Classic Rock Masala? A Review of Prasanna’s ‘Electric Ganesha Land’

If you’ve read any of the other posts on this blog, you’ll likely have figured out that I’m keen on artists and ideas that can push the frontiers of classic rock in new and interesting directions. So, imagine what’s going through my head when I read of a guitarist trained in both the Indian Carnatic musical tradition and contemporary jazz who decided to channel the spirit of Jimi Hendrix in an album called ‘Electric Ganesha Land’.

Dada-ji! This sure sounded like my cup of chai. A quick glance at the cover art for the album (above) set my heart into palpitations. Low and behold, my finger had clicked the download button on iTunes before my brain had even finished processing that wonderfully funky artwork.

Like the famous dish Chicken Tikka Masala – the staple of Indian restaurants in the UK – this is emphatically fusion cuisine. It’s entirely instrumental and most tracks involve Prasanna on overdriven electric guitars backed with assorted Indian percussion. Occasionally, a tambura is used (the stringed instrument that produces a low drone characteristic of much hindustani classical music) and sometimes Prasanna engages in konnakol (a form of vocalised percussion).

So, with great expectations, I embarked on this musical journey.

But then the strangest darn thing happened: I really couldn’t stand the first two tracks. To be sure, Prasanna’s guitar chops are unquestionable. While he deploys a rocker’s sentiment across this album, he uses his Carnatic training to engage in scales that don’t grace most fretboards. He then adds innovative techniques to create notes that exist between the standard fretted tonalities (another guitarist who likes to explore these microtones is Dave Fiuczynski).

Yet, for those first two tracks it seemed he was far too conscious of making a statement about the novelty of what he’s doing rather than actually producing good tunes. I couldn’t help wishing he’d slow down and think a little bit more about the music he was meant to be making. The opener, ‘Eruption in Bangalore‘ starts off promisingly enough, with a bold guitar intro played with a sound reminiscent of Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain‘. But what I thought was just an intro kept going … for the whole track. Hmmm. Opportunity lost.

And while the second track – ‘Snakebangers’ Ball’ – brings welcome percussion into the mix, it remains essentially a long guitar vamp with little concern for building a song. At this point, I was regretting my hasty finger clicking…

Fortunately, a reprieve occurred. It’s on track three – ‘Fourth Stone From the Sun’ – that things finally start to get interesting. Very interesting. Here, it seemed to my ears, the stress on a brash, in your face “this is rock guitar played with Carnatic phrasing” was backed off enough to let interesting melodies start to shine through. Having seemingly renegotiated the intentions behind the tracks, the album gets progressively stronger.

The fourth,  ‘Dark Sundae in Tripilcane‘, is one of my favourites. It’s on this track that the sound of Prasanna’s funked-out, hard driven guitar stylings works in contrast to the pulsing kanjira rhythms to create something endearingly unique (this style is also well executed on track seven, ‘Iguana on a Funky Trail’). Dark Sundae builds from a underpinning minor riff as a launch pad for various sections of variously distorted then clean and funky guitar, with a real emphasis on letting the guitar solos build melodically using a range of Carnatic scales.

By ‘Indira’s necklace’ Prasanna is back to solo guitar, but this is a much more beautifully conceived melodic statement than the brash early tracks. It demonstrates all Prassana’s unique phrasing and Carnatic scales embellished with moments of Van Halen-esque virtuosity. Other notable tracks include Sri Jimi and the beautiful closer, Bowling for Peace, which perhaps presents the most straight ahead – and quite touching – melody. In this respect at least, was he teasingly saving the best for last?

Prasanna’s album is not going to appeal to everyone. Hell, I was really doubting it over the first two tracks. I still wonder whether it might have been a little better conceived in places, both in terms of the compositions and arrangements. That said, there’s no doubting the originality of what Prasanna is doing and the skill at which he approaches it. Electric Ganesha Land provides an intriguing angle on how a fusion of some aspects of classic rock mentality might blend with different musical traditions to create something that is both unique and – at times – rather tasty.

Bad Influences: Steve Tibbetts

Do you ever come across an artist who, on first listen, you find yourself asking “why the hell have I never heard this person’s work before”? This happened to me recently when I stumbled upon the music of Steve Tibbetts while staying in Berlin.

So, if I like this musician, why am I talking about ‘bad influences’? Well, it’s complex. For me, a bad influence is actually a really good thing. Confused? Me too. That’s the point.

Lets try to clarify. For my purposes here, a ‘bad influence’ is someone who does things in a way that challenges you to rethink how you approach listening to and making music. It’s not that you like everything they do. On the contrary. I don’t approach making music in the way that Steve Tibbetts does, nor could I. And I certainly have issues listening to some of his output: there’s a tendency to sacrifice melody for tonality which can make things repetitive over the course of an album.

