The reason somebody gets to be a guitar hero would appear to be fairly obvious: He can do things on the instrument that most mere mortals simply can’t. Joe Satriani passed that test handily over 23 years ago when he released the multi-platinum Surfing with the Alien. Jaws were dropped, fists were raised and millions of music fans the world over picked up guitars both real and imaginary to celebrate and emulate a shred god who would continue to thrill and amaze, dazzle and delight.
But this business of guitar hero-dom is a funny thing, and for Satriani, who has received about every guitar award there is to hand out (he’s also a multiple Grammy Award nominee), it’s a strange, beautiful and uniquely challenging one, as well. Making six strings scream and wail while flurries of notes dance into the heavens is all very well and good; making music that matters, and more importantly, sharing deeply personal emotions, that’s his true raison d’etre. On his 14th studio album, Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards, Joe Satriani exposes his soul in ways even he never believed were possible.
For Satriani, the image of black swans came to him late into his writing for the new album. Armed with a collection of songs--some half-finished, others fully fleshed out-- that he had penned mostly during his highly successful year touring with his good-time rock “supergroup” Chickenfoot (which also includes singer Sammy Hagar, ex-Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith), he sat back and took stock of what he had amassed.
What he noticed was that the bulk of the material was unlike anything he had ever written before. “And that’s the thing about the term ’black swan,’ says Satriani. “The expression is one that’s very old; it basically means ’unlikely things’-- images, occurrences, extreme rarities in life. That image stuck with me. I realized that what I had written were my artistic black swans--songs that my audience probably might not expect. And truthfully, a lot of them took me by surprise, as well.”
Satriani’s first inkling of the “black swan theory” permeating his work came to him after one of the most pivotal moments of his life, when his beloved mother, Katherine, passed away late in 2009. He composed the song “Littleworth Lane” in her honor--the title is taken from the street in Sea Cliff, New York, where she lived since the late ‘70s, in a house built in 1689. While the track features a shimmering, instantly memorable melody, it’s pure, unadulterated blues, “which a lot of people might not expect from me,” Satriani admits. “My mom was bobbysoxer, and she got into church music, R&B, jazz and blues. When I was a young musician, she exposed me to a lot of that. So I wanted to pay tribute to her by writing the kind of song that she would really like, one that summed up her spirit.”
Completing the second half of the album’s title is the aptly named “Wormhole Wizards,“ a massively grooving funk rocker based on the improbable concept--although probably not to the sci-fi obsessed Satriani--that one can travel from one parallel universe to another through wormholes. “What a cool thing to be able to do,“ Satriani enthuses. “For rock bands, it would be great--getting from gig to gig would be a cinch!”
The ease of which Satriani (or “Satch”--at this point, it’s like calling Springsteen “The Boss”) has jumped from genre to genre, and now from solo artist to band member in Chickenfoot and back again (although the group is already working on their second album, due sometime in 2011), you’d swear he had his own private wormhole--along with multiple personalities. Over the course of his storied career, he’s resisted repetition the way the greatest of actors shun caricature. “I had to go deeper on this album,“ he explains. “It’s like I had no choice in the matter. I also wanted to touch people more intimately than I have before. Music they could carry around with them in their heads and hearts--that was the goal.
“I still like the idea of creating cool rock music, and I made sure that there were a lot of what I call ‘big rock moments’ on the album, but I definitely felt that it was time to affect people directly and profoundly. I wanted to give them something they never got from me before. These songs are my black swans, if you will.”
A month-long stint as a featured performer on the sold-out Experience Hendrix Tour (“a wonderful, uh, ‘experience,’” he says, laughing. “Every night was a rediscovery of some of the most incredible music ever made”) meant that Satriani had a three-month window to finish writing, demoing and then, finally, to record Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards. “It was tight,” he says, “but I found that I actually thrived under the pressure. It forced me to focus on what 11 songs should make the album. Too much time on your hands can cause whatever statement you’re trying to make drift away.”
