Photo Credit - Jon Luini
Unstoppable Momentum certainly isn’t Joe Satriani’s first trip to the record-making rodeo. Prior to the new album, the guitar superstar had already released 13 landmark solo studio recordings that changed the landscape of six-string-oriented music, including his multi-platinum effort from 1987, Surfing With The Alien.
But something about the title track’s opening riff convinced Satriani that this album was destined to be different from everything else he had previously conceived. Sitting in the basement studio of his San Francisco home in the winter of 2012, alone with his feral imagination to guide him, he started playing a pattern that affected him so viscerally that he almost couldn’t stop.
“Hearing those opening chords got me so excited, like I was a little kid,” says Satriani. “I felt as though I had discovered this new song, and I wanted to play it 100 times a day. I remembered my childhood, skipping lunch in the school cafeteria so I could race home to listen to Who’s Next or Jimi Hendrix: Band Of Gypsys – Live At The Fillmore. That was my lunch for the day; I couldn’t be away from that music. I felt the same way about this new thing I was working on.”
By the time he had completed what will surely rank as a masterpiece, Satriani, one man with a guitar, sounding like one man with the universe, had created a rhapsodic journey that bursts with evocative, hauntingly beautiful harmonic depth and sonic surprises.
Once he had the song, Satriani discovered that he had become intrigued by a two-word phrase that popped into his head: unstoppable momentum. More than just fitting a particular tempo or a sweeping series of notes, however, the words seemed to jive with a philosophy he had been formulating.
“I was being carried away by this grand idea,” he says, “and it seemed to have its way with me. I wanted to push some boundaries in my musicianship that maybe weren’t the obvious ones. It’s easy to play louder, faster, harder – that’s like turning a knob up. But telling a story musically, that’s the noble and artistic pursuit. Those two words spoke to everything I was feeling.”
As is usually the case, Satriani put off recording with a band while he assembled a mountain of demo files. He estimates that he had upwards of 60 songs in various states of readiness. “That’s when I find out what I really want to do,” he says. “I have a huge amount of music that’s been built up, and then it becomes a force that’s controlling me.”
Satriani whittled his list of songs down to a manageable collection, choosing the ones that seemed connected to the same fabric of emotional fervor (“I eliminated some of the brooding stuff. I could write that stuff forever”) and set about selecting a tight group of musicians who would bring the material to life.
There were two returning faces. The first was keyboardist Mike Keneally, whose uncanny ability to go from majestic, elegant textures to blitzing and biting rock ‘n’ roll was featured on Satriani’s 2010 release, Black Swans And Wormhole Wizards. “Mike is such a unique musician,” says Satriani. “He always manages to find the heart and soul of a piece and will add that one thing, be it big or small, that makes you go, ‘Ohhh, he found it!’”
Next was co-producer, engineer and mixer Mike Fraser (AC/DC, Aerosmith, Metallica), whom Satriani had worked with on Black Swans as well as Chickenfoot’s first two releases (the band’s 2009 self-titled debut and 2011’s Chickenfoot III). “His technical skills are, of course, are unbelievable,” says Satriani. “He takes the burden off of me as far as the nuts and bolts of getting something done. Even if I present him with a last-minute idea, he has a way of removing any roadblock that I might be imagining.”
But there were also a couple of wild cards in the mix: Satriani had long been a fan of Vinnie Colaiuta’s playing (the much-honored drummer has performed with Sting, Jeff Beck and Frank Zappa, among others), and he was thrilled by the unpredictable, highly intuitive way in which Colaiuta approached the material. “We had a phrase in the studio: Lead Drummer,” says Satriani, laughing. “Vinnie presents you with a composition unto itself. Each time we played, he provided a performance that was unique from beginning to end.”
To complete the rhythm section, Satch looked to his songs and asked himself,
“‘Who can fit with these?’ Beyond being somebody who’s technically brilliant and can play both outrageously and simply, I needed somebody with an understanding that sound is the message.” He found the perfect foil for Colaiuta in Jane’s Addiction bassist Chris Chaney. “He was definitely the guy in so many ways,” Satriani says. “Whatever ideas or songs I threw at Chris, he played it all with such spirit. His choices were always right on the money.”
During the recording sessions, held at Skywalker Sound in Lucas Valley, California, Satriani noticed that the material was casting the same spell over the musicians as it had on him during the writing; and he discovered something else, too, that he was able strike a balance – in ways that he never had before – between lightheartedness and poignancy, a conceit made manifest on the album’s second cut, “Can’t Go Back,” a wistful blend of soulful lead melodies and reflective answer-back lines, inspired in part by the death of a close friend.
“I started to think about the book You Can’t Go Home Again [by Thomas Wolfe],” says Satriani, “and I re-channeled my feelings about the song more towards that kind of idea – how difficult it is, once you’ve grown, to return to your home base and see it and experience it in the same way.”
Satriani bears down on equally deeply resonant human themes on a pair of moody, unconventional and shape-shifting rockers – “Lies And Truths,” its action set spinning by Chaney and Colaiuta’s blinding uppercuts and jabs, and “The Weight Of The World,” unruly and insistent, driven by jarring, ‘80s-style keyboard blasts – and both songs allow the guitarist to unleash full-court blitzes on his instrument.
