Satch is back with another album of instrumental storytelling
As a guitarist who's been progressive and forward-thinking in his playing, arrangement and technique across sixteen albums, the idea of Joe Satriaini starting to shapeshift at this point in his career is perhaps something of a misnomer. Album seventeen takes all the elements of Satriani's work from blues to jazz and tightens them up to create a tonally bright album, which allows his adroit playing to ring out loud.
Shapeshifting, like so much of Satriani's work, relies on his ability to create melodies rather than just show off his technical prowess through a series of arpeggios, widdley-widdley hammer-ons and whammy bar vibrato. His ear for crafting rhapsodic melody lines without words has been the key to his success. You won't find any 12-minute opuses here; in fact, there's only one track that steps over the five-minute mark. Satriani's skill is allowing him to get his point across in the time of your average pop song - but when he sites Lennon and McCartney as influential songwriters you can't really expect him to over-indulge. That's not to say that musicians who choose to make one track take up an entire side of an LP are going overboard, it may work for them, but it's just not Satriani's style.
Teardrops is hugely expressive and Perfect Dust has a guitar melody line that could easily translate to human vocal – but why would you want to? Ali Farka, Dick Dale, An Alien and Me is trippy cheese dream inspired by a sci-fi project that sounds like the Futurama theme bred with Misirlou and artificially inseminated itself with rhythmic and electric inspiration from Farka Toure's Niafunke album. It's a shining example of Satch's creative fusion.
Falling Stars offers a funk groove that's interspersed with textures, harmonics and layered up with subtle but effective riffing. Spirits, Ghosts and Outlaws harks back to the rocket charged energy his debut Surfing With The Alien. Nineteen Eighty is another track that looks to the past in a musical attempt to recreate the styles and sounds of his breakout decade. It's flash, frivolous and delivered with the sort of bravado that would pass for arrogance forty years ago, but now reads as an expression of virtuosity.
Other sections of the album, however, such as All My Friends Are Here and All For Love are enjoyable but forgettable vignettes that feel like an unnecessary filler in an album that prides itself on a less is more approach.
It's not all about the man up front, part of the enjoyment on the album also comes from the team he has working with him. Kenny Aronoff's tour de force drumming is every bit as expressive as the guitar playing, and Chris Chaney on bass along with keyboardist Eric Caudieux are stoic foundations for Satch to lay down his licks.
Although the album doesn't offer anything daringly different from the rest of his back catalogue, Shapeshifting does cement the fact that Satriani is more than technique and showmanship, his real power lies with instrumental storytelling.