Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for the ‘CD reviews – rock’ Category

CD review/ The Book of Souls — Iron Maiden


Album: The Book of Souls

Singer: Iron Maiden

Genre: Heavy metal

Label: Sony Music/ Parlophone

Price: Rs 599 (double album)

Rating: ****

A PIONEER of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Iron Maiden has been one of the world’s most worshipped rock bands since its initial success in the early 1980s. Even though they followed a similar formula all through, albums like ‘The Number of the Beast’, ‘Piece of Mind’, ‘Powerslave’, ‘Somewhere in Time’, ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Sojourn’, ‘Fear of the Dark’ and ‘Brave New World’ have had millions of followers.

The group’s 16th studio album ‘The Book of Souls’ comes after vocalist Bruce Dickinson was recovering from a tumour surgery. It’s their first studio double album, and is filled with lengthy songs, often over 10 minutes in duration. References to mortality, spirits and the soul give it the classic Maiden flavour.

The sound isn’t too different from most of what one has heard before. There are similar high pitched vocals, hard-rocking riffs, cracking guitar solos and pounding drum patterns. While Dickinson is in full vocal form, the guitar trio of Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers provide plenty of flourish. Steve Hassis on bass and keyboards, and Nicko McBrain on drums complete the line-up.

What works in the album’s favour is the fact that some of the songs are simply outstanding. The highlight is the epic 18-minute Dickinson composition ‘The Empire of the Clouds’, based on a 1930 airship crash. The longest Maiden song ever, it is reminiscent of the 1984 classic ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, with its changing structures and grand sound. Slightly dramatic, slightly cinematic and totally Brit heavy metal, it stands out.

Another gem comes in ‘The Red and the Black’, a Harris composition boasting of an infectious tune, powerhouse drumming, some wild solos, a trademark ‘whoa-oh’ bridge and lines like “The morals of life and the perils of death, take the wrong way out running out of breath; Meet my match in the afterlife, suppress the demons that plague the night.” It’s similar to the old hit ‘Flight of the Icarus’, but so what?

‘Tears of a Clown’, dedicated to actor Robin Williams, is a sort-of melancholic track that doesn’t quite follow the formula. Dickinson is in amazing nick here, as he begins with the very appropriate dedicatory lines, “All alone in a crowded room, he tries to force a smile, the smile it beamed or so it seemed; But never reached the eyes, disguise masquerading, as the funny man do they despise.”

The other goodies include the theatrical, synth-driven title song, the straight-rocking debut single ‘Speed of Light’, the bass-driven sing-along piece ‘Death or Glory’ and the marvelous power ballad ‘The Man of Sorrows’. While numbers like ‘Shadows of the Valley’, ‘The Great Unknown’ and ‘When the River Runs Deep’ have the typical vocal structures and guitar licks, the album’s only weak point is the opener ‘If Eternity Should Fail’, which is too predictable.

Despite being over 90 minutes in length, ‘The Book of Souls’ impresses with not only its energy but also with numbers that edge on the theatrical. One may not compare it with the 1980s classics, but as against later albums like ‘Dance of Death’ and ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, it has more versatility and polish. All in all, another treat for the ‘Irons’.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding


CD review/ Hynotic Eye ― Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers


Hypnotic Eye/ Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Genre: Rock

Sony Music-Warner/ Rs 499

Rating: ****

THOUGH he released his debut album way back in 1976 and eventually became one of the biggest-selling artistes in rock music, Tom Petty debuted at number one on the Billboard charts for the first time only recently, with his 13th recording ‘Hypnotic Eye’. Released in late July, the 11-track set features his band Heartbreakers yet again.

Petty’s music is rooted in classic rock ‘n’ roll, with doses of the blues and American folk thrown in. As such, it is a very pure sound, filled with charming guitar lines, played here by old-time companion Mike Campbell. In fact, with his brilliant and consistent riffs, Campbell is as much the star of this album as Petty.

