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Main Category: Guitar Heroes
Also applicable: Arena Rock, Psychedelia, Jazz Rock, Art Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
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Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating =

Give 'em props for inventing Latin-rock, but save your applause for future records.


Track listing: 1) Waiting; 2) Evil Ways; 3) Shades Of Time; 4) Savor; 5) Jingo; 6) Persuasion; 7) Treat; 8) You Just Don't Care; 9) Soul Sacrifice; [BONUS TRACKS:] 10) Savor (live); 11) Soul Sacrifice (live); 12) Fried Neckbones (live).

My first acquaintance with Santana was quite banal - well, not nearly as banal as hearing 'Black Magic Woman' on FM radio, but almost up there; namely, by means of the Woodstock movie. Meaning I pretty much learned of the band and its gutsy goatee-sprouting leader the same way everybody else back in 1969 did, by sitting through their performance of 'Soul Sacrifice'. On this self-titled record, 'Soul Sacrifice' is but six minutes long and looks positively tame next to its live cousin; thankfully, the live version in question has been tackled onto the album for the special 30th anniversary edition (and if the record company got any sense, there it will stay forever).

'Soul Sacrifice'. What's there to be said of that masterpiece? Had Santana never yielded anything else worthy of notice, this little gem alone would have still deserved to be the band's 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida', not that Iron Butterfly could ever be worthy to lick the bootheels of any given Santana member. The funniest thing is, it's just an instrumental jam. People were doing these things all over the place in 1969 - in New York, San Francisco, LA, all over the place. It's basically just a jam, alternating between emphasis on individual members and collective playing; but at the same time it's something deeply spiritual indeed, nowhere near as pretentious as Santana's later experiments, but just as cathartic. They know how to build up tension - I admire this gradual increase in energy, with the bongos getting gradually louder and louder and Carlos' guitar "sighing" heavier and heavier, right until they launch into the unforgettable main riff.

So much to enjoy. Some of the most furious (and well-structured) guitar soloing ever captured on tape. Mike Shrieve's impeccable drum solo, one of the few in this world I can not simply tolerate, but actually enjoy - the man's playing all these ultra-complex drum rhythms as if he were tapping away at his computer or something. (You oughta see that in the movie as well - Mike's "reduplication" onscreen, as he's being shown from two mirror-reversed angles simultaneously, is so in tune with the actual playing! And another interesting observation: his Woodstock solo is exactly three minutes long, as in, precisely, from 3:46 to 6:46 into the song. Coincidence or a superhuman sense of time?). And then, of course, the magnificent "race-to-the-end": just as Rolie's organ solo starts lulling you off to sleep, they all come together for one final punch.

Imagine my disappointment, now, when I put the record on and it turned out there was not that much else to it. None of the songs even come close to 'Soul Sacrifice' in their intensity - bah, forget 'come close', all of them at best sound like pallid copies of 'Soul Sacrifice', even though the tune actually closes out the album, and at worst, are plain boring in these modern days when you don't really surprise anyone any more by the mere fact of crossing rock'n'roll guitar with samba rhythms. Word of the day is "restrained", which Santana are indeed, most of the time, from first to last member. Obviously, the emphasis was upon showcasing the spirit of brotherhood within the band, but gimme Sly & The Family Stone or Funkadelic if I really want to enjoy me some genuine "brotherhood". The original Santana band had two virtuosos: Carlos himself and Mike Shrieve. You don't need to go further than 'Soul Sacrifice' to see this. So why the heck are they underplaying all the time, stepping into the shadows and letting the perfectly average Greg Rolie take over?

Not that the band isn't willing to indulge in some lightweight pop entertainment, either. Classic rock radio addicts might not even be acquainted with 'Soul Sacrifice', but they'll be sure to recognize 'Evil Ways', the album's single that managed to get to #4 on the US charts, and helped prop up Santana's rise to power from the other side of Woodstock. The way I see it, though, it's not a very good song. The main melody is just a rather primitive little rootsy-tootsy stomper, the solo is played by the all-pervasive organist; it ain't until the very last minute that the song shifts gears, speeds up, and begins to catch fire, and then it just fades away? What a buncha crap. Okay, not a bunch of crap. Decent (yawn) song. I give it a B-. Now can I call myself Devadip?

To be fair to 'Evil Ways', none of the other vocal numbers are even remotely interesting - they're trying to fit somewhere in between R'n'B and pop, with only slight tinges of Latin style, and they always come up with something desperately searching for a point and finding none. Rolie is responsible for some of these, but he's not that much of a composer ('Persuasion' - what the hell is that? the funky groove is good, but I'm looking for a composition here); and even when the credits are shared by the 'Santana Band', it doesn't help much. To be fair to the instrumental numbers, there are extremely few vocal numbers here. I don't even think they actually worried about writing vocal melodies, given they had one they could use for a hit.

The instrumentals do have a certain appeal and ultimately save the album - even if 'Soul Sacrifice' more or less covers everything that the other instrumentals have and much more. For instance, 'Waiting' opens the album in very much the same way as 'Soul Sacrifice' closes it, by gradually strengthening the rhythm section, guiding the song through soft passages alternating with rip-roaring outbursts of guitar power and inserting a brief all-out percussion passage for you to bang your head to the groovy rhythms alone. Too bad the guitar doesn't practically come in at all until halfway through, while Shrieve is all but buried in the mix by the rest of the percussionists. And 'Savor' goes through two minutes of energetic funky drive just to crumble into another massive percussion solo later.

'Jingo' is quite wonderful, though, because of how they manage to make this emphasis on the bass drums and bass guitars so that the song becomes a harsh, dark, brutal trip through the jungle, quite reminiscent of the lion head on the album cover; and Carlos gives out appropriately scathing solos. Even so, quite often he plays nearly the very same licks that distinguish... 'Soul Sacrifice', yeah you got it, and the power buildup again lies in the same department. In the end, the only notable exception to the formula turns out to be 'Treat' - the song begins as a pretty piano shuffle and then finally turns into a true guitar-led jam, with the slower tempo allowing Carlos to stretch out and deviate a bit from the uniform style. On the other hand (see, there's just no stopping me when I'm in one of those nasty sacrilegious moods!), isn't it sort of an instrumental companion to 'Evil Ways' that way?

In the end, my final rating is a very weak 10, somehow propped up, however, by the bonus tracks. Like I said, I'll take the Woodstock version of 'Soul Sacrifice' over the original any day; and 'Savor' likewise gains in intensity when played live before an audience of half a million stoned motherfuckers. The third track is a previously unknown nearly-instrumental tune called 'Fried Neckbones' - it's not exactly written in Midgard, but somehow it sounds moodier and scarier than all of Santana put together. Funny, now that I'm well acquainted with Nuggets, I'd say 'Fried Neckbones' was based around the main melody line of the Strawberry Alarm Clock's 'Incense And Peppermints'! Coincidence? Probably! But considering both bands used to hang out in California, the probability is certainly lower than a hundred to one.



Year Of Release: 1970

For such a widely acclaimed record, this sucker sure has a lot of defects. But in the good old Russian tradition, let's start with the good news. On Abraxas, the band gets a little bit tighter and a little bit more rational. Essentially, it's just more of the same: jammy instrumentals mixed in with mediocre pop songs. But the songs are generally shorter - none go over six minutes, which means that if you hate a certain groove it will at least go away before it gets way too much on your nerves. And even more important, there's a wider stylistic variety: the usual Latin style is this time around complemented by some harder-rocking tunes, atmospheric sonic collages and moody blues numbers.

By 'moody blues numbers' I'm primarily referring to 'Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen', of course, one of Santana's most acclaimed numbers. Frankly speaking, I don't see what makes the song stand out so much more than its original - that is, Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac version. The main melody isn't at all changed, and Carlos only plays a short economic solo. Minimalistic and brilliant, of course, but not way better than Peter Green's original solo. In fact, I'd say that I far prefer the faster, more energetic 'Gypsy Queen' part, with its driving percussion and some particularly subtle, slick passages from the old boy. (Well, he wasn't that old then).

