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Joe Satriani - Shapeshifting (Album Review)

Thursday, 23 April 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Joseph Cultice

If a guitarist’s ability to blend together sublime melodies, virtuosity and a heavenly tone was rewarded with the kind of letters PhDs drag behind their surnames, Joe Satriani would have an alphabet trailing his instantly recognisable moniker. The six-string professor’s latest record is unsurprisingly full of those trademark skills, except this time he’s freshened up his songwriting with a chameleonic approach that sees him aping everyone from Van Halen to the Police. Highly entertaining, yes, but is the resultant material as strong as it could be?

Every Satriani album inevitably features marvellous musicianship and much more emotional depth than naysayers will ever acknowledge. Yet, in spite of their inherent quality, outer space meets delta blues atmospherics and unwavering tunefulness, the songs don’t always leave a lasting impression once the next one rolls around.

Compared to Satriani’s 1992 masterpiece ‘The Extremist’, a record full of exceptionally powerful, classically constructed cuts buoyed by perfectly sculpted hooks, many of the guitarist’s efforts don’t offer the same overall consistency or songs with such unique signatures. This pattern again rears its head on ‘Shapeshifting’, the 18th album of Satch’s career.  

But it’s certainly a treat to hear him step into the shoes of other musicians and, essentially, become 15 different guitarists over the course of one album—the thrillingly joyous Eddie Van Halen-esque Nineteen Eighty and crashing Brian May roar of Big Distortion being two winners. All For Love, Waiting and Here The Blue River, on the other hand, are more instant comfort food than long lasting nutritional meal. Their tent-pole melodies, while nice, are too forgettable.

What we need are songs built around distinguished lyrical lead refrains that colonise our synapses. There’s always some on every Satriani record and that’s no different here.  Backed by Kenny Aronoff on drums and bassist Chris Chaney, as well as guest appearances by Prince’s Lisa Coleman on keys and Christopher Guest on mandolin, the title track is full of intensely hummable hooks and otherworldly mystery, delivering sinewy riffage, huge beats and a delirious burst of old school widdling.

Elsewhere, a hard rocking swagger rings out like an orchestra of amplified bells on Spirits, Ghosts and Outlaws and Perfect Dust is a playful funked up groover courtesy of its twanging and flirtatious guitar-bass call and response. Ali Farka, Dick Dale, An Alien And Me, which melds space monster ambience with tribal rhythms, hangs together like a tightly woven knot despite of charging full throttle from one aesthetic to another.

Admittedly, those tracks don’t deliver the same quality as a Summer Song or Cryin’, but they’re potent enough to make a dent in our memory banks. We just need that kind of consistency, and sometimes even better, over the course of a whole record. Any fan of Satriani’s past work won’t be disappointed by the affluent textural colours he paints with on ‘Shapeshifting’, nor the calibre of his and the band’s performances. But it would be nice for the guitarist to start crafting more vintage albums in the ‘Extremist’ mould, boasting crossover cuts that, by their very nature, leave an indelible impression.

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