To be sure, the album begins on a rather commercial and not-too-great note on the first two numbers ‘American dream plan B’ and ‘Fault lines’. While the former is a David Bowie-like piece with ambition-filled lines like “I got a dream I’m gonna fight till I get it right,” the latter is an expression of personal turmoil.

There’s nothing extraordinary about both these tracks, but Petty hits the right note from the third piece onwards. ‘Red river’ has smart guitar solos, an abrupt change in tempo and catchy lines like “So meet me tonight at the Red River, Where the water is clear and cold, Meet me tonight at the Red River, And look down into your soul.”

With its jazz feel and moody riffs, the slower ‘Full grown boy’ is one of the album’s highlights, with Petty singing in a manner reminiscent of Bob Dylan. On ‘Take what you can’, he increases the tempo, uses a sound akin to Neil Young’s Crazy Horse band, and sings “Take what you can, All you can carry, Take what you can, And leave the thoughts behind.”

For more variety, the outstanding ‘Power drunk’ is pure blues with some first-rate slide passages, and ‘Forgotten man’ gets into hard rocking fuzz guitar space, with Petty’s voice filled with anguish on the words “I feel like a forgotten man.” ‘Sins of my youth’ is a simple, nostalgia-filled song with a pop feel and a mellow guitar portion.

The quality drops slightly with ‘You get me high’, which has a very predictable structure and lacks an extraordinary hook. But Petty is in super nick on ‘Burnt out town’, another Dylan take-off with a blues pattern, raw harmonica, tight guitars and Benmont Tench’s smooth piano.

The icing on the cake comes on the last track ‘Shadow people’. Though lengthy at six minutes and 40 seconds, it’s the kind of song which grows on repeated hearing, thanks to its organ, guitar and bass backdrop, and the catchy line “Shadow people in shadow land.”

The end result is an album that’s definitely one of Petty’s better ones, especially over the last two decades. It’s got the compositions, it’s got the guitars, it’s got the variety and most important, it’s got the meat.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

CD review/ The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale ― Eric Clapton & Friends


The Breeze ― An Appreciation of JJ Cale/ Eric Clapton & Friends

Genre: Rock/ blues/ roots

Label: Universal Music

Price: Rs 395

Rating: *** 1/2

ONE of the most influential American musicians, the late JJ Cale created what came to be known as the ‘Tulsa sound’, a smooth and rootsy blend of rock, jazz, blues and country. His followers have included greats like Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Neil Young, Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry and Bread’s David Gates.

Interestingly, while Cale maintained a low profile throughout his career, some of his songs were popularised by others. In fact, two of Clapton’s biggest hits ‘Cocaine’ and ‘After midnight’ were originally Cale tunes, and Santana and Lynyrd Skynyrd covered his ‘Sensitive kind’ and ‘Call me the breeze’, respectively.

Appropriately, a year after the singer-songwriter’s demise, Clapton teams up with a few seasoned musicians to release the tribute album “The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale’. Containing 16 songs, the record features Mark Knopfler, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Derek Trucks, former Cale bandmate Don White and Cale’s wife Christine Lakeland.

The selection mostly features songs from the earlier part of Cale’s recording career, with six tracks from the 1974 album ‘Okie’. Not surprisingly, Clapton avoids ‘After midnight’ and ‘Cocaine’, though one wonders why popular Cale tunes like ‘Crazy mama’, ‘Shady grove’, ‘Don’t cry sister’ and ‘Clyde’ are not used either.

The album opens with Clapton himself playing ‘Call me the breeze’, using the trademark 12-bar blues shuffle and laidback rhythm. Other Clapton tunes that don’t feature celebrity guests are the popular ‘Cajun moon’ and ‘Since you said goodbye’, which features an immaculate, wailing slide guitar stretch.

