The concept of the classic lineup reunion is now a firmly entrenched, well-worn trope that many legacy acts use as a method to goose up publicity and hopefully book bigger and better venues out on the road. It’s almost like the rock and roll 401k plan. This year, Guns N’ Roses and LCD Soundsystem are the biggest examples, but it’s far less common to see a band reunite for the strict purpose of making an entirely new record. Such is the case of Santana and its latest album, Santana IV.
To many, Santana is just one guy: the guitar player Carlos Santana. But that wasn’t always the case. Back in the ’60s and into the early ’70s, Santana was a full band that featured Gregg Rolie on keys and lead vocals — that’s his voice on the classic “Black Magic Woman” — Neal Schon on guitar, David Brown on bass, and Michael Shrieve on drums. And if the names Gregg Rolie and Neal Schon sound familiar to you, by the way, it’s because those two went on to found another popular Bay Area band named Journey. Anyway, for his latest album, Carlos Santana decided to go back to his roots, round up all those players again, and see what happened.
The biggest question to be answered before pushing play on this album naturally is: Does the Santana band capture that same magic that propelled them to superstardom on Abraxas or Santana III? To an extent, they actually do, but the music here doesn’t come close to measuring up to the intense energy or loose spirit of the group’s earliest releases. And yet you can’t deny the chemistry that flows through this collection of musicians. With all of them well into their 60s at this point, you don’t get the same thrill of youthful exuberance, but there’s something to be said for the wealth of experience each man brings to this project.
Lead single “Anywhere You Want To Go” is perhaps the best example of that dynamic. Each musician is given a spot to showcase their talent, from Rolie’s mid-song organ solo, to Santana’s many wah-inflected accent pieces, to Schon’s deep-into-the-red, full-on guitar orgasm. And despite all of the showboating and playing for the cameras, if you will, it still manages to come together. On the whole, the song carries a similar sort of vibe to the classic Emerson, Lake & Palmer cut “From The Beginning”, but cranked up a few notches and painted with a distinctive Latin flair.
That’s far from the only standout, however. On the instrumental front, you have the relaxed guitar odyssey “Fillmore East”, which is presumably a nod to the band’s earliest patron and that venue’s vaunted promoter, Bill Graham. Then there are the two Ronald Isley-fronted songs “Love Makes the World Go Round” and “Freedom In Your Mind”, which might be the most energetic digressions on the album.
If there’s one knock against Santana IV, it’s that it might be a little too overstuffed, with a tendency to occasionally wander into the realm of the self-indulgent. “Forgiveness”, for example, closes out the album 16 tracks away from the opening number, by which point fatigue set in a while prior. And at 7:22 long, the song doesn’t do all that much to assuage the urge to drop out midway through. There are a few other tracks that might have been better left on the cutting room floor as well. “All Aboard” and “Choo Choo” spring to mind most immediately.
Carlos Santana hasn’t had the greatest run of albums throughout the 2010s, beginning with the abysmal covers record Guitar Heaven that kicked off the decade, and running through his Shape Shifter in 2012 and Corazón in 2014. As a non-vocalist and singular guitarist, he’s entirely dependent on the collaborators that he brings into the recording studio, and the kinds of ideas he was exploring simply weren’t clicking. The inclusion of both Schon and Rolie back into the fold seems to have given the band’s namesake a much needed spark to explore territories which he hasn’t traversed for quite some time.
Essential Tracks: “Anywhere You Want To Go”, “Fillmore East”