is what physical beauty means. Recent anthropology revealing strong cross-cultural patterns in the perception of pulchritude is helpful here.

In both sexes, the most important beauty indicators include symmetrical features and a good complexion (clear skin without blemishes, warts, etc.). It turns out these are indicators of resistance to infection and parasites,
especially resistance in childhood and during adolescent growth. Good hair
is also a health indicator.

In men, physical signs of strength, dexterity, and agility are also favored; this reflects the value female instinctive wiring puts on male specializations in burst exertion, hunting, and warfare. In women, signs of fertility and fitness to bear are favored (healthy and generous breasts, a certain range of hip-to-waist ratios).

Men fixate on physical beauty and youth because under primitive conditions it is a leading indicator of the ability to bear and suckle children. Through most of history, plain or ugly women were bad risks for the next round of infectious diseases — and their children, carrying their genes, were too.

The last piece of the puzzle is that men and women have asymmetrical information about the parentage of their children. A woman is seldom in doubt about which children are the issue of her womb; a man, by contrast, can never be as sure which are the fruit of his seed. Thus, genetic selfishness motivates the woman in a mated pair to sacrifice more for her children than it does the man. This is why women abandon their children far less often than men do.

While women do respond to male good looks, it’s not the agenda-topper for them that it is for men. To understand why this is, it helps to know that the optimal mating strategy for a woman begins with hooking a good provider, a man who will stick around to support the kids in spite of not being as sure that he’s their father as the woman is of being their mother. Where men look for fitness to bear children, women seek the capability and willingness to raise them.

Thus, robust health and infection resistance, while desirable in a potential husband, are not the be-all and end-all. Behavior traits indicating attachment, loyalty, nurturance, and kindness are more important than a tight six-pack. Men instinctively worry about these things less because they know women are more certain of parentage and thus more tightly bonded to their children. Fitness-to-raise also means that indicators of success and social status count for more in men. Men marry health and beauty, women marry security and good prospects.

There is, however, one important exception — one circumstance under which women are just as physical, beauty-oriented, and “shallow” in their mating preferences as men. That’s when they’re cheating.

Both sexes have a genetic-diversity incentive to screw around, but it manifests in different ways. Again, the reason is parentage uncertainty. For a man, diversity tactics are simple — boff as many hot babes as possible, accepting that you don’t know which of their kids are yours and counting on stronger maternal bonding to ensure they will have at least one devoted parent around. Because a woman can be more sure of who her offspring are, her most effective diversity tactic is different — get married to a good provider and then cheat on him.

Under those circumstances, she doesn’t have to value good character in a mating partner as much; hubby, who can’t tell the kids aren’t his, will supply that. Thus the relative value of handsomeness goes up when a woman is taking a lover on the sly. Marrying the lord and screwing the gardener is an old game, and from a genetic-selfishness point of view a very effective one.

All this should explain why men can often get away with being slobs while women primp and preen. But it is wise to distrust evolutionary accounts that are simply just-so stories without making testable predictions. This one makes a few.

Most notably, it predicts that women who are less concerned about security and the the status of their offspring (e.g. wealthier, older, or for other reasons less dependent on a male provider) are more likely to be interested in bagging studmuffins. It also predicts that by contrast, men’s tendency to value physical beauty over most other qualities in a mate will change little, if at all, with their wealth level — because their instincts tell them health, not wealth, is the woman’s most important input.

It also explains why gays and lesbians have such opposed attitudes about beauty. In (male) gay mating both parties are instinctive beauty-seekers, while in lesbian matings both parties are instinctive security-seekers. Thus, gay culture is full of posturing pretty-boys and lesbian culture full of sincere plane janes.

As others have noted, women who habitually demand peacock males are making themselves less effective at competing for the good-husband traits that instinct tells them are more valuable; they will lose out in the reproductive race to women who can tolerate a faithful slob. On the flip side, the instinctive male fixation on fitness-to-bear means that all attempts to devalue female beauty in the mating market are doomed. Hetero- and bisexual women know this in their bones; it takes a lesbian to believe this is even a reasonable project — which is why agitation against “lookism” has been the least successful facet of feminist ideology.