Atmospheric buildups are also a thing that didn't particularly characterize the debut album. 'Singing Winds, Crying Beasts', a perfect way to open the album, does just the thing: it lives up to the title, with slithery tinkling bells probably representing the 'singing winds' and Santana's wailing, sometimes wildly screaming, guitar is indeed similar to a 'crying beast'. Unfortunately, the number puts too much emphasis on the keyboards section, which isn't all that rote, but is still pretty weak when compared to the band's flashy axeman.

I also feel that Gregg Rolie had somewhat improved as a songwriter - for instance, 'Hope You're Feelin' Better' strikes me as being far more interesting and dynamic than 'Evil Ways': the band finds an excellent groove, with Rolie's organ and Carlos' guitar fighting off each other to amazing effect. And the inflaming solo is ten tons more expressive than the one on 'Black Woman', fluent, expressive and oh so emotional. I love it love it love it. To tell the truth, though, Rolie's other number, 'Mother's Daughter', sucks as usual...

Elsewhere, the band falls back on the standard formula, turning in one decent fusion tune ('Incident At Neshabur') and concentrating on their Latin beats otherwise, which is why so many tunes get Spanish names - 'Oye Como Va', 'Samba Para Ti', 'Se A Cabo', 'El Nicoya'. To be honest with you, I consider all of these tunes decent time-consuming filler, nice grooves to serve as background music and little else. Of course, I'm no expert on Latin music at all, but most of them sound pretty generic to me, and none have any staying emotional power; the shorter ones, like 'El Nicoya', are simply conventional throwaways, and the rest are only lifted off by Carlos' playing, because the organ just never gets me thrilled. And even then, Santana is not at his best, seeming quite shy and timid. To me, it almost seems as if he were intentionally hiding a large part of his talent so as not to make Gregg seem like an absolute talentless bastard in comparison. Of course, another suggestion is that Santana wasn't yet fully developed as a guitarist - but I'm not buying that, seeing as his lead work on 'Soul Sacrifice' is among his best efforts ever. Unless, of course, it was just a brief visit of the music-patronizing angel...

Nevertheless, the album is really a good listen, even if a large chunk of it is hopelessly dated now. Like the first album, it made a great job of introducing the urban American audiences, as well as the 'elitist European public' to the pleasures of Latin music in a highly accessible and tasteful way; of course, now that cross-linking rock, pop and Latin music is no longer a novelty factor at all (Ricky Martin, anyone? YYYYYUCK!), it doesn't sound all that appealing any longer. Still, as in the case with every innovative record, it is at least interesting, and has a certain freshness to the sound that hasn't managed to be completely effaced after all these years.



Year Of Release: 1971

Score! This is actually where Carlos as we know and love him finally arrives. Maybe something clicked, and instead of being based on Rolie's organ leads, the album finally lets Mr Guitar God take the ninety-nine percent of the cake. Melody-wise, this is not a big improvement over Abraxas, maybe even a retread - very few vocal tunes, just jams, jams and jams. But hey, this might not be a bad thing if we consider that Santana were never a terrific songwriting outfit. On the other hand, most of these jams are amazing. The band, smoothed and tightened by all the years of success and pressure, strolls along like an enormous unstoppable Panzer, and it almost seems as if nothing can go wrong: these guys will keep punching out their infectious rhythms and lightning-speed solos even on their deathbed. And once they establish a firm groove, Carlos takes the lead and sprinkles us with solos the likes of which the American public hadn't yet seen.

Perhaps if taken on an emotional level, these solos never reach towards the heights the band would achieve on their next album - the pinnacle of Santana's "spirituality". Instead, they just rock. In the meaning "rock the house down". Santana displays the best of his technical achievements here, everything from speed and cunning vibratos to his mastership over the wah-wah pedal and other special effects. One need only take a single listen to the notorious 'Toussaint L'Ouverture' to fall under the charm of this record: no better hymn to the famous Haiti-liberating hero could be thought of than this piece of flaming rage and anger miraculously transformed into a sonic experience. Even more amazing, Rolie actually rises to the challenge - as if he were peacefully sleeping all this time and just awoken out of his slumber by Carlos. So his organ solos on this record are equally engaging - fast, full of energy and power, fluent as hell, and... whatever. God had apparently found the band somewhere in between 1970 and 1971. Anyway, I was speaking of 'Toussaint': that solo passage at the end of the record is the most brilliant piece of music that the band had recorded up to that point, and it's one of those rare pieces of music that carry you away to rock nirvana when you turn up the volume.

I actually find it hard to discuss the record - it's not all that diverse, just one archi-energetic five-minute explosion after each other, dragging you with it to the depths of headbanging ecstasy; it's records like these that define the old "rock = drug" cliche. Virtually every lead by Carlos on the album is a minor gem in its own rights, starting from the extended jams like 'Toussaint' or 'Jungle Strut' and ending with short, economic outbursts on such few vocal tunes as 'Everybody's Everything' and 'Everything's Coming Our Way'. Actually, the best tune after 'Toussaint' on here is the spooky 'No One To Depend On', with a steady, yet slightly relaxed mid-tempo groove alternating with gritty leads and faster parts and always sticking right to the point - not a second of time is wasted, it's all either "building up..." or "break out!"

I mean, if there is any significant flaw on the record - and there sure are a few - it's that it still has traces of Latin genericness. I could easily do without 'Guajira', for instance, which doesn't exactly deserve all of its running time, or that peachy rumba thing that bookmarks the record. They're not bad at all, and they're just as danceable and have just as much headbanging power as the first two records, but I already know all that. I've had it before. This is why I welcome the following album even more than this one: Caravanserai would be a completely unique experience.

Still, Santana III is as classy as 'early Santana' ever gets, and to top it all, we get three bonus tracks on the CD re-issue, all from the band's live performances at the Fillmore. Two of these ('Jungle Strut' and 'Batuka') are reprised from the album itself, and a third one ('Gumbo') is not as hot on Santana's lead playing, but is one of the best examples of the Monster Band having a terrific groove together and leaves you desperately gasping for breath. Classic!



Year Of Release: 1972

This strikes me as tons more interesting than any of Santana's two earlier records (not to mention later ones) and even more engaging than Santana III - I'd go as far, indeed, as to call this Santana's masterpiece, and the most wonderful and convincing emotional tour-de-force you'll ever get out of this band. Granted, its commercial life was rather short, and it marked the beginning of the band's drastic decline in sales, although they didn't really begin to flop until a couple years later. But this has to do not with a drop in quality, but rather with a radical change of direction. Basically, at this point Carlos had enough of being a Latin hit supplier for the dance-ready public and decided to get more experimental, artsy and complex. And it was a brilliant move: Carlos' talents as guitar player fully allowed him to sound 'artsy' without getting way too overblown, while the backing band was at least skillful enough to, well, serve as good backing band.

This is actually the second point for which I like the record: it not only brings Carlos into the spotlight, continuing the trend of III, but also makes an obvious emphasis on his guitar playing instead of Rolie's pointless organ noodling or instead of the band's jamming power in general. On Caravanserai, you are going to find some of the most wonderfully crafted, amazingly well-performed lead guitar work ever put on any album, and when I first heard Santana stretch out on these instrumentals I couldn't help but wonder what the hell he was doing all this time. Not that the backing band is completely defunct, of course - there are some organ solos here, and it's not that the record is just a showcase for Carlos; but they are able to find a perfect balance between the axeman and the sidemen, where the latter never overshadow the former, and the former allows the latter to be clearly audible and add some more 'feeling' to the whole experience.

