After fondly recalling Mr. Satriani and his role in my love affair with the compact disc earlier this week, I decided to take a nice long run this morning with an iPod queued up with his latest album, Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards. I have since spent the better part of a rainy Saturday replaying this record a couple more times.
Repeat listens are essential, I believe, to really dig into Joe Satriani's music. First impressions are almost always excellent but rarely does he rely on rock hooks that, while instrumental in rendering a track instantly memorable, also can turn the same track tiresome after repeated exposure. Satriani's multi-layered compositions reward the listener who is concentrating on nothing else (which is why his music is perfect for making a five-mile run literally fly by) and who is willing to sit down and really play an album a few times, beginning to end, before settling on an opinion. Like a successful painting, you have more than just the picture caught at first glimpse. Careful study reveals the design and genius of each brushstroke responsible for the composition.
I will say that, across at least a dozen listenings to date, it is still very difficult for me to break Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards into individual tracks. The album plays like a whole to me and, frankly, reminds me a great deal of Surfing with the Alien. "Premonition" and "Pyrrhic Victoria" provide real energy to lift the album off and it sets into its voyage with the superb "Light Years Away." I will oversimplify and confuse (and probably offend fans of all) but the first sentence in my head as "Light Years Away" took off was "this is what Fragile-era Yes would have sounded like if Steve Howe were gone and Rick Wakeman played the axe." After that, it lets up a bit on the throttle, though, and enjoys the ride. Also noteworthy here is the quality of the supporting musicians. Jeff Campitelli returns on drums and Allen Whitman complements him well on bass. Mike Keneally, of Frank Zappa fame, shines throughout on keyboards and his participation is reason enough to expect this recording to be top-notch.
"Littleworth Lane" is unusual enough an entry to push the listener the check it out on the tracklisting as it communicates a relaxed gospel/blues vibe and, in this listener's mind, drops the listening experience into a gentle orbit, happily and slowly spinning around for a few rotations and then segueing nicely into "The Golden Room," which definitely changes the flavor with an Indian tone yet retains the same relaxed restraint. We return to more of the "traditional" Satriani feel (if there really is such a thing) with "Two Sides to Every Story," which is really where Keneally shines brightest. The album's namesake follows and is a flat-out odyssey and showcase for the entire band. "Wormhole Wizards" stands as the album's apex, a twin peak to the earlier "Light Years Away," but "Wind in the Trees" is no letdown. On the contrary, probably the track with Satriani's most incredible solo work and, in keeping with the orbital journey theme, this is a glorious descent topped only by a raving re-entry, "God is Crying," a mind-bending rocker that builds and builds on it own momentum to the point that the abrupt ending is startling. All the listener is left to do is start the experience over again and I am not exaggerating when I say it is very easy to play Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards three or four times in a row before you're able to move on. This is a record that doesn't push but propels nonetheless - and the result is one incredible listening experience and easily one of my favorite entries in Mr. Satriani's catalogue.