Jan 03

Appreciating Joe Satriani

I like to listen to instrumental electric guitar, and have a very
large collection of the genre from the pioneering Jeff Beck albums of
the 1970s forward, and including most of the output of Jeff Beck, Steve
Morse, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, Gary Hoey, Marc Bonilla, and half a
dozen other guitar virtuosi.

The seldom-disputed king of this genre today is Joe Satriani, who
has produced a string of excellent and often groundbreaking albums
since his debut in 1986. There are other guitarists who have had
moments of brilliance exceeding anything in Satriani’s catalog (I
think, for example, of Marc Bonilla’s astonishing EE
Ticket
album from 1992) but nobody else has sustained Joe’s
level of quality over eighteen years and a dozen albums.

For those of you who have been living in a hole for fifteen years
Joe Satriani definitely hails from the rock/blues end of the guitar
spectrum rather than the jazz-fusion one — his technique is
sometimes near to speed-metal. His commercial success seems to be
built on an ability to appeal to both intelligent metalheads and
old jazz-fusion fans like me.

Here’s my personal guide to appreciating Joe’s work. It covers
every track on all of his studio albums, but not the EPs or
live-concert anthologies. It’s aimed mainly at people who have
heard parts of his music and would like to know where to go next, or
who want to deepen their appreciation of what they’ve already heard.

One of the perils of being a virtuoso is that you can get so caught
up in your own skill that it’s hard to know when to stop —
musicality can get crowded out by meaningless elaboration. This is a
trap that lies in wait for all guitarists above a certain technical
level; some (like, say, Yngwe Malmsteen or Tony McAlpine) fall into it
to the point of near-unlistenability, and others are badly compromised
by it but still able to turn out good work when they restrain
themselves enough (Joe’s student Steve Vai leaps to mind). Very few
have the ability to sustain a flawlessly consistent balance between
technique and musicality; Marc Bonilla managed it, Jeff Beck and Eric
Johnson come very close.

Joe Satriani’s grasp on that happy medium is pretty good but prone
to lapses. I think he is acutely aware of this problem. One of the
themes you can see in his career development is how he struggles not
to let his technique run away with him, sometimes reacting with a
retreat into an obstinate minimalism or over-reliance on traditional
forms (eight-bar blues, the 4/4 rock beat, etc.). Gradually, over
time, he gets better at avoiding these extremes.

Joe takes chances, and sometimes he fails. Thus, this guide is not
going to be an unbroken paean of praise. But one of the things that
keeps me a fan is his very refusal to play safe, his determination to keep
trying new things and pushing his own boundaries as a musician. Joe
shows a rare combination of talent, hard-working dedication to his
craft, and artistic courage that is worthy of all praise.

One pattern that became apparent to me as I was compiling this
guide is that it is always worth holding Joe’s song titles in mind as
you listen to his stuff. They are often valuable clues to his
intentions. Many of his pieces seem to have been written as
soundtracks to go with a strong visual image to which the title is a
pointer, and it can thus substantially increase your enjoyment to
decode whatever references are in the title.

Not Of This Earth (1986)

This was Joe’s freshman album. I first heard it after
Surfing With The Alien and Flying In A Blue
Dream
, and it was fascinating with that experience to hear
Joe’s style not quite yet fully developed.

The title track, Not Of This Earth, blends acoustic and
electric guitar sounds in an interesting way that Joe would explore
further in The Lords Of Karma on the next album. It’s
followed by The Snake, a rather funny tone poem about
slithery things that manages to include references to both the
Volga Boatmen and some death-metal tune I’ve never
quite been able to place, I think by Black Sabbath.

Rubinais named after Joe’s wife. It is built around a
simple, pretty melody but somewhat marred by a drum track that sounds
mechanical and is mixed way too far up. Memories is
stronger, combining a reggae-like rhythm track with some raga-like and
bluesy melodic influences to produce a unique and tasty sound.
Satriani is finding his voice here. He continues to explore
interesting territory with Brother John, an odd but
pleasing little modal finger exercise.

The Enigmatic is one of the two standout tracks on
this album — tense, dissonant, weirdly inventive. Joe’s bold use
of atonality to depict an encounter with the alien is carried off
beautifully and works well at both the technical and emotional
levels.

After that, Driving At Night is positively reassuring as
it reasserts the bluesy call-and-response pattern at the core of rock
guitar. We are no longer in alien darkness but rather in a soothing and
familiar night.

