Joe Satriani

The Aristocrats — Tres Caballeros

Tres Caballeros **** The Aristocrats’ third album is a total winner for me…and anyone who is into modern shred-style dynamic playing should definitely acquaint themselves with this band. The Aristocrats is a supergroup of sorts comprised of Guthrie Govan on guitar, Bryan Beller on bass and Marco Marco Minnemann on drums and percussion. These guys are all great players and writers and have pedigrees that include work with Asia, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Dweezil Zappa. In a world awash with music and crap and sound and crap and crap and crap, there is still pure musicianship that is capable of jarring even the most aged, jaded listener (that would be me). While I didn’t know it when I originally mentioned posted, this disc was recorded all the way back in 2015, but since nothing new has been recorded since, this post is still a review of the band’s latest album (hehe) so I feel totally current and on-point. In addition to being a full-fledged post in the blog queue, this review will be added to the ever-expanding section under the “ALT” column in due time along with all of the other er, ALT stuff I’ve reviewed.

I have to admit that I don’t necessarily like bands like The Aristocrats as a rule. I never really listened to Vai, Satriani, Malmsteen or most of those shred/instrumental types mainly because I don’t hear a sense of humor or a certain dynamic sensitivity that I look for in music, therefore I find it hard to listen to. Let’s say a lot of seems to be made to impress and that’s it. Others will disagree I’m sure and that’s how music is; different strokes and all that. I would never dispute the guitar talents of any of those cats, or others like them, because they are obviously all great players. It’s just a matter of what type of music the guitarist/chooses as the environment from which to express. My tastes tend to either to the old school (Beck, Zappa, Howe, McLaughlin) or the Jazz Acoustic Manouche school (Lagrene, Rosenberg, Romane, Wrembel). So this is a bit of a departure for me, but I’ve really enjoyed the experience. The first thing that struck me about the Aristocrats is, aside from being great players, they obviously have a twisted sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously. I like that in a band, especially a band as “chops-city” as these guys. There is a great otherworldliness about the band; they would have made great guest stars playing some super-psycho dive bar on the rim of some spectral twilight in an episode of the X-Files. This wonderful weirdness pervades the music of the disc and the personality of the band and what’s not to like about that, I ask ya?

Musically the band is like a Ferrari; it goes from a sparse whisper to an over-the-top flurry of notes, percussive hits or rhythmic shifts in the space of a few bars. Sometimes this is dizzying…and if I were to say anything critical what I would say is that there were one or two places where I thought the rapid shift move was used one too many times, but let’s not quibble. There is no filler on the disc; every track is killer and obviously the band wanted each tune to be a statement in and of itself. The disc begins with a palm-muted, clean, almost chicken-picked guitar riff that segues into clean thrash and crash with Rush-style keyboard. Guitarist Guthrie Govan has a lot of love for all of the various classic tones he can wring from his axe, but then he’ll rip out something totally futuristic; the affected (with what I don’t know) quick picking legato on the solo to this track, Stupid 7, is pretty intense, yet just long enough to WOW! and then it’s back to the theme. Jack’s Back has a very odd-meter, bluesy vibe to it with some great solos from bassist Bryan Beller and some really tasty lines from Guthrie. Even though there are a lot of different styles to be found on the record, they meld them seamlessly into a singular sound that is very consistent and entertaining.

Texas Crazy Pants reminds me of a bit of 70s Fleetwood Mac multiplied by a factor of 500 with added crunch, UFO sounds and police sirens. The funny story that inspired this song (a lot of the band’s songs are inspired by weird life stuff) can be found online. It’s a great little rockin’ number though; one of the most balls-out on the disc. ZZ Top (yes that’s the name of the song) kind of reminds me of Rush’s Subdivisions, from the early 80s and I mean that in a good way. It’s a cool tune, but I don’t know why it’s named after the little ol’ band from Texas because it doesn’t put anything about that band in my head at all. But maybe it’s a head fake…

The next tune, Pig’s Day Off, is really pretty; a very clean, chordal, dynamic tune that descends into some twisted riffs and Zappa-style ensemble playing. This is one of the songs where the “jamming” is excessive I think…and that’s only because the mellow vibe of the tune is so great that the whole tune could’ve progressed in this manner without everyone going Bates Motel. But I stopped doing acid a long time ago so maybe I’m just too old to really appreciate it as much as I should. Smuggler’s Corridor is the anthem of the disc; a minor key surf rock that has everything but the kitchen sink, including Ennio Morricone-style vocalizing (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Guthrie’s soloing on this tune is nothing short of brilliant; tasteful where it needs to be and completely crazy and off the charts when he cuts loose. Bryan Beller also does a nice little bass solo as well. The rhythm vibe had my girlfriend and cat dancing around the kitchen, which is a sure sign of success.

