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.

38 thoughts on “Appreciating Joe Satriani

  1. Wow, two days without a comment, I guess Satriani is not as appreciated in the geek community as much as I thought.

    I think it could be fairly said, that taking technical ability, artistic ability, and just plain soul into account, Satriani is probably the greatest living and active rock/light metal solo guitarist.

    Hmm, a lot of qualifications in that statement, but necessary.

    Vai sometimes has moments of true technical brilliance, but his playing has no soul. Morse has technical sophistication, but to me, his work lacks inspiration. As you pointed out Yngwie is so incredibly technically good (the best in the world, possibly of all time) that he descends into masturbatory techniques for guitar more times than not. John Petrucci is amazing, but not quite there.

    I also happen to be a big fan of Gary Moore, and Richie Blackmore, but while both are amazing, neither rise to that level of technical sophistication, and their solo work is eclipsed by their band work.

    So to my reasoning, Satriani is the best of the solo Rock/Metal genre.

    That doesn’t make him the best overall to my mind though. I personally think Ry Cooder, Leo Kottke, and Eric Johnson all top Satriani on the “greatest” list, because of their artistic expression and soul, but I’m also a huge blues, and progressive blues fan (not that you couldn’t tell that anyway).

    And let’s not even get into the rest of the jazz, fusion, or classical guitarist field. Feliciano alone, wow.

  2. Given the tastes you’ve expressed, you really really need to find a copy of Marc Bonilla’s “EE Ticket”. The followup, “American Matador”, is not quite as fine but worth having.

    I like Morse better than you do, I guess. I have three of his albums and I think they’re all damn good.

    Who’s John Petrucci and where does he come from?

    I really liked Leo Kottke’s acoustic stuff back in the 1980s. Is he still recording?

  3. Eric, thanks for the recommendation on Marc Bonilla.

    I love Steve Morse, it just seems to me that his best work is done for other people. You could never overestimate his impact and influence on modern hard rock and metal. I think every guitarist from the mid 80s on has his ideas, and his licks running through their head.

    John Petrucci is the lead guitarist for Dream Theater, who do the best group instrumental work in the genre, but for the most part their vocal work leaves me cold, excepting their covers. Listen to the full length version of “A Change of Seasons” if you’ve never heard them.

    Leo Kottke is averaging a new album every 2 or 3 years, and he tours like crazy.Check out his web site at http://www.leokottke.com

    Oh, and if you don’t read him every day already, read http://www.kimdutoit.com , and stop by the forums. Lot’s of geeks with guns, and a great debate between libertarians and conservatives of various stripes. I’m going to start a forum thread on this topic now.

  4. Ahh. I have exactly the same reaction to Dream Theater — love the instrumental work, dislike the vocals. I have “A Change of Seasons” and like it.

    I think I’ll have to go buy some Leo Kottke albums now :-).

  5. I know that you were limiting your comments to the rock end of the spectrum, but in terms of technique, the late Michael Hedges certainly rates at least a nod. I had heard of him, and had
    probably even heard some of his work, but it hadn’t stuck. Then I saw him live when he played
    the Country Fair in the early 90’s. When you saw him live, you realized that all that sound wasn’t studio tricks with overdubbing, he actually produced it. I watched him strum a chord, play one melody at the end of the strum, while picking out counterpoint up off the frets with his left hand. This wasn’t just a parlor trick, he made great music out of this. Instant fan.
    He was killed in a car crash a few years later. I often wonder just where he would have gone on his musical trek, but we’ll never know. The good, unfortunately, do die young.

  6. Heheh, I checked out some of the samples along with your descriptions of the songs. I found it funny that the album that was supposed to be his worse, engines of creation, was my favorite. I guess it’s because I’m coming from having a taste in non vocal trance/techno and a bit of jungle into the solo guitar music instead of the opposite. I actually thought it sounded /more/ soulful then most of what I listen to.

