(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Recording review: Joe Satriani, Unstoppable Momentum

Raise the prog-fusion flag and respect the axe!

There was once a golden age of progressive fusion. Back in the early ‘90s, performers like Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani astounded audiences with showy fretboard work and expressive melodies. The genre took its parentage from jazz fusion guitarists like John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck, but it borrowed heavy metal techniques like extreme whammy bar abuse, two handed tapping and speedy sweep picking. Largely instrumental, these songs followed jazz’s modal structure rather than relying on metal-style riffs or old school verse-chorus-bridge arrangements. After a few short years of public acclaim, though, the imposing style fell out of favor. Johnson became hamstrung by his own perfectionism after releasing Ah Via Musicom (1990) and Steve Vai’s followup to Passion and Warfare (1990), 1993’s Sex & Religion, got mired in band politics and ego clashes. Satriani had a good run of albums from 1987’s Surfing with the Alien through The Extremist (1992), but the next year’s release, Time Machine, didn’t fare as well. Like all but his truest fans, I lost track of his solo work around that time, but Unstoppable Momentum seems to pick up where The Extremist left off.
The songs run through a variety of moods from the introspective Gaelic feel of “I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn” to the funky electric boogie of “Jumpin’ In”. But Satriani’s ability to tap into the emotional well of each tune is a constant strength across the album. His playing mindset also separates him from his metal-head shred-meister cousins. Treating his guitar like a vocal track, he doesn’t burn through all of his technical tricks in a single song and he’s rarely repetitive or constrained by a collection of riffs.

On “Can’t Go Back”, Satriani’s initial guitar melody effectively sings a chorus, “Can’t go back/ Though you try,” which forms a recurring foundation for the rest of the song. The tune has a new wave feel anchored by Chris Chaney’s bass and Mike Keneally’s keyboard shimmers. The guitar takes on a reflective tone as it argues its point. The energy builds, capturing the frustration of looking back and fighting the past. His solo opens into that emotional turmoil with cathartic abandon that culminates in a dynamic drop to reset the song for a second pass. The band restates the earlier arguments, but never falls back into the same frustration, creating a sense of acceptance.

By contrast, “Shine on American Dream” is simpler and more direct. The throaty rock vamp of staccato guitar crunch supports a bluesy Americana vibe. The uplifting sense of pride lacks subtlety, but the earnest delivery gives the tune an anthemic quality. With the right set of words to convey the song’s optimism, this could be the breakout radio single for the album. Satriani stamps the tune with his imprimatur, adding a fluid, show-off lead that adds the perfect touch of pomp. The other radio-friendly cut, “A Door Into Summer” is less effective. Like “Shine on American Dream”, it relies on a less-developed structure, but the busier vocal line of the guitar doesn’t make the same impact.

Over several times listening to Unstoppable Momentum, it was the pensive darkness of “Lies and Truths” that gradually became my favorite. Keneally’s keyboard opening creates a sense of chill. This turns to tense calculation with Vinnie Colaiuta’s tight syncopation on the drums. The production ping-pongs Satriani’s detuned guitar from side to side, suggesting an argument. The next section lurches into a malevolent counterpoint groove reminiscent of Robert Fripp’s tense angularity, which represents the lies part of the title. In the “truths” section, the band comes into harmony, flattening the rough edges into a simpler forward drive. The layered guitars sing rising tones of affirmation before dropping the song back into the difficult question: which are the lies? A ripping two-handed solo vents its anger before the song runs through the lies and truths again. The interesting back story to this song is that Satriani played an experiment on the band with this track. Although he had already decided on the final title, the band was given a working title of “Fast Robot” during the recording sessions. He liked the effect this had on the band’s decisions about what to play. Colaiuta, for instance, gradually picked up complexity in his drum part until it built into the sound of a robot gone haywire. In the context of the real title, this helped drive the anger and tension of the song’s second half.

I’m glad to check in again with Satch and find that he’s still keeping the prog-fusion flame alive. While it’s not likely to spark a popular revival of the genre, Unstoppable Momentum is solid offering sure to please fans and impress guitarists of all levels of experience.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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