Joe Satriani has made an art of the rock instrumental. Why is it then that he keeps trying to sing? I think I speak for most people when I say that Flying In A Blue Dream‘s instrumental tracks were the “real” album, but it was unfortunately disrupted by a number of pretty poor vocal tracks. In fact, removing those vocal tracks and making the whole thing instrumental, with the help of a CD recorder, results in a much more satisfying listening experience. Joe pretty much gave up singing after that, offering only a minimal singing effort on his blues-tinged self-titled album – and even at that, his singing was subdued by distortion and being hidden in the mix. Perhaps the recording of his live album, Live In San Francisco, rekindled some need to sing again, because it features the Flying vocal track “Big Bad Moon,” for whatever reason (really, Joe, I love ya, but I didn’t need to hear it again.) Joe breaks out the mic once again on Is There Love In Space? with slightly better results, but the two songs, “Lifestyle” and “I Like The Rain,” really offer nothing new, or even really anything interesting, for vocal rock.
Satriani’s strength lies in his ability to create instrumental music that can wow both guitar players and casual listeners. One need not know a thing about guitar to appreciate the man’s sense of melody, and that’s really his biggest gift. He may possess flying fingers of gold, but what grabs most ears is the deft way he handles moving songs forward without vocal accompaniment. In fact, I think Satriani has a deep desire to be a singer with a beautiful voice, but he realized early on that he simply lacked any requisite skill with his vocal cords to do so – and so he developed a sound on guitar that mimcked the human voice. Like the best slide-guitarists, Satriani’s talent lies in emoting. He can shred with the best of them, but what he simply does best is sing – on the guitar, and that’s the way it should be.
Fans who might have been put off slightly by Joe’s lackluster last album, Strange Beautiful Music, will be happy to know Joe’s back in form. He still maintains a slightly more stripped-down sound, something he picked up on the techno-inspired Engines Of Creation, but it’s not as obtuse or uninspired as some of the moments on Strange Beautiful Music. If anything, Is There Love In Space? conjures a mixture of elements from several of his career highlights – the gritty textures of The Extremist, the bluesy yearning of Joe Satriani, and a big dose of the up-tempo fun of Crystal Planet. “If I Could Fly” should immediately be added to any list of best moments for Satriani. The song combines his soaring solos with a catchy, driving, upbeat strummed melody that jams itself in your head for hours afteward. This could be this year’s “Summer Song,” the track from The Extremist Sony used in every commercial for quite some time. And, because a sound-alike seems to have popped up on nearly every album since Surfing With The Alien, Satriani finally puts the ghosts of “Always With You, Always With Me” to bed with a new ballad-esque tune in the form of the happy, gentle “Just Look Up.” It’s surely to be a blueprint for future happy-ballads by Satriani. Through the course of the album, Satriani tackles “slightly heavy” metal with “Hands In The Air,” featuring a much chunkier, ballsier sound than is typical for him, a jam with “Searching,” and closes things off with another of those trademarks of his, the odd eastern-tinged drone of “Bamboo.”
Satriani’s essentially been doing the same thing for nearly two decades. He perfected his schtick long ago, but thankfully he’s felt no need to hang up his career simply because guitar rock will probably never be reinvented ever again. He may try to mix the elements up, and we’ll probably continue to get the misguided vocal track here and there, or a misstep like the slightly disappointing Strange Beautiful Music – and it’s equally likely we’ll never see another Surfing With The Alien – but as long as he can continue turning out what makes the other nine tracks (minus the vocal ones) so satisfying, fans new and old alike will continue to be happy. Count me among the happy.
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