Category Archives: Reviews

Album reviews

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.

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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.