Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sonoran Odyssey (2020), by Paul Speer

(CD/digital pre-orders available at Available digitally April 10, 2020.)

Seven years after unleashing the fiery Ax Inferno, guitar master Paul Speer returns with Sonoran Odyssey, which is one of his best albums ever.

Inspired by Speer’s recent relocation to the southern Arizona desert, Sonoran Odyssey is aptly named, for not only is it a musical odyssey of the American Southwest, but it is something of a space odyssey as well.

The track titles are straightforward in terms of conveying the inspirations for and the mood of the pieces, for example, “Sunrise,” “Moonrise,” and “Monsoon.”

“Sunrise” provides a fitting start to the proceedings, a sonic dawn, as it were, to the epic, sweeping guitar/synth opus that follows.

The album includes four versions of “Moonrise” (the full mix, a demo featuring NASA’s audio recordings of Neptune, a guitar mix, and an ambient mix) and two versions of “Monsoon,” one with thunder and rain and one without.

All of the versions of “Moonrise” perfectly capture the beauty and mystique of the celestial Southwestern night sky, and both takes of “Monsoon” are great representations of the sound and fury of nature.

Bonus tunes include a guitar-driven remake of Speer and David Lanz’s worldwide 1985 new age hit, “Behind the Waterfall,” which proudly stands alongside the original in terms of quality, impact, and pure bliss; the enigmatic “Venus Rising” with Sherry Finzer on flute; and “Jupiter Via NASA,” which is layered around NASA’s audio recordings of Jupiter.

Throughout the album, Speer lays down palpable grooves on bass and ethereal textures on keyboards, over which he weaves clean tones and captivating lead lines on electric guitar.

Max Saidi’s driving drums help propel the rumbling rhythms of “Monsoon,” while Ron Krasinski provides a solid, unrelenting backbeat to “Behind the Waterfall.”

Similar in feel to earlier Speer releases including Hell’s Canyon, Oculus, and Wonders, Sonoran Odyssey is an intriguing excursion into cosmic fusion that is both satisfyingly cathartic and spiritually evocative.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Sunday, March 8, 2020

EJ Vol. II (2020), by Eric Johnson

What a difference ten years can make – in both time and age.

In 2010, then-55-year-old Eric Johnson released Up Close, his most frenetic and frenzied electric guitar record to date, so much so that he only sang lead vocals on a couple of tracks and served as accompanying or background vocalist on a few others, with most of the tunes sung by guest performers.

In the ensuing decade, Johnson released more albums than he ever had before – a live recording of a European tour, a duet album with jazz guitarist Mike Stern, an acoustic piano/acoustic guitar pop vocal set (to which this is the apparent sequel), and a return-to-form electric guitar pop rock album (although much more restrained than Up Close).

Now, in 2020, the 65-year-old Johnson returns with EJ Vol. II, which, like its eponymous predecessor, focuses on acoustic piano and acoustic guitar songs, but this time with tasteful touches of his trademark electric guitar flourishes. It is not so much a continuation of any one particular style as it is an expansion and progression of Johnson’s musical development.

The remarkable aspect of the new album is how far Johnson has come as an artist since Up Close. Up until then, Johnson was primarily a highly technically skilled guitar hero and virtuoso.

In recent years, however, Johnson has been focusing more on mastering the crafts of songwriting and singing, and he has been getting very good at both of those pursuits. In fact, the vocal songs – especially “Waterwheel,” “Divane,” “Hotel Ole,” “Different Folks,” and “Golden Way” – are more enjoyable than the instrumentals. That is not to say that the instrumentals are not good – they are.

In terms of singing, Johnson’s voice is something to behold, especially at this stage of his career. He sounds much younger than people who are half his age. You would not realize he is a senior citizen just by listening to him.

As good a singer/songwriter as he is, Johnson still works his magic on those six electric strings. However, his playing is much more refreshingly and enjoyably relaxed and refined now.

This is definitely one of Johnson’s finest albums, right up there with 1996’s Venus Isle, with which it shares a luminescent sonic palette and a spirit of transcendental meaningfulness.

To me, the title signifies not so much a follow-up to a particular album as it does the next phase of Johnson’s maturation as a singer and musician.

--Raj Manoharan

2020: The Year of the Guitar

Only three months in, 2020 is already shaping up to be a fantastic year for guitar albums.

Pat Metheny started things off auspiciously on February 21 with his first new release in six years, From This Place.

Then, on March 6, Eric Johnson debuted his latest album, EJ Vol. II.

Next, both Joe Satriani’s Shapeshifting and Paul Speer’s Sonoran Odyssey, his first album in seven years, come out April 10.

With all this great guitar music in just the first four months of 2020, one can only hope that the legendary Andy Summers has something in the pipeline this year as well.

It would also be nice to see more unreleased material from the late, great Allan Holdsworth, and maybe, finally, the eventual completion of his final, unfinished original studio album.

--Raj Manoharan