The album is in some way a concept one, like a hippiesque journey through your subconscious and the 'cosmic mind', and all that crap, and it comes off far better than, well, some Yes albums I could mention. The songs all flow into each other with no breaks, which doesn't exactly make for an easy listen, but I already warned you - it's one artsy album. Nevertheless, the first five or six numbers are all masterpieces. What a better way to kick off a record than with 'Eternal Caravan Of Reincarnation', for instance? With its chirping of crickets, vague echoey organ notes, and background atmospheric noises, it sets a perfect scene for the ensuing performances - a feeling of night, dense, but not terrifying, darkness, and stately majesty of the Cosmic Powers (heh). And then...

...then in comes the guitar, and the real fun starts. 'Waves Within' is a breathtaking number, with a beautiful organ background and Carlos literally soaring up unto the edge of the sky; at times he plays such amazing, lightning-speed, emotional flurrys of notes that... heck, just listen to the guitarwork at the beginning of the third minute. It sounds like he's taking an enormous leap into the sky, halts there for a moment to contemplate the heavenly beauty, and then leaps down again. Literally so. Then 'Look Up (To See What's Coming Down)' takes us into more realistic territory with a strong funky workout (magnificent wah-wah rhythm work throughout), the short 'vocal interlude' 'Just In Time To See The Sun' serves as a moody breather in between the epics, and 'Song Of The Wind' is pure ecstasy. A six-minute-long musical paradise with Carlos as its only angel - for my money, this could be the best instrumental he ever recorded, at least, the best instrumental that features him and not the entire band (which leaves out 'Soul Sacrifice' as the best band instrumental). That guitar tone is impossible to describe; I'm pretty sure Clapton spent ages learning something from the dude, as he's the only European guitar guy I know to have achieved similar levels of spirituality. Finally, 'All The Love Of The Universe' sounds pretty hippiesque, too, and somewhat dated on release, but is again completely redeemed by stunning lead work.

Unfortunately, the second side is a slight letdown - all of a sudden, Carlos seems to have remembered that he is a popular hero, after all, and includes some generic stuff like 'La Fuente Del Ritmo' that is probably a blessing for fans of his older style but is definitely not so for me. Likewise, I don't see what's so spectacular about the band's version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's 'Stone Flower'; it takes me ages to guess the melody, and the vocals are so low-key and inaudible that they actually spoil the picture - maybe the tune would be better off as an instrumental. Yet once again, there is good lead work throughout, and the big spiritual breakthrough occurs with the lengthy suite 'Every Step Of The Way' that closes the album - a moody, complex workout that goes through lots of stages and different atmospheres (starts off real dark, but ends in an uplifting, cathartic passage with some strings cleverly woven into Santana's leads).

Yeah, Caravanserai couldn't have hoped to compete with the 'progressive mainstream' of the era - the overall hippiesque concept was far too lightweight, the musicianship too 'unprogressive', and the songs were too short, but in retrospect it easily beats some of the better progressive albums of its era. This is a piece of undeniable beauty, and a relatively accessible and understandable beauty as well; I have no problem trying to identify with this stuff.



Year Of Release: 1972

As far from whatever the studio Santana was doing at the time as possible. My only other acquaintance with Buddy Miles was through the Hendrix Band Of Gypsies record where he behaved as a complete asshole, and although he's a bit more restrained on this album, it's no good either. Why the hell did Carlos think he needed such a live 'partner' is way beyond me, because when Miles starts to sing I usually have to push the forward button: his usual 'cooing' and scat have now been changed for an abysmal 'primal scream', but he sure ain't no Lennon; put in similar conditions, Mr Miles sounds like he's on the brink of vomiting all the time, and he manages to infect me in the process.

That said, the first few tracks on the album are generally tolerable. Carlos is in good form, and when he gets to shine with some off-kilter lead work, it's first-rate. But it ain't the usual "spiritual" cathartic stuff we'd already be expecting at this point, rather just normal hard rock playing - at times, you get the impression that you're actually listening to a second edition of the Band of Gypsies, with Santana replacing Hendrix at his post. Still, Santana's style is notably different, and he manages to transform 'Marbles' and 'Lava', the short half-improvised "medley" that opens the album, into truly driving monsters. And the band's take on 'Evil Ways' (the only old Santana standard on the album) is impressive: without the Latin touch of Santana's usual backing band, they sound far more accessible to the standard rock'n'-roll-drenched ear, with tighter rhythmics and more easily deductible melodics. The addition of a huge brass section, however, is expendable - they don't at all fit in with the more 'individualistic' approach of standard Santana, and tracks like 'Faith Interlude' seem tremendously overblown, almost to a state of grotesque; putting those on a Santana album grossly mar his reputation. Worse, a major centerpiece on the first side is Miles' 'Them Changes', carried over from the Band of Gypsies' repertoire. Didn't like the 'song' back then and I certainly don't like it any more on here, because a mess, is a mess, is a mess.

The worst blow, however, comes on the second side which is entirely dedicated to the twenty-five minute funk jam, not too appropriately titled 'Free Form Funkafide Filth'. Putting such things on live records is not just silly, it renders the whole experience excruciating. Sure you can pick out some favourite moments now and then, bits and snatches of lead playing or maybe a saxophone phraze that pleases you now and then. But there isn't any uniting theme, there are too many moments of chaotic, atonal noise, and when Buddy begins his crooning at around the seventeenth minute or so it's like he delivers the fatal blow, once and for all. No breathing space allowed.

Thus, I really doubt if you need this album apart from completism; and if it were within my power, I'd condemn Buddy Miles for at least ten thousand years of burning in hell. Stick to drumming, Buddy. The album barely earns its one and a half stars because Carlos is Carlos, after all, and I was pleasantly surprised by this version of 'Evil Ways', too (although I'd also cut it in half); most of the rest of the stars are eaten up by the silly brass section and Buddy. Cool album cover, though - what a romantic portrait of Carlos on that one. But I'd better stick it on the front sleeve of Caravanserai, where it would have fit to a tee. And what about those silly exclamation marks? Did they think that the world couldn't help but go aaaaah! over such a notorious couple?




Year Of Release: 1973

A great idea that unfortunately was not carried out ideally. It is indeed hard to imagine a more blistering pair than Carlos and the inimitable "Mahavishnu" McLaughlin, one of the most renowned jazz/jazz-rock guitarists of all time. And a lot of the stuff on their common project is awesome beyond words. But I feel that the resulting product does not entirely do justice to the talents of both. With a little more elaboration, a little more diversity, and a little less pretention, it could have been one of the greatest guitar albums of all time; as such, it is just a "technically immaculate" record.

It is still quite good, though. The backing band on here is mixed, with organ player Khalid Yasin being the only prominent member apart from the two string-bending dudes, and he's excellent at his job, contributing worthy instrumental passages that are far less trivial and generally more polished technically than those of Gregg Rolie. All the other time, it's just Santana and McLaughlin fighting off each other. The songs on here are credited either to Coltrane or McLaughlin, but it really doesn't matter because there are no "melodies" as such - just endless jamming on three lengthy marathons ('A Love Supreme', 'The Life Divine', 'Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord') which all sound basically the same. The sound that the guitarists achieve is indeed stellar: miriads of blistering arpeggios laid on each other at lightning speed, finger-flashing battles with the guitars soaring into the sky, falling down from an enormous height, swimming undewater, emerging and rising out again - 'The Life Divine' sounds like something absolutely impossible first time around.

I can't even tell who exactly is playing - both guitars play more or less in the same style, and since both Carlos and John were tremendously well-practiced, it's up to the real expert to tell. But that's not a problem, and who cares anyway? The problem is, apart from those flashy duels, they hardly do anything else that would be interesting. With ten and fifteen-minute jams, you'd expect at least a careful approach to their structuring, with grappling build-ups and diverse approaches to playing. But there are no build-ups at all: the guitarists just crash into whatever groove they find appropriate from the very beginning, and instead of steady climactic "rises" you get sloppy anti-climactic "falls" - after stunning you for two minutes or so with lightning-speed passages, they proceed to bore you for a couple more minutes with clearly inferior pieces. And when they skip the boring parts and proceed to a 'never-ending cathartic groove' on 'Let Us Go...', it's actually worse: one can only experience a musical orgasm for so long, and when two guitar professionals challenge us with their inhumane skills and heavenly guitar workouts for ten years on end, the initial feeling of amazement and awe finally melts down to boredom. I mean, it's terrific to witness a juggler juggle his balls for two or three minutes without stopping, but when he goes on juggling until the tenth or fifteenth minute and you already understand very well that it is within his possibilities not to stop juggling until he drops dead, the novelty factor wears away and the rotten eggs make their appearance. Same here.

