My review of the upcoming Joe Satriani - Surfing With The Alien: Legacy Edition CD/DVD has been posted at Modern Guitars Magazine.
UPDATE 8/1/07: I've republished my review below
When Joe Satriani's Surfing With The Alien album was originally released in 1987, it became the first instrumental rock guitar album to crack the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart. Now Epic/Legacy Recordings is re-releasing this groundbreaking album in a special 20th anniversary edition CD/DVD set. Included in this reissue are a newly remastered version of the original album, plus a DVD of Satriani's 1988 Montreux Jazz Festival performance. Also included are new liner notes from Satriani himself, in which he describes how Surfing With The Alien was made, and his inspiration and writing process for each song. This is a nice touch that should inspire many Satriani fans to pick up the new version even if they already own the original.
Surfing With The Alien wasn't the first instrumental rock guitar album by any means - but it was the first to bring the genre to a wider audience. After Surfing, there was a bumper-crop of similar albums released throughout the late '80s. "A rising tide lifts all boats" as they say, and that was certainly the case in those days for instrumental rock guitar artists. Ultimately, no one quite matched Satriani's wide-ranging appeal, but he opened the door for many players that may not have had the exposure they received otherwise. Though it seems to be coming around again today (albeit to a lesser extent), the genre lost much of its popularity once the grunge scene took hold in the early '90s.
What's impressive about Surfing With The Alien is that Satriani was able to craft such a popular, genre-defining album with the limited resources he had. The drum machine usage is sometimes obvious, and the lead tones are a bit harsh at times, but the slick writing and shear guitar bravado on this album catapulted Satriani's career.
Though "Satch Boogie", "Always With Me, Always With You", and the title track were the most popular songs from Surfing With The Alien when it was first released (as evidenced by their rather consistent airplay on rock radio stations at the time), there are other, arguably better songs on this album that deserve attention. "Ice Nine", for example, has turned into a Satriani classic. The deep groove, cool clean tones, and strong solos (especially on the bluesy outro) really make this one of Satriani's best compositions. Another standout track is "Circles". This song starts out with a cool double-stop/chordal melody before abruptly shifting into high-energy rock territory. For his solo here, Satriani leaves nothing in the bag - blues licks, tapping, wild legato runs, crazy whammy bar dives, you name it. Then, just as quickly as it began, the drive-by of vintage late-'80s shred ends, and the mellow main melody returns.
There are other great songs as well. "Crushing Day", and "Lords Of Karma" show off Satriani's knack for writing catchy songs that use a wide variety of guitar tones. His writing takes a more sophisticated turn on songs like "Echo", and the two-handed tapping piece "Midnight". Overall, the strong compositions and solid playing on Surfing With The Alien have stood the test of time.
The DVD of Satriani's 1988 Montreux Jazz Festival show is a very cool addition to this package, and gives you a good idea of how he played (and looked) in those days. In the liner notes, Satriani tells the tale of a long, crazy travel day before this show. They arrived too late for a soundcheck, and it was 4 a.m. before Satriani and band mates Stu Hamm (bass) and Jonathan Mover (drums) finally hit the stage. The guys do look a little tired during this gig, but the performance doesn't seem to suffer much. After a few wrinkles in the opening song "Ice Nine", the band settles in and puts on a good show.
If Surfing With The Alien were released today for the first time, would it be the chart-making platinum album it was back in the day? Probably not. A lot has changed in the music scene over the past 20 years; It's hard to imagine hearing "Satch Boogie" or "Always With Me, Always With You" on top 40 radio today, given the current musical climate. That said, Surfing With The Alien is one of the most important albums in its genre. Even if you already own this album, I would still recommend picking up the new re-released version. The remastered tracks sound great, and the live DVD and Satriani's new liner notes really sweeten the pot. Fans of the current instrumental/progressive/fusion guitar scene who have never heard this album should check it out as well. Not only for the historical perspective either; you'll want it for the same, simple reason it was so popular 20 years ago - great writing and great guitar playing.
Surfing With the Alien (20th Anniversary Epic/Legacy Edition)
Originally released October 1987
CD -- Disc 1 (remastered)
01. Surfing with the Alien
02. Ice 9
03. Crushing Day
04. Always With Me, Always With You
05. Satch Boogie
06. Hill of the Skull
08. Lords of Karma
Original album credits
Joe Satriani -- guitar, bass, keyboards, percussion, drum programming
Bongo Bob Smith -- drum programming, sound design, percussion
Jeff Campitelli -- drums, percussion
John Cuniberti -- percussion
Jeff Kreeger -- pre-production programming and sound design
All songs written and arranged by Joe Satriani
All songs published by Strange Beautiful Music/ASCAP
DVD -- Disc 2 -- Live at Montreux (previously unreleased)
01. Ice 9
06. Lords of Karma
09. Hordes of Locusts
10. Always With Me, Always With You
11. Satch Boogie
Joe Satriani -- guitar
Stu Hamm -- bass
Jonathan Mover -- drums
Recorded July 14, 1988 at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
All songs are previously unreleased.
All songs written and arranged by Joe Satriani except for S.T.U.