By Cameron Arndt
I’ve tended to dip in and out of Joe Satriani’s work in recent years. Much as I still enjoy the genre at times, space-age instrumental guitar rock just doesn’t grab me as much as it used to. Ten years ago I was always on hand for a new album from Satriani – or Vai, Petrucci, Morse and others – but now I guess I’m more drawn to songs with lyrical meanings… and simpler music, being honest!
That being said, anything I’ve heard from Satch tends to be of a high standard, and enjoyable, and the couple times I’ve seen him live have been great – you can’t help but love Crowd Chant at a busy gig! Still, titles like ‘Professor Satchafunkilus’ or albums about ‘Wormhole Wizards’ don’t make me rush out to buy a record anymore, unfortunately. For me the best thing the guitarist has done in recent years has been his work with Chickenfoot. On their two albums it seemed to me that the constraints of the band format brought out the best in him: Along with bags of excellent riffs which he brought to the table, his lead work – packed into the small ‘guitar solo’ segments of traditional classic rock songs, or bursting out into a lengthy jam at the tail-end of a track – seemed more concentrated, tighter, yet as inventive as ever.
All of which preamble hopefully sheds some light on why I was intrigued by What Happens Next? Released tomorrow, January 12th, Satriani’s 16th solo album was a fascinating prospect from the initial press release, before any music had been heard.
So, what happens next?
What happened was Satch got some friends to jump onboard. It’s a simple format, 12 tracks, all instrumental, largely performed as a three piece. But what a three piece! Not only has he snagged Chickenfoot (and Red Hot Chilli Peppers) drummer Chad Smith behind the kit, but in a random, brilliant move the legendary Glenn Hughes is covering the bass – reportedly this is the first ever album on which the ‘Voice Of Rock’ has merely played the four string, but it’s a mouthwatering prospect given that his skills on the instrument are arguably overshadowed by his storied pipes.
I liked the simplicity of the album title, the players were a tantalising prospect, and the album cover was cool as. But what of the music? That’s what it all comes down to at the end of the day.
The first thing to make clear is that this is still very much a Joe Satriani album. The presence of Smith and Hughes doesn’t herald some sort of funkified instrumental version of Chickenfoot. There’s plenty of intergalactic fretwork, stunning guitar tricks and space-age melodies, yet the 12 tracks are pleasingly taught and focussed suggesting an artist filled with determination to keep on pushing himself. There are hooks aplenty to keep the casual listener invested, some crunching riffs and a surprising amount of quieter, more introspective cuts – which still don’t scrimp on the pyrotechnic soloing.
There are no vocals of course, but Satch’s lead guitar is with you throughout, at times full of fire, at times plaintively wailing with lyrical emotion. On Looper the short ‘talky’ guitar phrases are almost like a conversation, over a great simple guitar rhythm.
There are moments of ROCK as well, hints of riffs that could have graced the elusive third Chickenfoot album that Satriani has tried to convince the others to make for years now. The record opens with the aptly named Energy, one of the heaviest numbers on the album, it zips out of the traps with vital momentum and harkens back to The Extremist in it’s big muscular riffage.
Elsewhere there’s swathes of the guitarist’s futuristic soundscapes on the tricky Thunder High On The Mountains – which bolts a Blade Runner-esque intro to a thick modern rock section and ethereal, melodic middle – and surprising funk contained in the heart of the erstwhile ballad, Righteous, which appears to plow the Ten Words/Flying In A Blue Dream furrow before taking a left turn to great effect.
The rhythm section provide solid support to Satch’s every whim, and remain professional, never getting in the way of the song. In no way are they just anonymous, professional backup though. Second track Catbot (there’s a Satriani title!) provides the first real taste of what Smith & Hughes bring to the party. The cut has a thick, funky staccato groove which provides a perfect backdrop for the guitarist’s crazy soloing and a myriad of snaking, vibe-filled hooks.
Throughout the record Smith in particular is sensational. Again, he’s never in the way, but is always right there, playing with a style and swagger that could only be him. His pounding toms, whipcrack snare, and super tight, yet groove filled beats elevate the drum parts into a living, breathing boost for each and every song.
Hughes, conversely, is actually a little more subtle. Anyone who’s familiar with the man knows that that is practically unheard! He’s many things, but subtle usually isn’t one of them! However, he seems to enjoy being the sideman for a change, and sprinkles the early part of the album with well-judged, if not particularly idiosyncratic bass work.
As things progress, however, he gets more time to shine, and his trademark wide, rattling bass tones come through more and more. His guitar hums and thrums along in the title track, while his twisty passing notes are a joy in the startling Headrush, which is built on a classic lightning Satriani riff.
Before the album ends with the sweetly picked closer, Forever And Ever, it reaches it’s apex with the stunning Invisible. Everything comes together on a song which proves to be an epic sum of many superb parts and a microcosm of the album as a whole. Giant, crushing intro, tuneful leads, stratospheric soloing, it’s all here. The drum work is sterling, and Hughes gets his biggest showcase on the record as he walks the bass all over the place, then leads into the second half of the song alone before providing the clattering foundation for Satch to do his thing. The ending takes the intro and kicks it up a few levels leaving the listener breathless and proving the aforementioned Forever And Ever to be a necessary palate cleanser/life ring!
What Happens Next? is a fun record, endlessly entertaining to listen to and extremely rewarding to repeat plays. Satriani sounds inspired and has brought his superlative playing to a strong set of memorable tunes. The star guests don’t try to take over proceedings, and instead elevate the music even higher.
What happens next? Satch is on the road with a revived G3, which is sure to be a hot ticket. Just a pity he won’t have Smith & Hughes along for the ride. That would be a show!
G3 UK Tour 2018