But that night has Earth creatures in it too, and some of them can
be pretty scary. Hordes of Locusts is another tone-poem
about creepy-crawlies, imbued with the faintly campy menace of a 1950s
monster movie. This piece is funny, but (as you’ll especially learn
if you ever get to hear it live) it also rocks bone-crunchingly hard.
It’s a standout.

The remaining two tracks are slight, almost finger exercises.
New Day feels like dawn after the night of the locusts.
Headless Horseman is a silly bit of business that refers
to Washington Irving’s famous short story.

This was a very thought-provoking debut — uneven, but promising.
That promise would be fulfilled with the next two albums.

Surfing with The Alien (1987)

This was my first introduction to Joe’s amazing talents, and seems
more generally to have been the album that made his name and secured
him a long-term fan base (his official bio describes it as the most
commercially successful instrumental-guitar album since Jeff Beck’s
genre-defining Wired in 1974). The Satriani style is
already fully developed here.

The title cut, Surfing With the Alien, is without a
doubt one of the great instrumental rock guitar numbers of all time
— a screaming hyperkinetic rave-up that goes straight over the
top and then delivers everything it promises. The album cover
makes it obvious that the alien in question is the Silver Surfer
of Marvel Comics fame, and you can hear him swooshing through space
at a couple of points in the track.

The title Ice 9 is a reference to an SF novel by Kurt
Vonnegut in which a bizarre form of self-propagating ice freezes all
the oceans of the world. This track is not quite such a tour de force as
the first but tasty all the same. On almost any other album of
instrumental guitar it would be a standout; here it tends to fade into
the background in comparison to the flashier pieces.

My personal favorite on this album is Crushing Day.
What makes this a standout is that there is not a wasted note in in
it. Though the first and second solo sections reach blistering
intensity, Joe has his technique under perfect control here; he never
loses sight of the underlying melodic idea for a nanosecond, and the
result is tight and right. Half a dozen albums and nearly twenty years
later it is still one of his best pieces of playing.

Always With Me, Always With You is a quiet little
number, this album’s equivalent of Rubina. He hasn’t yet
attained the simple lyricism and delicacy we’ll hear in
Home, two albums on, but he’s reaching for it.

Satch Boogie is another propulsive rave-up that stands
comparison to the title track as a display of guitar pyrotechnics.
Interestingly, what makes the whole piece work is a quiet section in
the middle (about 1:44 in) that builds tension towards the ending.
Joe has commented in an interview that a fan who disliked the
quiet part once sent him a mix tape with the section deleted in an
effort to prove his point. “It sucked,” said Satriani, succinctly
and correctly.

Hill of the Skull is 1:48 of auditory comic book. You
can see the evil skull-shaped temple brooding on the hilltop, torches
guttering in the great gaunt eyesockets…

Circles is much more substantial, opening
with a lovely acoustic-guitar appetizer that sets you up for a muscular
electric main course in the manner of Led Zeppelin’s or Heart’s best.
The loud-soft contrast is artfully handled, and like all of Joe’s
best work this piece is distinguished by seventeen-jewel composition
and exacting control of his instruments.

Lords of Karma continues the hot streak, opening with
sitar sounds and launching into a driving raga-influenced melody. The
exultant glissando guitar scream at about 1:42 is particularly
lovely. At a couple of points in the piece the recurring sitar
sounds make a pungent contrast to the guitar line. The whole
is as tasty as a good Indian curry.

Midnight, by contrast, is as mannered as a Bach fugue,
nearly a finger exercise. It segues directly into the final track,
Echoes, which returns to the meditative feel of
Circles and finishes off the album in excellent style.

This is a great album, barely a dud track on it. Even Hill of
the Skull
works in its silly way. It remains among Joe’s two
or three best, and is probably still the best introduction to his
music.

Flying in a Blue Dream (1989)

This album starts off strong with the hypnotic feedback and
acoustic rhythm guitars of the title track. The long sustained
electric guitar notes played over them contain subtle shifts of tambre
and vibrato that would do Carlos Santana proud. The interplay between
the acoustic guitars and the electric lead line recalls
Circles and works equally well here. As with that track
the effect is meditative, almost mystical. And, no, Satriani himself
doesn’t know what the little boy is saying in that background sample.