Knopfler is on great form on his very Dire Straits-ish take of ‘Someday’, where he sings, “When she left with no goodbye, I was stuck with those lonely nights, You know what I mean, it’s always the same, Ain’t no medicine for that kind of pain, Someday comes and goes away, Bringing me a better day”. His ‘Train to nowhere’ has one of the most infectious hooks on the album and is the kind of number that’ll keep your feet tapping.

Petty, who’s recently released his own album ‘Hypnotic eye’, has a winner in ‘Rock ‘n’ roll records’, where he renders Cale’s lines, “I make rock ‘n’ roll records, I sell them for a dime, I make my living and feed my children, all in good time.” He also appears on ‘The old man and me’, where Clapton chips in with some moody electric guitar, and the fan favourite ‘I got the same old blues’, another Cale track covered by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The brilliant John Mayer appears on ‘Lies’, a vicious tune about a failed relationship, ‘Magnolia’, which is also known for its Poco version, and the uptempo ‘Don’t wait’, which has the Cale stamp written all over. Country legend Willie Nelson gives ‘Songbird’ his own touch but sadly, his appearance with Clapton and blues wizard Derek Trucks on ‘Starbound’ falls flat, with Trucks seeming totally wasted.

The famous ‘Sensitive kind’ is rendered by Don White, a regular at Cale’s shows. This versions cuts down on the tempo but one misses the charm of the original, which had some intricate strings and horns, or the fizz of the Santana cover.

White, however, does an excellent job on ‘I’ll be there (if you ever want me)’, a country hit popularised in the 1950s by Ray Price. As an apt conclusion, Cale’s wife Christine Lakeland appears on ‘Crying eyes’, first featured on his debut album ‘Naturally’ in 1972.

Though one misses, as mentioned earlier, some of the more obvious favourites, what’s noteworthy is that this is a heartfelt tribute from a group of musicians who have all been inspired by Cale. Clapton’s guitaring is consistently stylish and forms the backbone of this effort, which is a must for all his fans, and that of the genius of JJ Cale.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

See also: ‘Impressions of JJ Cale, the Lord of Lilt’, blog dated July 29, 2013

CD review/ On Air: Live At The BBC Volume 2 – The Beatles


On Air: Live At The BBC Volume 2/ The Beatles

Genre: Rock, popular

Apple Records/ Universal Music

Rating: ***

IT’S amazing and admirable how the Beatles brand continues to be in the news, 43 years after the group split. Right now, they are being talked about for quite a few reasons.

To begin with, Paul McCartney’s latest solo album ‘New’ was released last month, to generally positive acclaim. Secondly, the band’s former secretary Freda Kelly is to appear in a documentary called ‘Good Ol’ Freda’, where she recalls her glorious days with the band. At number three and four are the recent release of the double album ‘On Air: Live At The BBC Volume 2’ and the accompanying video for the Beatles version of Buddy Holly’s ‘Words of Love’, which opens the album.

Like its predecessor, the 1994 release ‘Live At The BBC’, ‘On Air’ contains live mono recordings of various Beatles songs on BBC shows like Saturday Club, Top Gear, Easy Beat and Pop Go The Beatles. As these shows were broadcast in 1963 and 1964, when John Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had already taken the world by storm, they feature the band’s earliest songs, which include a good mix of originals and covers.

Even the template is similar to ‘Live At The BBC’, which has incidentally been re-released in a remastered version (make that reason No 5 why the Beatles are currently in the news). The songs are interspersed with short audio segments, mainly humorous snippets of the band members speaking between recording sessions.

Strangely, 11 days after its international release, ‘On Air’ is still not available in Indian stores. This writer managed to hear it thanks to a friend who ordered it on Amazon, and gladly offered to lend it. The truth is that a lot of diehard fans are curious to pick up this kind of an album at the earliest. They have other means to access it, and delaying the release doesn’t seem like a very appropriate thing to do.

