It feels like an eternity since Carlos Santana last released an album that fans could get genuinely excited about. The phenomenal success of “Smooth”, and 2002’s Supernatural, seemingly doomed the singer to a cycle of ever diminishing returns, as the virtuoso guitarist played second fiddle to a series of bland pop hooks. Finally free from his record deal with Arista, and quick to assert his newfound independence, Santana returns with a near instrumental LP designed to interpret the sounds and spirit passions of native people the world over.
It’s certainly a bold move, but sadly it simply sees Carlos swapping one tired sound for another. His classic sweeping, sauntering, and seductive sound has returned on a number of exploratory jams, but the spark of ingenuity that made Carlos an icon in the 70s has been extinguished. In fact, if anything the star appears stuck in a bygone era. For an album designed to represent the vibrancy and charm of native people Shape Shifter feels entirely placid; the product of sterile studio not the wild expanse of the planes or the menacing tangle of the deepest jungles.
Repetitive meandering jams pile up to soul sapping effect, but thankfully there are still moments when Carlos springs to life. “Nomad” rumbles into action and Carlos’ playing feels unhinged, meaty, and entirely intuitive, leading to the album’s most blistering and memorable solo. The title track is another minor triumph, a clear statement that Santana are back to doing what they do best, but while the migratory jam is well constructed, it fails to resonate and lacks any really oomph.
Devoid of a terse visceral edge, and falling short of the mystical mind bending voyage that “Mr. Szabo” promises, Shafter Shifter feels like a hallow release. Truth be told, the record could use some vocals. Not the smultzy drivel that adorned his last three releases, but the authentic voices of the cultures Santana is attempting to channel. Carlos’ guitar is no longer capable of grabbing the listener by the scruff of neck, let alone the hips, and a distinctly artificial and comfortable record is the result. More of a sepia lament than a wild reminder of his youth.
Buy If: You want to hear the great Carlos Santana let loose for an hour of instrumental jamming.
Avoid If: You’re happy with Santana’s classic 70s LPs and don’t want to see his sound watered down.
Best Track: “Nomad”
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