4 out of 5 Stars!
Finally, the day has arrived. For more than forty years—yes, that’s correct—forty long years, I’ve been yearning for the sound of the original Santana band, almost to no avail. I say “almost” only since the group Abraxas Pool (made up of members from the original/semi-original Santana group, without Carlos himself) appeared out of the blue back in 1997 to deliver an eponymous album, which (to me) was basically the “Santana album that never was.” On that release, Abraxas Pool offered up a collection of eleven tracks that happily whisked me back to the early 1970s, a time before Santana (the man, not the original band) found spiritual enlightenment and decided to steer the group’s sound into a jazzier, sometimes ethereal direction. Now, don’t get me wrong…I enjoyed much of Santana’s releases after most of the original/semi-original band members had vamoosed, but it just wasn’t quite the same after the Caravanserai album. Indeed, none of those subsequent releases from 1973’s Welcome through 2014’s Corazón had quite the same “magic” as the band’s first four albums possessed. Therefore, I yearned for that older sound, that missing magic.
But now in 2016, Santana (the original/semi-original band itself) has regrouped to release the album IV. Yes, that means Gregg Rolie is back on keyboards and vocals, Michael Shrieve is back on drums, Neal Schon is back on guitar, etc. etc. etc. And does the album live up to my expectations? For the most part, yes. The old “Santana sound” for which I yearned (last heard from the short-lived Abraxas Pool) has indeed returned, and fans of the “old Santana days” will likely enjoy this release as much as I do.
So what do we have here? The album contains sixteen tracks in total—some mellow, some rousing, some atmospheric, some rocking, with several instrumentals among them. Nevertheless, sixteen is a hefty number overall. And if truth be told, perhaps a few of these tracks are unnecessary, meaning the album might have been better served had some judicious “track cutting” been instituted. But I would always rather have a few extra songs than too few, so I can live with the handful of potential “fillers.”
Now, with that being said, the highlights are many…
“Shake It,” the album’s second track, is where the “old Santana days” truly come blasting out of the speakers in full force. Along with the band’s signature percussion and screaming guitars, Gregg Rolie’s Hammond organ and lead vocals hit you square in the face, delivering a song that could have easily appeared on either the album’s Abraxas or III. And the next song, the catchy and rhythmic “Anywhere You Want To Go,” could have also been a track easily inserted into one of those classic albums. Yes, during these two tracks, it’s like taking a journey back in time to the early 1970s, and fans of the old band are sure to fall in love.
Although two tracks early on (“Love Makes The World Go Round” and “Freedom In Your Mind”) feature more of the same instrumental sound and upbeat drive as the aforementioned songs, I also couldn’t help feeling disappointment that Gregg Rolie didn’t get a chance to sing lead on them. Instead, “guest singer” Ronald Isley (of The Isley Brothers) provides the vocals. Although he has a wonderful voice and does a commendable job overall, his appearance here takes away from the sound of the “old Santana days.” I mean, come on, guys, it’s been more than forty years for diehard fans to hear what they’ve been longing to experience again, so why deprive them of hearing Gregg Rolie’s voice atop the Hammond-rich, percussion-drenched instrumentation? I understand Isley is working with Carlos Santana on a side “jazz-fusion project,” but couldn’t Carlos stop himself from adding Isley to this “return to the old band” album? A slight quibble, but it did annoy me enough that I needed to mention it. Anyway, despite my gripe, both songs are decent enough and do indeed feature that old Santana sound, at least instrumentally.
The vocal track “Choo Choo” leads into “All Aboard,” which has to be one of the best instrumental tracks the band has ever released, with blazing guitar solos soaring over a galloping rhythm. The percussionists are extraordinary, showing Santana at its most powerful. Too bad the track is so darned short; it could have easily been double in length and have not lost any of its enjoyability.
“Suenos” is a delightfully mellow instrumental with a absorbing melody that in many ways reminds me of the song “Europa,” one of later-era Santana’s finest tracks. And on the other side of the spectrum, the instrumental “Echizo” is a rollicking number showcasing the Santana/Rolie guitar duo at its finest. The track is nearly as kick-ass as the instrumentals “Jungle Strut” and “Toussaint L’overture” from the magnificent III album.
“Caminando” is (to me) one of the most riveting and “different” tracks. Heavy with percussion and enhanced with a “phase-shifted” brass section providing some none-too-subtle stabs of power in the background, the song is given an almost eerie Latin atmosphere and features not only a rather odd vocal performance by Gregg Rolie, but also includes some wah-wah guitar solos that shred up a proverbial storm and make the song just too much fun for words. Yes, a definite highlight for me.
“Blues Magic” is definitely worth a mention, only since it’s a lighter and “bluesy” track (no shock there, especially given the title) with Gregg Rolie’s voice pushed up in the mix and his Hammond swirling majestically beneath him, and with some exceptional guitar fills inserted perfectly throughout.
“Leave Me Alone” is a vocal track that could probably be released as a single, especially with its hummable chorus and bouncy beat ala the classic tunes “No One To Depend On” or “Evil Ways.” And one of the final vocal tracks, “Come As You Are,” has another repeatable ultra-catchy chorus (sung in English, unlike the verses, which are in Spanish) that kept running around in my head long after the album ended. Yes—”Oh la, oh la la la la la, oh la, just come as you are”—over and over and over in my head. As I said, ultra-catchy…as hell!
So was it worth the forty-plus years’ wait? Yes, I think so. Although this isn’t a five-star masterpiece, not a “must have on a deserted island” record I couldn’t live without, it is indeed a commendable release and one I’m sure I’ll savor countless times in the future. There is plenty of variety here, with both moody or lighter tracks mixed with solid or frisky Latin-rockers, even some semi-jazzy and semi-progressive touches tossed in for good measure, and (thankfully) plenty of the original Santana sound with the outstanding percussion and instrumentation. Therefore, fans of the original Santana band rejoice…the band is seemingly back, and let us all hope they stick around for many albums to come.