At this point in Satch’s career, it can be difficult not to take the man’s talent and virtuosic skill for granted. After all, time and again, he’s been called one of the, if not the greatest guitarist in rock music. It’s not hard to agree with that opinion either; for close to thirty years, Joe Satriani has been wowing listeners with a pitch-perfect fusion of melody and technical showmanship. The title of his latest album, “Unstoppable Momentum”, seems to reflect this idea of his enduring fame and recognition. Although many of rock guitar’s virtuosos have since fallen off the wagon (Yngwie Malmsteen and his painfully mediocre “Spellbound” from last year comes to mind), Satriani once again has released a collection of songs that accurately reflect his skill both as a performer and composer. Though it may lack the classic-status perfection and flow of his best work, “Unstoppable Momentum” is an album that lives up to its name.
Although Satriani has always paid a due respect to the virtue of melody in his music, the compositions often showcase a healthy dose of dynamic and surprise. The opener and title track offers a taste of many of the album’s best elements from the start. While the foundation of Satriani’s playing is true enough to rock/metal convention, there are times here where he will try to push the envelope, creating sounds that wouldn’t normally be heard from an electric guitar. In addition to the uplifting melody and bluesy soloing of the album’s soaring opening track, Satch freshens up his sound with freaky pickup textures, very science-fiction sounding akin to what I imagine a benevolent alien race’s language might sound like. For the most part, Satriani’s lead style sticks to a well-worn form of switching between composed licks and a more freeform soloing. The occasional sign of experimentalism aside, “Unstoppable Momentum” is adhering to a format of music and composition familiar from Satriani’s previous work and the music of many a guitar virtuoso alongside him.
Although “Unstoppable Momentum” may give the impression of a musician that’s become a little too comfortable with his style, there is feeling in his playing and songwriting that couldn’t be there unless he was still deeply involved emotionally with his music. “Unstoppable Momentum” lacks the sort of start-to-finish flow and satisfying album structure heard on some of his best-loved classics, but Satriani achieves something rare here: every song manages to be distinctive and memorable in its own way. While “Can’t Go Back” may be a vessel for melancholic leads and brooding night-time fusion, “Lies and Truths” is a proggy metal attack, condensed into five minutes. From the mellowed Celtic vibe of “I’ll Put A Stone On Your Cairn” to the balls-out blues rock of “Jumpin’ In”, there is a sound for every mood and season here. As a musician, Satch manages to mold his playing to beautifully reflect whatever vibe the music’s going after. Shred-fans will get their fill, but just as much of the album showcases his feeling as a guitarist as well.
There is a popular notion surrounding ‘virtuoso rock’ that suggests that these god-tier guitarists will run amok without the guiding restraint of a vocalist to keep them from wrecking the song. It’s certainly true for some of the more indulgent among the virtuosos, but Satriani’s undying attention to strong, memorable and ultimately fun songwriting is what makes his music so enduring. “Unstoppable Momentum” isn’t any great leap forward for the man that brought us “Surfing with the Alien”, but that doesn’t keep this latest album from being one of the most impressive albums I’ve heard thus far this year. Though you may have your pre-existing ideas about instrumental or ‘virtuoso’ rock, be sure to check this one out; you may be surprised.