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3 stars In essence there are only three things 'wrong' with this album as I see it - one; it's a little overproduced, two, the hints of 'world music' are not very strong in spite of what the package suggests, and three, it's not an amazing album.

For an album not to be amazing is certainly forgivable, and I am enjoying Shape Shifter with its focus on the guitar as a lead instrument, as opposed to an instrument that gets showcased between guest vocalists. And by 'lead' I mean it in terms of main focus, rather than its potential for jazz-fusion soloing. There's nothing on Shape Shifter that approaches the transcendence of say, Caravanserai but it's still Santana, still effective overall and distinctive at times.

In pre-release press, Carlos mentioned the band's landmark 1972 album in relation to Shape Shifter, and it bears some resemblance, in terms of its instrumental focus (the album has only true vocal track) and its occasional Latin moments, but not a lot of jazz-fusion. It's more of a pop rock album at times, though that's probably almost as misleading as comparing it to Caravanserai. Most certainly Shape Shifter is pop-influenced ? blending aspects of his 'Smooth' era and select parts of his past, wilder efforts with some few steps toward world music. Admittedly, this North American Indian component isn't a large feature at all, but it's welcome when it does appear, most notably in the opening song, which is dramatic but still great stuff.

In terms of production, the use of keyboards rather than piano, and the very clean, almost plastic guitar sound that can be heard on many of the rhythm tracks, adds to the slick, partially unpleasant feel to some of the sonics. While it's nice to hear an organ simulated on 'Shape Shifter,' some of the other synth parts don't seem to gel, like in 'Dom.' Not to pick on the keyboards, they don't stick out like a sore thumb or anything, but I didn't find them effective on every song. Thankfully, much of the guitar solos are presented in a form that's a little more raw, I feel I can just make out some of the attack on the strings ? not sure if this has anything to do with Santana releasing this on his own (new) label 'Starfaith Records' but it's nice to hear in any event.

Compositionally there's a lot to like, despite a sameness to some of the material. The opener is probably the best piece on the album, while some of the more ballad-influenced material like 'In the Light of a New Day' or 'Angelica Faith' making use of the quintessential Santana guitar phrasing. Elsewhere it sounds like more of a band effort, especially in the early stages and latter half. In fact, it's when they let more of the Latin rather than Pop feel into the record that I find myself enjoying Shape Shifter,most ? tracks like 'Macumba in Budapest' or 'Mr Szabo' show this, with its percussion and use of keyboard. Even the vocal cut, 'Eres La Luz' has some of that feel. In addition there's 'Nomad' where the band gets rocking. Here the keyboard solo reminds me a little of something like 'Flame Sky' from Welcome perhaps, and Carlos himself is spurred on to get a little more aggressive.

Despite being uncomfortable reviewing an album so soon after its release, I do feel that three stars or 'good but not essential' is a fair assessment of this one. Fans looking for moments akin to Santana's first forays into jazzier-fusion material will not find it here. Few would truly expect that, I imagine, but fans in need of a rest from the (at times) formulaic approach that has dominated his work in recent years, should at least check Shape Shifter out and make their own decision.

Report this review (#756379)
Posted Tuesday, May 22, 2012 | Review Permalink
4 stars It was a treat to hear the new Shape Shifter album by Santana, after the series of pop albums like Supernatural. The best phases of Santana were the early Abraxas phase, and the jazz fusion Caravanserai phase. The only Santana albums that really interested me after Borboletta were Amigos and Moonflower, some of Carlos' solo albums and the Santana Brothers album, which are in the jazz fusion vein. The Guitar Heaven album was simply pointless; Carlos is too good to be doing covers of other people's guitar hits (though Santana's previous adaptations of Black Magic Woman and She's Not There worked well).

So indeed, it's nice to hear a real Santana album again. And for those of us who are big fans of the Caravanserai phase of Santana, it's nice to hear Santana doing instrumental pieces. Clearly Shape Shifter is not the stellar album that Caravanserai is, but there's enough meat there to keep us interested, with a mix of hot numbers and cool ones, and one vocal number. If you're a big fan of Santana you'll like this album, and if you are fan of the earlier Santana but gave up on them years ago, you should give Shape Shifter a listen.