One thing that goes totally against ‘On Air’ is the fact that many songs overlap from the 1994 compilation. And this is not a small number – 13 out of 37. Though they are different takes recorded in separate sessions, one gets repeats of covers of Little Richard hits ‘Lucille’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’, Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, Chan Romero’s ‘The Hippy Hippy Shake’, Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’, the Carl Perkins-popularised ‘Glad All Over’, ‘Honey Don’t’ and ‘Sure To Fall’, and the medley ‘Kansas City/ Hey Hey Hey’. This is besides repetitions of the Beatles originals ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, ‘From Me To You’ (sung in the earlier version as ‘From Us To You’) and ‘I Feel Fine’ (in a studio out-take).

While one or two such instances may have been fine, it’s ridiculous to repeat almost a third of the track-list. The sub-title Volume 1.67 would have been more apt in this case, Even though they might be separate recordings, the Beatles were never known to change their versions too drastically, especially in their early numbers. Thus, what the listener gets to hear is basically the same thing, with some very minor changes here and there. And this is not only the case with the repeated songs. The same holds true with all the other popular Beatles hits that have been included in this set.

Still, if one ignores this major gaffe, there are a few reasons fans should pick up ‘On Air’ to add to their collections. Most important is the presence of separate interviews of the band members by Pop Profile BBC Transmission Service’s Brian Mathew. They aren’t extraordinary or in-depth interviews, but good enough for the show-off fans to boast about.

Conducted in 1965 and 1966, and lasting about eight minutes each, the interviews have John speaking on his home, why he chose black as the colour for his Rolls Royce and what kind of education he wanted his son Julian to have. Paul has this interesting thing about how he always switched off Indian music from the radio, but slowly got to admire it thanks to George, who had begun following it deeply. Strangely, George doesn’t mention Indian music, but talks of his fondness for folk artistes Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Donovan. Ringo dodges most questions, and says he’d prefer spending time sitting around doing nothing. His interview is quite meaningless, and seems just like an effort to not to exclude him.

That brings us to those songs which we didn’t hear in the 1994 set. Though many of these have been featured in earlier Beatles albums, they represent a good selection from the early days of the band. Here, we could divide them into three categories – covers, originals and extra-popular originals.

The covers include Holly’s ‘Words Of Love’, which the band recorded in the 1964 album ‘Beatles for Sale’, country-soul singer Arthur Alexander’s ‘Anna (Go To Him)’, Carl Perkins’ ‘Lend Me Your Comb’, the Marvellettes’ ‘Please Mr Postman’, the Isley Brothers-popularised ‘Twist and Shout’ and Barrett Strong’s ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’. Chuck Berry’s ‘I’m Talking About You’ and Stephen Foster’s ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, dropped from the 1994 compilation as the producers weren’t happy with the sound, find a place here in corrected versions. And yes, there’s a short take on ‘Happy Birthday’, which the Beatles sang when the show Saturday Club turned five.

Among the originals, we have ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ (sung by George), ‘There’s A Place’, ‘Misery’, ‘I’ll Get You’ and ‘You Can’t Do That’. And the extra-popular songs include ‘Please Please Me’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘PS I Love You’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, ‘This Boy’, ‘If I Fell’ and ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’. For some variety, the recording of ‘And I Love Her’ has George playing the electric guitar and not the nylon string acoustic one is accustomed to. It’s a different matter that the acoustic one sounds far better.

Like most of the Beatles reissues and newer compilations, ‘On Air’ has a neatly produced booklet to attract fans. Highlights are the song-by-song descriptions, and the publication of the first audition form sent to the BBC’s variety department, where manager Brian Epstein entered the band’s permanent address as ‘All of Liverpool’. Of course, there’s a nostalgic introduction by McCartney, who says: “When I listen to the BBC recordings, there’s a lot of energy. I think spirit and energy – those are the main words I’d use to describe them. We are going for it, not holding back at all, trying to put in the best performance of our lifetimes.”

