SANTANA Abraxas (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab)
I heard Abraxas on CD whilst at school, and really didn't get anywhere with it; it just seemed like indulgent soft rock/AOR to me. 16 years later, I'm now in a position to correct that foolish misjudgement.
Although Carlos and band manage to construct a hermetically-sealed, self-referential sound world around themselves, I can hear hints and suggestions of other artists that were totally outside my experience the first time I listened to Abraxas. If anything, it resembles a kind of Latin American twin to Traffic's John Barleycorn Must Die; both albums seem deeply rooted in the traditional music of their respective cultures, but they're never so slavishly reverential that they're afraid to drop everything for a bongo jam.
I think I can detect Floydian trace elements in the searing guitar and spacey washes of sound on Singing Winds, Crying Beasts, and Carlos sumptuous, eloquent guitar work on Black Magic Woman seems to be conceived as a tribute to that songs author, Peter Green. Tito Puente's Oye Como Va is delicious; think Steely Dan's Do It Again freed from its uptight West Coast hipster constraints. Carlos playing negotiates hairpin switchbacks between rage and elegance on Incident At Neshabur and gets gently weepy on Se A Cabo. Not to diminish the Herculean labours of the rest of the band, it really does seem as though his guitar work is the glue that holds this whole exotic scrapbook of fusion together. Perhaps the albums most straightforward rockers are its two Gregg Rolie compositions, Mothers Daughter and Hope You're Feeling Better, but even those are delicately decorated in ways you wouldn't find on, say, a Led Zeppelin album. And even when Abraxas unashamedly embraces easy listening on Samba Pa Ti, the results are magnificent.
Of course, the albums cause isn't exactly hindered by Mobile Fidelity's fabulous new vinyl issue, a carefully packaged, phenomenal sounding record that wrings the kind of sonic delight from early 70s tapes I've previously heard only on Analogue Productions exemplary pressing of Yes' Fragile.
SANTANA Lotus (Speakers Corner)
Awesome in the old school sense of the adjective, "Lotus" has to be experienced to be believed. A triple live album recorded in Japan in July 1973, it begins, after the MC's introduction (in Japanese, naturally) with a minute or so of meditative silence. To be honest, it's needed, because that's the only moment of respite the listener's granted for the next two predominately instrumental hours, near enough. "Lotus" is a barrage, an onslaught, of Latin-jazz-rock virtuosity, simultaneously invigorating and exhausting. It reminds me of the many live albums Miles Davis released in the first half of the 1970s, in which familiar themes percolate to the surface, only to be subsumed again beneath the broiling electric soup. "A-1 Funk", for example, sounds like a Latino mutation of "On The Corner"-era Miles, with Carlos' scorched and parched echoplexed guitar tone the analogue of Miles' scorched and parched trumpet tone. It seems almost futile to attempt to unpick this music, perhaps the wiser and ultimately more rewarding approach being to surrender utterly to its marvellous wash of sound. Nestled somewhere deep inside the assault and battery are a half-dozen "Abraxas"-era nuggets, so it's not as if Carlos has entirely turned his back on the music that made him famous.
The eponymous guitarist is on scorching form throughout; if his tone is invariant, closely approximating the kind of acrid, frazzled sound demonstrated by the likes of Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin, it's always compelling. Nevertheless, he does modulate and moderate his behaviour in places, for example becoming light and lyrical for at least some of "Yours Is The Light". On the other hand, "Castillos De Arena, Part 1 (Sand Castle)" closes with a molten vortex of noise, distortion and screaming electronics, like Miles slamming shut his Neil Young Fillmore East support slots on "It's About That Time" or Zappa bringing "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" to its shuddering, thrilling conclusion, whilst "Free Angela" spans "The Cellar Door Sessions 1970" and "In A Silent Way" in a few short, fraught minutes. "Castillos De Arena, Part 2 (Sand Castle)" begins with what sounds like a deft, cheeky quote from The Beatles "Within You Without You" and the tolling bell opening to "Mantra" plays like a warped tribute to the introduction to John Lennon's "Mother", before frantic drums and grumbling bass plunge the listener straight through the Cellar Door again and organ and percussion wax mystical as if riffing on "A Saucerful Of Secrets". "Koto" is the inevitable drum solo, yet it lets the listener in, or perhaps down, gently, orchestrated such that it's a while before it becomes apparent that everything capable of playing an actual note has dropped out, spanning a huge dynamic and timbral range. The eloquent gorgeousity of "Samba Pa Ti" proves that "Lotus" is more than merely two hours of shredding over souped-up salsa rhythms; Carlos' playing is at its most liquid here, teasing feedback and audience reaction into a ballet of sustain and silence. "Incident At Neshabur", whose 16 minutes takes up the entirety of the final side, is the album's masterstroke in macrocosm. Dense and frenetic at first, it breaks into a verse of "My Favorite Things" during Carlos' solo before halfway through morphing into an ocean of tranquillity (akin to the contras between the two halves of "Layla"); a lyrical wonder without words.
