By Andrew Catania
There’s a reason why Joe Satriani is the last guitarist to have a major label deal. None of the others do (Yngwie, etc.). Soulshifter is one of many reasons Satch still does. I believe this is the best album he’s done. That’s quite an accolade considering Satch has put out great material throughout his career. You can easily make the case that the idea of shapeshifting is a consistent element that has been present throughout Joe Satriani’s incredible career, which now stretches across 18 studio albums and nearly 35 years. Never one to make the same type of record twice, the symbiotic relationship that he has with his existing body of work, and how it feeds into the next chapter that he’ll add to is a fascinating one.
While some artists are often reluctant about looking back, Satriani sees it as an essential part of the process. “Each album is to a large degree, informed by what just happened the last two years,” he says. “The previous record, the cathartic experience of dreaming it up, writing it, recording it and then taking it on tour — that is quite an experience.”
Returning home at the end of that cycle, the prolific guitarist finds himself right back at the beginning, considering what his next move will be. “There are two things that always seem to pop up. One is that you want to do it again somehow, and the other is that you’re kind of running as fast as you can in the other direction,” he explains. “It’s some sort of bizarre artistic response to something that you’ve just finished. Whether it’s successful or not, you just can’t help but say, ‘Now, I’ve got to do something entirely different.'”
Shapeshifting, his 18th studio album, grew out of a plan to focus on the idea of changing as the central theme. Listening to the initial demos that he had recorded, he thought the “shapeshifting” phrase is one that would fit well with the songs that he had come up with. “I started to think that that sounds like 15 different guitar players,” Satriani says. “I know it’s the same guy because it’s me, but it sounds like I’m moving into an area where each melody requires me almost to be somebody else.”
He enlisted a wide range of collaborators, both old and new, to help him bring the songs to life. Legendary drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Fogerty), bassist Chris Chaney (Jane’s Addiction), and keyboardist Eric Caudieux were the core musicians on the new album with additional contributions coming from Lisa Coleman (The Revolution) and Christopher Guest.
Jim Scott (Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) co-produced the album sessions with Satriani. Longtime associate John Cuniberti was on board as well, handling the mastering duties.
The high energy title track, which leads off the album, opens with an explosive fill from Aronoff, joined quickly by Chaney, who lays down an infectious groove as Satriani turns up his guitar and begins to play. In those early moments, they sound like a heavily caffeinated jazz trio, just jamming away. Even as the song continues to build, it maintains that initial foundation, capturing a feeling that will be familiar to anyone who has ever walked in on a band reaching that absolute peak on stage at the corner club. It’s an exciting preview of the album that is ahead.
“I wanted the track to be an introduction to what was going to be a crazy ride, stylistically, emotionally, all of the things that I’m hinting at,” Satriani says. “It’s an album that has powerful themes from deep sadness and regrets all of the way to just pure happiness and joy. I wanted it to be all there. But that song had to be there to show the shapeshifting process starting.”
Both Chaney and Aronoff brought endless amounts of versatility and creativity to the project, immensely essential qualities. Working with such a diverse set of songs, Satriani knew that he needed to assemble the right group that could handle anything. “When you’re faced with 15 completely different pieces of music, this huge variety of styles, you start to worry,” he admits. “It’s like, ‘Wow, who do I know who can play all of this stuff which is not going to insist on using their amp and always playing every song with their technique?”
He calls it a hunch, the idea that the pair, which he had worked with individuals in the past, would mesh well together. “They knew each other, and I think they may have done a couple of sessions together over the years, but I know that they hadn’t really sat down and done a real record together,” he says. “But right from the beginning, they just sounded amazing together.”
Choosing Jim Scott to record and mix the album was another leap of faith. Satriani picked up the phone and asked the veteran producer if there was any chance that he might want to work on an instrumental guitar album. Scott quickly and happily accepted the invitation, inviting the band to come and work at his studio in Valencia, California. “It’s such a beautiful and crazy looking place, just to walk in there every day is wonderfully inspiring,” Satriani says, remembering the moment when they first showed up at the facility. “But for all of its craziness, it’s a very down-home, back to basics analog studio with the right mix of vintage and digital gear to keep you inspired and capture you at your best.”
The retro AOR feel of “Nineteen Eighty” finds Satriani spiritually revisiting the period when he was working with his first band, the Squares. The future guitar hero the world came to know less than a decade later, would have to wait. He recalls that in those early days, they “dialed back the guitar solos and histrionics to try to create a cooler new wave vibe.” Decades removed from those goals, he was free to go forward and attempt to recapture what was on his mind in 1980.
Staying true to the sounds of the time, he even used a vintage MXR EVH phaser. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Eddie Van Halen,” Satriani says. “In my mind, he just crystallized that era. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he kind of saved rock guitar. So that’s what I would have been doing.”
To continue on that path, you’ll find a lot of different kinds of racket on Shapeshifting, which stands as one of the most interesting and intriguing records that Satriani has made to date. It’s one that effectively bottles the incredible journey that he took with his collaborators over the past year as they worked on music together. Listening back to the album, he’s quite pleased with what they have accomplished.
Be sure to pick up Soulshifter which is out now. You won’t be disappointed!