In the overall perspective, though, the compilation has its pluses and minuses. While many songs are featured in the first compilation, there are others which fans would have heard most of their lives. Even the most die-hard fan would have spent half his life listening to ‘PS I Love You’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘She Loves You’, and one wonders whether he’ll discover anything new in this compilation. As such, only the less-heard songs may really sound exciting now, either reviving old memories or making people discover something new. At best, this compilation will be a treasure trove for the younger generation which knows only the bigger songs and hasn’t closely followed the early Beatles music.

Undoubtedly, the Beatles have been the most path-breaking band ever. No question about that. But by and large, this is like old wine in a new bottle, or a bid to re-milk the same old cow. Why Beatle about the same bush?

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

CD review/ The Next Day — David Bowie


The Next Day/ David Bowie
Genre: Rock
Sony Music/ Rs 399
Rating: ****

ON his 66th birthday on January 8, David Bowie released his new single ‘Where are we now?’, announcing that it was part of his 24th studio album ‘The Next Day’. While the song got instant recognition, lots of airplay and loads of viral hits with its moody, melancholic feel and its subject revolving around Berlin, many fans were indeed surprised that the veteran English musician was actually releasing something new.

Bowie had released his last album ‘Reality’ a decade ago, and many people felt he had retired for good, as he had cut down appearances following heart trouble and angioplasty in 2004. So they waited eagerly for the new album to hit the stores, till it finally came out on March 8. For those who have admired older hits like ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’, ‘Diamond Dogs’ ‘Aladdin Sane’, ‘Heroes’ and even the commercial hit ‘Let’s Dance’, this was a huge comeback.

While the CD has 14 tracks, the special vinyl edition has three additional bonus tracks. What’s interesting is that Bowie has kept his songs short and snappy, with only five songs over four minutes in length, and has focussed mainly on the guitar and peppy rhythms to embellish them. The lyric-writing shows a certain maturity, using metaphors stylishly.

The title track, whose video attracted controversy for its alleged excesses, opens the show. Here, Bowie uses an energetic rock sound and a crisp guitar-and-drums intro. The lines “Here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot in a hollow tree, its branches throwing shadows, on the gallows for me, and the next day, and the next, and another day” fill the chorus.

The second track ‘Dirty Boys’ is more artistic and innovative, using the baritone saxophone to good effect, specially in the coda. ‘The stars (are out tonight)’ has an infectious tune, and lines that go: “Stars are never sleeping, dead ones and the living, we live closer to the earth, never to the heavens, the stars are never far away, the stars are out tonight.”

‘Love is lost’ is graced by a punchy and cyclical rhythm line with smooth guitar and keyboard overlays, and terrific lines like: “Your country’s new, your friends are new; Your house and even your eyes are new; Your maid is new, and your accent too; But your fear is as old as the world.”

The other highlights include ‘Valentine’s Day’, with its trademark 70s feel, ‘Boss of me’, with its nice, sing-along hook, ‘Dancing out in space’, with its uptempo ambience and wah-wah lacings, and ‘How does the grass grow?’, with its catchy chorus. But the best lines are reserved for ‘You feel so lonely you can die’ and ‘Heat’.

The former, set to a haunting melody line, goes: “No one ever saw you moving through the dark, leaving slips of paper somewhere in the park, hidden from your friends, stealing all they knew, love is thrown in airless rooms, then vile rewards for you.” And the latter, an apocalyptic, brooding number, says: “Then we saw mission is dark, trapped between the rocks, blocking the waterfall, the songs of dust, the world would end, and night was always falling, the peacock in the snow.”

Of the bonus tracks, the instrumental ‘Plan’ offers variety with its jangling guitars and psychedelic feel. And in the entire set, the only number that seems out of place is ‘If you can see me’, which is a bit too noisy and more on the punk-rock side.

The cynical may argue that his latest effort comes nowhere near the class of Bowie’s gems from the 70s, and that its front sleeve is just an unimaginative improvisation of the ‘Heroes’ cover. But to give Bowie due credit, he’s come up with a set of highly likeable songs at a time when people had never imagined he would ever do so. The numbers grow after a few listens, and some are good enough to play repeatedly.

