Sunday, October 9, 2016

Joe Satriani - 1987 "Surfing With The Alien"

Surfing with the Alien is the second studio album by American rock guitarist Joe Satriani. It was released on October 15, 1987, by Relativity Records. The album is one of Satriani's most successful to date and helped establish his reputation as a respected rock guitarist.

Released on October 15, 1987, by Relativity Records, Surfing with the Alien charted at number 29 on the Billboard 200, proving to be Satriani's third highest-charting album in the United States. It remained on Billboard 200 for 75 weeks, the longest run of any of his releases.\Surfing with the Alien was certified Gold on February 17, 1989, and Platinum on February 3, 1992, having shipped one million copies in the US. It was Satriani's first and only album to earn platinum certification.
Two singles from the album reached Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart: "Satch Boogie" at No. 22 and "Surfing with the Alien" at No. 37. A third single, "Always with Me, Always with You", received a nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Performance at the 1989 Grammy Awards, while the album itself was nominated for Best Rock Instrumental Performance at the same event; these being Satriani's first two of many such awards. Live versions of "Always with Me, Always with You" would later be nominated for Best Rock Instrumental twice more, at the 2002 and 2008 Grammys.
In a contemporary review for The Village Voice, music critic Robert Christgau snidely referred to Satriani as "the latest guitar god" and felt he is too much of a formalist, because he not only composes but edits his guitar melodies: "Thus he delivers both the prowess cultists demand and the comfort they secretly crave". In a retrospective review for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine was more impressed by his technical abilities and praised Surfing with the Alien, writing that it "can be seen as the gold standard for guitar playing of the mid- to late '80s, an album that captures everything that was good about the glory days of shred." According to The Rolling Stone Album Guide (1992), the record "put Satriani on the map. Beautifully played and well-paced, it manages to capture all the icy fire of fusion jazz without losing any of the visceral power of rock & roll".

Surfing with the Alien belongs to its era like Are You Experienced? belongs to its own -- perhaps it doesn't transcend its time the way the Jimi Hendrix Experience's 1967 debut does, but Joe Satriani's 1987 breakthrough can be seen as the gold standard for guitar playing of the mid- to late '80s, an album that captures everything that was good about the glory days of shred. Certainly, Satriani was unique among his peers in that his playing was so fluid that his technical skills never seemed like showboating -- something that was somewhat true of his 1986 debut, Not of This Earth, but on Surfing with the Alien he married this dexterity to a true sense of melodic songcraft, a gift that helped him be that rare thing: a guitar virtuoso who ordinary listeners enjoyed. Nowhere is this more true than on "Always with Me, Always with You," a genuine ballad -- not beefed up with muscular power chords but rather sighing gently with its melody -- but this knack was also evident on the ZZ Top homage "Satch Boogie" and the title track itself, both of which turned into rock radio hits. This melodic facility, plus his fondness for a good old-fashioned three-chord rock, separated Satriani from his shredding peers in 1987, many of whom were quite literally his students. But he was no throwback: he equaled his former students Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett in sweep picking and fretboard acrobatics and he had a sparkling, spacy quality to some of his songs -- particularly the closing stretch of the Middle Eastern-flavored "Lords of Karma," the twinkling "Midnight," and "Echo" -- that was thoroughly modern for 1987. The production of Surfing with the Alien is also thoroughly of its year -- stiff drumbeats, sparkling productions -- so much so that it can seem a bit like a relic from another era, but it's fine that it doesn't transcend its time: it captures the best of its era and is still impressive in that regard. 

The future of guitar playing arrived in stores in October 1987, courtesy of Joe Satriani’s epochal second album, and de facto public coming out party, Surfing With the Alien.

Before the album’s release, the Long-Island-bred, San Francisco-dwelling Satriani (Satch, to his friends) was a relative unknown to the average music fan, but a highly respected guitar teacher behind the scenes, responsible for honing the skills of all-star pupils such as Metallica’s Kirk, Primus’ Larry LaLonde, Testament’s Alex Skolnick, Counting Crows’ David Bryson, Third Eye Blind’s Kevin Cadogan, jazz-guitar wunderkind Charlie Hunter, and eventual biggest champion, protégé and peer, Steve Vai.