Some brief relief is being provided with short acoustic 'interludes' ('Naima', 'Meditation') which are pretty, but little else, and don't really amount to much; McLaughlin fans probably won't find anything new in them, and Santana fans will probably twirl their nose at such an untypical style. It almost seems as if the duo were intentionally concentrating on just one type of sound, completely shrouded in their 'cosmical conscience' - this coincides with the peak of Santana's spiritual period, and as for Mahavishnu, well, he'd always been a freaky kind of guy. So this album is not just a mindless jam session; no, it is obviously intended as some sort of ardent spiritual declaration for both (although the only lyrics on the album are the chantings of 'a love supreme' and 'the life divine', so some might not understand that). This means that some might actually tune their own soul up to the project and even find some deep religious meaning within. Me, I just think there is a lot of beauty in these tunes, but an overabundance of beauty isn't necessarily a good thing.



Year Of Release: 1973

A hard-to-tell record. Obviously nowhere near as close to the masterpiece that was Caravanserai, it is still far from a pure return to the unabashed Latino-thumping days of old. I'd say that at this point Santana's well-promoted spirituality had finally gotten the best of him. I mean, on Caravanserai his spirituality prompted Carlos to take up his guitar and play beautiful solos, and it also prompted him and the band to pen some excellent atmospheric numbers. But Welcome seems to be just a vastly puffed-up record that seems to tell the listener: 'sit back and relax and wonder at how very spiritual we all are, be like us'. But it forgets to back that claim with well-written melodies or atmosphere that would be as equally compelling as on the last record. There are no advances at all, and in some respects, there is regress.

For instance, neither the opening nor the closing cut don't do anything for me even if they are supposed to. The grand Mellotron lines that open 'Going Home' and seem to be lifted directly from Genesis' 'Watcher Of The Skies' (coincidence, of course, but an unpleasant one) are way too pretentious for their own sake, and when the guitar finally arrives it does nothing but croak out a limited, monotonous set of pseudo-moody phrasing. Same goes for the title track - over a six-minute running length it does little but give the impression that it's going to be cut off any time soon, but instead it just goes on and on, slow, droning, repetitive, poorly performed, a generic "heavenly bore". One might remark that Caravanserai also had a similar percentage of 'proto-ambient' tracks; but they were done much better, and they could also be treated as tasty 'introductions' and 'conclusions' to the real meat of that album.

But there are problems with the "real meat" on Welcome. First of all, what the hell happened to the instrumentation? Sure, the band does sound like the Santana of old - but only on the surface. Neither Rolie nor the other band members do not offer us any interesting solos, and Carlos himself lets rip only a couple of times ('Yours Is The Light' is the sole major guitar highlight on the entire album). Well, come to think of it, Rolie couldn't offer us anything interesting - he'd already left the band, replaced by Tom Coster, and much as I sneered at the guy in the earliest days, I sure miss him on this album. On the other hand, the generic Latin jams are back: 'Samba De Sausalito' and a couple other tracks are the same acceptable, but completely conventional dance-it-up stuff that we had in spades on Abraxas. You like it, you get it; but I was kinda hoping that Carlos had already superated that stage. I was sure wrong.

The funk element is also back again - 'When I Look Into Your Eyes' is the perfect epitome of routine background funk, even if the flute is nice, Leon Thomas' singing is competent and the final section, dominated by a strange "hoarse" synthesizer tone, will certainly raise a couple of eyebrows. And Santana is at least trying to bring in some relative diversity, relying on African rhythms ('Mother Africa'). But the vocal tunes on here are fluffy ('Love Devotion And Surrender', reminding us of the ill-fated Mahavishnu collaboration, is pure cheese, and the other songs with lyrics are forgettable as well), and the lengthy marathon 'Flame-Sky' is only vaguely attractive in a couple of places.

Overall, Welcome strikes me as a mostly unsuccessful attempt to marry Santana's unpretentious dancey past with the more spiritual approach of Caravanserai. Maybe he was a little frightened by the start of his commercial decline - after all, the material of Caravanserai was hardly radio-friendly - and so wanted a healthy compromise that would allow him to be true to his soul and his gurus as well as rake in some badly needed cash, too. But unfortunately, the public didn't buy into the hybrid - the record nearly flopped, and it's easy to see why: one part of the public wanted their "Latin headbanging" back without any compromises, and the other part, dazzled by Carlos' astonishing work on the previous album, was mightily disappointed (like me) at his understated presence here. Still, it ain't necessarily a bad record - I don't see how it could be worse than Abraxas, in all honesty - and Santana fans can hardly go wrong with it. It's just miles away from his cathartic peak.


LOTUS ****

Year Of Release: 1974

A great record, but geez... maaan... is it overkill. To tell you the truth, as of the time of writing, I have only tolerated one and a half listens, and yeah yeah, I know it's not fair, but I'm still giving the record a high rating, so I have an excuse. Sorry. My ears are bleeding, and I don't wanna bleed all over the keyboard.

Getting serious: this is a triple live album recorded in Japan (and maybe somewhere else) in 1973. Since then, it's been for a long time available exclusively as a Japanese import and long considered a special "fan prize", until recently it was finally released as a double CD, which currently makes up for about two hours worth of live Santana in their prime. ALL of the performances are top notch, ALL of them. Perhaps the only glaring omission is 'Soul Sacrifice', the absence of which I lament very much, plus, I'd eagerly enjoy some of the quieter, relaxative numbers off Caravanserai, but these were probably not deemed fit for an energetic band performance. On the other hand, even the more 'generic' Latin numbers off the band's earlier records (like 'Oye Como Va' and suchlike) really come to life, with added packs of energy and extended wailing guitar solos by Carlos. In general, Lotus seems to feature Carlos more prominently than the rest of the band - the rest of the members are in fine form, but seem to agree to merely serve as background for Carlos. A few keyboard solos and a few vocal sections (not too many) are the only thing to distract us from Carlos' guitar. Oh yeah, Mike Shrieve gets an obligatory percussion solo on the lengthy 'Kyoto', but it's really tedious compared to his blistering workout on 'Soul Sacrifice'.

But see, that's the problem. No, really, Carlos is excellent, he is God and rules supreme. What can be said? The climactic arpeggios of 'Toussaint L'Ouverture' are passing through my head right now, and this is some of the best soloing ever captured on record. Amazing, breathtaking, emotional, spiritual... and it rocks. But see, here's the big problem. All the songs on here sound the same: even the earlier ones, where Carlos' guitar was somewhat subdued on the studio originals, are given the finger-flashing arpeggiated treatment (remember my complaint about the timid soloing in 'Black Magic Woman?' No more timidity in the version found here!). And no matter how godly and unbelievable this soloing technique may be, after twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty minutes of it (and there's still the second CD to go through) it just gets tedious. I mean, what the hell, if you were forced to read "Hamlet" ten times per day, you'd get sick of it pretty quickly, wouldn't you? Lotus simply overfeeds me with classy Santana - I need a break, and all I get is a headache.

The best advice here is: this is a record that no Santana fan should be without (heck, maybe if you only want one Santana album, you could grab this one), but never make the mistake of listening to it in one sitting. Cut it in four equal parts and place distinct intervals in between them. Put on the first part, enjoy it, then go play some baseball or put on some Wallflowers or whatever crap you like to listen to, like the Beatles and stuff. Then put on the second part. Repeat procedure four times, and then the effect will be complete.