‘The Next Day’ has its highs, and a must for his fans.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

CD review/ iUno! – Green Day

iUno!/ Green Day

Genre: Rock

Warner Music/ Rs 395

Rating: ***

FOLLOWING the super-success of its 1994 album ‘Dookie’, American band Green Day has been at the forefront of the punk-rock movement. After choosing a similar style on ‘Insomniac’ and ‘Nimrod’, it experimented with the brilliant concept albums ‘American Idiot’ and ‘21st Century Breakdown’.

The group’s latest album iUno! Is the first of a trilogy, with iDos! And iTre! planned over the next few months. In the 12-track effort, Green Day goes back to its earlier sound, using influences of favourites like the Clash, Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Damned and Billy Idol.

The album has its pluses and minuses. On the positive side, the songs are crisp and short, with the entire album lasting 41 minutes and only three pieces going over the four-minute mark. Moreover, the musicianship is tight, with vocalist-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist-vocalist Mike Drint, drummer Tre Cool and guitarist Jason White in top form, and producer Rob Cavallo doing a neat job.

On the flip side, there’s nothing new or outstanding about the overall sound. Despite some good tracks, what’s missing is a stand-out classic ― in fact, nothing in the same league as ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ and ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’. And yes, there’s an overuse of the ‘f’ word, which may be typical in punk rock, but seems a little forced and unnecessary here.

The album actually starts off well, but after a while, a bit of sameness creeps in. The opener ‘Nuclear Family’ has strong lines like “Like a Chinese drama and conspiracy, It’s the death of the nuclear family, staring up at you”, and ‘Stay The Night’ has a strong hook, smooth guitars and tight arrangements. ‘Carpe Dien’, which starts off with Armstrong singing “Breaking in a sweat like a bomb threat, is your silhouette fading out”, is one of the stronger tracks, with a crisp guitar line.

Thereafter, the repetition begins. The hardcore punk-rocker ‘Let Yourself Go’ and the punk-pop number ‘Kill The DJ’ brim with explicit and amateur lyrics. ‘Fell For You’ is melodic but routine, and ‘Loss of Control’, ‘Angel Blue’ and ‘Rusty James’ seem like similar-sounding cousins.

The latter half has a couple of cool numbers like the Weezer-like ‘Troublemaker’, which has a splendid guitar solo, and the teenager-friendly ‘Sweet 16’. If the band goes in for a change in sound, it’s only on the final number ‘Oh Love’, which begins “Oh love, oh love, won’t you rain on me tonight, Oh life, oh life, please don’t pass me by.” In fact, this is the only song which stands out.

Despite its obvious flaws, iUno! may click with those who prefer the band’s earlier sound. One doesn’t know what the next two albums of the trilogy have to offer, but the least one can hope is that they show a little more variety.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

CD review/ Shape Shifter – Santana

Shape Shifter/ Santana

Genre: Rock/ instrumental

Sony Music/ Rs 499

Rating: ****

THE instrumental numbers of guitar god Carlos Santana have their own magic. And over the past 43 years or so, there have been quite a few, even prompting the release of two volumes of ‘Best Instrumentals’ featuring his tunes.

While most fans would remember the classics ‘Samba Pa Ti’, ‘Soul Sacrifice’ and ‘Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile)’, some of Santana’s other instrumental  beauties include ‘I Love You Much Too Much’, ‘Oneness’, ‘Incident at Neshabur’, ‘Singing Winds, Crying Beasts’, ‘Flor d’Luna (Moonflower)’ and ‘Revelations’, besides ‘Trinity’, a wordless version of Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ‘Tere Bin Nahin Lagda’, also featuring Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett and pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph.

Keeping this in mind, Santana’s latest album ‘Shape Shifter’ is targeted primarily at those who adore his instrumental tunes. Of the 13 tracks, only one is an out-and-out vocal number, and another has a short backing vocal passage. While Santana’s guitar plays the dominant role, there are effective contributions from keyboardists Chester Thomson and (son) Salvador Santana, bassist Benny Reitveid, drummer Dennis Chambers, conga player Raul Rekow and percussionist Karl Perazzo, most of whom have accompanied the maestro in recent years.