Report this review (#770291)
Posted Wednesday, June 13, 2012 | Review Permalink
Sean Trane
Prog Folk
4 stars Well, let's face it, despite being an absolute fan of the band's 70's works, I hadn't really paid much attention to the band's output since the mid-80's (outside some of the reviews I wrote here a few years ago), so I was definitely not expecting much from this new album, that I thought would be much like its recent predecessors (3 or 4 in the last 15 years). Actually if I hadn't read somewhere that this album was a mainly-instrumental affair, I probably wouldn't have even given it a shot before a few years. Despite an unpromising title, the Amerindian artwork seemed encouraging enough and the promo sticker specifying that the album had been 20 years in the making did prompt me to stick the CD directly in my car's deck. Wow, what a complete blast it was' I actually had to pop out the disc to make sure that the previous library user hadn't switched inadvertently discs. Nope!!! This was for real.

Past the gentle guitar intro and light Indian chants of the opening title-track, the heavy Hammond and Spanish guitar build such a progressive atmosphere that you'd swear that Borboletta or Caravanserai are just about to pop up in your speakers. And the magic does pop or rock) by, your brains frying as if you were back in 74. OK, the modern sound production won't fool you long: namely the drumming which simply can't possibly match the Shrieve or Narada Walden of yesteryears; but it is close enough for happiness. Followed by a calm fusion piece Dom, the album avoids the usual traps, mainly by remaining vocally silent - how many otherwise-fine albums are ruined by over-sweetish voices and horrendous love lyrics. The searing and most-energetic Nomad is the peak of the album, but only its third highlight. Simply awesome: Carlos, where were you in the last three decades??? After the fairly cheesy Metatron follows (the first flesh-failure of the disc, despite some fiery Carlos licks), it is relatively obvious that they want to revisit their Amigos days, with some sultry soft Latin fusion with Angelica Faith (co-penned by Chester Thompson) and Never The Same Again. Another winner is the Walden co-penned Light Of A New Day. As the title might indicate, Spark Of The Divine revisits the most esoteric and reflective/calmer moments of the band's oeuvre.

The next two tracks are aimed at Carlos' Hungarian buddy guitarist Gabor Szabo, but the mood seems to be more aerial than what the two compadres were enjoying in the first years they'd met: the former having a bit of string island bossa-cheesiness, while the latter is an obvious homage to Gabor. Slowly building on its percussive energy, the album explodes again with the enthralling Eres La Luz, the second sung track, overflowing positive energy (the rhythm suggest Supernatural/Shaman era slightly, but with much more class than 12 years ago), just like the Santana of old and more-recent was always doing. With another typically sultry Santana mood track Canela and ultra-slow Sweet Dancer to close out the album, Calos and the boys have sent us flying alongside the rainbow of felicity, like they hadn't in a very long time.

Easily the band's best album of the last 35 years (if you'll except the brilliant solo Carlos albums Oneness and Swing Of Delight), but SS is also the band's proggiest album since their golden era. Despite the album losing some of its initial energy after five tracks, Shape Shifter still retains plenty of momentum and a seal of quality that very few albums released in 2012 achieve (and this is a good year too), and this might just make it climb on the edge of my top10 of the year. Hopefully, now that they've found the know-how back, it won't take the band nearly 20 years to come back with an equally excellent album.

Report this review (#878212)
Posted Wednesday, December 19, 2012 | Review Permalink
3 stars Carlos Santana was maybe feeling a bit guilty after delivering unprogressive and unchallenging 3 last studio albums and decided to provide a focused and more ambitious effort without too many pop and contemporary trends.

Shape Shifter succeeds in convincing long-time fans to be taken seriously and should not put off newer fans who look for more accessible music, for there are good melodies, arrangements not many music layers nor speedy playing with 100 notes a second. It is more about taste and feeling this time. Some of the compositions are completely devoid of Latin influence and that holds for percussions, too. So the best style characteristics could be "instrumental rock" rather than Latin rock. Santana's guitar is at the forefront of each song unlike on some songs on previous releases, it's clear who the master is!

In terms of mood, the album is more contemplative and not overtly positive or extrovert with exceptions. Mr. Szabo features nice acoustic guitar.

This largely instrumental album is a unique release in Santana's catalogue and cannot be compared to any other previous release in terms of similarities.

Report this review (#2344168)
Posted Sunday, March 22, 2020 | Review Permalink

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