The next track calls itself mystical, The Mystical Potato Head
Groove Thing
, but isn’t. The effect is more one of inspired
whimsy, with subtle off-rhythms and a whirling, eccentric guitar line
giving the piece the feel more of witty banter than anything else. The
bridge section at about 3:00 in echoes the melody of Surfing with
the Alien
but the effect is of commentary rather than self-imitation.
The track closes with a classic smashing rock finish, very satisfying.

In Can’t Slow Down, Joe Satriani sings.
Unfortunately, even the most dedicated Satriani fan generally reacts
to his singing with a heartfelt wish that the man would shut up and
play his guitar. Fortunately, he does.

Headless is just as embarrassing, a pointless retake of
Headless Horseman from the first album that is only partly
redeemed by Joe’s quiet, rather self-mocking chuckle at the end.

In Strange, Joe sings again. The contrast between his
clumsy vocals and the shimmering loveliness of the guitar bridges is
almost painful to the ear. Alas, the worst is yet to come.
That worst is the next track, I Believe, possibly
the most cringe-worthy opus Joe has ever committed to tape. He sings
again, wrapping an uncertain voice around lyrics that intend to be
inspirational but come out mawkish. A few lovely guitar bits cannot
redeem this mess.

In the next track, One Big Rush, Joe blessedly does not sing.
We’re back in the familiar territory of Surfing With The Alien
or Satch Boogie here. It’s not as inventive as the album’s
first two numbers but a good solid piece of work. Probably the best bit
is the last five seconds of coda.

On Big Bad Moon, Joe sings again. This time it works a
little better, as he portrays some hapless geek who has become a
werewolf and, far from considering it a curse, discovers But I
like it!
. His fretboard antics over a steaming boogie
grind rescue this track.

The Feeling is 50 seconds of rootsy banjo. This works
pretty well, considering.

In The Phone Call Joe seems to have figured out that
his weak singing voice works best as comedy. This mini-soap-opera
about a selfish and none-too-bright guy dumping his ditzy and
gold-digging girlfriend is worth a chuckle or two.

Day at the Beach (New Rays From an Ancient Sun) echoes
Midnight from the last album, and works best as a sort of
extended intro to Back to Shalla-Bal. This track is
straight-ahead leather-jacketed rock complete with a revving Harley.
The motorcycle theme continues in the rather similar next
track, Ride. Joe sings again, managing not to botch
the job too badly. Still, one does wish he would stop.

The Forgotten begins with a short finger exercise that
is, like Day at the Beach, a preface to something more
substantial. Part two returns to the meditative, introverted feel of
the title track, but with an emotionally powerful melody that feels
almost like something a Romantic-era classical composer might have
penned. It’s up there with the first two tracks as a standout.

The Bells of Lal is another two-part composition, but
this one feels like noisy fragments that never quite come together or
rise above the level of noodling.

,Into the Light by contrast, feels elegiac and
graceful. I think of cloudscapes suffused with sunlight when I hear
this piece, and rather wish Joe had given it more than 2:29 of
development.

This album is uneven, undisciplined. Parts of it match and even
exceed the quality of Surfing With The Alien, but a lot of
it is experiments that should have been left on the studio floor. Joe
clearly needs somebody working with him to curb his excesses.

The Extremist (1992)

Perhaps Joe found that somebody. This album returns to the consistent
form of Surfing With The Alien; it’s neither as quirky nor
as inventive as Flying in a Blue Dream, but full of energy
and joy.

Friends, The Extremist. and
War are all good solid work, intricate and high-energy
guitar explorations in the now-standard Satriani mold that reward
repeated listening pretty well. There’s some nice blues harp in the
second track, but the third is probably the strongest of the three.

Cryin’ is a quiet, bluesy track with a prog-rock feel to
it. It’s well followed up by Rubina’s Blue Sky, a down-home
delight that uses mandolins and acoustic guitars to evoke the feel
of folk or bluegrass music. The last two minutes sets off the acoustic
guitars against a singing, joyful electric-guitar line, then mysteriously
fades out with a pibroch-like ending.

Summer Song (which you can deduce from one of the the
album-cover photos originally titled The Door Into Summer
after Robert Heinlein’s novel) was this album’s big radio single, a job
it fulfills admirably well. A tight and well-layered arrangement and
immaculate production make this a crowd-pleaser.

