Joe Satriani: Crystal Planet
Joe Satriani: guitars, keyboards, harmonica
Stu Hamm: bass
Jeff Campitelli: drums and percussion
Eric Cadieux: keyboards and programming
Joe Satriani is one revered man. Even amongst the haters of shred music, he always commands a modicum of respect, however begrudged it may be. And there's a reason for that. Satch is a consummate musician, and his technical pyrotechnics are nearly always impressive. But two important details, one mundane and the other important, are likely contributing factors to his enduring popularity in the post-grunge, nu- and new-metal wasteland.
One is that he is the technician's hack. His guitar soloing is extremely impressive and even adept at times, but nothing he has played is on the level of impossible like that of his student, Steve Vai, or the more obsessive technicians like Yngwie, Gilbert, Cooley, or even Petrucci. Satch has said as much himself: he's a pretty imprecise and loose player, which causes his soloing style to all at once become more organic and understandable, not to mention within the reach of most guitar players. He even reuses licks constantly, and liberally steals from blues just like the classic rock guys did: he just takes all the old stuff to new heights of speed, melody, and impressiveness, which showcases his talent without ever leaving the sphere of what the average rock fan is exposed to. But his melodic sense remains firmly in the rock camp. As a result, his sense of feeling and emotion becomes more pronounced, because he never was and still is not a guitar technician.
This quality is merely a byproduct of his deeper skill, and appeal: the man knows how to write melodies. You'd think this was a simple matter and nothing to get excited over, but in a genre of instrumental rock dominated by wheedly lead lines and howlingly wide vibratoes, Satch's skill becomes a tremendous breath of fresh air. It was this then-novel combination of pop-rock song structures with incredible (but coherent) playing that allowed "Surfing with the Alien," his 1987 debut with Shrapnel Records, to land in the Top 40 on the Billboard charts, a feat unheard-of for an entirely instrumental album since the heyday of surf music.
These days, Satch has been content to experiment a little but stay focused on the style established with that album. The results are nearly always mixed: a guy as talented as Satriani never ceases to be impressive, but it is certainly possible for him to become uninteresting. By the release of "Crystal Planet," Satch had been performing his music for over a decade. The high water mark of his instrumental style's success came with his second release, "Flying in a Blue Dream." Every single album since then has been a refinement on that piece of brilliance with a few experimental flourishes thrown in for good measure. The album immediately preceding this one, the self-titled "Joe Satriani," was an exciting foray into a purer "blues" direction, and showcased his band a lot more than previous efforts (which occaisionally, like in "Bells of Lal Pt. II," sounded as though a backing track was recorded and Satch just practiced improvising over it).
So what is "Crystal Planet" like" I imagine that for a hardcore fan of Satch, it probably left him/her feeling a little disappointed. Personally, "Crystal Planet" was my first Satriani album (I now own almost his entire discography), and even now I consider it among my favorites. But in the grand scheme of things, and after seeing where Satriani went AFTER this album was released, I can now see that this music, which ultimately is an updated 1990's Surfing with the Alien, was a refinement choice that probably did more harm to Satch than good.
But this album, happily, comes before all that. And it's AMAZING (generally speaking). Here's the track-by-track:
1.) Up in the Sky
This song doesn't hold anything back. Satriani comes blazing out of gates with a fast-tempo, metal-tinged harmonic sweep as Campitelli's drums and Hamm's bass chug along underneath. And then comes the verse riff. I'm sure you've read an article somewhere that makes reference to something called "the almighty riff." This one is as close as you are ever going to get to finding it. The verse melodies and riffs are just outstanding, conjuring up images of a dogfight between fighter pilots or sailing through clouds in some twisted extreme sports game. It's a shame Satch's songs are never liscensed for those dumb skater punk shows on ESPN, because this tune would go really well with them. The other fantastic thing about this song--which is rather simplistic in structure and quite short--is the guitar's TONE. Satriani had never done ANYTHING like this sound before. A saturated, thick, and extremely clear overdriven sound addled with two or three delays and reverbs, his tone is other-worldly and very "'90s." Up until this point he had used that wheedly Eighties tone, but on this album, he rips out all new riffs with an all-new sound, and boy does it sound good.
2.) House of the Bullets
The inspiration for the song's title is an image Satriani had of "me starring in a Martin Scorcese film with a slow-motion shot of a zillion bullets getting shot into a room, and I'm in there and the bullets are surrounding me but never touching me." Kind of egotistical, eh" Besides that, this song unfortunately starts out as one of the most generic blues riffs anybody has ever heard: if they don't notice it, or care, it's because they're riding the high that was "Up in the Sky." But the song is quickly saved by some beastly soloing, which shows better than any other how you can shred blues with feeling. And that TONE! Ugh, so good. Too bad the song's structure is another backing-track type blues riff, and right after an album that was filled with superior compositions around the style.
3.) Crystal Planet
OMG TONE. And this song showcases probably Satch's best melodies and riffs of the past few albums. Starting off as a keyboard-driven B minor tune with a fantastic melody, the song's chorus degenerates into the album's first example of modal interchange, a theoretical concept of which Satriani is very fond: he'll play unrelated chords that share a bass note or a key signature with the bass note and create progressions and melodies around them, rather than playing diatonically within the key (a simple, but crappy, example of this concept would be a progression that goes from G/A to Amaj7). The results are quite neat in the way they resolve back to the B minor stuff, and then a solo comes in over a FANTASTIC hammer-on riff in Em. Unfortunately, the solo is kind of crappy and not up to Satch's usually-catchy standards, but that doesn't matter because the last moment of the song is an almost techno-like passage, in which Satch plays the Em hammer-on riff on the B string. When the drums come back in, a harmonizing solo is played and creates a swirling, keyboard-like passage that is made even more effective by nimble double-bass pounding by Mr. Campitelli. Good stuff.
