Classic Rock Review

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Santana Caravanserai (1972)

886978775023From starling.rinet.ru

This strikes me as tons more interesting than any of Santana’s two earlier records (not to mention later ones) and even more engaging than Santana III – I’d go as far, indeed, as to call this Santana’s masterpiece, and the most wonderful and convincing emotional tour-de-force you’ll ever get out of this band. Granted, its commercial life was rather short, and it marked the beginning of the band’s drastic decline in sales, although they didn’t really begin to flop until a couple years later.

But this has to do not with a drop in quality, but rather with a radical change of direction. Basically, at this point Carlos had enough of being a Latin hit supplier for the dance-ready public and decided to get more experimental, artsy and complex. And it was a brilliant move: Carlos’ talents as guitar player fully allowed him to sound ‘artsy’ without getting way too overblown, while the backing band was at least skillful enough to, well, serve as good backing band.

This is actually the second point for which I like the record: it not only brings Carlos into the spotlight, continuing the trend of III, but also makes an obvious emphasis on his guitar playing instead of Rolie’s pointless organ noodling or instead of the band’s jamming power in general. On Caravanserai, you are going to find some of the most wonderfully crafted, amazingly well-performed lead guitar work ever put on any album, and when I first heard Santana stretch out on these instrumentals I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell he was doing all this time.

Not that the backing band is completely defunct, of course – there are some organ solos here, and it’s not that the record is just a showcase for Carlos; but they are able to find a perfect balance between the axeman and the sidemen, where the latter never overshadow the former, and the former allows the latter to be clearly audible and add some more ‘feeling’ to the whole experience.

The album is in some way a concept one, like a hippiesque journey through your subconscious and the ‘cosmic mind’, and all that crap, and it comes off far better than, well, some Yes albums I could mention. The songs all flow into each other with no breaks, which doesn’t exactly make for an easy listen, but I already warned you – it’s one artsy album. Nevertheless, the first five or six numbers are all masterpieces.

What a better way to kick off a record than with ‘Eternal Caravan Of Reincarnation’, for instance? With its chirping of crickets, vague echoey organ notes, and background atmospheric noises, it sets a perfect scene for the ensuing performances – a feeling of night, dense, but not terrifying, darkness, and stately majesty of the Cosmic Powers (heh). And then…

…then in comes the guitar, and the real fun starts. ‘Waves Within’ is a breathtaking number, with a beautiful organ background and Carlos literally soaring up unto the edge of the sky; at times he plays such amazing, lightning-speed, emotional flurrys of notes that… heck, just listen to the guitarwork at the beginning of the third minute. It sounds like he’s taking an enormous leap into the sky, halts there for a moment to contemplate the heavenly beauty, and then leaps down again. Literally so. Then ‘Look Up (To See What’s Coming Down)’ takes us into more realistic territory with a strong funky workout (magnificent wah-wah rhythm work throughout), the short ‘vocal interlude’ ‘Just In Time To See The Sun’ serves as a moody breather in between the epics, and ‘Song Of The Wind’ is pure ecstasy.

A six-minute-long musical paradise with Carlos as its only angel – for my money, this could be the best instrumental he ever recorded, at least, the best instrumental that features him and not the entire band (which leaves out ‘Soul Sacrifice’ as the best band instrumental). That guitar tone is impossible to describe; I’m pretty sure Clapton spent ages learning something from the dude, as he’s the only European guitar guy I know to have achieved similar levels of spirituality. Finally, ‘All The Love Of The Universe’ sounds pretty hippiesque, too, and somewhat dated on release, but is again completely redeemed by stunning lead work.

Unfortunately, the second side is a slight letdown – all of a sudden, Carlos seems to have remembered that he is a popular hero, after all, and includes some generic stuff like ‘La Fuente Del Ritmo’ that is probably a blessing for fans of his older style but is definitely not so for me. Likewise, I don’t see what’s so spectacular about the band’s version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Stone Flower’; it takes me ages to guess the melody, and the vocals are so low-key and inaudible that they actually spoil the picture – maybe the tune would be better off as an instrumental.

Yet once again, there is good lead work throughout, and the big spiritual breakthrough occurs with the lengthy suite ‘Every Step Of The Way’ that closes the album – a moody, complex workout that goes through lots of stages and different atmospheres (starts off real dark, but ends in an uplifting, cathartic passage with some strings cleverly woven into Santana’s leads).

Yeah, Caravanserai couldn’t have hoped to compete with the ‘progressive mainstream’ of the era – the overall hippiesque concept was far too lightweight, the musicianship too ‘unprogressive’, and the songs were too short, but in retrospect it easily beats some of the better progressive albums of its era.

This is a piece of undeniable beauty, and a relatively accessible and understandable beauty as well; I have no problem trying to identify with this stuff.

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March 7, 2013 - Posted by | Santana Caravanserai |

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