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CD Review: Joe Satriani – Super Colossal

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Joe Satriani is misunderstood. That is an amazing thing for an artist like Joe Satriani. He’s been around for 20 years as of the release of Super Colossal — I discovered him nearly that long ago.

How can artist be around for two decades and still be misunderstood? How can an instrumental artist be misunderstood? It is tough (some would say impossible) to read incorrect meaning into words that do not exist, although I think Frank Zappa recorded an instrumental album that received a “Parental Advisory” sticker.

What makes Joe Satriani a misunderstood artist? Most music people will dismiss Satch as either a “guitar god” or “heavy metal.” That is fucking lazy. It is also not true. Well, it is not exactly true.

Satch sounds like a master of the guitar. I choose not to confer the title of “guitar god” because anyone who can go from “G” to “F” on a guitar receives some degree of admiration from me (“F” is a fuckin’ hard chord). For me to call Satriani a “guitar god” would be such tiny praise. I can tell you guitarists of diverse backgrounds and skill levels have heaped mounds of praise on Satriani and his abilities. I cannot, as a player, explain to you what makes him a great player. I can, as a listener, tell you he makes sounds come from a guitar I have never heard any other player on earth produce.

His brand of guitar-centric music certainly has a place in the rock/hard rock/metal universe. It is a convenient label to attach. The sound of the guitar is perhaps the most recognized and easily distinguished characteristic of the genre. Lumping Satriani in with the “heavy metal guitar gods” is an easy thing to do if one focuses on one particular song or one particular passage. Listening to the music reveals something more, something bigger. He does not simply record a string of dizzying, technically deft exercises and pass them off as songs. He is a composer as much as he is a player. He writes pop music for hard rock fans. His songs have melodies. They have hooks. They have textures.

It is not hard rock or soft rock or guitar rock. It is music. Maybe that is why he is misunderstood: he is a composer and performer of music. How out of style is that?

I discovered him in 1987 with the release of his classic Surfing With the Alien. When I got my first CD player some time in high school, that album was one of the first five I bought. It is the only one of those I still own to this day (although I did purchase the re-mastered version, something I encourage for the rest of you). I owned Surfing on a cassette I dubbed from a neighbor, a cassette I later purchased, that first CD, and now a re-mastered version. It is still that good.

I now own every one of his CDs released before and since. There have been periods I did not listen to him as much as others, but he has been on my musical radar now for more than half of my life. I drank the Satriani Kool-Aid as a teenager. It must have been potent stuff. I am still listening. These are the ears I brought with me to review Super Colossal.

The first time I listened to the album it did not make much of an impression. It certainly did not bore me, but it did not demand my full attention, either. I was disappointed. I am a fanboy. I love Satch and wanted to love SC. A lifetime of listening to music and a few years experience as a reviewer told me to listen to the album again. And again.

SC made experience seem like wisdom. Individual songs from the album began to distinguish themselves.

“Cool New Way” sounds like a conversation he is having with himself. The vibe created by melody and its surrounding sounds are just that… cool. “Made of Tears” echoes a personal favorite Satch song, “The Crush of Love” in guitar tone and melody. “One Robot’s Dream” is another track that mines that “cool” vibe, this time with a space age feel.

“Redshift Riders” is likely to be the shredder’s anthem from this disc. The mystical sounds in the intro give way to a thick, snarling rhythm track which allows Satriani to run through a few screaming solos, giving the song just the slightest resemblance to Surfing’s “Crushing Day.” Some of the hottest licks on the disc can be found in the final 30 seconds of “Redshift Riders.”

“Ten Words” and “The Meaning of Love” are the best of the ‘slower’ moments (I will not refer to them as ballads because I detest the word). Neither of these will likely cause fans to reach for their cigarette lighters (or cell phones as I understand the kids now use) when played in concert, but they are still good listening (with “Ten Words” being the better of the two).

The two moments on the album I enjoy the least are the first and final tracks. “Super Colossal” does sound an awful lot like Billy Squier’s “The Stroke” (as pointed out in AMG’s review of the album). The closing track, “Crowd Chant” is goofy in a fun and annoying way. It may turn out to be fun in concert but adds nothing to the album.

Twenty years in and Satriani is still making compelling, if misunderstood, albums. SC works for the same reason all of his best albums work. There are enough impossible guitar tricks to keep the guitar boys happy and there are enough songs with compelling hooks to make it a terrific listening experience. The strength of his last three studio releases: Strange Beautiful Music, Is There Love in Space?, and this Super Colossal are undeniable evidence the man is not running out of ideas.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    nice review. i’ve never been a big Satriani fan (those whole lotsa notes things just doesn’t do it for me), but there’s no denying the man can torture the fretboard.

    that and he obviously has more ideas than your average shredder.

    btw, the Zappa record you’re referring to was Jazz From Hell.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I thought I had that story right.

    The most important thing on this album is HE DOESN’T SING! Heh.