But, in all honestly, after listening to The Fall of Us All, I don’t think I can hear music in the same way again. My familiar and ever-so-comfortable points of departure and arrival seem to have been irrevocably lost. And that’s the essence of what I’m talking about here.

Previous ‘bad influences’ of mine include Pharoah Sanders (the Thembi album with particular reference to ‘Red, Black and Green’) and John McLaughlin’s first Mahavishnu Orchestra album, Inner Mounting Flame. At first listen I simply couldn’t work out if I loved or hated them. But I immediately knew that things had changed. My frame of reference for all things music had shifted, my coordinates were scattered. More than a gentle nudge of the dial, they had been given a full on kick in the balls. I was reeling and disorientated because these artists quite literally blew my mind. Pharoah Sanders did it with a cacophony of saxophone screams that gave a musical form to outraged emotion; John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham let loose with their bombastic odd-metered fusion explosion that left me wondering what planet they recorded the disk on.

Even now, when I put those albums on, I still don’t know whether I really like them. But I’m darn certain that I love them because, quite honestly, they changed me as a person.

So where does Steve Tibbetts fit into this register? Steve is certainly not a classic rock player. He’s perhaps best described as a ‘soundscape artist’ who works by bringing various guitar tones into a head-on collision with walls of percussion. A supremely accomplished player on both acoustic and electric guitars, his tracks move from sublime 12-string melodies to feedback laced screams, often in the span of seconds.

On the ECM blurb for his album, The Fall of Us All (nice title!), Steve’s music is described in the rather overstated manner of: “Jimi Hendrix in a weather-beaten bark canoe, paddling upriver through a light curtain of rain in an Asian jungle”. Normally I’d immediately ignore such hyperbole, but here they just may have a point.

Tibbetts, to be sure, has done a range of work in his musical career, including extremely well respected collaborations with Buddhist nun Ani Choying Drolma. He also travels to record percussionists across the world, incorporating those sounds (suitably transformed) into his soundscapes. His latest album, Natural Causes, is purely acoustic, and revels in subtlety.

However, what sticks in my mind is precisely his more brazen work such as Exploded View and The Fall of Us All. If someone like Steve Tibbetts takes Jimi Hendrix through an Asian jungle, how can we use this new, post-jungle Jimi in re-inventing classic rock? Is it even possible?

I’m not sure. But I’m certain the efforts involved are worthwhile even if they lead nowhere. Sometimes, nowhere is a good place to be! On that score, here’s two possible bad influences from Tibbetts for the futures of classic rock:

1) Can we temporarily displace our emphasis on coherent song forms to embrace some of the anarchy that someone like Tibbetts revels in with his soundscapes? In short, can we mess with our comfort zone in terms of musical structure? If so, where can we do it – just in an intro to a song or more widely? At what point does the lack of coherence become a burden, rather than liberating?

2) What can we learn about tone from someone like Tibbetts? The innovative musician Bill Brozman once noted that most modern guitarists have little sense of timbre, preferring to conform to a relative standardization of what is considered “good tone”. Someone like Tibbetts, however, takes creating unorthodox timbre to a whole new level, on both acoustic and electric axes. I think some of the defining mavericks of classic rock have done this: Jimi, of course; Jeff Beck, without doubt. In a world of digital sound manipulation, what frontiers are opening up in this sense and where can we take them?

Lots of questions here, and very few answers from me. But that’s the way it should be. I’ll continue to work with these – and other themes – as I write more in this series of ‘Bad Influences’. But, for now, I look forward to reading any reader thoughts in the comments section.

As for a finale, I think I’ll let Robert Cray sum it all up here. Enjoy 😉

Review: Santana – Shape Shifter

Lets start with a confession: I’m a huge Santana fan. I learned to play guitar by copying Santana solos note by note from the records. I loved his emotional expressiveness and his uncanny sense of melody and tone. The opening of Abraxas blew my mind. The raw latin-rock of Santana III shook up my idea of what rock should deliver and then set it on fire for good measure. And then came Caravanserai and the collaboration with John McLaughlin. I would never have discovered jazz without that intervention (for better or for worse!).

Yes, I am a definitively a Santana fan. Believe it or not – at one time over a decade ago I had the first and only Santana site on the entirety of the interweb.

So we come to the Santana ‘revival’ of the late 1990s into the 2000s. I really tried to keep the faith through this period of Carlos’ musical career. You know, I’ve always tried to pick something out of every Santana album – even during the 1980s output that was patchy in quality to say the least! There would always be that solo or that song which made it worthwhile, even when the album as a whole was questionable. In the mid 1990s, I really enjoyed his collaboration with Jorge Santana, imaginatively entitled ‘Brothers’.

