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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.

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