In fact, I start to feel its effectiveness now. When I first sat through the version of 'Incident At Neshabur' on the second CD, I felt like falling asleep, but the darned sound just didn't let me. Now I'm listening to it again, just as a 'selected track', and it rules mercilessly. In fact, it entirely and completely obliterates the feeble studio version off Abraxas, with a pounding metallic rhythm section and solos that seem like sonic equivalents of destructive laser beams penetrating beneath concrete walls and blowing them all to hell. Man, how does he do it? Has he got completely desensitized fingers or what? And plus, it's all utterly beautiful - a rare case when finger-flashing techniques actually coincide with deep emotional resonance. Ah, Frank Zappa only wishes he could be like that...

A four star rating here, because if it were in my power, I'd easily edit Lotus down to one CD, throwing out the stupid drum solo and a couple of exceedingly redundant "spiritual wankfests", just so that it would go down more smoothly. Such a carefully edited version would get an easy five stars.




Year Of Release: 1974

Well, this is another album recorded by Devadip Carlos Santana in his endless quest for spiritual rebirth, this time apired with yet another servant of the light, John Coltrane's widow Alice. That said, it doesn't sound a bit like Love, Devotion And Surrender; there, John McLaughlin was the rightful partner in his own rights, here Mrs Coltrane just adds a few harp and keyboard parts and doesn't sound particularly prominent. Then again, neither does Carlos himself - he refrains from finger-flashing arpeggiated battles almost completely, and chooses a softer and less dynamic tone for the album. The accent is placed on the equality of all the instruments: Illuminations are supposed to be floating around the listener without disturbing him. If anybody sounds a bit louder and more prominent than the other, it's probably the sax player Jules Broussard.

And that's a big problem with the album - despite the stately title, pompous album cover and the 'grand pair of stars' dominating it, it's not actually providing us with anything particularly 'illuminating'. I mean, if you've never heard any free-form jazz or proto-ambient noodling in your life before, it sure will be awesome. But you probably have, and as such, the album should really only work for those who can't get enough of... of...

See, here's what they can't get enough of. The first side opens on a positively suspicious note, with a few chants of 'Ommmm' and a brief aphorism from Santana's spiritual guru. One minute eaten up. Next, we have the lengthy 'Angel Of Air/Angel Of Water' suite, and 'Bliss, The Eternal Now'. Never could tell one from another. In any case, these numbers are the saving grace of the record, because they are very, very pretty. It's pure undiluted atmosphere, but a very well constructed one, far richer in textures and instrumentation than your average ambient record and very appropriate to fit in with the surrealistic, religious album cover. You certainly won't remember a note once the side has elapsed, but it makes up for wonderful relaxation music while it's on: moody, gentle, peaceful, with bits of tender guitar solos, celestial keyboard passages and slow silky sax serenades. Oh, and don't forget the orchestration - rich orchestrated arrangements that you'll rarely meet on a proper Santana album. Maybe not such a perfect bet for the greatest meditation soundtrack as Brian Eno's Thursday Afternoon, but certainly far more musically exciting than the latter. And, of course, if one wanted to, one could write a BOOK on these two compositions, telling about the different shades of emotions and mental activity reflected in each of the song's passages, but if I wanted to write a book on a rock record, it would probably be on Blonde On Blonde first. I love Carlos, but he's not that high on my list.

Besides, the second side on here pretty much sucks. (All you lovers of avantgarde jazz - come on out and meet me in the open!). Most of it is occupied by the never ending 'Angel Of Sunlight', a free-form improvisation apparently dedicated to John Coltrane, but nowhere near as interesting as the best of the grand master's own compositions. Not that I'm a big fan or connoisseur of Coltrane, but these fourteen minutes are just a mockery anyway. I have nothing against Broussard and Santana launching a 'power battle', but why make it sound like they're both on autopilot? They seem to just be off their heads, playing random, unrelated, monotonous speedy passages that amount to utter chaos and - dare I say it? - boredom. And furthermore, we have already witnessed Santana's technique many times. At least on Love, Devotion and Surrender these solos had a cathartic edge to them. Here, they don't have anything. And where the hell is Alice Coltrane? Looks like she only has the chance to appear on the last track, the title one, dominated by minimalistic keyboards, harp and orchestra with next to no guitar. Amazingly, it's a nice piece, more in the classical vein than anything else on here, and it offers a good solution to the record.

And I think I'll finally go to sleep now. Oh wait, there's more...



Year Of Release: 1974

Welcome Vol. 2. I tell you, it's really hard to get thrilled about all those mid-Seventies Santana releases if you've already had the possibility to enjoy the earlier groundbreaking pieces like Santana III and Caravanserai. Neither Carlos nor the rest of the band members don't offer us anything particularly new here, but there are no serious offenders either. You just get what you expected: a ramshackle collection of slightly Latin-tinged dance numbers, all seriously peppered with Carlos' smashing leads and the band's generic backing vocals. And stuff like that.

On the other hand, even the leads are starting to irritate me. Far too often, it sounds like Carlos is on cruise control, churning out exactly the same convoluted, twisted musical phrasing that was present on every second number on Lotus already. I mean, if earlier I thought of his unhuman arpeggios as heavenly rain, here, with all the obligatory eleven-minute workouts like 'Promise Of A Fisherman', I'm slowly starting to assimilate them to the sound of a really really powerful vacuum cleaner - wheez-wheez-wheez-wheez-wheez-wheez-WHEEZ... How many times may a genius repeat himself?

Inevitably, I turn to shorter tunes in search of some kind of consolation. Thank God, it works; some of the short poppier songs here are rather nice and unique in their own way, better than most of the vocalized numbers of Sixties' Santana. I don't know who's singing on all of them (certainly not Carlos himself), but whoever it is, it's nice. The best one of these is 'One With The Sun', a very moody and thought-provoking piece based on a marvelous melancholy lick from Carlos. 'Give And Take' introduces a rougher, heavier edge, reminding me a bit of the instrumental 'Incident At Neshabur', and transforms an otherwise completely peaceful and 'spiritual' album into something a wee bit more aggressive - for a while. And both 'Life Is Anew' and 'Mirage' are also proof-made ready minor Santana classics in the 'spiritual direction'. Which reminds me: did I forget to tell you that Borboletta is actually a good album? Stale and stagnated, for sure, but still an excellent demonstration of the band's spirituality.

It might even be a little better than Welcome, because the vocal numbers are more convincing and the shorter instrumentals more diverse. Actually, you can also think of Borboletta as a worthier sequel to the 'mystical trip' of Caravanserai than the weaker, tired Welcome. It's just that where Caravanserai was a grandiose masterwork of sheer epic height and majesty, Borboletta is a far more homely and less menacing journey. May I use a metaphor? Thanks. Earlier, you used to climb on the back of a camel and travel with the band towards the 'aspiring sunset', to witness pictures of heavenly beauty - huge oceans and impassable snow-covered peaks. Here, you seem to be mounting a giant butterfly and slowly and steadily driving through a sunny and lazy jungle with NO poisonous snakes at all. The wind does howl somewhat lamely and unconvincingly in the background ('Spring Manifestations'), but doesn't seem to be doing anything much. Meanwhile, the flowers are nonchalantly humming their song ('Canto De Los Flores'), and life is good enough to distract yourself with something - you know, nothing like a good draw of healthy meditation along the way. Ahem. Pardon.

Anyway, I do realize that the subject presented above could have easily been applied to just about any proto-ambient or atmospheric light-jazz record ever made, with the sole exception that those records would not have been made by Santana. And it would take too deep an analysis and too much time to rip this music open even further and say why it is actually deserving more praise than all that stuff - I just don't have the forces nor the wish to go into deep explanations of the production techniques of Borboletta and the playing credentials of the contemporary Santana band members. Suffice it to say: if you're ready to follow Devadip into his unlimited, endless spiritual journeys, this record is definitely for you. I, for one, think that he peaked with that on Caravanserai and would never really top that; but hey, if you're not worried about originality, I can't see why this couldn't score a ready five stars. Easily!