    I know nothing about music though and only listen to whatever appeals to my baser instinct. :)

  7. Bud, I too got to see Michael Hedges live once in the late 1980s, and he was pretty damn impressive. I don’t think he quite found his voice before he died; live, and on the one album of his I have, he gave the impression that he was still trying to figure out what to do with his astonishing technical chops. He did silly things like covering Prince numbers…

  8. Derr… did I just see Black Sabbath referred to as “death metal”? Uh, Cannibal Corpse might have a thing or two to say about that. Try “Hammer Smashed Face” or “Pounded into Dust” by Cannibal Corpse as a reference point for cannonical death metal. Alternatively, if you want something less obscence but still ultra heavy, consider “Zero Signal” by Fear Factory. The difference between these songs and the heaviest of Black Sabbath should be readily apparent.

    That said, nice little round up here. I’ve been a Satch fan for years; got introduced by a fellow guitarist and have been listening ever since. It’s nice to know that there are non-guitarists out there listening to him :) Haven’t heard his latest album, but your review has hastened me to change that. I *really* like “Mindstorm” and “Seven String,” and would love to hear an album full of that kinda stuff — sounds like the new album should be satisfying until then.

  9. Ninjadroid, I just barely fail to qualify as “not a guitarist”. :-)

  10. I was wondering if you had any Robert Fripp in your collection. While I appreciate Satriani though knowing little of his music, I think Fripp is an exceptionally stellar player.

  11. I only got in to Satriani for a few records.
    I found out about him as most of us did at the time, by learning through
    the guitar magazines that he had been Vai’s guitar teacher. His popularity
    blew up after that. I saw him on the Surfing with the Alien tour.
    Stu Hamm’s bass solo was amazing. When Satch started singing though, the
    love affair was over for me. Joe Satriani just doesn’t have a good voice.

    Same goes for Vai. I loved Vai’s Flex-able. For those of you who
    haven’t heard Flex-Able, its got to be one of the all time classics
    of the genre. To show just how picky I am, I didn’t even really
    like “Passion and Warfare”. By that point Whitesnake had paid
    Vai a reported 18 million to do an album and a tour with them.
    With the money his whole persona sort of changed. From zany
    guitarist/experimenter to snake-skin-cowboy-boot-pseudo-rock-god-idiot.

    That didn’t happen to Satriani.

    and:

    What about Jimi Hendrix? You didn’t even mention him. I guess
    obligatory nods to Hendrix have become tiresome. Hendrix is the
    one who took the electric guitar and changed how it was used.
    He made the electric guitar electric. Before that people thought of
    Fender strats like they were space-age planks of wood with art-deco
    electronics on them and played them like acoustic guitars (think Buddy Holly).
    Jimi Hendrix’s legacy lasted right up until the “Smells like Teen Spirit”
    video of the 90’s which changed Mtv forever, pretty much disqualified
    the electric guitar as an important form of social communication and put
    the metal head’s out of work. shucks.

    I am very very fond of Alan Holdsworth. He’s the guy that Eddie Van Halen
    stole most of his unique soloing ideas from. He is a bit of a one trick pony.
    He does some extremely amazing things on an electric guitar though. I just
    picked up “All night wrong (live)” and love it.

    one more:

    I know that straight jazz is probably in-admissable in this forum,
    but I can’t resist; He certainly is not of the metal genre,
    but around 1998-ish, pound for pound, there wasn’t a better guitarist
    in the world than Charlie Hunter. He plays this brilliant custom,
    fanned fret 8-string guitar. It has 3 bass strings and 5 guitar strings.
    There are two separate sets of pickups, electronics, and output jacks.
    One for bass and one for guitar. I was skeptical when I first heard
    of him, but man he was so good. He could play the bass part, solo,
    and comp chords, AT THE SAME TIME! Like it was two different people.

    Michael Hedges may have been still finding himself, but Charlie always
    knew that he was a jazz organist stuck in a guitarists body.

    The trouble is, they get tired after awhile. There’s this spark, drive,
    this newness. The thing that caused Vai to record a twelve harmonized
    backward guitars for a solo only to get erased by Bob Dylan’s studio engineer
    the next day by accident. and then they get married, have kids, and
    essentially forget what it was about music that they thought was so
    interesting in the first place. Charlie is still playing most of the
    same tunes now in 2005 that he was back in 1998. Its cool for awhile,
    but after that you should move on.

