Everyone remembers Joe Satriani’s third studio album as “the one where he started singing”, and it’s true. The guitar genius, for whatever reason, decided to add his vocals to some of the tracks of his otherwise instrumental discography, and it stuck out like a sore thumb at the time. It’s also true that he released many more later albums without singing, and the people who stopped listening to his musical output in 1989 solely because “he sings now” are largely stupid, much like the people who claim Seattle grunge bands singlehandedly killed glam metal bands, even though most glam metal bands were a fad, and conversely, MTV was still kissing Guns N’ Roses’ collective asses and the Metallica black album was selling about 50,000 copies a day well after Kurt Cobain’s headless body had gone room temp. Satriani tried something, it didn’t work, he went on with other things. Right?
Anyway, this 18-track album covers a pretty wide area of sonic terrain. It’s a lot less straightforward than his previous two albums, but the guitar sound matured and progressed much more. I’m not saying he didn’t have a handle on his general tone before this, but his Ibanez-based notemaking is much more refined and deep on this album. Mix that with a bunch of new writing, and you have about an hour of pretty diverse listening ahead of you.
First, we start out with the title track. It starts off with a weird radio voice and the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The voice actually came from a time Joe fired up his practice amp in the studio and some weird radio interference crossed over with a radio or a cordless phone or something, and he immediately grabbed a mic and recorded it for the song. The guitar goes into a gentle, controlled feedback line with some very laid-back drum and bass behind it, to produce an extremely smooth melody. It builds up, as Satriani lays into it a bit more and does some shredding, mixed with more sustained notes and feedback. He’s often used this song as an opener live, and it still sounds as incredible as it did back when I first got this disc.
There are almost “groupings” of songs interleaved through this album. They would be loosely categorized as “songs like Surfing With the Alien“, “ballady laid-back stuff”, “bluesy stuff”, and “total experiments”. And that is roughly the order, from best to worst, I’d use to categorize them. So maybe I should just talk about each of them and why they did or didn’t work.
“Stuff like Surfing…” would include “The Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing”, which is a slightly quirky but incredibly fun instrumental piece. “One Big Rush” is better known from the movie Say Anything, which basically means three billion people have heard Joe Satriani, but have no idea who he is. The more ballady stuff includes “I Believe”, in which he sings, and it’s incredibly sappy, but it probably found its’ way onto many mix tapes for girlfriends back when people made mix tapes (as opposed to just stealing music and burning CDs). As far as bluesy stuff, there’s “Big Bad Moon”, another singing track, but it’s not bad.
And the experiments. Some work, like a distorted harmonica bit in “Headless”, or the funky “Strange”. There’s a banjo piece in “The Feeling” that’s actually pretty interesting. (Of course, I also like Adrian Legg.) “The Phone Call” is probably one of the worst tracks he’s done. It’s a sort of four-bar blues thing, with all of the lyrics sung over a phone. George Thorogood is going to be forced to write songs like this in hell. “Ride” takes a close second in the worst song department. It’s a repeating ZZ Top-ripoff song with a really inept chorus that makes me wonder if this album should have been trimmed down to a solid 45 minutes, with an armload of really bad b-sides waiting in the wings.
I feel like I’ve only mentioned about half of the songs on this album. I really do like “Day at the Beach”, which is an entirely guitar thing, just him playing an intricate tune with two hands, and then halfway through, he goes back and repeats the whole melody at double speed. There are two two-part songs, “The Forgotten”, and “The Bells of Lal”, which both start with solos and then have a song as the second part, and they work well.
Like I said, overall this is a really uneven album. It’s the kind of thing I can’t listen to from start to finish without skipping tracks, but then I also find a great need to repeat some tracks over and over. This album seems to be a weird transition for Joe, because before this, he was really reigned in to record a typical “rock album” that was 40 minutes long, with 4 songs per side, and 2 tracks that are breakout singles. It seems like this time he was given total control, and he went over the line a little too much. He’s released many other great albums (some with no singing, too, if you’re still stuck on that), so we have this learning experience to show for it. But, it’s a great album, and I still find myself going back to it a lot. And the opening title track alone is worth the price of admission, so I’ll always love this.