JOE SATRIANI – Flying in a Blue Dream (1989 Relativity)
I used to read all the rock magazines and charts as a kid, and I was surprised when Joe Satriani’s latest album cracked the top 30 in Canada. “Isn’t he an instrumental guitar guy? Do enough people buy that stuff for it to chart?” Apparently they did, and even if instrumentals aren’t your thing, you have to love Joe’s big vocal single debut, “Big Bad Moon”.
Joe nailed a cool, creative music video with lots of shreddery, which immediately caught my eye. Joe looked like Razor Ramon before there was such a character, but cool as ice in that suit. Meanwhile, another Joe in a leather jacket shreds the fuck out of a beautiful silvery Ibanez. Putting on a gritty, Waits-ish voice, Joe slammed out a blues rocker like no blues I’d ever heard before. I had to get this!
Flying in a Blue Dream contains only six vocal songs, but it didn’t need any more than that to become a hit. The instrumentals are all killer (as Joe’s usually are). For an album that is well over an hour, it is rare to find one so full of killer, with zero filler! The best way to think about Satriani songs is that they are not really instrumentals, just good songs where the lead vocal melody is performed by a guitar. Most of the songs on Flying share this quality. The title track is one such song, where the musical backbone is a good song on its own, but the lead guitar front and center is where the lead singer would normally be delivering the hooks. Instead, Joe delivers all the hooks with his guitar alone, and does so ably. This is no easy accomplishment. Lots of songs are in the five minute range, but don’t drag or bore.
Variety is another key quality to this album. “Flying” isn’t a ballad, but falls somewhere in between. “Can’t Slow Down” on the other hand will rip your head clean off. For a real ballad, check out the beautiful “I Believe”, still a favourite of mine today. While the diversity of the album is one of its strengths, another is the production, particularly on the guitars. Melty, etherial and slippery as greased mercury, Joe’s tone defies imitation. He gets crunchy on the rhythms though, and it’s a really sweet crunch — like a Skor bar.
When instrumentalists like Joe added vocals to their arsenals, jaded music snobs would often accuse the artist of “selling out” or “going soft”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Boom, right there on track #2 (“The Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing”) is bright instrumental showcasing virtually every trick in the Book of Satch! Harmonics out the wazoo, sounds I can’t describe or articulate, but all done with an eye to the melody and groove of the song. That’s how to do it, folks. You want groove? Check out “Can’t Slow Down”, one of the blazing vocal tracks, or the headlong “One Big Rush” and “Back to Shalla-Bal”. You want bizarre and experimental? Then “Headless” and “Strange” appropriately fit the bill. You want mystical, exotic and avante garde…but with funk bass? Parts I and II of “The Bells of Lal” should do you.
Adding vocals was the coup de grâce. Those songs really elevate Flying in a Blue Dream to a timeless level. Of them, “I Believe” is particularly special. It is quiet and spare, in contrast to some of the heavier moments on the album. Tasteful and reserved guitar melodies set the tone, and Joe sings softly of making a better tomorrow. His singing is remarkable actually, because though Joe is not known for his voice, he sings with the correct passion and feeling. In short, it all works as a package. Remember, it is usually Joe’s guitar that delivers the the hooks.
Flying in a Blue Dream always seems to live in the looming shadow of its predecessor, the million selling Surfing With the Alien. If I had to pick a favourite, it would be Flying in a Blue Dream, every time.