Dedicated to the spirit of the Native American Indian, ‘Shape Shifter’ draws influences from rock, jazz, Latin American and Cuban forms like bossa nova, rumba and salsa, and even European classical, Spanish flamenco and Hungarian folk melodies. And though some of the riffs and song structures remind one of older Santana tunes, there’s a fair amount of verve, variety and virtuosity here.

Of the tunes, the title track has a nylon guitar and back-up vocal intro, but shifts smoothly into spitfire guitars and keyboards. ‘Dom’ has a haunting orchestral start, and wonderfully constructed staccato guitar notes. ‘Nomad’ pumps up the tempo with its frenzied jazz-rock guitar-keyboard interaction, but is too typical Santana and will be liked by those wanting to play air guitar.

‘Never The Same Again’ starts off with a short flamenco stretch, before a moody guitar riff takes over. ‘Spark of the Divine’ is a charming minute-long filler. It’s a nice composition, but sounds more like an introduction to a longer piece, and thus incomplete.

Two tunes with Hungarian influences are truly impressive. ‘Macumba in Budapest’ blends an Afro-Brazlian percussion line with a peppy European melody. But the most distinct and striking piece of the album is ‘Mr Zsabo’, dedicated to Hungarian guitarist Gabor Zsabo. Using classical guitar lines and smart Latin American rhythms, it has a lilt which makes one want to listen repeatedly.

The other highlight is ‘Canela’, named after a Brazilian town. Though it starts off in typical Santana guitar fashion, it moves from one sphere to another, with Salvador Santana coming up with marvellous keyboard passages. In fact, Salvador plays a tight piano on the final song ‘Ah. Sweet Dancer’, and definitely shows enormous talent, which should carry the Santana legacy forward.

Among the songs with more familiar strains, ‘Metatron’ has a hangover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Is Your Love in Vain?’, and ‘In the Light of a New Day’ has an orchestral theme reminiscent of the Beatles’ ‘If I Fell’. ‘Angelica Faith’, dedicated to Santana’s daughter, has vague similarities to ‘Europa’, but what differentiates it is the innovative use of keyboard counter-melodies as a contrast to the wonderful guitar lines.

The only purely vocal piece, ‘Eres La Luz’, featuring singers Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay, may have been fine for a regular Santana album, but seems a bit out of place here. One doesn’t understand the need for placing this in the middle of all the instrumental beauties — if it had to be included, it should have been placed at the beginning or end.

Besides being a mostly-instrumental album, what’s welcome about ‘Shape Shifter’ is that for the first time in many years, Santana does not include high-profile guest artistes. His last four albums ‘Supernatural’, ‘Shaman’, ‘All That I Am’ and the cover version collection ‘Guitar Heaven’ were filled with guest appearances, and after the first effort, the concept was getting stale.

Though ‘Supernatural’ and ‘Shaman’ had their musical highs, they seemed more like marketing gimmicks to cater to the younger crowd. For those who’ve grown up on Santana, the true magic lies in older albums like the self-titled debut, ‘Abraxas’ and ‘Zebop!’ The more refined ear would favour his jazz-rock experiments in ‘Caravanserai’ and his collaborations with jazz guitarist John McLaughlin in ‘Love Devotion Surrender’ and pianist-harpist Alice Coltrane in ‘Illuminations’.

For that category of old-time loyalists, ‘Shape Shifter’ seems to be the best album in 20 years, after the 1992 release ‘Milagro’. Yes, one can always nitpick and point out similarities with older tunes, and crib about Santana’s tendency to overuse his signature sound. But then, in the recent past, this is the closest one can come to vintage Santana. The fact that it’s mostly instrumental just adds to the charm.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

Tag Cloud