In that vein, I could actually listen to the hit single ‘Smooth’ with Rob Thomas and say that it had a certain musical intensity even if it did stray slightly into the poppy territory for me. But by the time of Shaman, I was doubting my faith. Why couldn’t Carlos just make a damn good album of latin rock like he used to, and without a collaboration with every ‘flavour of the month’ artist who happened to be walking past the studio that week? Surely he had every means at his disposal to do just that?

In some ways ‘Shape Shifter’ is the very album that Santana fans like me have been waiting for. For years Carlos has been talking about going ‘back to his roots’ and doing something a little more ‘earthy’ – i.e. instrumental, jazzy, emphasis on the percussion, etc. So is this it? A return to the instrumental driven rock of the early 1970s or the jazz-influenced fusion of 1973-6?

On the face of it, maybe so. Of the thirteen tracks only one has vocals of any sort, the Spanish-English lyrics of ‘Eres la Luz’. The rest of the songs are instrumentals showcasing Carlos’ soaring guitar and, to a lesser extent, Chester Thompson’s keyboard stylings (his last album before his retirement from the band after 26 years). We can even ignore the wince-inducingly stereotypical ‘Native American influence’ of the intro to the first track, which fortunately passes quickly, never to return.

So is this it – Santana revisiting the past to show us the future of rock?

Sadly, the album is no Caravanserai in the sense of going back to the drawing board and coming up with something new. Despite the fervent wishes of this reviewer, Carlos adopted a risk-free approach. There’s no statement of intent here, no breaking of moulds. On the contrary, the tracks give you the uncanny sense of ‘heard it all before’.

Don’t get me wrong – Carlos’ guitar playing remains impeccable. He alternates between blistering solos and thoughtful, soulful melodies. Yet the song writing is frankly uninspired. The album simply alternates between rather trite rock instrumentals underpinned by latin percussion, to gentle instrumentals accompanied by ‘lush’ keyboard string stylings that make me wish that Tom Coster would be re-hired for the gig.

With respect to the rock instrumentals, ‘Nomad’ – the pick of the bunch – is certainly gutsy but uninspired, despite Chester Thomson’s rather tasty keys solo. In terms of the lush instrumental ballads, ‘Canela’ does what a sickly sweet, typecast Santana ballad should do. It’s an inspired performance while being entirely unsurprising in its format and composition. It even breaks in somewhat contrived fashion from the ballad into a faster ‘latin rock’ section to end.

Lets not beat around the bush here. I’m actually quite certain that the album will be fairly popular and gain substantial plaudits. Yet the only track that actually pushes against the grain is the acoustic track Szabo, a pared back and jazzy tribute to the Hungarian guitar wizard Gabor Szabo (he was the original composer of ‘Gypsy Queen‘). Other than this track there are simply no surprises, no risks. As good as some of the solos are, there’s the creeping suspicion that you’ve heard them before on previous Santana albums over the past decade.

What’s missing is the rawness that burst Santana onto the stage at Woodstock in ’69. Is it too much to hope that ‘classic’ bands can re-capture part of that attitude that made them in the first place? Perhaps so. A lot of water has passed under those bridges. However, I don’t in any way think it is out of the question to expect an artist to take risks. After all, if Carlos Santana is not willing to take a risk, who the hell is?

And that’s why this album disappoints so much (well, that and the fact that the lyrics to Eres La Luz are probably the single most cheesiest set that I’ve heard in recent memory).

It breaks my heart to say it, but I dearly hope that this is not the future of classic rock.

What is the best Led Zeppelin cover ever?

Well, that’s one way to start an argument. Many bands have covered Zepplin’s catalogue, both in concert and in the studio, and the idea of identifying a ‘best’ cover is simply asking for trouble. We start from such different places: we all have favourite original songs of Zepplin, and we no doubt admire different approaches to re-making their music.

So why broach this topic? Well, the bigger and better question here is what makes a good cover of a classic rock song? This is a far more interesting topic. But before we move on, can we set some rules or parameters here?

First off, a degree of fidelity to the original is essential. The listener needs to hear the core motifs of the original song, which may involve replicating key elements of the original melody or lyrics. I feel quite strongly about this: the connection needs to be evident and obvious. There is an umbilical chord that which, if broken, detaches the listener from the intentions of the original composer and performers. Put simply, if the original isn’t recognisable in a fairly clear and reasonably consistent way, then why not simply write a different song? (I’ll briefly note that a tendency to ‘borrow’ rather than ‘cover’ got Led Zep themselves into trouble on a number of occasions…)

But, with that connection to the original suitably maintained, here’s where the fun starts! The interpreter needs to take that essence and stretch it, bend it, warp it, transform it. This is my second ‘rule’. A good cover extracts from the core of the original and takes it somewhere else – preferably somewhere that the original artist might never have thought of treading. In short, they need to copulate with the original to produce something new. Producing a good cover is essentially a process of hard and dirty – yet transformative – love making!