AMIGOS ***1/2

Year Of Release: 1976

A sellout, in some ways (the first of so many, heh heh). This is a radical and near-complete departure from all of Santana's 1972-74 creative period, and supposedly Amigos was initially shaped as an intentionally commercial album in order to recapture the base audience of Carlos (Latin rhythm lovers) and regain some sales. The move was well-calculated - after the relative flop of Borboletta, the album reached gold status and made it to the Top Ten. To do that, however, Carlos had to relinquish all of those slow, 'consciously spiritual' guitar meditations of the past and concentrate on more standard dance numbers, sentimental ballads and... well, you know, the regular stuff. I don't know if the change of direction was undertaken by Carlos personally or it had anything to do with severe changes in the band line-up (at this point, the 'Santana' band didn't feature anybody from the original Woodstock lineup bar Carlos himself and bass player David Brown).

Anyway, upon first listen I was really disappointed - I thought it was just a half-assed 'return to basics', to the original style of Santana and Abraxas that, frankly speaking, never impressed me that much, simply because I'm not wooed over by generic Latin rhythms. However, upon closer inspection it becomes obvious that Amigos is slightly better in a few respects. After all, Santana already had seven years of experience behind his shoulders, and the album is far more varied and less raw than you could imagine. Apart from that, it does feature lots of awesome leadwork from Carlos - this time, it's generally more restrained and prefers to just draw you into the groove rather than bomb you into oblivion with energetic showers of finger-flashing currents of notes, but it's pretty good anyway. I mean, heck, while listening to Santana you weren't really sure whether the band was actually guitar-based; here, Carlos is always at the forefront, and that is fine by me.

For some reason, though, Carlos goes mostly uncredited for the compositions themselves - the majority of songs are penned by the band members, most notably David Brown and keyboards player Tom Coster. This 'retirement from songwriting' isn't a particularly bad thing (Carlos was mostly good at writing 'spiritual' compositions, and since there are none anyway, I guess it's not particularly important who is writing the other tunes), but it makes me wonder about the man's actual involvement in the creative process. Then again, it was the same thing with Clapton, so why do I care.

The opening track is very typical for the entire album - if you dig 'Dance Sister Dance (Baila Mi Hermana)', you'll probably dig most of the other stuff on here. Totally adequate as nothing more than an energetic dance number, it's still a relative improvement on the things of the past: Carlos' playing is both inspired and invigorating, the main melody is relatively catchy and I like the idea of extending the song's length because at some moment it just evolves into a particularly serious sounding jam that goes beyond your average 'shake-your-hips' ideology. The synth background might be a bit cheesy, but produces a nice impression anyway. I love that goddamn number.

It would, however, be a waste of time to try and aptly describe the rest of the songs, as everything sounds alike. The only vital difference is that some of the songs ('Tell Me Are You Tired', 'Let It Shine') are funkier than others, but then again, if you don't pay too much attention, you might not even distinguish funk from salsa, as Santana always tend to merge the two genres. So you just go around noticing all kinds of minor delights, like the hilarious 'mumbling' synthesizer riff that accompanies the chorus to 'Let It Shine', or the tense aggression of 'Let Me Be', something like that. It's all fine. The only severely offensive moment for me is the introduction to the otherwise accessible instrumental atmospheric ballad 'Europe (Earth's Cry Heaven's Smile)'. That corny, generic guitar pattern sounds as if it were coming from a soap opera or a weather forecast. Yyyyuck! No wonder the album hit the Top Ten.

If anything, Amigos just shows Santana enter the 'rock statesman' category - a well-rounded, well-balanced, but not terribly impressive or innovative album like that is just meant to say: 'I've said everything I wanted to say, and from now on I will stick to formula which you either take or leave'. I take it, but with reservations. Does that work for you, Carlos?



Year Of Release: 1977

Apparently, it doesn't. Festival is even more of a 'sell-out' than its predecessor, and a very very low point for mid-Seventies Santana. At least, that's my angle of view. Essentially, Carlos has come full circle: eight years after the band's debut, he releases an album that has more or less the same stylistics. Nothing complex or intriguing here, just a bunch of Latin-rock jams that are good to dance to. Probably in a desperate attempt to regain his former sales level, Carlos doesn't even make the tunes lengthy, as on Amigos; they are all well-restricted in time and never venture too far away from the main theme - 'Dance Sister Dance' you will find not on this album. And all for what? For the record to make it to #27, the lowest chart success so far. How ironic...

I mean, I really don't like that style. What an ugiler way to start a record like that than with 'Carnaval'? 'Vamos al carnaval, es hora de bailar mi amor'? They didn't even have this kind of tripe on the debut album - for all of Santana's faults, the guys took on a serious, no-bullshit approach from the very beginning, and now this? The only place that this music is fit for is, well, a carnival indeed. You wiggle your ass to this music if you wish; I sure have better things to do. Thank God, it's the only moment of such a stupid embarrassment on the album...

...because the other moments are just pipsqueak, pardon my spontaneous expressivity. Where's the Santana energy of old? I do love 'Jugando', a tremendous instrumental two-minute riff-rocker which even goes so far as to incorporate one of those mind-blowing Santana arpeggios that no other person in this world is able to reproduce. But nothing else comes even close; the rockers are absolutely pro forma, extolling the band's Latin nature more than the actual melodies and featuring one dorky lyrics set after another. And the non-rockers? A particularly low point is the boring, formulaic "atmospheric" ballad 'The River', arguably the first of Santana's attempts at sounding adult contemporary. It's not repulsive, per se, but it would probably sound better in the hands of Phil Collins or the like. We don't even get a decent guitar solo for Chrissake! Just lots of synth noodling from Tom Coster.

And, of course, for every more or less 'serious' attempt at making some real music you get yourself a silly throwaway or two. The funky, steamy 'Try A Little Harder Now' is rather nice - apart from the annoyingly repetitive chorus, but what do you know? it's funky, man - but why didn't they end the album right there and inserted the childish, banal 'Maria Caracales' after it? Nah, I just don't get that band as long as they stick to the pure Latin formula. Call it a bias if you wish; I call it a preference of the Adventurous to the Cliched. And there's nothing particularly adventurous on the album apart from 'Jugando' and a couple more instrumentals - for instance, the acoustic intro to 'Verao Vermelho' and the soothing jazzy piano of 'Revelations', interspersed with an unpredictable martial rhythm. Such things work well, because they manage to make you remember for a while that there was a time when Santana didn't restrict themselves to routine Latin workouts but pursued their own unique and idiosyncratic route.

Oh, wait, I forgot to mention 'Reach Up'. I kinda like that song, even if according to my theory I really shouldn't. It's not exactly innovative or anything, just more robotic funk, but it's really tough, you know. Tough bass, tough vocal harmonies, tough synth, tough guitars. Good thing - apart from 'Jugando', there would be nothing tough on here anyway. Carlos plays some excellent wah-wah leads on here.

Oh! Oh! Sorry, here comes 'The River' again. Say, what's that with stupid pompous album covers? Did Carlos actually think that putting these weird flowers up on the sleeve would deceive his former 'spiritual' fans into accepting this bland mishmash? I can hardly believe that...



Year Of Release: 1977

Actually more interesting than any other Seventies' album Carlos ever put out since Lotus; tucked in between some of his less compelling pieces, it may easily become lost in the sea of filler, but I'd advise you try to grab it by the goatee and pull it up anyway. This is a double album, half-live, half-studio; the difference from the usual pattern is that the studio and the live stuff are interspersed with each other, which gives the album a rather confused feel but, on the other hand, works better in the 'assimilating' aspect. I suppose, for instance, that dragging out all the studio stuff would only qualify this studio part as a small notch above Festival, but when it's scattered around and meshed in with the live performances of 'classics', it gets a wee bit more intriguing, if not necessarily more melodic or anything.