Tears In the Rain is another intricate finger exercise
like Midnight, conducted this time on a nylon-string
guitar.

Why and Motorcycle Driver return to the basic
style of propulsive and intricate guitar we’ve heard in the first three
tracks and Summer Song. Like those, these tracks are
sunny and exuberant music that would sound great pouring out of a
boom box at your next beach party.

New Blues is a total contrast — a spare,
introverted blues piece that fades into silence. It foreshadows where
the next studio album is going.

Time Machine (1993)

The first disk of this two disk set combines rarities, oddities,
and unreleased tracks from old studio sessions. The second is a
collection of live performances. The quality is uneven here; some of
this stuff is the equivalent of doodling. But for a serious fan this
is definitely worth having, if only because it collects limited-release
stuff like Dreaming #11.

Joe is generally pretty good at picking strong openings for his
albums and Time Machine is no exception. This exercise
in massive-guitars-of-doom can bear comparison with his best work and
is a standout track. Following it, The Mighty Turtle Head is
merely passable; the parts are OK but don’t seem to cohere
well. All Alone works better; it’s a big blues tune in
classic style. One can easily imagine it as movie music.

On Banana Mango II Joe jams with world-beat rhythms.
The result is loose, floaty and interesting, quite different from his
usual sound. Thinking of You is a simple, pretty tune,
lovely and lyrical, proving once again that Joe doesn’t need effects
or elaborate arrangements to sound good — another standout
track.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Crazy is another
one of those regrettable occasions on which Joe sings. We live
through it.

Speed Of Light nails once again the joyous
power-pop-like groove Joe found in Summer Song. An
unusual and interesting touch in this use is Joe’s use of wordless
choral singing as a counterpoint to the guitar.

In Baroque Joe experiments with the idiom of classical
guitar. His execution is good but the production is heavy-handed; I
think it would have worked better without the effects.

Dweller On The Threshold is a Lovecraftian tone poem
that is probably the closest approach to true speed metal in Joe’s oeuvre.
He proves here that he could out-Metallica Metallica if he wanted to
(Kirk Hammet was an early student of his in the 1970s). The atonal
alien from Enigmatic makes a cameo appearance.

Banano Mango previsits the word-beat rhythms we heard
earlier in Banano Mango II, but the guitar treatment is
different in style. Not as good, I don’t think. but it’s instructive
and interesting to have both versions included.

Dreaming #11 takes us to another unusual place that
can only be described as surrealist comedy funk. The strain of sly,
zany humor that flavors a lot of Joe’s music is in full evidence
here.

The title of I am Become Death doubtless refers to Robert
Oppennheimer’s famous quote from the Bhagavad-Gita at the first nuclear
test in 1945. The piece is simultaneously grim, bathetic and jarring,
a deliberately disjointed nightmare. On Saying Goodbye Joe sounds quite unlike himself and
so much like Jeff Beck in a quieter moment that I think this piece
must be an intentional tribute. The first disc then finishes with
Woodstock Jam, which is also utterly like anything else
Joe has ever recorded, sixteen minutes of atonal psychedelia that
plays like the soundtrack for a drug dream.

The main thing the second disc demonstrates is that Joe plays his
tunes live with great fidelity to the studio versions, so I won’t
review all of these separately here.

Joe Satriani (1995)

In contrast with the sunny vibe of The Extremist, this
album seems moody, sad, even depressed. I have no hard information, but I
suspect Joe might have been going through a rough couple of years as
this one was recorded.

Cool #9 If, and Down, Down, Down
set the tone — deeply bluesy, well-executed, somehow rather
dark.

Luminous Flesh Giants is one of the standout tracks on
this album — angry, powerful stuff and doubtless a big
live-concert number.

S.M.F. returns to the deep introspective groove of the
first three tracks, burrowing into the classic 8-bar blues as though it’s a
refuge from something. One of the problems with this album is that these
four tracks are all too similar and tend to blur together in one’s memory.

Look My Way is one of Joe’s occasional comedy numbers. He
sings, badly. But the composition is such that bad singing is sort of
appropriate.

Home is a surprising island of calm and beauty. It’s
the refuge that a lot of the rest of this album seems to be looking for,
and a standout track.