So when Santana covers Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love‘ by simply replicating the same song with Carlos playing his own solos over it, this is frankly banal. Sorry, Carlos, you were my first classic rock fetish and I’ll always remember the good times … but you’ve really lost the plot as an inventive musician willing to take risks.

In fact, this is precisely why cover bands are generally dire and should be avoided (or only consumed after significant quantities of alcohol). They almost uniformly consider the cover to be an element of faithful replication rather than as a vehicle for self-expression. But why copy something when the original already exists in all its glory (and I presume we only want to cover good songs)? It reminds me of when I once auditioned as a lead guitarist  in a blues-rock band that wanted to cover Cream’s ‘Crossroads’.  I played along but, when it came to the ending, I gently tried to push the song in a slightly more interesting direction. I was dutifully informed in my erroneous intentions by the other guitarist who told me “that’s just not the way it goes”. He promptly pulled out his iPod to demonstrate the veracity of his claims, thereby completely missing the point that I couldn’t give a rat’s arse how Clapton played it that night (and likely neither could Eric, who was probably too stoned to tell). Needless to say, the band and I amicably parted ways at the end of that very first evening together!

So, to get back on message, in my opinion a good cover needs to be connected to the original yet transformative of it. Lets put this to the Zeppelin test! What is ‘the best’ Led Zeppelin cover? Well, there’s certainly some classy stuff out there, some interesting stuff, some weird stuff (thanks Frank!), and some real trash. (As an aside, one favourite is when Tori Amos gets down and personal with Whole Lotta Love).

But for me, if I’m looking to highlight the essence of a good cover: try Nguyên Lê and Dhafer Youssef’s version of Black Dog from Nguyên Lê’s album ‘Songs of Freedom’. You can listen to it on Soundcloud right here.

Many of you are probably asking ‘Nguyên who’ and ‘Dhafer What’? So let me digress. Nguyên Lê is an incredible French-Vietnamese guitarist who has worked at the intersection of rock, jazz and Vietnamese folk music(!). Yes, he’s fairly innovative. Likewise, Dhafer Youssef – the ‘Electric Sufi’ – has also been unafraid to break boundaries. An oud player and vocalist, he has put forward his musical talents on some distinctly interesting albums that combine combine elements of North African and Islamic musical traditions with jazz and electronica.

It’s probably fair to say that this is the odd couple when it comes to covering Zeppelin…

Hold on, there’s more. Right off the bat, let me say that while Nguyên Lê is one of my favourite artists, I really don’t like the album this track comes from. The cover of Black Dog works in a way that most other covers on the album summarily fail (e.g. avoid the cover of ‘Redemption Song’ like a pestilence). So, if you are interested in Nguyên, then check out his many infinitely preferable albums including Walking on the Tiger’s Tale, Tales from Vietnam  or (my personal favourite) Bakida.

With that out of the way, what are they doing on this track and why is it so damned good a cover? Lets start with the short preface track Ben Zeppelin (not on the soundcloud recording above) with its call to pray at the alter of rock. Here Dhafer’s voice soars ethereally above Nguyen’s effected guitar using quarter note bends that hint at Vietnamese scales as much as the blues influence of the original. Then, out of nowhere, Nguyen rips into that instantly recognizable opening riff accompanied (of course) by a marimba. I know, every Zepplin song deserves a marimba on it. Yes, this is distinctly fusion: there’s ripping classic rock guitar, worldy percussion, that irrepressible marimba, and Dhafer wailing (quite literally) the melody to the song without bothering to articulate lyrics… nor does he need to. It works perfectly. This is Led Zep like you never dreamed.

Then, at 2m11, Nguyen rips into a blazing, blistering solo that would grace any hard rock tune in its pyrotechnics, before the marimba edges back in closely followed by Dhafer in scream-singing mode. Admittedly, he sounds a bit like he’s in serious pain. I mean this in a good way, because I’ve often thought the same about Robert Plant. From this climax, the song calms yet it remains edgy. The smooth marimba is jostled by the harsh guitar riffing that edges in and out, and you just know that Dhafer is waiting to get back into things once the main riff returns as the song drives towards its second climax…

Quite honestly, I imagine many people will likely hate this cover every bit as much as I love it. My attraction to it is precisely because it transforms the original: it draws approvingly on that classic riff and the main melody, yet it takes us places that Page and Plant would never have imagined (and yet surely would approve!). And it does so with stunning musicianship.

Isn’t that exactly what a good cover is meant to do?

Of course, that’s my take and I don’t expect others to agree. The questions remain: what makes a good cover? Where is the threshold between faithfulness to the original and a transformation? And who really did do ‘the best’ Led Zeppelin cover?