The live half of this hardly holds a candle to the energy and vigour of Lotus, but at least it doesn't wear you out like Lotus does. I'd say that the only serious misfire here are the live renditions of three Festival numbers in a row - since the record had just come out, these tracks are performed strictly by-the-book and aren't all that different from the studio versions. Of course, they do the blistering 'Jugando' on there, but they also do the murky 'Carnaval', so let's just shut up on that matter. Instead, let's concentrate on 'Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen' (great version with great singing) and a reworking of 'Soul Sacrifice', done in a slightly more hard-rockin' and chaotic manner than before, so it's inferior to the Woodstock version, but it still kicks, and Graham Lear does a great job in taking over Mike Shrieve's drum solo duties, even if, alas, he's no Mike Shrieve. Poor Mike Shrieve, where are you?

Throw in a faithful rendition of the 'dance-prog tune' 'Dance Sister Dance' and a stunning 'Toussaint L'Ouverture', and the live performance is as worthy as possible. Oh well, we can't always get that spark of genius that happened to visit the band during the Lotus performances, but shouldn't a good word be put in for pure, unhindered professionalism? Good lads. The studio stuff, then, is not tremendously interesting - but at least it's not such an obvious exercise at selling out as on the previous two albums. The tracks are relatively diverse, and there's not even a single generic Latin dance number, although there are a few generic Latin 'emotional' instrumental ballads like 'Flor D'Luna'. Can you spell 'Latin elevator music'? This one's close, mid-tempo elevator music as opposed to the slow-tempo elevator music of the intro to 'Europa' (off Amigos, also unfortunately present in a live version on here).

On the other hand, you get a thoroughly unexpected, excellent cover of the Zombies' 'She's Not There', done tightly, with verve and even featuring Carlos having a little bit of Hendrix-ey guitar fun near the end, unappropriate as it might seem in a Zombies' cover. But hey! It's my cover and I'm covering it any way it's gonna be covered! Plus, 'Zulu' is rather gritty and even spooky in places, and 'I'll Be Waiting' is a decent fusion exercise that mostly gets me yawning but I'm just not a fusion kind of guy, you know? I can respect this stuff but it hardly moves me. I'd better stick to mad guitar passages in 'El Morocco'... oh shit, it also seems to be a fusion piece. Santana almost sounds like Jeff Beck on there. Or was it Jeff Beck who... nah, wait, all those Beck albums came first, actually. Ah well. I dig fusion as long as it kicks some serious ass, i.e. displays some stunning guitar solos, and this one sure does. Is it just me or does Carlos really let loose on some tracks on here, toying with a bit more distortion and fuzz than he used to before? He sure gets some dirty tones on here - he always used to play clean. But maybe it's just my superstition, and anyway, he's not Mr Tony Iommi to really play all those 'dirty' notes. He's Mr Clean-Cut Carlos Santana.

My biggest question about the album, though, concerns the lyrics of 'Transcendence': 'Hello I'm back again/To share with you/My heart and soul/Are you surprised? I said I would/So here I am'. Yeah, sounds like a love song, but isn't this some kind of a message? "You thought I sold out, well I did, but now I sold in". The song is very good, by the way, deceivingly starting out as yet another adult contemporary piece of pap, but then cleaning itself up with a beautiful solo and speeding up later... with a second beautiful solo. Hmph. Oh yeah. Moonflower is tremendously inconsistent, but it's rather good than bad, and although I'd never agree with Wilson & Alroy that this might be the only Santana you'll ever need (simply because if you're gonna buy one Santana album, it should necessarily be an album featuring the classic Santana, not the 'New Santana Band'), it's still a worthy and serious effort. Definitely worth buying as a super-expensive Japanese gold edition import with 25-th anniversary special rare bonus track attached for extra price. Classic. Sure beats out late period Beach Boys, if I might make a particularly painful and completely unnecessary reference.



Year Of Release: 1978

Underrated. Mind you, I don't blame critics for underrating this stuff - it can easily be seen as a disappointing, formulaic, stale, passive record, but when I first put it on, I happened to look at it from a different angle, and something clicked. See, this album certainly marks a turning point: by 1978 the band was obviously so tired of re-writing the same record over and over again, that on here Carlos tries just about any formula as long as it's different from the "tried and true" one. Which actually results in a very diverse experience: here, you'll be finding ballads, funk, heavy metal, disco, even Traffic covers for Chrissake! And in the end it all depends on whether you think Santana doing disco is a bad or a good idea.

I, for one, find it a good idea. After all, Santana used to do good funk, and what is disco but a simplified form of funk? Not to mention that it also depends on how far you simplify your disco. The idea of the Beach Boys re-arranging 'Here Comes The Night' doesn't particularly appeal to me in that respect; but the idea of a seven-minute long tune called 'One Chain (Don't Make No Prison)', performed by the Santana band, appeals to me very much. I don't know why, but I love that goddamn tune. The basslines really cook, the drumming is mechanical but alive - you know what I mean if you've ever listened to a Can record, and the keyboards and guitars weave into one another like on no other disco track I ever heard. Considering that keyboard hero Tom Coster was no longer a member of the band, it's nothing short of amazing. Don't forget the catchy vocal melody... and then, don't forget the mid-section where the band shifts the rhythm and Santana goes into that awesome wah-wah riffage. It's not the best disco "song" I've ever heard (that honour should probably fall to something by the Stones or ABBA), but it's definitely the best "lengthy disco experience" I've heard. I mean, I'll hardly be wantin' to hear that much Donna Summer after this stuff.

But that's not the only 'fresh' element on here. The Traffic cover ('Dealer') is a novelty, for sure, but it's done well, as well as the cover of 'Well All Right'. It is rather strange, though, that 'Dealer' is done almost by-the-book, and likewise, 'Well All Right' follows the Blind Faith version to a tee. What's with the Stevie Winwood worship, I wonder? Ah well, I actually got to appreciate 'Dealer' more than on Mr Fantasy. Good songs, good covers. I'm not sure if Greg Walker's voice really appeals to me on here, but I'm not sure of the contrary, either.

The metallic number 'Open Invitation' shows that Santana could do classy arena-rock if they wanted to, the kind of arena-rock that's not necessarily treasurable but certainly is respectable, and Carlos' blazing solo at the end suddenly shows him aping... aping... hmm... I could sacrifice all my credibility here, but I really find him aping the styles of Thin Lizzy guitarists on here - very similar 'bubbling' arpeggios, very similar frantic drive, not too typical of his earlier work. But it's a very credible imitation anyhow. They return to a metallic kind of sound on the closing 'Wham', too, in certain bits of it - to me, 'Wham' sounds more energized and vitalized than just about any instrumental recorded in the previous three or four years.

Slower, mellower material includes such charming ballads as 'Stormy' and 'Facts Of Love', the former really sappy and sentimental, the latter more bluesy and more melancholic. Throughout, Carlos' guitar is somewhat more subdued than usual, but funny enough, I can't bring myself to complain about the lack of solos on the record; perhaps it's just because this is the first record in a long time that's really song-oriented rather than composition-oriented, and so you don't just spend your time waiting for Carlos to come up and deliver the goods, but actually take your time to enjoy the melodies. And mind you, when Carlos does come up to deliver the goods, these are the goods I could die for. Witness the solo in 'Facts Of Love', for instance, the guitar passage from 3:20 to 3:54 into the song - I have rarely seen the man say so much with so few notes.

Like I said, I can understand that the album is underrated. Objectively speaking, Carlos does seem to be 'coasting' here - the band delves into territory that wasn't yet explored, and leave behind a lot of their past idiosyncrasy in order to be 'cool' and merge with the new generation. This prompts the obligatory accusations of 'dinosaurism' and brings up the whole 'old farts' discussion. And yes, of course, none of these numbers boast the strength of classic Santana material - but what of it? Here I sit in my chair, and I can easily visualise how a truly bad "new look Santana" record could have sounded. Inner Secrets doesn't sound anything like that imaginary bad record. Good riffs, good solos, interesting vocal melodies, enough emotions. And to top it all, the first album cover that isn't at all pretentious - just a picture of the band over a grey background, 's all. Cool tools. Wanna know my opinion? I'm glad they finally took a break from the obligatory salsa and fusion stuff. You can't have salsa every day of the week, now can you?