Moroccan Sunset sounds a little happier, too. The
melody line is indeed middle-Eastern flavored in spots. The rhythm
guitars share the dark, fuzzed-out flavor we hear in many of the other
arrangements on this album. Nevertheless this is another standout
track.

In Killer Bee Bop Joe seems to be trying to capture
some of the flavor of bebop jazz — the opening base line
certainly suggests that. This is a fast, noisy track, interesting
but at times rushed and incoherent-sounding.

The first section of Slow Down Blues slides even
deeper into the blues idiom, with a spare and mostly acoustic
arrangement featuring a dialogue between Joe’s understated electric
lead and a blues harmonica. All this recalls New Blues
from the previous album, and seems deeply sad. Things pick up some
in the last four minutes as the track launches into a steady electric
boogie with a big finish.

(You’re) My World is another simple, effective tune
that seems (like Home) to express some kind of peace or
resolution. The effect is very beautiful and a standout track.

The album ends with Sittin’ Round, another slow and
sad blues reminiscent of the first section of Slow Down
Blues
.

Emotionally, Joe had nowhere to go but up after this album.

Crystal Planet (1998)

And up he goes, in what is certainly his best album since
Surfing With The Alien. Whatever troubles informed
Joe Satriani are gone; he seems to reach a new high in
energy and inventiveness here.

The album opens strong with Up in the Sky, a fast and
tight little number built around an odd guitar lick with an almost
surf-rock feel to it. The tastiness continues with House Full
of Bullets
and Crystal Planet, which don’t break any
particularly new ground but are well-composed works that deliver the kind
of virtuosity Joe’s fans have come to expect.

Love Thing slows the pace a little to do a more
melodic exploration in the mode of Home or (You’re)

My World from the previous album. It’s followed by
Trundrumbalind which moves a bit up-tempo again but
sustains great intensity of feeling and is one of the standout tracks
of this album. The last minute is especially interesting.

Lights of Heaven starts off quietly, but the
fanfare-like bit at about 1:13 leads into one of Joe’s best sustained
stretches of composition ever, one in which occasional hushed stretches
serve to build tension for soaring guitar lines that resolve them wonderfully.
The shimmering finale in the last 40 seconds is magnificent. This is
possibly the strongest single track on the album.

Raspberry Jam Delta Vee is not quite as impressive,
but it delivers the goods. The break using string and cello tambres
about four minutes in is unusual, and the track finishes strong with
dual leads and and interesting use of what sounds like ring
modulators.

Ceremony returns to the up-tempo pace and
arpeggio-rich solos typical of the first three tracks, but there is
nothing especially distinguishing about it. With Jupiter In
Mind
, on the other hand, is a standout track with a strong and
attractive melody on which Joe works some interesting transformations
before returning to the opening version. Fat rhythm guitars back up
a powerful finale.

Secret Prayer is merely ordinary for this album,
which is to say it is better than most guitarists could manage
on their best days ever. Train of Angels opens interestingly
with military-style drumming and remains tasty even after switching to
a traditional rock beat; the second solo beginning at about 2:00 is
especially nice. A Piece of Liquid is quiet and restful,
making interesting use of a catchy South-American-flavored rhythm.

Psycho Monkey is a distortion-fest with a deliberately
heavy attack; the dog-whistle feedback at the end is reminiscent of the
title track from Flying In A Blue Dream.

Time is a clever tone poem in which the staccato
4-chord figure the rhythm guitars repeat seems intended to evoke a
ticking clock. There’s a lot more going on, here, though, and it
repays several listens to find out what.

Z.Z.’s Song ends the album with a resonant acoustic solo
piece that seems to use silence as much as sound.

There really isn’t a weak track on this whole album, which is especially
impressive since it runs to 15 of them. It’s probably the right one
to buy second, after Surfing With The Alien.

Engines of Creation (2000)

The title of this album seems to be a reference to to K. Eric
Drexler’s seminal book on nanotechnology; the cover art and
the song titles suggest that Joe had a lot of SFnal imagery in mind
when composing it. Despite that promising start, a lot of Satriani
fans would say this album shouldn’t have been made. In it, Joe seems
to be trying to understand electronica and house music. The result is, alas,
cold and mechanical-sounding in comparison to the rest of his work;
drum machines and synthesizers almost drown out his guitar.

