April 13, 2022

First things first – let me just say at the outset that Elephants Of Mars is a great album; detailed, layered, and perfectly produced. My quest then, is to decide whether it’s the best thing Satriani has ever recorded, so I had to skip back a couple of albums to my previous favourite, 2015’s Shockwave Supernova, an astonishing epitome of the musician’s art, and do some comparisons. The two albums start off in different veins, with Shockwave powering in on the title track, an explosive statement of intent, aggressive but still melodic. Elephants takes a different route, drifting in on ambient sounds reminiscent of Mark Knopfler’s atmospheric intro to Local Hero, building to the desert aesthetic of opening track Sahara. It’s not long before the whammy-laden shredder appears in all his glory, but the eastern sounds are the focus of this number. The title track for this album comes in at no. 2, an eerie concoction of prog complexity and exotic scales, with plenty of imaginative synth – see the video at the foot of this page.

Photo: Eduardo Peña Dolhun

Third track Faceless keeps up the ambience, something like one of the classic Santana guitar instrumentals, bolstered by big string sounds. Joe has a bit more fun perhaps, with Blue Foot Groovy, with its clear-toned, mid-heavy boogie rhythm, and groovy bassline. It ‘degenerates’ into a superb, old-school major-key rocker at the end, an album highlight.

We are up to track 5, the descriptively-named Tension And Release, before he really lets himself off the leash with some screaming shredding over a 7/8 backing, then its’s back to the spacy ambience on Sailing the Seas of Ganymede, which has loads of stuff going on: screeching guitar sounds, slap bass and some exotic-sounding stringed instrument lines, all carefully layered and perfectly mixed, with occasional jazzy Larry Carlton phrases. This one strikes me as quite heavily Steve Vai influenced, with more emphasis on the sounds and the construction than the fast licks. Then the pure Indian guru groove of Doors Of Perception gives way to the ‘80s cop show vibe of E 104th St NYC, featuring a short bass solo. Some great keyboard soloing adorns the funky Pumpin’, followed by the brilliant Dance Of The Spores, with its Dance Macabre vibe, downbeat and sinister, featuring ghostly vocal backings.

More great keyboard work on the funky Night Scene, then another highlight with the enigmatically-named Through A Mother’s Day Darkly, with its haunting “Every night I have the same dream…” spoken word vocal. The slow and melodic Memory Lane follows, with the pad-and-string-laden ballad Desolation bringing up the rear, a superbly restrained, atmospheric piece with the guitar teetering on the edge of feedback, another highlight of the set.

Any debate about Satriani’s best work will inevitably include a contingent claiming that he’ll never surpass his 1987 breakthrough classic Surfing With The Alien, with its powerfully driving title track and the tuneful but gloriously virtuosic ballad Always With Me, Always With You, and there’s a lot to be said for that opinion. His guitar sound and musical ambition have come a long way though, and the musicianship and production on these recent records is impeccable. I would say the main difference between the two later albums is that Shockwave shows off Satriani’s technical wizardry the whole way through, whereas Elephants spreads the shredding more sparsely across some incredibly complex layering. Both approaches work incredibly well; it’s really a matter of personal taste, and Satriani’s sci-fi leanings are amply served on each. The only observation I would make is to question whether the instrumental prog guitar format can really sustain itself for over an hour as both these albums attempt to do, which may be a point in favour of the 37-minute Surfing. But then it would be difficult to decide which track(s) to ditch, as they each bring something to the party. In any case, it’s incredible that Joe can keep up this glorious standard across 18 albums; he continues to lead the herd, and long may it continue.