Year Of Release: 1979

Ugh. Now this is a goddamn sellout. The kind of record that could let Carlos' reputation down very, very seriously among the 'intellectuals', except for some reason they usually prefer to vent their frustration on Eric Clapton and the like. Too bad Santana didn't crop up with an Unplugged performance in the early Nineties, or Eric would have gotten some decent competition for the "washed-up geezer" tag. But really, Marathon is an album that's significantly worse than anything Eric Clapton did before Phil Collins got hold of him, so there.

Stylistically, this here record follows the formula of its predecessor, but it works about in the same proportion as Emotional Rescue to Some Girls: a dull, lame, generic shadow of an inspired predecessor. Same arena-rock and soft balladeering coasting as before, only without the good melodies, without inspiration, without solid riffs, and with an "awfully forgettable" new lead vocalist, Alexander Ligertwood his name is, if I'm not mistaken, a banal 'soulful' dude that's well aware of two vocal regimes - "normal" and "bellowing", with no further gradations whatsoever.

Carlos is in good form, of course, but when was the last time you saw the man in bad form? It's just that by 1979, he's pretty much exhausted his arsenal of new tones, techniques, and effects, and all I hear is endless repetitive self-cliches - granted, self-repeating isn't that much of a crime for a talented guitarist, but when there's nothing but your guitar playing talent to save a pathetically mediocre (and in some places, downright hideous) record, you just gotta give us more than that. And the only song which I can say to have really enjoyed from top to bottom is the five minute instrumental 'Aqua Marine', a usual fusion workout with some nice minimalistic licks and - guess what - a synthesizer solo that doesn't sound annoying. Wonder who had the good idea to get that soothing chime-like tone instead of the usual poisonous dribble.

Unfortunately, the very next tune is the ultra-pedestrian 'You Know That I Love You', just the kind of savage bullshit that pretends to be an uplifting life-asserting ode to joy when it's in fact just a weeny pseudo-martial rhythm propped up with a rudimentary vocal melody devoid of true hooks (the best song I ever heard written in that genre was 'Don't Stop', and even that one was by far the corniest tune on Rumours). And what do you do with arena garbage like 'Love', with its brilliant, unforgettable chorus ('Love, oh love, all we need is love' - hey guys, how come nobody told you that the one and only song permitted to feature a similar chorus had already been written?'). What's up with the stiff leaden boogie of 'All I Ever Wanted'? Sounds like Grand Funk Railroad to me, if you ask my humble opinion. Who can discern any kind of half-memorable melody in the routine funk of 'Stay'? Funk? What's that I say? It's pure disco, straight out of the Saturday Night Fever environment, except that it'd never pass the grade to get into the movie.

So basically, apart from 'Aqua Marine', the only halfway decent tunes on here are 'Lightning In The Sky', which at least has a nice contrast between the generic verse melody and the threatening ascending vocals of the middle eight, and I guess that 'Stand Up' has some redeeming qualities and some rousing potential too, even if it's a total disgrace to make such a mediocre funk number and scandalize Sly's good name with it. Oh, wait a minute, I haven't mentioned the fact that on 'Summer Lady', the New Santana Band makes a concise attempt to write something Stevie Wonder-esque but blows it so good 'n' hard I don't even have the heart to do my daily Songs In The Key Of Life listening today.

No, I'll never give a record where Santana himself is in good form anything less than two stars, because occasionally the guitar solos do elevate these ridiculous "songs" to a pretty high level, but nobody will ever need this album. And perhaps a good reason is that the backing band - and the New Santana Band is just that, Carlos with a backing band - is so limp and lifeless on here. No good songwriting plus lifeless playing plus a shitty vocalist, makes up for you know what. Marathon indeed. Right up to the toilet and back.



Year Of Release: 1979

Released by "Devadip Carlos Santana", no less, meaning this is a solo album. What's the difference between solo Santana and the Santana band? Why, if you don't know, I'll tell you: the first one is 'illuminatory', the second one is 'commercial'. At this point, at least. Seriously now, it's hard to believe this record came out in the same year with the flaccid Marathon - it's so drastically superior in quality I could... and no, well, actually, it is pretty obvious they were made by the same person. But Marathon just sounds like a ragged bone Carlos threw to the hit-single-demanding public (or, at least, he thought he was doing that), and Oneness is without a doubt something truly heartfelt. Granted, it doesn't even try to ascend to the same devastating heights as Caravanserai, but as far as pleasant 'mildly spiritual' music goes, it's a good album, and deserves to be placed alongside all those other 'nice' Santana records.

It's essentially an instrumental fusion/soft ballad album, with but a few vocal numbers with duties handled by keyboardist Tom Coster and guitarist Saunders King, and, what's particularly interesting, a very low pretension level. Okay, so if the album begins with a track called 'Chosen Hour' which consists of three bell chimes and somebody chanting 'Om' (one time), you couldn't expect it to be good, right? Wrong. It is good. Only starting from track four, though, 'Jim Jeannie', a fast three-minute fusion jam which is easily worth at least three quarters of the Marathon album put together. Speedy breathtaking basslines. Fantastiwastic speedy guitar. Even the corny synth isn't half bad... a bit similar to Jan Hammer's sonic explorations on Jeff Beck's Wired, but maybe even quirkier than that. If ever a genre as elitist as fusion could reflect the simple joys of life, it's on 'Jim Jeannie'.

Needless to say, with all this spirituality Carlos comes to life and delivers at least a couple of those guitar solos - you know, the ones that made him a star way back in the early Seventies. Remember that time? I mean, he soloed well and all on the last albums, but the fire almost seemed to go out... on 'Oneness' you have some of that fire, where you feel it's more important for the man to play a minimalistic "conversating" solo rather than just showcase how many notes he can hit per second... okay, he goes off for speedy passages, too, but the important thing is to notice all the little (and big) climaxes when the slow guitar parts alternate with the faster, more aggressive ones, and back, and I'm repeating myself but it's Santana, and he still plays his guitar, the scum. After all those years. The solos on 'Song For Devadip' are outstanding too, but in a more casual manner.

The vocal numbers, however, don't move me one bit. 'Silver Dreams Golden Smiles', sung by Saunders King in an annoying Frank Sinatra tone, sounds just like that... what's a Sinatra style orchestrated ballad doing on a Santana album? Granted, they both start with an 's' and end with an 'a', but Sinatra's a friggin' Italian for God's sake! Don't you go confusing your Latin nationalities! And 'Life Is Just A Passing Parade' is a pretty lifeless, pro forma funk workout that sounds like it really belongs on Marathon. Guess it'd have been better to make this record purely instrumental, but some things are not to be. It's simply weird how the backing band is the same on the vocal and the instrumental numbers, and the latter turn out so much better - as if the band scoops up inspiration and energy from Carlos' lead playing, but drops 'em both down the toilet as soon as Carlos tones down his instrument and lets some 'vocally gifted' dude take his place. Check out 'Cry Of The Wilderness' in comparison to 'Life Is...' and you'll see what I mean. Plus, it's pretty hard not to get pissed off at boring preachy lyrics in 'Free As The Morning Sun'. 'Don't complain, go out and do it yourself, later on, you'll be better off?' I never knew Santana was Carnegie's long-lost brother.

But if we don't complain, well, there's plenty of good guitar stuff on here. Not enough to achieve salvation, but if you're already saved, just the kind of stuff to do your little jig along to in paradise. Oh, and the tunes are mostly pretty short, too - nothing like the endless jamming of Love Devotion Surrender on here, so it's pretty accessible stuff. Really. I ain't cheatin' ya.


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