Once Satriani set about demoing--and many of his initial takes wound up as keepers--at Studio 21, his home facility, he found that the emotional reach of the material he had written called for richer guitar tones--“very ‘un-Joe Satriani’ sounds,“ he calls them. This can be heard most dramatically on the album’s opening cuts, “Premonition,” a surging, ominous yet majestic epic in which the imposing weight of the guitar frequencies could move air, and the intoxicating, positively transporting “Dream Song,” which, true to its title, Satriani composed in his head while sleeping. “I woke up and I had the whole thing,” he says. “I had to run into my studio quickly before I forgot it. All you need is that one little thing to change from the original idea and the whole vibe is lost.”
Some changes in the recording process were welcomed, however: When Satch and co-producer Mike Fraser (whose credits include AC/DC, Metallica, Aerosmith, as well as several Satriani albums, such as Crystal Planet, Is There Love in Space? and Super Colossal) convened in late spring at George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound Studios in Marin, California, along with longtime band drummer and percussionist Jeff Campitelli, they added a couple of new faces to the mix. Bassist Allen Whitman from the San Francisco-based band the Mermen was brought on board (“he has such a unique style,” raves Satriani. “He’s a very creative rock and groove-oriented player”), as was keyboardist Mike Keneally, who has played with everyone from Steve Vai to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. “Every time you hear a simple keyboard swell or something that sounds very synth-y, that’s me,” says Satriani. “And any time you hear the piano and keyboards being played really well, that’s Mike!”
The new lineup of players challenged Satch, but in ways he relished. To “Light Years Away,” a tough, gritty stomper, they pushed the guitarist to bring his “big rock moments” to the forefront; and on the funky yet sweeping “Pyrrhic Victoria” (the phrase means “winning at a great cost”), what sounds like a rousing finale is but a precursor to another, more overwhelming coda. “On a song like that, because of its very theme, you have to go through some sort of physical sacrifice,” says Satriani. “The guys in the band helped me to not let up.”
Returning to the album’s cathartic, intimate theme, the jazzy, almost George Benson-ish Two Sides to Every Story” is another song in which Satriani pays homage to his mother. “My mom turned me on to Eddie Harris, a brilliant saxophone player,“ Satriani explains. He had a lot of songs that cross genres, and he was really great with odd times. When I wrote the piece, I knew it was Eddie Harris, and again I knew I was tipping my hat to my mom, for the musical education she instilled in me.” The guitarist recalls both of his parents in the stirring solo electric guitar interlude “Solitude,” which at first concerns the need to “be alone with one’s soul, but ultimately I realized I was channeling my folks, thinking of where they would go mentally in their need for reflection.”
Satriani kicks up some musical dirt on the gonzo but equally soul-barring “Wind in the Trees.” Remembering how he loved to sit by his bedroom window as a kid in Long Island and listen to the sound of leaves being whipped around, Satriani ran his guitar through the pitch correction software Auto-Tune (frequently used by singers and rappers, but seldom utilized by instrumentalists) to re-create a surreal yet wistful memory. “I just cranked it to full-on Auto-Tune destruction mode,” he laughs, “and it really did sound like gusts of wind blowing tree branches every which way. Crazy stuff.”
On the album-closing “God is Crying,” Satch pulls out all the stops, unleashing torrents of shred-tastic guitar on a track that ranks as one of his most panoramic of efforts. “I don’t want to say that I was intentionally holding back on the blazing guitar throughout the record,” he says, “but every song is about choices. How many notes? What notes? When writing this song, I started thinking about the concept of God and what He would do if he actually came down to Earth--I mean, physically. And I thought, He’d probably start crying at all the things we’ve done. To properly convey that message, I couldn’t hold back on my instrument. I let loose with everything I had.”
Like its creator, Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards is an album that asks as many questions as it answers. But unlike most records where you know exactly where each song is going to go, it takes off in a multitude of dizzying, disorienting directions, probing the human condition and proving once again that Joe Satriani is one of the world’s most gifted and inventive instrumentalists and composers working today. Like the black swan, he’s a shape-shifter. Artists of his caliber don’t come along every day, and neither do records like this.