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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Santana, "Abraxas"

Columbia (1970)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die + 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

A wonder of rock 'n' roll is that the genre can be justified with any other form of music, and the results can be okay. Sure, hybrids like rap-rock often sound like crap, but it's nearly always the result of crappy lyrics, not the backing instrumentals. Jazz idealists will argue that guitar isn't the driving force behind jazz-rock fusion, but in most cases, they'd be wrong. Carlos Santana proves that his guitar can make a perfect complement when paired with Latin rhythms during "Abraxas," his self-titled band's renowned second album.

Santana isn't a Latin rock band based strictly on Carlos's Mexican heritage. As we've already found out by looking at acts like Ray Barretto, Batacumbele and Machito, the beats provided by Latin American percussion sections are, to use a term based on instantaneous reaction, crazy. The percussive trio of Michael Shrieve (drums), José Areas (conga and timbales) and Mike Carabello (also conga) should get most of the credit for Santana's identity as a band. Tracks like opener "Singing Winds, Crying Beasts" keep the head bobbing. One of the album's several instrumentals, songs like "Winds" don't need vocals to stay interesting. Others, like "Se Acabo" demonstrate the drummers in a more virtuosic mode.

Carlos's guitar playing isn't actually Latin at all, although his style has been adopted as the official sound of "Latin electric guitar" in the current era. I mean to say, we're not talking about the classical Spanish guitar here. He's just as influenced by the blues as the other legendary guitarists of his day. Carlos deserves credit for an entirely different reason. So often in rock from the '70s, guitarists embraced the notion of the "lead," tearing off on solos and otherwise dominating a band's sound. Carlos is almost the opposite. He prefers melodic playing and will engage in solos (as "Black Magic Woman" proves), but for the most part, he blends into the background, complementing the Latin rhythms or the keyboard parts of Gregg Rolie. His playing is prominent thanks to his skill, but it's never dominant.

Carlos's bluesy style helped bring in fans, whether those fans would admit it or not. The rhythm section was innovative, but guitarists bring in the sales. The combination of rock and "world" music gave the band a creative edge that could also sell. Rolie, the original lead singer of Journey, was the primary provider of the doses of America, including single "Hope You're Feeling Better," a song devoid of Latin influence. Rolie also plays the Hammond organ on several tracks, making the group sound something like a Latin American Allman Brothers.

Maybe you didn't enjoy any of the Latin American percussion albums that I listed earlier. It's okay. But if you need a more mainstream foothold to get you started, there isn't a better place than with Santana.

INTERESTING FACT: Okay, so Gnosticism is a confusing religion. Abraxas is the name of the main deity, because by using the Greek system of Isopsephy, or assigning numerical values to letters, Abraxas equals 365, the number of days in a year. I may be misunderstanding the concept, but this might also mean that "Sabra Ax" is also potentially a head deity of Gnosticism, and I think that god sounds way cooler.

Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen (Album Version) by Santana on Grooveshark

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