Joe Satriani: Surfing With The Alien - Album Of The Week Club review

Joe Satriani's Surfing With The Alien was the album that made his name and took shredding to the masses

Joe Satriani - Surfing With The Alien cover art
(Image: © Relativity Records)

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Joe Satriani - Surfing With The Alien

Joe Satriani - Surfing With The Alien cover art

(Image credit: Relativity Records)

Surfing with the Alien
Ice 9
Crushing Day
Always with Me, Always with You
Satch Boogie
Hill of the Skull
Circles
Lords of Karma
Midnight
Echo

You couldn’t move for guitar instrumental albums in the mid-to-late 80s. There was the serious shred stuff coming out on Shrapnel Records, such as Racer X, Vinnie Moore and Marty Friedman

But as talented as all these guys were, it all seemed so niche and unlikely to trouble the mainstream charts. Then Joe Satriani scored a monster hit with Surfing With The Alien

Combining jazz fusion with visceral rock’n’roll, Surfing made great guitar technique cool again and showed that an instrumental album could be a commercial possibility for the first time since the surf craze in the early 60s. Even Satriani was taken aback by its success. With over two million units shifted, it’s his Led Zeppelin IV (opens in new tab), his Electric Ladyland, his Wired, and it lays out most of his trademark moves early. 

Listen to the chunky phrasing on the title track (opens in new tab), and its speedy, beautifully executed ‘solo’. The crunchy Ice 9 might be even better, showing off his chops and use of tonal colour, and he’d never leave a venue alive if he didn’t knock out upbeat signature rocker Satch Boogie or the Grammy-nominated Always With Me, Always With You, whose finger-tapped sequence is a highlight of every show.

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Other albums released in October 1987 

  • Pleasures of the Flesh - Exodus
  • Tunnel of Love - Bruce Springsteen
  • Perfect Timing - McAuley Schenker Group
  • Free as a Bird - Supertramp
  • Masque - Manfred Mann's Earth Band
  • Kick - INXS
  • Abigail - King Diamond
  • Robbie Robertson - Robbie Robertson
  • Got Any Gum? - Joe Walsh
  • Schizophrenia - Sepultura
  • Blues for Salvador - Carlos Santana
  • Screaming Life - Soundgarden
  • Unchain My Heart - Joe Cocker

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What they said...

"Surfing With The Alien belongs to its era like Are You Experienced? belongs to its own -- perhaps it doesn't transcend its time the way the Jimi Hendrix Experience's 1967 debut does, but Joe Satriani's 1987 breakthrough can be seen as the gold standard for guitar playing of the mid- to late '80s, an album that captures everything that was good about the glory days of shred." (AllMusic (opens in new tab))

"Recorded with equal parts drum programming and real drums, Satriani served up his guitar and bass on a silver platter. Witness the twisted, horizon-pushing Ice 9, the fiery solo flights on Surfing with the Alien, the straight-ahead, slamming rhythms of Crushing Day, and the soulful beauty of Always with Me, Always with You, Surfing With The Alien remains a true instrumental guitar classic. (Guitar Nine (opens in new tab))

"The latest guitar god calls up keywords like "taste" and "musicality" rather than "flash" and "heavy" – not only does he write melodies (and countermelodies), he fuckin' edits them. Thus he delivers both the prowess cultists demand and the comfort they secretly crave. That it surprises him to hear the result behind insurance commercials only goes to show how little guitar gods know of the world." (Robert Christgau (opens in new tab))

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What you said...

Brian Anderson: I remember this album being released, rushing out and buying it, and getting the 'wow' moment playing it. The wow moment has never gone away, I’ve lived with the album for 35 years and it remains a masterpiece of song writing. It’s the song writing that sets this album aside from its peers. 

The late 80s saw a plethora of virtuoso guitarists releasing instrumental albums, but Surfing With The Alien set the bar so high that all the others could do was look up in wonder. Joe shows off his technical ability in abundance throughout the album, but it was never just for the sake of it, always to enhance the song. The only downside is that the album sounds dated, its sound is very much of the late 80s with the drum machine and final production. Still, an easy 10/10.

Chris Elliott: It's marmite. It's awful, self indulgent tosh to my ears, with the odd interesting bit before we get more tortured pointless guitar heroics. Play a song, for fuck's sake.

Brian Carr: I learned long ago that for many music fans, no vocals equates to no interest. I’ve never been wired that way - good music is good music, with or without vocals dominating our attention. In addition, I’ve always appreciated musical virtuosity, particularly in the guitar realm. But there is definitely a line between shredding because you can and well-crafted music.

Joe Satriani’s masterpiece Surfing With the Alien has always fallen into the second category to me. Yes, the album contains loads of virtuosic moments, but it is also packed with singable melodies. Each track moves through musical moments, sometimes resembling verse-chorus patterns and sometimes not as much, but the music always flows (surfs?) naturally from part to part. 

The draw here is Satriani’s other-worldly guitar chops, on full display throughout. I can’t help but note the melodic moments, not only in the ballad Always With Me, Always With You, but in the melodic theme to Crushing Day, the bombastic Hill Of The Skull and Lords of Karma, and the moody Circles and the album closer Echo. Just because Joe didn’t write lyrics didn’t mean he couldn’t compose beautiful melodies. Maybe Surfing isn’t one’s choice of musical recreation, but dismissing it as mindless wanking is missing out on one blast of a ride.

Gary Claydon: Joe Satriani has never been one to sacrifice melody to the twin alters of speed & flash technique (not that he's lacking in either of those respects) and if proof were needed of this then you need look no further than Surfing With The Alien.