Despite that, this album has some excellent moments. And even when
it doesn’t work, I think Joe deserves praise for being willing to take some
risks. Another Crystal Planet or Surfing With The
Alien
would have been more of a crowd-pleaser — but at
this point Joe could probably crank out ordinary guitar virtuosity in
his sleep and would not necessarily have grown as a musician by taking
that easy path.

Devil’s Slide tells you right away you are not in for the
usual, with its drum machine and synthesizer-led attack. Parts of it achieve
a chill, haunting beauty. Flavor Crystal 7 is very similar,
but with a more up-front guitar line that makes it more interesting.
Both tracks take us far from the rock/blues/metal roots of Joe’s style;
he displays the superb musicianship we’d expect, but the results seem
at times unnervingly soulless and antiseptic.

Borg Sex is more of the same, with a growling guitar
line that manages (probably not by accident) to sound rather like
industrial noise. Joe seems to use this one fairly frequently in
concert.

Until We Say Goodbye, by contrast, is much more like a
normal Satriani track; some superfluous electronic effects in the
background fail to step on an appealing and rather jazz-tinged
melody. The pizzicato strings in the last eight seconds are a nice
touch.

Attack puts us right back in the territory of
Devil’s Slide, which it rather resembles. The break
about two minutes in, ornamented with little sequencer bits and
drum-machine licks, is probably Joe’s most effective use of
electronica idiom.

Champagne? is a bit of clowning in which glassy synth
voices are set against a bouncing baseline and bluesy guitar. It
changes style abruptly at about 2:04 when the drum machines turn on,
but returns to being an appealingly silly romp in the last three
minutes. The last section changes styles again, offering us a jazzy
solo with beautiful arpeggios and an odd roots-rock sort of
finish vaguely reminiscent of Creedence.

Clouds Race Across the Sky is a surprise and a
standout, laying a beautifully simple guitar line over an infectious
South-American-flavored rhythm track. The effect is tranquil and
lovely.

The Power Cosmic 2000 is a two-part invention. In it,
Joe seems to be trying to fuse electronica influences into his basic
style (the first guitar line in part two will remind you of The
Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing
) but succeeds mainly in
sounding chilly and remote. By contrast, the synthesizer
instrumentation of Slow And Easy fails to completely
suppress some moments of quiet beauty.

Engines of Creation is a gradually building crescendo
that unaccountably cuts out just as it should be reaching a climax.
Too bad; there are some good moments on the way there, and the track
does better at integrating synthesizers with guitar and base than most
of went before. But, like the album as a whole, the track is a
brave experiment that doesn’t end well.

This is still the most difficult Satriani album to enjoy, and may be
for hard-core fans and completists only. But I like it better than I
did when I first heard it. It will take several listenings before
you can get past the electronic clutter to what Joe is trying to
achieve, but doing so has some rewards.

Strange Beautiful Music (2002)

If a comparative failure like Engines of Creation was
what Joe needed to grow, this album tells us it was worth it. I think
it’s his best ever, equalling Crystal Planet and
Surfing With The Alien for creativity and melodic
invention and showing a maturity and grace neither previous album
can match.

Oriental Melody continues Joe’s flirtation with modal
scales and time signatures derived from Middle Eastern and Indian
music. It’s a good start to the album, which puts some creative
distance between Joe and his roots as a rock player.

Belly Dancer moves back towards rock rhythms, but an
eastern touch is still present in the melody line. The track centers
on lovely series of arpeggios at about 3:08. The sitar tambre that Joe
used so effectively in tracks like Lords of Karma reappears
as a nice bit of background color towards the end.

We get a third beautiful melody in Starry Night,
which though stylistically reminiscent of Home from the
Extremist album is nicely original.

Chords of Life is themed around a nice bit of
acoustic-guitar rhythm work that appears in it twice and dominates
the finale. This is a crisp and satisfying little number in
which the electric lead gets its licks in but, for once, takes a back
seat to other elements of the composition.

Mind Storms is more in the conventional Satriani
idiom, and a fine example of same. The alien from
Enigmatic makes a brief reappearance at about 2:00
in.

Sleep Walk covers a Santo & Johnny hit from 1959,
archetypal syrupy fifties pop. I have a strong personal aversion to
this particular sound, but there is no denying that Joe (with some
help from, of all people, Robert Fripp) nails the style dead-on. If
it has to be done at all, it should be done this well.

