Surfing with the Alien
belongs to its era like Are You Experienced?
belongs to its own -- perhaps it doesn't transcend its time the way the Jimi Hendrix Experience
's 1967 debut does, but Joe Satriani
's 1987 breakthrough can be seen as the gold standard for guitar playing of the mid- to late '80s, an album that captures everything that was good about the glory days of shred. Certainly, Satriani
was unique among his peers in that his playing was so fluid that his technical skills never seemed like showboating -- something that was somewhat true of his 1986 debut, Not of This Earth
, but on Surfing with the Alien
he married this dexterity to a true sense of melodic songcraft, a gift that helped him be that rare thing: a guitar virtuoso who ordinary listeners enjoyed. Nowhere is this more true than on "Always with Me, Always with You," a genuine ballad -- not beefed up with muscular power chords but rather sighing gently with its melody -- but this knack was also evident on the ZZ Top
homage "Satch Boogie" and the title track itself, both of which turned into rock radio hits. This melodic facility, plus his fondness for a good old-fashioned three-chord rock, separated Satriani
from his shredding peers in 1987, many of whom were quite literally his students. But he was no throwback: he equaled his former students Steve Vai
and Kirk Hammett
in sweep picking and fretboard acrobatics and he had a sparkling, spacy quality to some of his songs -- particularly the closing stretch of the Middle Eastern-flavored "Lords of Karma," the twinkling "Midnight," and "Echo" -- that was thoroughly modern for 1987. The production of Surfing with the Alien
is also thoroughly of its year -- stiff drumbeats, sparkling productions -- so much so that it can seem a bit like a relic from another era, but it's fine that it doesn't transcend its time: it captures the best of its era and is still impressive in that regard.