4.) Love Thing
Satch's prerequisite "4th song" love tune is fantastic this time around. Once again, it has a great deal to do with the tone, which is wah-drenched and very "wet" sounding. But most importantly, this is one of Satriani's best attempts to render a vocal melody totally uneccesary, because his guitar is so plaintive, expressive, and emotional that it hardly matters. This song just sails.
Now we start getting experimental, I guess. This tune is a little weird, but it's a lot of fun anyway. Starting with Satch screaming "Wow, Trundrumbalind!" into his pickups, we get a lot of weird tremelo stuff for a while. The melodies are really cool, and the solos are very impressive and nimble. The last section is a weirdly atonal moment, but it adds a nice bit of variety.
6.) Lights of Heaven
Pretty good song. Straight-ahead Satch given the '90s makeover. Therefore, it's a little more awesome than other examples of this structure, which is like a mix of "One Big Rush" and the rolling feel of "Motorcycle Driver." The solos are really good this time around, although I'm a little pissed that the song ends in exactly the same way, on exactly the same CHORD, as "The Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing." I mean come on, you HAD to add that pick scrape to the end before the last, triumphant strum" Pu-leeze.
7.) Raspberry Jam Delta-V
This is a prelude to Satch's next album, which was a techno-based offering. And let me tell you, this tune is fantastic. The solos Satch pulls off are mind-numbingly nimble and organic: not once in this tune does Satch ever sound like he's running out of lead ideas or passion, nor does he sound as if he's going on autopilot. Starting with an awesome tapping riff (executing by reversing the hands on the neck) the song quickly explodes into the leads. But this is much more interesting and just as impressive as his solo-dominated "songs," probably because working within this new style feels so vital to him. It's great.
This song used to be my favorite on the album, mostly because the solo in this is utterly fantastic. But now I think it sounds too spacious (there's way too much reverb when solid crunch would have been better, particularly on the opening full-distorted riff) and weak on a compositional level. The riff is a basic pentatonic thing that a total moron could come up with, and the progression is typical Satch: C#m-B-A blahness. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's nice and has its good moments, but you can see that Satch really isn't doing much to give himself a good reason for resuing all his song structures, and it bodes ill for the future.
9.) With Jupiter In Mind
Ok, now the album starts getting really tiresome. The best critique I ever heard about this album was that there are TOO MANY DAMN SONGS. I'm inclined to agree. Nobody edited this, apparently, because Satch is obviously proud of all the work he did on this and so he left a ton of stuff--over five songs--that he really should have done away with. This is one of them. The riff is the limpest thing ever, like a grade-school attempt at a modal interchange progression: Satch just plays a minor pentatonic riff but then makes each note a fret higher so that it sounds whole-toney instead of minor: I guess he thought that idea was clever, but it just blows. And the melody stinks. This song stinks. Skip it.
10.) Secret Prayer
It may be the same basic stuff as before, but this one I actually like anyway. It starts off with a neat Andy Summers-style thing in 5/4 time, which creates a neat rhythmic displacement. And when the "normal" part of it starts, the results are quite good. For one thing, he plays in a key I haven't heard a gazillion times in Satch songs before, and his tone is PERFECT. On this song it's at just the right balance of distortion, reverb saturation, and clarity. And the solo...God, it's just fantastic how this bugger whips around with such dexterity.
11.) Train of Angels
This song starts off with a neat marching riff reminiscient of the "Summer Song" chord progression, and in general there's nothing really...wrong with the song. It's just a little limp. I like the chorus melody a lot, though, it's just that by this point, nothing in the song is jumping out at me as any different from what came before.
12.) A Piece of Liquid
Another crappy modal interchange attempt. According to the writing credits in the liner notes, Satch's son Z.Z. Satriani had writing credit on this. What, did he have a tantrum until Dad put his music on the album" Because this kind of stinks. It's like a filling, or a musical sketch, but definitely not a song.
13.) Psycho Monkey
This is certainly a lot rawer than anything Satch ever does. It's also pretty interesting in spots. But the tone makes it a little excruciating to listen to. Plus Z.Z. gets writing credit on this one too. Pass.
Finally a return to the greatness that filled the first ten songs on the album. This song is fantastic. Alternating between a moody B Phrygian section and a wonderfully atmospheric series of Lydian chord resolutions, this song has got a LOT of interesting things going for it. And the last section is a wonderfully bouncy "clock chime" moment with a drum beat that hits you right in your groove thing.
15.) Z.Z.'s Song
Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. The BOREDOM! How could Satch end his album like this, with this repetitive four-minute monstrosity" And then name it after his KID" I can't believe it. I mean, the actual ONE SINGLE RIFF in the song is a nice one, it's just that he repeats it over and over for five minutes. Pass on this too. This is what I meant when I said there were too many songs with no good reason for existing.
This album gets a 3.5, or a 7 on the 10 point scale. That's because this album is a wonderful refinement on Satch's sound and heralded a new direction: his foray into techno with "Engines of Creation." But the two albums after that nice experiment showed that Satch had mostly latched onto this way of doing things, and sounded really really tired in that vein. Therefore, this album, while great in so many important ways, nevertheless is one of the first major signs of decline in Satch's career. However, there are a TON of good tunes on this, and I would definitely recommend it for any Satch or rock fan. I just wouldn't recommend listening to it all the way through. :)