    Greg Naughton.

  12. Has anyone heard Buckethead? I haven’t heard him in years (so I don’t know what he’s doing now), since I sort of got out of the guitar virtuoso thing, but I saw him live back in 1998. I’ve also seen both Satch and Vai live, and I really don’t think they can stand up to him in terms of either virtuosity or wackiness. Watching Buckethead (without a band even) play was just bizarre. Personally, I think his solo stuff I heard fell severely into the trap of virtuosity over feel, but then, he seemed to be going for a whole different set of emotions anyway. I like his stuff with Bill Laswell though, and the stuff with the ex-Funkadelic guys even more. When working with others, they seemed to be able to channel him more.

  13. Also, regarding Hendrix, maybe it’s sacrilege to say so, but I think he’s the most overrated guitarist in the history of guitar, and aside from a few songs, he really bores me to tears. It’s just more and more of the same in every song and he had about one string in his bow. Okay, sure, he blew guitar out of the water at the time, but so what? I’m really not into worshipping someone just because he was an innovator at the time if the music doesn’t sound good to me. Also, I don’t know if he is or was as influential as everyone makes him out to be. Maybe as an icon, but in terms of the music, I hear people like Jimmy Page a lot more in a lot more music of the past several decades.

  14. To add a less-known virtuoso to your list, have you ever heard Jason Becker? He may be too far down the Yngwei scale for your tastes, but a brilliant player nonetheless. I went to high school with him, but was completely ignorant of his skills until years later. Sadly, he has ALS (aka Lou Gherig’s Disease) and his playing career was cut short in his early twenties, so we don’t get to hear what he might be playing today.

  15. in reponse to Caleb:

    ok, so I posted off topic, big deal. I just kind of saw something about
    Joe Satriani and went, “hey, I remember that guy”. It ellicited a _lot_
    of memories and I wrote what I knew. I’m sorry if you dont agree with it.
    I mean, saying that Hendrix is the most overrated guitar player in
    history is like saying that Ghandi, or World War 2, or Bob Dylan or
    Ferrari race cars are the mostoverrated.

    -first of all: the entire genre WOULDN’T exist without him.
    -He is the guy that Brian Eno called the father of electronic music.
    -He is also the guy that Grace Slick called the embodyment of the 60’s.
    -He is the guy who could control the feedback of a certain note of his
    guitar just by body placement.

    for my money, the 1st 30 seconds of the Band of Gypsies, Machine Gun
    solo probably ranks in the top-100 most trancendental experiences
    perpetrated by the human species of all time.

    I mean, come on , face it. Hendrix existed and made a way bigger noise
    than you have. If you dont get why these things are important then
    its an error in your perception, not in his music. The fact is, I
    dont listen to guitar music at all anymore. Why? Because people
    (except for rural guys like my uncle) could give a shit. Frank Zappa
    said that he didn’t care for Charlie Parker because even though he knew
    where he was noodling and he knew why he was noodling,
    it all just sounded like noodles to him. That really troubled me for
    a while because I was very into jazz. but somehow the emotional
    landscape has changed. People are more into impressionistic, landscape
    painting kind of music, than they are massive bombardment by notes music.
    (I guess I mean musicians here, not listeners. Listeners will listen to
    anything)

    sorry Eric for bringing negativity to your blog. I’m a big fan of your
    writings and think you have a lot of important things to say. and I
    really appreciated your lengthy post on Satch. Brought back a whole
    time period of my life.

  16. For you Leo Kottke fans, check out Willy Porter (http://www.willyporter.com/) He’s mostly all acoustic, and it sounds like he’s using effects, but he doesn’t (except the occasional loop and that’s mainly for vocals). He lists Kottke as an influence and you can hear it, but I think he has transcended Kottke. I’ve seen both of them live and Willy is unbelievable.

