CD Stock Number: Sony B0000062FJ and B0000062FL
With Santana atop the charts again in recent memory, it seems now would be a good time to review their glorious past. I would argue that their first album is actually still their best. For one thing, it is a very cleanly recorded album with clear, open acoustics. I suspect that the recording company did not want to spend too much on the debut album of a new group so they got very simple production values. As is usually the case, the less is more approach resulted in the kind of sound prized by audiophiles.
Of course, none of this would matter if the music were no good, but what a tremendous album this debut is. It is almost entirely instrumental. There is the famed rhythm section consisting of drums, congas and timbales. The timbales especially set this group apart by injecting a rat a tat tat exclamation point at musical climaxes. Before synthesizers, rock relied on the electric organ and here we have a great example of what this instrument could achieve. The organ positively churns and wails.
Finally, of course, there is Carlos Santana's inimitable guitar. His long loping solos bear the unmistakable signature of his genius. Back then Santana's style was far more muscular and funky than the more relaxed, ethereal way he plays now. The turning point seems to have been his collaboration with John McGlaughlin and the introduction of jazz influences. Party Boy Santana evolved into Spiritual Santana.
In an album jam packed with great tracks, the primus inter pares has got to be the first. "Waiting" starts with crisp congas, which are joined by the bass and drums. The organ comes in and plays a long wailing solo. Carlos restricts himself to playing rhythm before finally exploding into a trademark blistering solo and leading the band to a frenzied climax. He's not one of those guitarists whose fingers are faster than their brain. He is fast but he also spins beautiful, soulful melodies. The man undoubtedly belongs in the pantheon of great guitarists.
I really enjoyed the structure of this track; the way individual instruments enter and how Carlos unselfishly lets the rest of the band take the spotlight before coming in himself. I also enjoy the way this group plays with time and dynamics, speeding up and slowing down, playing louder and softer. One minute whispering, the next roaring.
As for the singing, it is quite good but the focus is undoubtedly on the instruments. I would describe the quality of the singing as husky masculine, bristling with macho. On the CD you get three bonus tracks which gives a pretty accurate idea of what Santana's like in concert: solo instruments struggling manfully to rise above a rhythmic morass and mostly failing.
The contrasting characters of the first two albums are perfectly reflected in their covers. The first album has a plain black and white picture of a roaring lion (with three hidden human faces) just as simple savage and direct as the music within. The second album has a psychedelic cover like a bad acid trip with a riot of colors and strange details and sure enough the music within is also a riot of complex musical textures. Technically brilliant as the first album is though, there isn't as much emotional impact as the simpler first album. It is all-relative, of course. Abraxas is still a classic album by any measure. I just think over the long haul the more direct music on the first album wears better. This is not to suggest that you should need to choose between the two. You need both. You definitely need both.
In contrast to the first album, the second, Abraxas, suffers from overproduction. After the success of the first album, the record company must have felt, they had to give the follow up the full treatment. You can hear the effect of the overuse of multi-mic'ing. The sound is more closed in and does not breathe as easily as the first album. This process reached a dubious peak in the fourth album, Caravanserai, widely considered one of the worst mixes ever.
But never mind the production values, the music is glorious. Strap on your seat belts this is definitely an A ride. A rollicking roller coaster of musical energy that will burst forth in an overwhelming tidal wave from your loudspeakers. There is always something going on with this album. No sooner does one ear-catching sound pop up to catch your attention than it's replaced by another just as arresting. Carlos really lets go with some unbelievably excellent guitar solos and the rhythm section is unleashed. Everything is faster than on the first album and the wall of sound production values contribute to the sensory overload.
So if you liked Santana's recent efforts, journey back in time and check out his roots. Best of all you will find them in the under $10 bin. (While the digital transfers are good, the real sound lurks in them thar vinyl grooves.)
Enjoyment: 90 for Santana, 85 for Abraxas
Sound Quality: 85 for Santana, 80 for Abraxas