    Thanks for checking this out, Sir Saleski.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    also interesting is that Satriani student and fellow guitar abuser Steve Vai plays on that Zappa record (on the only tune not fully ‘rendered’ by the synclavier).

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Steve Vai is a wizard but I think he seems to alternate between being too weird (ie, trying to be Zappa) or too many notes (ie, Malmsteen). Satriani, to me, strikes the very nice balance of having jaw-dropping shreds while still making music. Vai does that sometimes. I am honestly not well versed in Zappa to offer a definitive opinion. I just know he went pretty far “out there” on some records.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    the only Vai record i have is Flex-able (and Flex-able Leftovers) which shows more of his pop side.

    i still say that his best day ever was playing the devil’s guitar player in the movie Crossroads.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    The only Vai I have is Passion & Warfare which I think represents his best playing ever. He was good in Crossroads, though. I just never understood what Britney Spears was doing in that movie and how she wasn’t the devil.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    oops, i lied. i have Sex & Religion, which i thought was boring.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    That one is definitely a misnomer in his catalog. That was his ill-fated attempt at forming a band and having a vocalist. He has since moved away from that and recorded much more instrumental music.

  • http://www.genericmugwump.com/ Aaron Fleming

    Nice review. I’ve always had much respect for Satriani’s playing and musicality, but it’s never really gelled with me. Same can be said for Vai, outstanding talent and cool compositions, but meh.

    Not that I don’t enjoy a good shred-fest every now and then, but I lean more towards the like of Marty Friedman and Jason Becker.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Thank you, Sir Fleming, for checking out the review.
    Becker and Friedman always struck me as more “chops” and less “music” but I do have enormous respect for those chops. My hands cramp up just listening to them.

  • http://trinimansblog.blogspot.com/ Triniman

    I had the pleasure of interviewing Satriani once, prior to his concert on the tour for the Flying in A Blue Dream album. He’was quite humble about his talents.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I got to see him on the G3 tour in Denver in the mid-90s. He was gracious in-between songs and phenomenal in his performance.

  • Duane

    Well, I have been able to go from a G to an F since I was 15, and I know quite a bit about Satriani and Vai. I know less about Zappa. I do have a copy of the latter’s Shut Up ‘N’ Play Yer Guitar, which I find to be a waste of time, and evidence that Satch and Vai are much better guitarists than Zappa. I came across Satriani’s music pretty early on. Later, after I bought Vai’s Passion and Warfare, the Alien Love Secrets, I’ve formed the opinion that Vai can outplay Satch.

    Yes, yes, there are always the putative cognoscenti who will say, “Yeah, but Vai was Satriani’s student!” Well, this won’t be the first time in history that the student has surpassed the teacher.

    Besides displaying unbelieveble guitar pyrotechics, I admire Vai for choosing to play with backing musicians who are themselves excellent. Having Tony MacAlpine as a second guitarist and Billy Sheehan on bass, virtuosos in their own right, says a lot about the care that Vai gives to delivering his music in a live setting. Satch, by contrast, is usually backed by relatively mediocre musicians.

    And what this comes down to is that Vai’s music is far more demanding than Satriani’s. Is it, therefore, better? Well, yeah, I think it is.

    I know what Satriani is going for. He wants his guitar to replace the vocalist in delivering a melody line. Sometimes he succeeds, but sometimes the result is a little milquetoasty. All too often the result is a couple of hot solos superimposed on a bland 90 beat per minute drum/bass/guitar backing track. The solos are wonderful, but without an interesting backdrop, the music is of continued interest only to “guitar boys,” who want to learn those licks.

    The easiest comparison of Satriani and Vai can be made by listening to their G3 concert — the one with Eric Johnson (who is a whole nuther kind of animal). Satch does his thing, but when Vai comes out, it’s like the whole show shifts into a higher gear.

    There is one area where I’ll take Satriani over Vai, and that is in regards to their choice of guitar. I had the recent luxury of being able to choose between a Vai signature Ibanez Jem and a Satriani signature JS1200. The JS won hands down, and it’s my favorite guitar so far. And I’ve owned or played all the classic 6-string electrics.

  • Jeff

    Satch, Johnson, Gatton, a few others… I’ve seen them all. Take a look around the crowd at their events. Mostly guitar players or wannabe’s.

    An F chord really isn’t that hard. You are a wannabe.

    Tough luck hombre. Buck up, punch the clock then you MAY inherit the right to publish an article about a maestro such as the Satch.

  • http://blogcritics.org Joanie

    Having gotten caught up in family drama, I missed Satch at the local Guitar Trader the other day. Damn it all! I was so prepared to haul my young’n down there to see him. I wanted my son to see another facet of genius among us.

    Good music is good music, screw the genre.

