DC Slater – Altitude (2007)

One of the downsides of doing a lot of album reviews for a zine is that you have to listen to a lot of crap that takes a lot of effort to get through once, let alone enough times to write a thousand words about it. And that job is even harder when it’s crap that follows this season’s crap of the week formula. But one of the huge upsides of the job is when I get a demo or CD that is truly, entirely unique, the kind of album full of melodies that stick in my head and won’t knock loose for years. And from note one of DC Slater’s solo album Altitude, I knew it would be one of those kinds of albums.

Slater’s a music producer, former Berklee student, and all-around guitar hero type, and Altitude is his second album in the solo instrumental guitar vein. And without sounding critical, Slater sounds a LOT like Joe Satriani, I mean, if someone broke out this 11-track album, put it in my CD player, and told me it was an unreleased Satch album from a half-dozen years ago that never left the vault, I would completely believe it. I mean this as a high compliment not only to Slater’s playing, but his songwriting ability. Like Satriani, he doesn’t just go for the constant, full-bore 128th-note arpeggios all over the board, but knows where to mix in some good sustain for emphasis and emotion, to structure together some good harmony when needed. He also knows how to lay down some good base rhythm under his screaming leads, to avoid sounding like yet another Yngwie clone.

If you look at Satch’s stuff in the last decade, he’s wandered off the beaten path a bit with either electronica-influenced experiments or jam-band diversions, neither of which I particularly care about. Slater’s work sounds more like the “classic” Satriani, and sticks to the core concepts that have made him great: incredibly emotional, story-telling instrumental guitar. He’s not formulaic in his song structure or approach, and seems well-versed in the ability to construct a solid number without repetition or formulaic redundancy. A few songs offer a soft and almost ballady approach: “Melodie” is a good example of this. I particularly liked how “Looking Back” worked some well-structured piano riffs off the smooth fuzz guitar. Also, “Reflections” features a start with a ballad approach that blows the doors off with a minute to go in the song. It’s very moving and smooth stuff, with a spot-on execution on every track.

And it’s not all slow, moody stuff. One way that DC Slater pulls away from Joe is his ability to lay in some heaviness and speed. “Rebel Jam” shows a good metal edge and some quick chops. But his best example is “Pendulum”, which mixes some mythical spookiness with an all-out high-viscosity thickness that slaps on some low-end power for a decent payoff. And don’t think this is just another “really fast or really slow” album, because Slater does dance around other areas, be it the bluesy “Black Bandana” or “December Dawn” to the poppy “Miles Away”. A lot of ground is covered in the 41:55 total time of this album.

Aside from the guitar and songwriting, one of the truly satisfying aspects of the album is the production. I didn’t have any liner notes on the lineup of musicians behind this album other than Slater, so I don’t know if it’s a group of buddies, session hired hands, or if he covered the bases himself. But the bass, drums, and occasional keys all fit well into the overall mix. And what’s even better is that it’s not always the SAME drums. From track to track, there are variations in sound and setup, giving each number its own feel. There’s not the tiniest trace of self-production crud evident anywhere here – it’s all very much a pro job from start to finish, with a very seamless sound and credible mix. I’d like to hear some of the other bands Slater has produced to see if his work rings as true on other albums.

I feel bad making so many comparisons between this artist and Joe Satriani, though. He has such a truly unique sound, and I don’t mean to imply that he’s just a rip-off, like the endless number of 14-year-old kids you see hanging out at Guitar Center playing “Eruption” note-for-note. It’s not that I see his music as following Satriani’s; it’s like he took it from a certain point, maybe around Blue Dream or so, and improved it, drove it even further in a different direction. It’s like one of those speculative fiction pulp novels where the US never went into World War I and now we’re all living on a colony on Mars because the time-space continuum was altered in some odd way. I listen to this album and feel like the guitar world went through a wormhole in 1990 and when we all came out, it was easy to find stuff this cool.

Enough of my babbling. Head over to dcslater.com and check this one out. I hope we hear more from this guy in the near future.

Rating: 9.25

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