Somewhere between devising lesson plans and undertaking brief stints with local groups (including a quick pass through Greg Khin’s band), a modest solo career was born, and after cutting his teeth on a 1984 demo EP and 1986’s formative full-length debut, Not of This Earth, the already 30-year-old Satriani was finally ready for his close-up.

This became Surfing With the Alien, which, on its way to achieving platinum U.S. sales transformed Satriani from best-kept secret to the acknowledged fastest draw in town – the six-string gunslinger any would-be guitar hero simply had to challenge to earn his own stripes, never mind what the album also did to put instrumental music back on the rock ‘n’ roll map.

In a conspicuously Italian-American partnership involving producer John Cuniberti and drummer Jeff Campitelli, Surfing witnessed Satch striking upon a “golden songwriting ratio” of sorts, which entailed the creation of mesmerizing musical beds – rhythms, chord sequences, etc. – over which Joe could then vamp all over the fretboard, completely untethered by more conventional commercial restrictions.

The final pinch of pixie dust genius was of course slapping the Silver Surfer on the album cover. Trust us, Satch had no intention of winding up bald as a cue ball (and the Surfer) way back in 1987. But in an era when his modest amount of charisma was clearly no match for over-the-top showmen like David Lee Roth, and Axl Rose, presenting his otherworldly musical vision in the guise of Marvel Comics’ most enigmatic and philosophical hero was a stroke of genius. The ploy, if one could even call it that, quite literally established him as the ultimate super (guitar) hero.

And so it’s not surprising that, for many, Surfing With the Alien played like an animated movie of the mind’s eye, driven by Satriani’s evocative soundtrack, and held in check only by each listener’s wildest imagination. Personally, my mental movie for side one, at least, played something like a day-in-the-life chronicle for a future deep space citizen. Along with the muddled conversations that introduced it, the opening title track’s frantic pace and blindsiding solo runs suggested a busy rush hour space port; the comparatively sedate, almost thumb-twiddling tolerant “Ice 9″ the ensuing daily commute; the alternately spirited and despairingly moody “Crushing Day” the highs and lows of 9-5 grind in between; the sublime “Always With Me, Always With You” a wistful daydream of life back on the protagonist’s home planet; and the jazz-cum-blues-on-steroids “Satch Boogie” that tall, stiff drink and short-tempered bar-brawling to cap another hard day.

Side two inspired less interconnected images, by comparison, but after seemingly paying circumspect lip service to his many metalhead students via the ominous “Hill of the Skull,” Satch embarked on another batch of sensual and seductive mini-adventures taking in the exotic orbiting arpeggios of “Circles,” the (probably faux-) sitar flourishes of “Lords of Karma,” Spanish-flavored string tapping of “Midnight” and, finally, the atmospheric stratospheric extrapolations of “Echo.” It feels like a trip for an album lasting under forty minutes and yet traveling thousands of light years.

And heck, even if the mental movie didn’t play for everyone, Surfing With the Alien still sounded of a piece as an album-length listening experience, and for all the guitarist’s subsequent triumphs working within and beyond its template, Surfing remains the fundamental measuring stick by which all instrumental rock guitar records are still considered all these years on – and may continue to do so for decades to follow. At the end of the day, Satch is still teaching, it would seem, only on a much grander scale.

Track listing:

All music composed by Joe Satriani.

1.     "Surfing with the Alien"       4:25
2.     "Ice 9"       4:00
3.     "Crushing Day"       5:14
4.     "Always with Me, Always with You"       3:22
5.     "Satch Boogie"       3:13
6.     "Hill of the Skull"       1:48
7.     "Circles"       3:28
8.     "Lords of Karma"       4:48
9.     "Midnight"       1:42
10.     "Echo"       5:37

Total length: 37:37


Joe Satriani – guitar, keyboard, drum programming, percussion, bass, arrangement, production
Bongo Bob Smith – drum programming, percussion, sound design
Jeff Campitelli – drums, percussion
John Cuniberti – percussion, engineering, remastering (reissue), production



  2. I wish I'll find Plaid by Blues Saraceno here, one day ;-)

  3. Satch is boring! Either John Scofield or Paul Gilbert, but Satriani... never!

  4. This is a legendary album! Thank you for the wonderful upgrade.