Music Reviews

Joe Satriani – Black Swans and Wormhole Wizads

Joe Satriani - Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards

  • Black Swans

The Black Swan Theory – developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain “the disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance and technology”

  • Wormhole

A hypothetical topological feature of spacetime that would be, fundamentally, a “shortcut” through spacetime.

Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards is Joe Satriani’s fourteenth studio album (released two years after Professor Satchafunkilus) and if the title is any indication clearly has ambitions beyond the norm even for his highly polished brand of inventive and experimental music. Recorded at Skywalker Sound after the tumultuous events of 2009 which clearly affected Joe in all aspects of his life, “Black Swans….” plumbs new depths of raw emotive power for the legendary guitarist as not only did he succeed brilliantly with Chickenfoot but tragically lost his Mother Katherine in December. A year of such “phenomenal change, professional highs and a very tragic personal hardship” has had a notable impact as we see him here in a ruminative mood quite distinct from the virtuosity that he is so often associated with.

Sonically Joe’s choice to return to a live recording setup (a la Flying in a Blue Dream) with both familiar musicians (Mike Keneally on Keyboards, Jeff Campitelli on drums and percussion) as well as new faces (Allen Whitman on bass) has served him well. The guitar tones are living, organic entities no matter how they are treated with wah, fuzz and other effects which along with the more insistent and human performances give the entire album a more visceral appeal than some of the perhaps over-processed recordings in his past.

Premonition initiates proceedings with a track that in some ways is classic Satriani – delicate melodies and bold progressions, a rushing, surging rhythm coupled with a strutting breakdown but then it breaks the mould with a short, twisting solo rather than the more extravagant outing some may have anticipated. Dream Song is a speculative reverie – by turns gutsy and chimerical with Mike underpinning the concisely howling guitar by means of effervescent keyboard pads which seem to merge seamlessly with a spacious and gentle wah-inflected rhythm. There are moments of a darker nature throughout and a brilliantly mercurial solo to blow away any shadows which might remain.

The first really unexpected turn for me, Pyrrhic Victoria swaggers with a progressive, epic symphonic pomp in the chorus but once again Joe shows his flair for gutsy blues-tinged rock solos in order to provide a firm foundation in the edgy funk sections that form the rest of the track. Another contrasting track (and Joe is nothing if not a musician capable of huge changes of vibe from moment to moment) Light Years Away boogies hard with a classic riff and pounding rhythm section, but carries with it an element of fusion sophistication. Posted by Joe on Soundcloud.com this is the track most will have heard but trust me – it’s representative of Joe’s versatility and rock roots which whilst prominent aren’t the whole story of this album by any means.

Solitude – armed only with a guitar, delay and reverb this is Joe in his absolutely finest “Tears in the Rain” mode as he fingerpicks a beautiful chordal arrangement that was initially intended to be an introduction to Heartbeats, but stands perfectly on its own. Littleworth Lane provides a snapshot into Joe’s life and musical loves as he pays a delicate tribute to his Mother and the music she introduced him to using little more than a Hammond B3, a dose of R&B, and the most authentically moving blues phrasing I’ve ever heard spring forth from his guitar. Although understated this simple track contains some of his best work to date regardless of stylistic leanings but if you loved some of his earlier forays into the blues, you will adore this.

The Golden Room revisits some of the Satriani I love best – the exotic, enigmatic wizard that literally transports us to other times and places through his consummate musical awareness and bewildering technique. I’ve rarely heard his guitar sound better than right here as orchestral pads and traditional percussion provide an up-tempo raga feel for his slippery, haunting leads that never dissolve into the excess that a younger Joe might have lavished on us.

Two Sides to Every Story was influenced by Jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris (another musician introduced to Joe by Katherine) this is Satch as we’ve have only infrequently heard before. Although rooted in the blues he dazzles with an expected harmonic sophistication on demand through a combination of an unusually clean and warm tone on top of a cool sense of space. On this track as with all the other he seems eminently at home and comfortable with nothing to prove, but everything to say.

Wormhole Wizards is notable on several levels. The drum and bass pairing of Messrs Whitman and Campitelli sit right in the pocket and groove here whilst providing the motive power for the less active guitar and keyboards; yet they never lose that sense of direction. One of Joe’s signature legato solos and some almost too-faint to hear atmospheric string noises show his eternal fondness for the capabilities of the instrument, while Mike is allowed some room to breath with a perfectly placed solo and some tremendous fills – very much a case of 4 stunning musicians jamming as a harmonious unit.

Wind in the Trees demonstrates a mastery of guitar effects and tones which show that with imagination and in this case 20 years of development then the truly sublime can be achieved. Very much in the ballad style that we know so well Joe manages to allow one guitar to speak with incredible fluidity and for me this not only represents the Joe of now, but the Joe that some critics accused of being no more than an “effects” player – nothing could be further from the truth. Mike is once more allowed room to add his signature brilliance in closing as some atmospheric and dexterous piano bring this penultimate track to a gentle close.

God is Crying is undoubtedly one of the strongest tracks Joe has recorded and if it has familiar elements then there’s also a new factor – he seems to have reached a new plane of communication with his instrument. Building in pace from a funky, handclapped beat the sense of restraint is quite palpable as he concentrates instead on his gorgeously evocative tones before allowing the guitar to quite literally scream in places. Rarely if ever has he been so starkly emotional or quite so brilliant.

Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards is an introspective and emotionally charged performance which rates as his best in years – and whilst not perhaps the album that many (including Joe himself) expected it delivers on every level from the technical, to the musical to the deeply cognitive and spiritual.

Rating: ★★★★★

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March 24th, 2010

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