Pressure Relief has more chicken-palm picking, fast legato runs and an envelope filter/wah tone that is really cool. It also features some nice guitar harmonics, double stops and chords. Guthrie doesn’t use a lot of over-the-top distortion (at least on this disc) and is able to do all of the amazing guitar things he does with a very clean sound, which I think gives the band a more sophisticated and multi-layered presentation. They sound like seasoned professionals playing high-wire instrumental music. The next tune, The Kentucky Meat Shower has a sound and a riff straight outta Nashville y’all… and Nashville is pretty close to Kentucky so I think that’s why it sounds like that. HA! Later in the tune it goes all METAL FACE! It’s pretty funny, which fits the topic of the tune as it is another crazy “real-life” story from long ago. (Guthrie relates the background of the story on YouTube). The final tune Through the Flower is a supremo 11-minute prog-rock ballad that features amazing playing from all three instrumentalists and is a kind of synthesis of everything that has already occurred on the album. It’s a nice wrap up and the tune has a nice riff, great chords and cool use of effects as well. I would rank this tune, Smuggler’s Corridor, Texas Crazy Pants, and Pressure Relief as my favorites but there is something for any prog/fusion guitar head on this album. It’s certainly a great effort from three really awesome musicians and I hope they get back into the studio real soon!

Eric Johnson — Live in Austin

Eric Johnson Live in Austin DVDThis quick post is just to give a shout out to this DVD of Eric Johnson live in Austin Texas on the well-known and award-winning Austin City Limits. Recorded in 1988, this performance, along with the breakout album, Ah Via Musicom two years later, put EJ on the map as a Texas guitar force to be reckoned with. While he certainly has all of the roots music abilities one associates with that part of the country, it is obvious that Eric has also integrated many other styles and possesses a completely stunning progressive technique. Not only that but he might be the most meticulous guitarist to ever “spank the plank” as Billy Gibbons would say. Johnson has said in interviews he can tell the difference between something as minute as the type of battery in one of his effects boxes. Now that’s focused! Here’s one of my favorite tracks, Desert Rose from the DVD. You can see and hear how he simultaneously sounds like Texas and something completely different.

Back in the day players were very quick to focus on Eric’s soloing style (which features really fast picking, oddball scalar choices, string skipping and seamless integration of various effects choices along with an absolutely beautiful touch). His chording/comping style is also really brilliant and he has that cool “textured” approach, which maybe began (in the modern era) with Jimi Hendrix + modern technology, which forever after would allow players to coax so many different sounds out of the instrument. EJ takes the whole idea even further and is able to combine touch and effects to accentuate various passages and/or parts of his songs to achieve a 6-string symphony of sorts. Put all of this together, along with the really great rhythm section of Kyle Brock on bass and Tommy Taylor on drums and you get a super-duper powerful presentation that is good not only in and of itself for viewing enjoyment, but also provides a mother lode of ideas to work into your own guitar explorations. Watch how Eric plays Jimi — very impressive. Always loved this song and a band I was in used to play it. Notice all of the amps EJ has behind him — incredible combination of sounds MAN! (His version of Are You Experienced from this DVD is also mindblowingly good!)

Through the magic of Youtube, clips of Eric’s instruction video can be yours with the price of a click. I would encourage you to buy the whole thing though to get the full picture of what he is doing just like I advise you buy the whole concert on DVD. I have it and it’s great to pull out and watch every once in awhile. What’s amazing is as soon as you try to work in a string skipping passage or focus on how and where your hands are playing a lick or a chord, you can completely change the sound and it may lead you onto other things that can either 1) get you out of a rut, 2) make a cover of a song you’re doing sound like something else entirely or 3) aid you in expanding your technique to include stuff you can pull out spontaneously at a jam or live. It’s all about more tools in the toolkit and EJ has a veritable warehouse full of tools for sure.

Since these early days of Eric’s career he has attained the stature of a bona-fide modern guitar hero. After winning a Grammy Award for Cliffs of Dover in 1990, he has released several successful albums, formed a permanent side project named Alien Love Child and performed on the G3 tours multiple times with fellow guitar stars Steve Vai, John Petrucci and Joe Satriani. Here’s an interesting interview with EJ from 2010 right before he released his album Up Close, which includes guitar or vocal performances by Jonny Lang, Jimmie Vaughan and Steve Miller. Obviously, 25+ years later, Eric Johnson has successfully achieved respect as a world-renown iconoclastic guitarist/multi-instrumentalist while never betraying the vision and values that are already in full bloom on this very heavy performance in Austin from his early days. Here’s a G3 tribute to the late Stevie Ray Vaughan done as only Eric can. He has moved the possibilities what a guitarist can do up a few notches during his career and that’s about as cool as it gets.