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Joe Satriani - Unstoppable Momentum (Album Review)

Friday, 10 May 2013 Written by Simon Ramsay

Make no mistake, this is the sound of an artist completely at ease with himself and his muse, unconcerned by expectations and having an absolute blast. Following 2010's 'Black Swans And Wormhole Wizards' - a stylistically diverse journey through time and space - this fourteenth studio album finds guitar wielding deity Joe Satriani return to earth with a sparkling instrumental album that dissects the emotional traumas and triumphs caused by humanity's ceaseless forward motion. It sounds serious, but thanks to Satch delivering his most commercial collection of tunes since 1992's 'The Extremist', the overall feeling is one of unwavering positivity in the face of adversity. Whilst some may be disappointed by the lack of heavy rock numbers and increasingly mature aesthetic, 'Unstoppable Momentum' still boasts a great mixture of astonishing virtuosity, visceral melodies and genre bending passages that are vintage Satriani.

It would be silly to discuss the album's production values. Those duties were once again handled by Mike Fraser and Satch, so you already know it sounds immense! Band wise, backing Joe are keyboardist Mike Keneally, Jane's Addiction bassist Chris Chaney and drumming legend Vinnie Colaiuta. It's fair to say their involvement is key to the overall vibe as they've a wonderfully spontaneous chemistry, bringing the compositions alive with a spur of the moment immediacy that allowed Joe to relax and enjoy himself. As he told Music Radar 'Everybody was approaching the songs in very inspiring and interesting ways, which let me settle back and not have to tell people what to play. Every time we did a take, everybody would play something different, and I would say, ‘Wow, that was really great!’' As such, the material is a gleeful contradiction. The songs are well structured, less experimental and don't contain protracted passages of endless improv. Yet, within those tight confines there's a much looser feel that maximises the band's creativity and imbues the album with it's giddy off-the-cuff buoyancy.

One common misconception about Satch is that he's merely a cerebral technician who treats music as a mathematical puzzle, knowing how every chord, mode and scale fits together to produce the perfect aural equation. Yes, he's frighteningly knowledgeable, but such beliefs ignore both the quality of his songwriting and his superhuman ability to create meaningful melodies that are spiritual, euphoric, profound and uplifting. In that respect, Satriani is very much the feeling man's shredder, and a central aspect of 'Unstoppable Momentum' is how he builds each track around longer melodic phrases that develop at their own pace, rather than utilising short repeated hooks. Satch has referred to this as his 'hyper-melodic trip', and the laid back way in which he spins those unhurried lines is a major reason for the more relaxed, sophisticated feel of the album.

Those sensibilities are apparent from the opening title track. Laser beam lightning strikes shoot from Satriani's fingers as the tune locks into a rolling boulder groove. It's glistening chorus features two succulent melodies, the first pulsing with a sense of pure epiphany followed by a deeper lick that meditates on the responsibility of such a revelation. Then, in full on six string superhero mode he unleashes a biting solo that snaps and snarls with vicious whammy work before cutting loose with an emancipated legato run. 'Can't Go Back' continues that contemplative bent, it's gently crisp chord voicings purring with reflective thoughts about dealing with the future and leaving the past behind. With slinky finesse Satriani knits together a number of shimmering hooks as the pivotal melodic line is answered by echoing guitars that add extra resonance to the message being delivered. It may start solemnly, but finds transcendence courtesy of inspiring licks and a flamboyant solo that's kick up the backside brilliant. Likewise, even 'The Weight Of The World' isn't as gloomy as it sounds. After a lonely clavinet intro, the rhythm section's insistent funkified pounding mimics the unrelenting pressure of life in the modern world until another huge choral swell arrives, stirring up a sense of triumph over tribulation before erupting with a wah drenched solo brimming with angst and emotional turmoil. In Satriani's gifted hands, what could have been bleak becomes cathartic and healing.

Anyone fearing Joe's gone too conservative needn't fret, there's still plenty of twists, turns and a healthy dose of wacky stylistic shifts, beginning with the exceptional 'Three Sheets To The Wind'. It's an exhilarating journey that bumps along on a bouncy guitar / piano melody before dive bombing into perilous waters with dissonant effects, blazing sirens and stabbing synths that recall Dream Theater's 'Scenes From A Memory'. The tune comes full circle by repeating the initial playful melody with added punch from a stirring horn section. Bloody marvellous! As is the thrilling combo of 'Jumpin In' and 'Jumpin Out'. The former pounds into life with a semi distorted countrified lick that breaks down into a half time jive reminiscent of 'Satch Boogie'. Then things go mental; there's dark dramatic passages with brooding synthesisers and squealing harmonics, a tranquil ambient interlude and a delightfully funky bass section that struts it's cool ass stuff. 'Jumpin Out' is similarly bonkers, as Satch makes his Ibanez sound like a snaky tenor sax as it swings all over the place on a really cool jazzy rock number, boasting precision tremolo picking and a surprisingly slow atmospheric detour set alight by beautiful lead work.

One thing lacking here are heavier guitar driven tracks. There's great riffs, like the hulking 70's rock groove on 'Lies And Truths' - which also unleashes a scintillating tapping solo that harks back to his 80's output - but they occur within the songs rather than leading them, and are more mid tempo than high octane as the focus is very much on melody, melody and more melody. In that respect, 'Unstoppable Momentum' feels like an older, wiser, less combustible version of 'The Extremist'. That's not to say the album doesn't rock because it does, only in a more middle of the road manner. 'A Door Into Summer' being a case in point, with a chugging rhythm that sparkles with relaxed nonchalance as Joe produces streams of gorgeous melodies over the top. It's not dissimilar to his classic 'Summer Song' and highlights how he's changed and grown. Where 'Summer Song' was the storming work of a testosterone fuelled young man milking the season for all it's worth, 'A Door Back Into Summer' feels like the same guy 20 years on sitting back and just enjoying the moment. After all, this is 2013 and a 56 year old Satriani is going to approach music from a different place than he did decades ago.

'Unstoppable Momentum' is a fully realised body of work that gels together on all levels; musically, thematically and emotionally. Taken on it's own merits it's the most accessible album of Satriani's career and would be a good introduction for anyone who thinks they don't fancy listening to a guitar driven instrumental record. As ever, where Satch goes next will intrigue his faithful followers, and those bemoaning the relative lack of all out rock heroics need to understand it's an honest reflection of where Joe's at right now. Variety is the spice, and isn't it great to have a back catalogue that encompasses the different textures of 'Surfing With The Alien', 'Crystal Planet', Flying In A Blue Dream and 'Unstoppable Momentum'? Better that than releasing the same album over and over again. Where's the artistic momentum in that?

'Unstoppable Momentum' is out now on Epic Records/Sony Music UK. Joe Satriani tours the UK next month.

Joe Satriani UK Tour Dates are as follows

Sat June 8th 2013 - Apollo Manchester, Manchester
Sun June 9th 2013 - Royal Concert Hall Glasgow, Glasgow
Mon June 10th 2013 - Newcastle City Hall, Newcastle Upon Tyne
Tue June 11th 2013 - Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
Wed June 12th 2013 - Colston Hall, Bristol
Thu June 13th 2013 - Wolverhampton Civic Hall, Wolverhampton
Sat June 15th 2013 - City Hall Sheffield, Sheffield
Sun June 16th 2013 - Guildhall, Portsmouth
Mon June 17th 2013 - Shepherds Bush Empire, London
Tue June 18th 2013 - Indigo2, London

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