But even when swimming in this richness of chaos, Satriani asserts that the song remains front and center. “The players who can pull off technique without making it sound didactic and methodical are very rare and special,” he says. “What I try to get out of that is the joy of performance in music; I use it as an inspiration.”
Satch gets way-out and witty, instrumentally and conceptually, on the swaggering and swaying “Three Sheets To The Wind,” an off-the-wall ode to overindulgence and something of a mini Sgt. Pepper homage, awash in honky-tonk piano, gusts of keyboard horns, sirens and a host of disorienting noise effects, all anchored by a Texas-sized guitar riff that casts a long shadow.
In 1992, Satriani scored one of biggest hits with the breakneck hook-a-rama fest “Summer Song,” and on Unstoppable Momentum he celebrates the season yet again with ginormous walls of rhythm guitar crunch and beautifully sustained lead and solo melodies on “A Door Into Summer.” The title comes from a book by Robert Heinlein, and while Satch, an inveterate reader of sci-fi, dances with and crashes into a host of different worlds here, he miraculously brings us back to a land of warm breezes and radiant sunshine.
Between visits to futuristic planets, over the past few years Satriani also read a number of books detailing the global financial crisis of 2008, and he became angered at what how, in his words, “the lessening of control over Wall Street opened a Pandora’s Box of greed.” He channeled his feelings into the rousing heartland anthem “Shine On American Dreamer,” brimming with positivity and spark, and featuring a ride-out riff that will no doubt elicit fists in the air when the song is performed live.
Expounding on the track’s message, Satriani says, “The American dream, which is a work in progress, has got to be re-dreamt every day. We’re still a young country, but we have to be tweaked, and we have to constantly look out for the nasty elements that are dragging us down.”
“Jumpin’ In” starts out countrified but quickly vaults into a swinging, half-time/double-time groove, with Satch’s main guitar riff somersaulting in what feels like an extended free-fall before it smacks into a succession of dreamscapes and all-out instrumental freak-outs. Satriani keeps the pulse pumping on the hopped-up response, “Jumpin’ Out,” which features a driving main guitar line (“the tenor tax part”) that the guitarist recorded at home.
“In my mind, the two songs are similar in that they’re all about jumping on a beat,” says Satriani. “The first one makes you go, ‘Holy shit, what did I just listen to?’ And then you have to go back to the beginning to figure it out. And the second one is even crazier. Somehow, they both make perfect sense together.”
Heart and soul pour forth in disparate but no less compelling ways on “I’ll Put A Stone On Your Cairn” and the album’s dramatic closer, “A Celebration.” The former sees Satriani’s Celtic-mist guitar, backed only by stirring orchestral keyboards, soaring to the heavens. His performance here is controlled, scrupulously structured and scores a bulls-eye to the senses; while on the latter, with Satch and band galloping on what amounts to a righteous victory lap, his melodies are just as clearly defined, but they have an invigorating, free-form zip to them; virtuosic craftsmanship all but disappears in Satriani’s hands until all that is left is a supreme and glorious fullness of feeling.
Satriani has been spreading such musical waters for a quarter century now. In addition to Surfing With The Alien and Black Swans And Wormhole Wizards, he has released such classics as The Extremist (1992), Crystal Planet (1998) and Super Colossal (2006), and having moved 10 million albums and counting, he’s now the biggest-selling instrumental rock guitarist of all time. (Satch’s popularity isn’t limited to rock alone: In 2010, hip-hop artist and American Idol judge Nicki Minaj used a sample of Satriani’s much-loved ballad “Always With Me, Always With You” as the basis for her Gold single, “Right Thru Me.”
In addition to being a consistent sell-out solo performer, Satriani has also, since 1996, filled venues with his G3 concert tour – three hours-plus of music featuring Satch and a rotating cast of fellow guitar gods like Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Eric Johnson and Steve Morse, among others. And if that weren’t enough, there’s even a supergroup – Chickenfoot , Satriani’s all-star assemblage that includes singer Sammy Hagar, bassist Michael Anthony (Van Halen) and Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), already has two smash albums, with more, no doubt, on the way.
With so much going on, you’d think that Satriani might be looking to slow down, but he’s already gearing up to take Unstoppable Momentum on the road. Regarding his longstanding status as a six-string king (he’s won every rock guitar magazine award imaginable – multiple times, in fact), Satriani views the acclaim with an interesting perspective: “For me, the excitement of having music inside of me, and it’s especially true on this album, goes beyond guitar playing,” he says. “Guitar playing is fun, and it’s physically thrilling like any crazy sport or artistic venture. Music engages my whole being. It’s physical, it’s the heart, the brain, the spirit and the emotions; everything’s firing and you’re lost in the moment; you sweat, you hyperventilate – everything goes into it, and you wind up exhausted at the end.”
One listen to Unstoppable Momentum will leave music fans feeling happily spent, carried away by the album’s supersonic rush of sound and rhythms and its heady mix of rock art and existential bravado. It will be an experience they return to again and again – not always consciously, but instinctively.