  17. Concerning Satch. Have seen him multiple times live, the last time in Austin. Two 90 minute sets with approximately 20 minute intermission was absolutely mind blowing. Nobody plays that long anymore. Like Morse, Vai, Petrucci and others, I agree that they all fall into the “trap”. Makes you wonder what someone like Miles Davis could have done for them?

    Concerning Fripp. I love KC, but damn his solo stuff can be annoying. I remember a League of Crafty Guitarists shows, and it was all I could do not to walk out. Perhaps I just can’t properly accept the responsibilities of being an “audient”. Regardless, one thing can be said of Fripp; he doesn’t play it safe.

    But, my real point in posting was to concur with the person who mentioned Allan Holdsworth. If you want to hear the “shit”, get his freshman album as a member of Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Believe It.

  18. I have been listening to Joe for 11 years now, and every album is amazing. I whish more people commented on his ballads, which I think are amzing. Such an incredibly talented guitar player and he can still slow down, and hit your heart with soul piercing emoitions. The climax in “Cryin” is a perfect example. “Always with me, Always with you” accomplishes the same. In every album, joe seems to hide this beautiful jewels for those who care to find them.

  19. Two things: If you don’t mind some twang, you must get a Danny Gatton album or two. Danny is gone but he was a mother. Huge tone, mostly using custom Fender guitars and vintage Fender tube amps. Not afraid of effects though.
    Also, from the other end of the spectrum, if you like ‘dissonance’ and ‘outside’ playing, Mark Ribot is one of the best as far as I’m concerned. He played with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello in the ’80s, and also Los Cubanos Postizos, The Prosthetic Cubans :) Very cool latin-flavored music. Stratocaster and Vibroverb are the name of the game…
    BTW Just got Revolution OS, thanks for giving Open Source a strong voice dude. And thanks for fetchmail :)

    Linc

  20. oh my gawd … so many diff view points …
    but the fact stands out … joe satch uses rock melodies/improvisation … things that really please most ppl – and hence the success… unlike jazz stuff … which goes too jazzy for ppl to appreciate and enjoy (atleast for me that thing holds true) …
    or the “progressive rock” stuff .. which unnecessarily burdens the ears and mind … neo-classical sounds good .. but yeah Malmsteen and his ilk have reduced it too plain technicalities … (though am a huge fan of Malmsteen) …
    jimi hendrix and blues might be the “most overrated” stuff but then they also follow the “pleasing to ear” thing like rock stuff … thats why the popularity and the appreciation …
    Eric Johnson is good but sometimes he goes overboard with his ideas … what Satch probabaly has in mind while playing is that he has to lead ppl to his music … and not make it too difficult to follow (which, unfortunately most of the other guitar gods do) …
    in the neo classical front … marty friedman is gr8 … u cudda put his name also in the list … :)

  21. Eric, hold your nose (you will hate the lyrics, the guy is a Sufi) but listen to the lines that Richard Thompson puts out. He wins on three counts:
    1. Longevity. Has recorded from age 17 (Fairport convention) to 60.
    2. Flexibility: everything from sounding like a harpischord to a zither out of a stratocaster
    3. He has the second tisted series of characthers in the world Only Zevon in my opinion beats it. Nick Cave is a piker compared to Thompson.

    The minor points in his favour are (a) no number one hits (b) his cover of Britney Spears “Oops I did it again”.

    Chris

  22. Time for an update ESR…let’s hear your thoughts on his latest – Super Colossal (Jan 2006)

    I have been a faithful admirer of Satch since his Alien days…he inspired me to really *feel* my way through playing guitar (not that I’m any good!).

    I really appreciate the honesty of your critique here…I most definitely concur…Satch has had a coupla wobbly patches in his career, but never alowed them to drag him off course.

    In recent years he has enjoyed an ascension in my mind…and this latest offering steepens the gradient.

    Kick-Ass doesn’t even begin to come close…

  23. Hi,
    I was just browsing the net and came across this site. Thanks for the read, was nice to see some opinions on Satriani’s work.