  • http://home.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user&DERDB=ZG9tYWluPXlhaG9vJnRsZD1jb20mc21va2VyPTAmc2V4cHJlZj0xJnV0eXBlPTImcmVsaWdpb25pZD01JnJlZ2lvbj0mcG9zdGFsY29kZT02MjU0MyZtYXJpdGFsc3RhdHVzPVMmaW5jb21l Bruce

    I like the new CD. The title track doesn’t really do a lot for me, though the rest of the album seems to be easy on the ears. I agree about redshift riders, seems like he’s acknowledging a few things and hitting some stuff in echo…

    *sigh* If only dream theatre would stop revisiting old riffs and lyrics.

  • http://satch chad

    well seeing that satch is the teacher of vai,vai is good in his own ways and satch is really good in his way it depends on what you like..i really dont think that vai is trying to be any one but him self.for what almost 50 years of his life and how many album’s.for people to say that he is trying to be this person or that.ask him in an interview and see what he says so the people that read this stuff will really know.

  • chad

    satch has always made really good album’s and i really can say that he’s the only person that i can sit down and listen to all the album’s and start over when their all done…….. keep it up satch………………

  • Twangy

    Very very nice review…evoking some really familiar feeling within me. i think i have finally stopped listening to guitar tricks and just focus on the sound and the feeling beind it. although, i have to admit, the with this album once more, there are a few spots that i have to really rub my ears and go “now what the )&&¤/& kind of a sound is that and how on earth can you get it out of a simple guitar???” in astonishment. particularly on “One Robot’s Dream”. but, if i had to choose between the screaming solos or the underlying groove/melody, it would be the latter. every time.

    Thanks.

  • RIch

    The first Satch album I came across was Flying in a Blue Dream when it first came out. For me it is still his best, it hangs together brilliantly. I think he should sing more, that quiet voice is a great foil to the guitar.

    I’ve never been big on Vai though I understand his talent. I liked Passion, but then bought Sex.. and that was the end of it for me

  • David

    For me Joe and Steve are two parts of the same thing, they compliment each other, so when ever I listen to onethe other is playing in the same playlist, and they are both inspirering in more ways then words can express.

  • Jeffrey

    I am sorry to say that St. Joe’s music has suffered because of him spending so much of himself and his time in pulling up new artists. His contributions to soloing, style, and tech are hands down more than any one except for Jimi (and thats only because Jimi inspired the world). Joe is a more tech and precice player than Jimi could have ever been. I don’t care what anyone says that has weight, more so than personal stature or recognition. What about heart and soul you say… I say Always with me , always with you.
    Joe we love you.

  • Bakhtiar

    Right, in his earlier album joe involved much more on other composition (drum, bass) but not in this album. Its sound like overcrowded by many instrument of course except crowd chant.

    Joe’s simplicity is the key, mostly each instrument are balanced. And when He want guitar solo, he really do it alone like ‘midnight’.

    Its about music so creavity is the level, go for Joe

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    I don’t know how I missed this the first time around, but I’ll just say that I’m with you, Josh – I take Satch over Vai any day (Passion & Warfare is my one and only Vai album, and it’s all I need.) Satriani is all about making songs where pretty much everyone else is about showing off skills. Joe covers it all without sacrificing melody. That’s always been what keeps me coming back to him. For someone like me to keep returning to music like this says a lot about the music and the man creating it. It’s more than just a show of skill.

    And for the guy who suggested that Josh needs to learn how to play an F chord before writing a review about Joe Satriani (comment #14,) am I right that it is played solely with the middle finger extended? Or is that only the FU chord?

  • aitya

    i can play anything satriani plays on any of his albums..just like steve vai and yngwie malmsteen ..i can copy everything note by note..but i tell u guys..these guitarists i’ll never ever be able to match with them..they are really gods for me..the music satriani composes..no words..how can he be soo simple and yet so creative..malmsteen for me keep playing the same thing..yet i respect him equally for his genious uniqueness..vai is a great guitar player and also a great composer..he played everything i counldnt even imagine after listening to his albums..by the way am a big fan of john petrucci..still listening to systematic chaos..one of the greatest albums ive listened to..well all albums of dream theatre are among..ok thank u bye

  • AndyG

    Satriani and Vai are my favorite guitar players. Satriani is probably a bit more melodic and straight forward, while Vai is more avant garde. Both are technically amazing.

    The one area of differentiation is their live acts. I saw both on their recent tours. At the G-3 concert, I (and much of the crowd) was much more excited about watching both Paul Gilbert and John Petrucci. Both of their recent albums are excellent. For Satriani, I was actually felt like I was watching a Broadway show – admired the skills but wasn’t excited. And he could basically play alone – the other members were background filler. I could have replaced the rhythm guitarist (maybe).

    Contrast that to Steve Vai, who played for almost 3 hours, and was unbelievable in many ways – great light show, unbelieveable guitar playing (makes it look effortless) and stage presence (passion), 2 kick-ass violinists and Dave Weiner (who even though he takes a backseat to Vai, is noticeable and admired).

    I have the JEM guitar and like it very much. Based on the above comment I’ll probably buy the Satriani model.

    By the way, the review gets the main points. That Satriani is a great song writer, and probably more consistent in that regard than Vai.

    But nothing beats the experience of a Vai concert live….

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