Joe Satriani -- _Crystal Planet_ (Epic, 1998)

It is crystal clear: Joe Satriani refuses to relinquish his role as the standard-bearer for instrumental guitar rock. His new release, "Crystal Planet," is a sparkling, hook-filled, high-octane vehicle for his unique melodic sense and technical flavor. It is a synthesis of the best aspects of all his previous work, adventurous, a bit bluesy, hard-rocking, and melodically accessible.

Album opener "Up In The Sky" immediately signals the return of the master with a blistering run of harmonics, and the album takes off from there. Satriani spans a world of textures on the album, from his trademark high-energy rock to a midtempo 12-bar stomp, ballads, jazzy fusion-like tunes, a bit of fuzzed Seattle-ish experimentation, and even a gorgeous, gentle, a capella track to close the album, all with the melodic feel we have come to expect from him. His rhythm section of Stuart Hamm on bass and Jeff Campitelli on drums are laudably solid, keeping pace with and creatively supporting him.

What makes "Crystal Planet" really fly, however, is that it has more high-energy radio-ready singles than any other Satch album. Lead radio tune "Ceremony" is a dark, upbeat, bluesy blast with the trademark hook-tones of his best work. After that drifts off the airwaves, we should be hearing follow-up singles for a long time, because "Up In The Sky," the emotional race "Lights Of Heaven," and the propulsive "A Train Of Angels" are just one big rush after another, making the album his most consistent and enjoyable since his 1987 masterpiece "Surfing With The Alien."

More than just a rehash of past successes, "Crystal Planet" is a rejuvenation of his instrumentation and arrangements for modern audiences. Experimental and solid, stripped-down in places and harmonically ornate in others, and always groove-perfect behind his alternately poppy and jazzy melodies, Satriani's newest work is his most rewarding of the '90s.

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