Sunday, 19 March 2017

Surfing With The Alien - Joe Satriani

Provenance: When I was a kid I wanted to play guitar really fast.

Review: Ah, like one's first kiss or first pint of beer, one's first shred album tends to linger long in the memory. Some would say I played it safe with a rather canonical choice, the Pride and Prejudice of axe-strangling, if you will.

I'm not an expert in early music (though I know one, if that counts) but the route from Paleolithic civilisations finger-painting on cave walls to those very same digits sweeping some sweet arpeggios feels like a curious one. First came pre-verbal hollers and rudimentary percussion; next, blowing through tibia bones of animals; I guess it's then pipes and lyres; back to the human voice for a spot of plainsong; thanks to the advent of scoring, ever more elaborate instrumentation began to be employed up through the Baroque and into the Classical era; and then, if we skip a few steps, greasy loners playing the mixolydian scale very quickly in their bedroom. Someone commission me to write the history of western music, please.

It's weird, though isn't it? Take the choral tradition, which is bound inextricably with religion. Like the architecture of the great cathedrals, it seems specifically designed to impart the majesty and glory of the sacred mystery upon the individual in a way that bypasses our reasoning faculties. I distinctly recall being in Salisbury Cathedral around six years ago as Evensong commenced. I'm an irredeemably irreligious person but the sensation of hearing that music, in that environment, was awesome in every sense of the word. Similarly, the first time I heard an orchestra playing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring felt like another occasion where I was being shot through with the electricity of pure excitement and elation. Subsequent to both encounters I was compelled to take stock and try to rationalise what had just happened to me, because the sheer power of the sensation I had felt left me a little scared.

So, put those two moments at the top of the list. There have been other, lesser, communions with this otherworldly power before and since, and none of them have involved shred guitar.

Yet Surfing With The Alien is not a bad album at all. Above all the other wankfests that I own, it's the one album that bears repeat listening. As I have aged, the impulse to have my face melted has lessened with each passing year, but there's enough variety here to maintain interest. The melodies are solid, even hummable, and when Satriani lets rip it's never mindless. It may sound like asking for distinctive songs with half-decent melodies is a low bar, but within the shred genre this can't always be taken for granted (see: whenever I get around to reviewing my sole Yngwie Malmsteen album).

When I was younger I was massively impressed with the faster, heavier tunes like 'Ice 9', 'Satch Boogie', 'Crushing Day' and the title track. Now I am more than double the age I was when I first acquired Surfing With The Alien it is perhaps predictable that I like the slower, less speed-orientated stuff like 'Echo', 'Always With Me, Always With You' and 'Circles' (yeah, yeah, if it's too loud you're too old, gramps - whatever). I should point out that 'Circles' does have a really fucking badass solo, and I'm not entirely immune to the dubious charms of finger-tapping.

What does appeal, overall, is an element of the album that must have been a conscious decision by Satriani; to make the guitars sound as little like a traditional guitar as possible. Thus you don't hear anything like the sounds Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry or Cliff Gallup would've made; instead, the sound is heavily overdriven, squeezed, compressed, scooped, echoed, flanged, chorused and anything else that can be done to turn the guitar into extraterrestrial technology. On that basis alone, Surfing With The Alien is a triumph.

This album doesn't lack heart, either. In a genre where the music can sound formulaic or mechanical, Satriani's six-string futurism always sounds like there's an intelligent life form at the helm. I'm not going to say anything as screamingly stupid as "oh, it's the 'Cyborg Manifesto' for antisocial guys who wail on Ibanezes" but I do feel it served as an ur-text for albums like Steve Vai's Alien Love Secrets and Devin Townsend's Ziltoid the Omniscient. There is certainly a thread in the instrumental metal sub-genre that combines playfulness, sci-fi symbolism and technical brilliance. Within that context, Surfing With The Alien is a hugely significant landmark. 

I should also add: playing Satch solos in your bedroom until your fingers literally bleed totally gets the girls. Had to beat 'em off with a tremolo arm.

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