Aaaahh, the days when bands were so productive that you knew what to buy your loved ones each Christmas Day. Abraxas – the name was copped from Herman Hesse’s Demian – was released a year after the eponymous debut and basically continues in the same vein as its predecessor. However, this impression results more from the fact that the band’s sound was so unique and convincing, and not because they didn’t evolve. No other band sounded like Santana at the time (and yes – no band ever sounded like them since), and no guitar player has ever succeeded in successfully imitating Carlos’ stellar guitar playing.
After many listens, it becomes clear that Abraxas digs deeper than Santana, offers a bit more variation and contains more substantial material, as some of the early material was obviously the result of many hours of jamming. For some reason the band wasn’t that pleased with the sonic quality of the debut and spent much more time and money on recording Abraxas and it is noticeable as it sounds absolutely immaculate, organic and warm, with enough muscle and attention for detail. Just crank up the volume during “Se a Cabo” and listen to the percussion, check out how it exploits the potential of stereo, how it jumps into your living room, targets your hips.
The music is – if possible – even classier than before: sensual percussion and exotic grooves, nicely flowing organ parts, swirling guitar work-outs that sound like the psychedelic/bluesy counterparts of John McLaughlin’s spiritual fusion. From the exotic mood piece that opens the album (check out the feverish organ-parts and creepy guitar effects) to the arousing dittie that closes the album, Abraxas is, as the album cover suggests, an exotic fusion of the sensual and the spiritual, of mind and body, primal beats and refined playing. It’s exactly this combination that makes many fusion bands out there quite boring and clumsy, but this band got away with it, as the sincerity speaks for itself and relentless creativity keeps it focused. It’s quite stunning that the album managed to keep such a great flow intact, as no less than four band members contribute songs.
The marvellous album highlight “Incident at Neshabur” was written by Carlos and blues pianist Albert Gianquinto and seems to include nearly every facet of this band: there’s some red-hot percussion action, jazzy soloing by Carlos which takes ’em closer to the Mahavishnu than ever before and when the song suddenly transforms into a moody laidback vibe, you’re – as the liner notes suggest – suddenly damn close to Burt Bacharach’s orchestrated lounge-pop. The other Santana-composition, and the one you’re likely familiar with, is “Samba Pa Ti.” Hated by some (I have a friend who insists on calling it “Samba Paté”), loved by others, it’s the band at its smoothest, with vaseline-soft guitar playing by Carlos and subtle backing by the rest of the band. Usually these songs that are fondly remembered by 40-50-somethings (“Do you remember that was the first time you kissed me, Robert?” – “Yes, I do” answers Robert as his eyes don’t leave the TV-screen for a second,… it’s the Super Bowl!) are nothing much to speak of, but in this case I’ll make an exception: it’s downright pretty and even sexy, in a way.
Percussionist Jose Areas also adds two contributions: the short album closer (“El Nicoya) and the more traditional sounding “Se a Cabo,” a fierce combination of salsa heat and rock energy. As opposed to those, Rollie adds the more rock-oriented songs to the album: “Mother’s Daughter” and “Hope You’re Feeling Better,” with especially the latter sounding powerful, driven by a tough riff and topped off by some exquisite soloing. However, ultimately it’s the covers that made people by this album in the first place, as the Santanasation of Peter Green’s “Black Magic Woman” peaked at #4 in the charts and probably became the most familiar version of the song (even with the “Gypsy Queen”-part tagged to the end). “Oye Como Va” functions as this album’s “Evil Ways” – a combination of the familiar (rock tradition) and the unknown (exotic sounds) that appeals to the audiences of both.
By many considered to be the absolute peak of Santana (the band), Abraxas still stands as the band’s most accessible, and perhaps most innovative record, one that can easily compete with most “classics” from its era.
There is an essence of allure that exudes from the content of Abraxas. The music is jubilant, with a mesmerizing melody that entices the listener into a sensation of musical ecstasy. We open with “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts”, immediately it induces a trancing atmosphere to set the mood, a seductive ambience decorated in sensual mysticism. And just as the music has us succumbing to its will, when we give up all restrain and let our senses sink deeper and deeper into the trance, all of its arousing teases reach their purpose. It was all just a build up into the album’s highlight, “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen”.
This is Carlos Santana and his band exploring all of the possibilities within musical hypnotism. The music of “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” flourishes with sensuality, delicate in nature yet it induces an irresistible magnetism.
As we progress further into Abraxas, we find that it is very versatile within its mood, containing moments of both delicacy and aggressiveness. The music has a very lively texture, amalgamating the rhythmic grooves of traditional Latin music with the enthusiasm for instrumental improvisations that are found in Jazz. “Oye Como Va” marks the beginning of the more elevated side of the album. It has a Salsa like rhythm that gives it a feeling of looseness, almost encouraging the listener to dance to it’s melody.
“Incident at Neshabur” and “Hope You’re Feeling Better” represent the more aggressive side of Abraxas, displaying instrumental eruptions of passionate dexterity from the musicians. “Incident at Neshabur” is a much more elaborate piece because it is composed of two contrasting sections. The song immediately takes us into an invigorated jam, wasting no precious time in properly introducing us to the piece, Abraxas chooses to instead bombard us with a truly dynamic Jazz Fusion display.
Initially presenting itself as wild and eccentric, the music continues to build up momentum as it deploys solo after solo. And then, all of a sudden, “Incident at Neshabur” relinquishes all aspirations of ferociousness and instead flourishes into a mellifluous bossa nova ending. It’s quite marvelous how flawlessly “Incident at Neshabur” was able to pull-off such a surprise in its change of pace, and it really shows just how suspenseful this album can be.
“Hope You’re Feeling Better” is an entirely different kind of breed. This song is one of the few moments that Abraxas gets to be 100% rock and roll. Carlos Santana’s roaring guitar antics are drenched in distortion for added volume and intensity. Keyboardist and vocalist, Gregg Rolie, does a fantastic job augmenting Carlos Santana with his organ ornaments and his awfully bluesy tone of voice. “Hope You’re Feeling Better” is quite frankly one of the finest moments of the album because while all the other songs frequently stand on the boundary of genres so as to easily transcend into another form at a moment’s notice, “Hope You’re Feeling Better” drops all of the experimental tendencies to deliver a traditional, but still as captivating, rock performance.
Abraxas, as a whole, is a truly impressive album because it unionizes many different musical genres. The intensity of Hard rock, the lengthy instrumental passages of Jazz, the melodious dancing elements of Salsa, and even the decorative surrealism of Psychedelia- It is all coalesced with such confidence and precision that even with all of the constant genre-hopping, the album’s transitions all manage to fluctuate so naturally.
In conclusion, Abraxas is a classic. And it will remain as such, forever to be enjoyed by generations to come.