Monday, January 22, 2007

Santana - 'Abraxas'

Rating - 7/B
Long before the guest stars, modern rock chart-ready singles and increasingly schtick-like lead playing of his recent albums, there was Santana - a group of young, hungry musicians with a revolutionary new fusion of Latin rhythms and rock music. Fresh off an incendiary gig at Woodstock and firmly propelled into the musical zeitgest, this band, with their 'Latin Hendrix' centrepiece, axeman Carlos Santana, ventured into the studios to create a sophomore album that would carry on the momentum, becoming one among a standard pantheon of classic rock albums.

For all that, what we have here is a somewhat mixed bag - a handful of wonderfully executed tunes, mostly covers, a few mediocre originals and a couple of throw-away instrumentals. Songwriting wasn't one of the young group's major talents, as can be seen on the two numbers penned by Greg Rollie - Mother's Daughter is disposable rock and Hope You're Feeling Better isn't much better, although furious guitar and keyboard lead breaks and the trademark percussion sound help elevate it. The group's cover of Fleetwood Mac's Black Magic Woman is a pretty song with good guitar playing, but it's the harder-driving groove of Gypsy Queen, which it seques into, that takes the cake, for me. Elsewhere, Carlos S crafts a lovely, tender instumental on Samba Pa Ti - what a melody on that one! - and the band execute a truly impressive performance on Incident At Neshabur, a multi-faceted instrumental with shades of jazz fusion. The opening instrumental, Singing Winds, Crying Beasts, doesn't have much of a melodic hook, but it's a haunting, atmospheric passage with a calm, warm presence. It's remniscent of the psychedelic instrumental bits on Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, but with the Santana feel. Oye Como Va is a groove monster, too familiar for me to assess easily, unfortunately. Se A Cabo and El Nicoya are percussion-dominated and rather short instrumental breaks. Of the two, Se A Cabo is better developed and can sit as a moment of assertion of original identity before the rather generic Mother's Daughter. However, El Nicoya feels like a rather weak way to close the album after everything is over.

The reissue that I consulted for this review adds three live tracks from the same era - concert versions of Se A Cabo and Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen and something called Toussaint L'Overture . There's some incendiary percussive work here, and since none of these performances are below par they make a nice way to extend the album experience, since albums back in the 60s and 70s used to not only define genres but do so in a rather minimal running time.

It's a little hard to appreciate the revolutionary nature of the album at the time, now that we're saturated with Latin pop but this was a revolutionary album at the time. While one can imagine a far wilder fusion of Latin rhythms and rock (like all that Brazilian tribal drumming on Sepultura's later albums), and some of the material here sounds minor or generic, the overall vibe carries the album as do the undeniable talents of the band's guitarrific leader and its cooking percussionists.

The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline - A pioneering album with its share of highs and lows. Beautiful atmosphere, great guitar and percussion, low on original songwriting. Traces of the fusion sound Santana would later pursue in more detail.


Venice Viking said...

I have this album on CD as its 30th Anniversary Expanded Edition, which includes three live tracks from the band's Royal Albert Hall concert performance on April 18th, 1970. Like many people, I had the hook in my mouth after the band's renewed success following such efforts with Rob Thomas and Everlast.

While I admire this album, I must admit that I rarely put it in. I don't believe that it is due to some inferior merit of the album---quite the opposite is the case---but I have come to understand that my taste in music doesn't match up completely with the strong tradition of the band's jam sessions; rather, I am a lyrics fan.

I also have a copy of this album on vinyl.

JP said...

That's the same edition I have.

Songwriting is definitely not the strong point of this album! At his best Santana was essentially a great music-oriented rock/jazz/Latin fusion experience with huge grooves and soulful guitar solos.

I think his best recent work (in the last decade) was his collabs with the late, great John Lee Hooker - check out the title tracks off JLH's albums The Healer and Chill Out.