    For the most part, I agreed with it, but I felt compelled to argue a particular point – Vai being labelled as “soulless”?? This, to me, is incomprehensible – he is far and away, to me, the most soulful guitarist that I have ever heard. Lotus Feet, For the Love of God, Whispering A Prayer, Brandos Costumes, Feathers, Frank… I could write out basically his entire discography here. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing both Vai and Satriani live, and personally I much preferred Vai, as much as I love Satriani. I fear that sometimes, Satch falls into the “trap” of just having a backing section of chords, drums and bass and then adding a melody over the top. This is all well and good but after a while, can become monotonous. I find Vai’s arrangements to be superior, and his impeccable yet quirky sense of melody also appeals to me a lot. Also, as a final point, Vai seems to be a complete master of the guitar with almost limitless control, and whilst it would be foolish of me to suggest that Satriani was anything less than a genius, I feel he doesn’t have quite the same amount of control over the instrument that Vai possesses. You can really feel his soul in every note – watching him live only confirmed this, I was absolutely shocked by the genius of the performance.

    Anyway, thanks for the read and I hope you don’t mind my comment.

  24. wow….its cool to hear everybody’s thoughts, opinions, and standpoints in the world of guitar and its so-called “heroes”… I myself have a few other names to point out. satch, vai, petrucci, yngwie, hell yes. hands down, visionaries. but myself being the devote metalhead, guitarist, frontman, student of this trade, I find there are a few names missing from this list. ever hear of dragon force? power metal on speed. ever hear of symphony X? brilliant. alexi laiho. may not be classified with the forementioned, but he embodies what it is to perform, and his riffs chill my spine like the first time I heard creeping death or puppets. and to be a frontman AND lead guitarist is something to behold. and dont even get me started on jeff loomis, jeff beck, kirk hammet, tony Iommi dave mustaine, kerry king, jeff hanneman, k.k. downing, glen tipton, dave murray, adrian smith, chase hofferd, Tyler verkerk, and renee wilkinson. watch out for those last three, the are the true spirit of guitar, and tho you havent heard of them, you will soon. lets remember our roots, people, and know that its not whos best, its who’s passionate about what they do. follow your dreams. the sky’s the limit. peace.

  25. I read in an interview with Joe Satriani in a guitar magazine (name forgot) that he worked on his Joe Satriani (1995) album after his father’s death. If I remember correctly, he said that he went to a secluded mountain cabin and dealt with his feelings there while writing the album. So your assumption that “Joe might have been going through a rough couple of years as this one was recorded” is correct.

  26. Yes I know it’s not so relevant,…but I really wanted to know this :
    Have you ever listened to Pink Floyd’s stuff.How do you rate them?

  27. >Have you ever listened to Pink Floyd’s stuff.How do you rate them?

    My opinion of them has varied a lot over the years. Overall I’d say I’ve enjoyed the intricacy and intelligence of their music but found the heavy depressiveness of their approach off-putting. I actually think they got better after losing Roger Waters – not that he isn’t a brilliant musician, but he seems to have been responsible for the band’s narrow, negative emotional range over the many years he was fronting them.

  28. Hmm…I guess you are right about their depressing tone and lyrics in their Roger-led era, and you’re right that anyhow Roger is a damn good musician.
    Call me a depressed suicidal, but I really like parts of that era[Dark side of the moon and wish you were here] very much! :)
    Especially that song about Syd Barrett named “Shine on you crazy diamond”.

    Thanks for the kind answer.

  29. I’m new to Joe Satriani..

    But maybe you guys could let me get some information about him! :)

    I heard about him yesterday :p

    Im only 14 years though, and i’ve heard about many others :) But i’ve never heard or seen a guitarist as are so nice as this :o Thats MY oponion :>:>

  30. Wow! The keen exegetical observations of ESR giving exposition to the equally knurled cerebral cortex of Joe Satriani.

    I didn’t even know that was a fantasy of mine.

    Thank You.

    “If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower.”

  31. Newsflash: Just because a guitar doesn’t have distortion on it, doesn’t make it acoustic. I don’t think an acoustic shows up in any one of his albums until The Extremist.

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