New Last Jam is another superior Satriani slice of
fretboard frenzy, unremarkable only because it’s jostling so much
good material on this album. Mountain Song, immediately
following, is even better. His normal idiom has never sounded hotter.

What Breaks A Heart begins with what seems to be an
experiment in vox humana guitar; the effect is almost like wordless
singing. The middle section that begins at 1:19 builds to reggae
rhythms and more vox-humana playfulness. The whole finishes with a
very pretty ride-out as Joe riffs away with gleeful zest.

Seven String takes us back to basic rock’n’roll crunch
with a somewhat Southern flavor — one can imagine Lynrd Skynrd or
.38 Special playing this, if they had ever come within a light year of
having the chops to try. It’s followed by Hill Groove, a
bluesy piece that features some particularly nice interplay between
lead guitar and electric base.

The Traveller has something of a prog-rock feel to it;
listen for the nice use of harmonics at about 1:58. And the album
finishes strong with Journey, another melodic and excellent
track without a waste motion in it.

The music on this album is so consistently good that it’s hard to
pick standouts. Pressed, I’d have to pick Mind Storms and
Seven String, but there are several other tracks that give
these a serious tussle.

With this album, Joe seems to have almost completely banished his
occasional tendency to get lost in his technique. All of these tracks
have a well-seasoned restraint about them, to a degree that was only
true of exceptional pieces like Crushing Day in his
earlier work.

Is There Love In Space (2004)

Is There Love In Space is a big contrast with
Strange Beautiful Music. It’s a neoprimitive crunchfest
of fat, distorted rhythm guitars that begs to be played at
room-filling volume. Satriani is out to remind us that, by damn, he
is a rock guitarist — and he succeeds.

The first track, Gnaah!, is a piece of sly humor. You
can hear the title gnaah as a repeated rising note in the song’s main
lick. Up In Flames is a loose bluesy howl that has good
moments but some tendency to fall into mere noodling. Much in these
will sound familiar to long-time fans.

Track three, Hands in The Air, is a standout — a
stomping, shouting rock’n’roll rave-up that has “arena-filler” written
on it in letters of fire. Fuck yeah, turn those Marshalls up to 11!

It’s interesting to contrast Hands in The Air with
Luminous Flesh Giants from the Joe Satriani
album. These two tracks are stylistically and structurally similar, but
what a huge difference in emotional tone! Where the older one is
dark, brooding and ominous, the newer one is a big joyful noise.

In Lifestyle Satriani accomplishes a personal first by
by managing to sing without sucking. His voice actually sounds good
run through a chorus box over a basic three-chord romp. The lyrics
are pretty funny, too.

The title track Is There Love In Space, gives us a
quieter and more reflective moment, especially in the final section
about 4:00 in which takes us back towards Joe’s jazz influences.
If I Could Fly continues in a similar vein, firming up to
a steady rock groove around which Joe dances in trademark fashion.
There’s nothing especially novel here but the effect is quite
pleasant.

The Souls Of Distortion takes us back to the Land of the
Monster Stomp, at a slower tempo than Hands in The Air
but with tasty use of a wah-wah pedal. The fading feedback blare at the
end is just right.

Look Up is lyrical and quiet, resembling Rubina’s
Song
and Always With Me, Always With You in flavor.

I Like The Rain, unfortunately, demonstrates that
Lifestyle was probably a fluke; Joe sings and sucks. You’ll
be reminded of Ride from Flying In A Blue Dream,
but he did it better it the first time.

Searching is another standout track. It opens with a
hypnotic ostinato reminiscent of Ted Nugent’s
Stranglehold and holds to that line relentlessly amidst
flurries of manic noodling and blares of feedback. You get the
feeling this was recorded as a late-night jam-session with everybody
half wasted, and you are right there with them.

Bamboo will remind you of Midnight from
Surfing With The Alien or Tears In The Rain
from The Extremist. There’s some interesting and subtle
use of what sounds like reverse echo at about 3:25 in.

In some ways this album doesn’t compare well with the previous one;
there is less variety and originality here than there was in
Strange Beautiful Music. It’s got more in the way of
simple, turn-it-up-loud visceral thrills, though. If Joe was out to
prove that he can rock the house down better than 3/4ths of the
spoiled children who call themselves ‘metal’ acts, he sure
succeeded.