Saturday, 29 September 2007

Top 100 Albums - #64: Strange Beautiful Music (2002)

'Satch''s second and last appearance on the chart is Strange Beautiful Music, the follow-up to the experimental effort Engines Of Creation (2000). Satriani came to record Strange Beautiful Music after a very busy 1990s. After the release of The Extremist (1992) - his most critically acclaimed work - in 1993 he joined Deep Purple on their tour of Japan; he was asked to join the band permanently but declined. In 1996 he formed the 'shredding supergroup' G3, comprised of himself, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson, who toured widely and continue to do so sporadically. After the release of the neo-classical Crystal Planet (1998) and the experimental Engines Of Creation (2000), 'Satch' went on tour and released a live album of his dates in San Francisco in 2001.

Strange Beautiful Music opens with 'Oriental Melody', and it's not the best of starts. Satriani's guitar is scratchy and sounds convoluted. The piece relies way too much on the thundering bass (played by Matt Bissonette) and the drums (Jeff Campitelli) to create what is essentially an attempted fusion of art rock with a heavy metal rhythm section and oh-so fake violins. It's a bright piece, but the experimentation doesn't really work, in the same way that most of so-called 'progressive metal' is trash.

As a whole, 'Belly Dancer' is a great deal more focussed. The rhythm section give Satch the room he needs for some lovely bubbling guitar, even if the song is a little too long. For shred-heads there is a great deal of shredding in the middle section, and for those who have an ear for rhythm there is a nice rhythm guitar part which occassionally creeps up behind Satriani's swirling lead. 'Starry Night' is another step in the right direction, taking the tempo and the effects down just a notch to create a more all-rounded, distinctive sound. It's certainly a sign of focus on an album which was slated as being inconsistent and bland.¹

'Chords Of Life' was one of the big sitting ducks for the album as far as critics were concerned. Michael Gowan from wrote it off as "[a song] which at times sounds like "All Along the Watchtower" and at others resembles scale and chord exercises from [Swedish hard rock instrumentalist] Yngwie Malmsteen — not an enticing combo."² But he was sadly mistaken. This is a stupendous composition, not least because it is a a rare showcase of acoustic guitar, almost anathema on a Satriani record. Eric Caudieux's keyboards are simple but have a metallic beauty to them, and the whole piece is both memorable and beautiful, not because of pop hooks, but because of the emotion which Satriani has poured into this.

'Mind Storm' is a return to metal. This doesn't make it humdrum because Satriani resists relying on the typical deep and thundery chords which pollute the video airwaves all too often. Instead, he swings the bright, melodious chords around the loud drums and produces a big-belted rocker in the process. With 'Sleep Walk', however, the tempo is taken right down. This is the kind of song that would only play in two places: on a beach in Hawaii or driving home in an estate car at night. It's very formulaic and overdone, not to mention a waste of Robert Fripp's classic frippertronic guitars (see my review of Peter Gabriel 2, #85).

'New Last Jam' is a hook-driven rock song which oscillates between blues rock, hard rock and pop-rock. Although it can't quite decide what it is or where it's going, this doesn't really matter. It's so rhythmic and earworming that before you know it you're letting the notes flow through you without much care. 'Mountain Song' is much the same, insofar as it is based on a hooking rhythm part over which Satriani can basically go mad. There is sufficient which is different about this song to make it distinctive, but this approach shows the beginning of a pattern that was not present in the first half of the album.

'What Breaks A Heart' is again a slower number, this time rich in a bluesy rhythm guitar. This time the drums return to a greater sense of prominence, almost to compensate for the wierd theremin noises coming from Satriani's fretboard. There's some very decent shredding on this and the bass is also quite reasonable. This is also the case on the headbanger that is 'Seven String'. This is against a venture into the depths of metal and techno, and again it relies on the hooks of the rhythm to justify itself, rather then allowing itself to be reduced to 'just another song by an 80s shredder'.

'Hill Groove' is probably the strangest track, considering all thast has gone before. With the bright guitar, it has the feeling of a rocked-up single by The Beatles or The Monkees. For this reason, this is relatively banal and formulaic. Above everything else, it's incredibly repetitive, and like all 60s pop songs it's designed to drill into your head and stay there until you are driven mad enough to buy the damn single. The other major let-down, 'The Journey', is just plain directionless, a rubbish chord jam on which the drums rely too much on the symbols and the guitar is too synthy to be taken seriously.

'The Traveller' is a lot better than its predecessor, not least because Satriani has calmed down. His guitars on this piece are complimentary to the drums and bass, instead of wrestling against them. The chorus, if it is such a thing, is quite majestic, but the best part is the gentile level of restraint which Satraini applies, slamming on the brakes where anyone else would attempt to fling in another half-dozen notes.

The album closes with 'You Saved My Life', a fairly predictable but enjoyable ballad. It's hardly his most compelling piece, but it's a fitting ending to what has been an up-and-down record. This is the kind of song to play at the end of a day, just as the sun is going down. It's not that it will send you into a deep sleep, but it will calm you down sufficiently for drowsiness to take hold.

Strange Beautiful Music is a better record than Super Colossal (2006, #96) because most of the experiment pay off and come across. There are some similarities, for instance the second half is a lot more consistent - although in this case, this means that it gets very repetitive after a while. The first half is more interesting if uneven, but the main problem with the record is that it is far too long. Just as so often he tried to cram so much into less tracks, here the experiments and riffs are strung out too much. Like all Satriani records, this is not one to listen to from start to finish, certainly not in one go. But there is much to delight metal fans and shredding enthusiasts alike, and that is enough to justify its inclusion in the chart.


¹ Michael Gowan, 'Strange Beautiful Music', Accessed on October 9 2007.

² Ibid.

3.79 out of 5

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