Hearing the first bars of “Gaia Tribe,” the opening track for Sonny Landreth’s Elemental Journey, I was reminded of some of my favorite ‘70s guitar instrumentals. As the strong, muscular melodies of the album progressed, I kept thinking of Ritchie Blackmore’s “Still I’m Sad,” Ronnie Montrose’s “Town Without Pity,” and Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover.” Not surprisingly, Johnson himself is one of the guests on Landreth’s 11th album, repeating what the duo did together on 2008’s “The Milky Way Home.”
But what might surprise Landreth fans is that this all-instrumental collection doesn’t sound like the slide virtuoso’s trademark Southern blues. There’s nothing here to evoke his work with Jimmy Buffett, Vince Gill, or John Hiatt. Rather, it’s an exhibition of melodic guitar showmanship that’s, well, very reminiscent of classic rock anthems from the mid-’70s. Of course, the more direct influences are from contemporary events in Landreth’s home region of Mississippi and Louisiana. These include Landreth’s responses to Katrina, Rita, and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The basic players have been with Landreth for some time. Dave Ranson (bass) and Steve Conn (keyboards) are joined by alternating drummers Brian Brignac, Doug Belote, and Mike Burch. In addition, Joe Satriani contributed much of the fire in “Gaia Tribe,” Johnson added his unique lyrical lines to “Passionola,” and Robert Greenidge hammers on his steel drums to the Trinidad-flavored “Forgotten Story.” Five tracks are also supported by members of Lafayette’s Acadiana Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its music director, Mariusz Smolij.
As Landreth observed in publicity for the album, when there is no singing voice, the themes have to be even stronger to inspire imagery. Intentionally, Landreth’s layered approach allows for musical dialogue between the instruments that often becomes subtle and sophisticated interplay. While one guitar lead goes in one direction, another theme provides a juxtaposition drawn from a different style entirely. For example, “Wonderide” begins with a zydeco foundation that spins off into finger-picking classical guitar forms. “For You And Forever” sounds like a guitar and fiddle trade leads before turning into a more overtly jazz performance.
On its surface, Elemental Journey is extremely listenable rock that isn’t bombastic, experimental, nor seemingly innovative. Many tunes like “Heavy Heart Rising” and “Wonderide” sound like basic melodies in search of lyrics. But the smooth musicality of the offerings mask the complexity of the tight compositions weaving textures below the solos. The placement of the occasional strings, for example, add surprising dramatics under the electric instruments. And, of course, Landreth’s trademark slide work, blended with his distinctive picking, provides depth and bended notes that don’t always sound like they come from typical guitar tunings.
So Elemental Journey is straight-forward entertainment as well as deceptively thoughtful musicianship. This isn’t the blues—it’s an affirming, triumphant declaration of how six strings and friends can tell tales without words. Elemental Journey is a soundtrack that movie listeners will need to visualize for themselves.