After releasing 2015’s Shockwave Supernova, legendary shred lord Joe Satriani began to feel his highly conceptual prog-rock opuses becoming impersonal—battling the fantastical characters he conjured with his acrobatic riffs for ownership of his personhood. This epiphany fueled Satriani’s pursuit of music about “a human being, two feet on the ground, heart pumping, with emotions, dreams and hopes.” What Happens Next, both literally and figuratively, comes packed with raw, emotional and electrifying instrumental rock written by a true guitar hero fresh off a life-affirming catharsis.
Forming a power trio with Deep Purple’s low-end luminary Glenn Hughes and Chad Smith, skin-beater in Red Hot Chili Peppers and supergroup Chickenfoot alongside him, Satriani set out to make his 16th LP his most direct one to date. Opening track “Energy” kickstarts What Happens Next with an impossibly infectious riff that drives almost the whole song. It bursts with jubilation as the amount of fun Satriani and co. must have had while recording this gushes from the speakers. Propulsive grooves and call-and-response soloing set a vigorous tone for the album.
Hardly sacrificing musically for blunt impact, the following “Catbot” provides an immediate gear switch, allowing the rhythm section with Hughes’ fuzzy bass punches and Smith’s concussive four-on-the-floor. Distorted manipulations complement marching groove perfectly. The song’s structure hints at bigger structure towards the end, providing a perfect juxtaposition between primitive power and the more spacious passages subsequent cuts explore more fervently.
Though a back-to-basics outing both in concept and instrumentation, “Headrush” provides the only other rock and roll banger via a tried-and-true walking bass line and a propulsive shuffle. It’s certainly a solid track with flutter picking and speed-demon soloing bolstering old-school testosterone, but Satriani wisely chose to diversify What Happens Next beyond just turning up to 11. “Thunder High On The Mountain” exemplifies the preservation of musicality in this condensed template, as Satriani’s hammeron wizardry leads the trio into an ionospheric hard rock venture complete with the most compelling solo-work on the record. With the band’s chemistry propperly realized in this cut, the record charts into different territory.
It goes without saying that Satriani’s unmistakable playing breathes life into every track. Whether it be interesting arrangement choices or his intuitive melodies, “cool” exudes from his playing as easily as breathing. Just as evocative lines weave an intimate fable in the mostly-minimal interlude “Cherry Blossoms,” his lyrical sensibilities elevate “Looper” out of what could have easily become a mundane mid-tempo song. Though the charming simplicity of his delivery on What Happens Next pervades throughout its runtime, Satriani still draws listeners into a compelling array of styles.
Merely reading the title of “Super Funky Badass” self-evidences the funk Satriani injects into What Happens Next. The swanky seven-minute jam embodies its name to glorious effect, with each player exploring the danceable foundations of their style with indulgent chemistry. However, funk manifests subtly in “Righteous”—a glossy pop-rock anthem if not for wah-wah underlying spiraling arpeggiations—along with the sensual modulations and suave beat found in “Smooth Soul.” All the while, Satriani’s playing points everything toward his triumphant vision, as the title track demonstrates as he uses the aforementioned substratum as a springboard into a compelling aura of triumph.
Smith and Hughes aren’t the focal points of What Happens Next, but Satriani obviously chose them for a reason. His familiarity with them as musicians and people speaks volumes about how trio capitalizes on their minimalistic environment. The honest delivery of the album provides interesting ideas where it counts most. “Invisible,” in spite of its bumpy start, comes to its own mostly through Hughe’s melodic bassline and Smith’s tribal-esque groove.
Tasteful aesthetic additions make for far more than an excuse for a virtuoso to indulge himself. These songs are well-written and demand to be heard, from the album’s explosive opening to its cinematic ending. In the closing “Forever and Ever,” the trio juggles low-moving half-time with ascending quarter note triplets, emphasizes their ability to follow each other through exorcistic dynamic changes.
Even the hugest parts of this record boil down to earthy rock in favor of memorable songwriting over melodramatic expertise. Instead of attempting to push boundaries and rewrite rulebooks, Satriani and his two friends set out to make a hard-hitting record—and succeeded with flying colors. What Happens Next will quell the hunger of old and new fans, and remind the world of the potency of instrumental rock in spite of its competition with other movements.
Follow writer Max Heilman at Twitter.com/madmaxx1995.