Is "Lotus" less like a record than a concert? Heck, it's more like a film than either. A cinema for the ears? Well, maybe. It's a delight when diced, chopped and sprinkled into an iTunes playlist, but taken as a whole it's something far beyond. It could be argued that, what with all the Miles Davis comparisons, you might as well listen to the trumpeter's work. I'd say, though, that this is complementary, rather than identical, music, and I'm glad I haven't entirely missed out on it
Speakers Corner's vinyl reissue of "Lotus" is a lovely thing to behold, with no possible pride of ownership aspect left unexplored. Custom labels (unusual for the time, I would have thought), two booklets (calling them booklets is a shabby disservice, in all honesty, since both fold out into double-sided T-shaped posters) which include such details as the band's tour itinerary, accurate down to flight numbers and boarding times, a triple gatefold sleeve, Speakers Corner's typically exemplary pressing and sound quality (dropouts on the source tape notwithstanding), it's a little tilted up at the top end sonically for my tastes, but maybe, just maybe, not for the tastes of its original target market, since (lazy generalisation alert) it's an oft-reported characteristic of Japanese vinyl. Only my second Santana purchase, following, inevitably, "Abraxas", I have no regrets about jumping in at the deepest of deep ends here.
CARLOS SANTANA / MAHAVISHNU JOHN McLAUGHLIN Love Devotion Surrender (Friday Music)
What with all the matching outfits and guru-hugging on the cover, let alone the lengthy Sri Chimnoy sleevenote that lurks within, listeners could be forgiven for giving this 1973 album a wide berth, perhaps fearing that Santana and McLaughlin had been inducted into some kind of cult preying on guitarists. In reality, though, there's little to fear here. "Love Devotion Surrender" can be easily enjoyed as simply an excellent jazz rock album.
The inclusion of two John Coltrane covers should provide some balm. There's a scorching take on the opening movement of "A Love Supreme", and "Naima" reworked as an opulent classical guitar duet. On "The Life Devine"proceedings suddenly get a bit serious; the album's mad staring eyed moment, it attempts to bludgeon or hypnotise the listener into submission through mantric chanting. It's not unenjoyable, but lacks the generosity of spirit coursing throughout the rest of the record. It feels like a lecture rather than a conversation. A 16-minute version of the traditional "Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord" immediately compensates, glorious and exultant, all intertwining guitar lines and frenetic but joyous rhythms. Finally there's the calming acoustic guitar and piano comedown of "Meditation".
Mostly lacking the exoticism found in a Santana album and the episodic grandstanding of The Mahavishnu Orchestra, "Love Devotion Surrender" deserves to be if not next to then at least within sight of "A Love Supreme" in the devotional music stakes. It's also one of Friday Music's best vinyl reissues yet, almost certainly due to Kevin Gray's involvement in the mastering; it's packaged with attention to detail and sounds sumptuous.
SANTANA Santana III (Music On Vinyl)
A journey deeper into territory previously mapped out on "Abraxas", some would regard "Santana III" as the commercial and musical peak of not only the band's Woodstock-era lineup but also the Santana brand itself. Latin rhythms and squealing, bluesy electric guitar hold the music in a constant state of tension, something that would only be resolved as Carlos' burgeoning friendship with John McLaughlin nudged the band's subsequent releases in a jazz fusion direction.
I first heard "Santana III" unexpectedly when a reel-to-reel tape that purported to contain Eric Clapton's eponymous debut gave forth a distinctly un-Slowhand-y Latin rock, eventually identified via its lyrics as this. Much of the album is as colourful and mysterious as the compression of "2001: A Space Odyssey" implied by the cover illustration. "No One To Depend On" makes for a somewhat lumbering and sinister single, and whoever sings on "Taboo" is the absolute spit of John Wetton vocally. The addition of the Tower Of Power horn section on "Everybody's Everything" suggests Blood, Sweat & Tears gone salsa, but, more encouragingly, "Jungle Strut" sounds like a precursor of Talking Heads exploration of polyrhythms on "Remain In Light". However, in retrospective comparison with albums yet to come, such as "Love Devotion Surrender" and "Lotus", "Santana III" seems a bit rockist and restricted, commercial even, lacking the kind of fluency that Carlos' later work would wear lightly.
This edition of "Santana III" carries four extra tracks of undisclosed provenance, research revealing that they're from the 2006 Legacy Edition CD reissue. (It's a shame Music On Vinyl stopped there, choosing to omit the interesting looking Fillmore West gig also featured on that reissue.) All could have featured on the album proper, demonstrating no diminution of quality compared with the main feature. "Gumbo" offers fierce, bluesy Latin fusion, and the loose and lengthy "Banbeye", with its chanting and congas, is almost Fela Kuti-esque. . I'm puzzled as to how the single version of "No One To Depend On" can be billed as "previously unissued on vinyl", though.
Music On Vinyl's "expanded vinyl edition" with its "180 gram audiophile" pressing looks and sounds good from a distance. They've wisely excised the bonus track to a short second disc, where they don't compromise the sound quality of the main album, and it's packaged in an almost luxuriantly glossy gatefold sleeve. On closer inspection, though, the artwork seems to lack definition, especially the text, suggesting a medium resolution scan. Similarly, though clean and clear, the sonics of these admittedly well-pressed discs have an antiseptic iciness that keeps the listener apart from, rather than surrounded by, the music, again perhaps suggesting a sub-optimal source. Fine on its own terms, perhaps, but this reissue is definitely lacking compared with the vinyl Santana wonderment reissued by labels such as Friday Music, Mobile Fidelity and Speakers Corner.