The opening trio of the title track, Ice 9 and Crushing Day feature some driving hard rock. Skip past the cheesy Always With Me, Always With You to arrive at the brilliant, breakneck Texas blues of Satch Boogie. The two most interesting tracks are the slow burn of Circles followed by Lords of Karma. Midnight is a neat vehicle for Joe's tapping technique but comes across as filler to me before the album closes with another highlight in Echo (which has a mid-section that reminds me, briefly, of La Villa Strangiato).

There are plenty of opportunities to marvel at Satch's virtuosity on Surfing With The Alien but also ample demonstration of his ear for melody & composition.

There's one more thing I like about Joe Satriani. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously and that comes across in his music because, whatever else Surfing With The Alien might be, it's also a heap of fun.

Bill Griffin: While I like this album (and all albums in the genre that I've heard), I prefer ensemble playing to just a guitarist wanking off song after song. There is no doubt that Joe is an excellent guitarist but I would, for instance, much rather listen to a Steve Morse album because he lets the entire band shine as much or more than himself through every project he's been involved in. I can't see a reason to buy any other guitar instrumental album if you have one already but if you don't, you can't go wrong with this one.

Evan Sanders: Quite a nice album, and it's another one that I missed when it first came out, although many of the compositions are familiar. I'll keep this in frequent rotation on my playlists. 8/10

Alex Hayes: At the dawn of the 1990s, like a lot of other young, impressionable rockers, I found myself tentatively dipping my toes into the occasionally shark-infested waters of the guitar instrumental, or 'shredder', genre. I didn't linger there long, but found that there was actually some genuinely great music to be found there, amidst the crashing waves of feverish fretboard masturbation.

It was actually Steve Vai's Passion And Warfare album that kick-started it all for me. Bloody hell, the teenage me absolutely adored that record. I was slightly less enamoured with it when I caught up with it again about a year ago though. Although the quality of Vai's playing on there is still stunning, the music was lacking in certain areas, and I found myself scratching my head at my younger self and his fervour. As I've gotten older, I've found myself increasingly drawn to Joe Satriani's work, both from that period and beyond.

I've still got Surfing With The Alien on vinyl (with it's original, and far, FAR, cooler cover art). It remains a classic of the genre, but I do prefer Satriani's successive Flying In A Blue Dream and The Extremist albums, which feel more rounded to me. Satriani succeeds as a solo artist, where so many of his contemporaries fail, through his ability to actually write songs, as opposed to what are often uncharitably referred to as wank-fests. So, although there's plenty of guitar wizardry on offer here, you will often find it balanced out with thoughtfully crafted, intelligent, and, occasionally beautiful material. Always With Me, Always With You and Circles are both good examples of this.

The album is let down a little by it's drum sound though. Satriani recorded Surfing With The Alien on a budget of just $13,000, a very wise investment that will have been recouped many, many times over as the years have gone by. Unfortunately, to keep costs down, Satriani dispensed with the services of a studio drummer, and utilised various drum machines instead, which haven't aged well. The 'robotic' drumming on display here is a big factor in explaining my preference for Satriani's subsequent work.

There are no drums present at all on Midnight though, the album's penultimate track. Man, that is some hugely impressive guitar playing. He's a class act, Joe Satriani, and my favourite artist of this particular type by a country mile. Although elements of it do sound dated, Surfing With The Alien is still a superb listen, and head and shoulders above the majority of albums by similar artists. Recommended, with a caveat that this won't be to everyone's taste.

Uli Hassinger: A good instrumental album is one where you don't miss the vocals. This one belongs to the very few of this category.

Joe resisted the temptation to show only his technical skills. Instead of this he laid back and created quite a melodic album with enough space were his virtuoso guitar playing shines through. The iconic title song alone is worth buying the album. The wah-wah leads were pioneering in 87 and are legendary today. But it's not possible to pick out some tracks. To me this album has to be considered as a musical unit. Great album. 9/10

James Southard: Have to be in the mood for it now but when I was learning to play it was an amazement. An easy 7/10.

Darren Burris: Great album. I’m not usually wild about these guitar instrumental albums but this one is an exception.

Tony Fuerte: Awesome record. Like many, the album that introduced me to Satch. The singles naturally are great. My favourite song, and the track that introduced me to the album, is Circles.

Brett Deighton: I was one of those people that had never bought an instrumental album until this came out. I still love listening to Joe play. To me there is more variety in his style. I don’t just hear endless noodling, or shredding.

Richard Cardenas: I like it but that’s it. Saw him on this tour and he kicked ass but this record never did it for me other than it was the first CD I ever played.

Philip Qvist: I normally do not actively look out for instrumental LPs, especially in the rock field; and that is the reason why today was the first time that I listened to Surfing With The Alien in full - even though it was released nearly 35 years ago. That said, I was familiar with the title track and the slow number Always With Me, Always With You.

There isn't anything wrong with the album; all the songs are good, with Circles my other standout track. All the tracks have enough variety in them so that they don't all end up sounding the same - while there is no denying that Joe Satriani is an excellent guitarist.

So what is the "but" that you are keep on hearing? The production and the endless drum machines were big downsides for me - it definitely sounds like a recording from the 80s. Yes, I know the artist was on a tight budget (and boy oh boy, did he recoup that modest outlay in spades - and them some), but Satch Boogie, another great song, showed the difference real drums could have made on all the other songs.

So all in all, it's a more than decent album, and there isn't anything resembling a dud on it, but it's not one for my "Must Buy" list.

Greg Schwep: So, instrumental guitar albums were not a new thing when Joe Satriani released Surfing With The Alien in 1987. There were a few masterpieces out there before called Blow By Blow and Wired. But what Satriani seemed to do was introduce his incredible technique and style to the masses… and non-guitar playing listeners. This album got a lot of airplay on the FM station I listened to and after hearing Satch Boogie multiple times, I had to go buy the cassette!

And that cassette got played, and played, and played. Which led me to buying pretty much everything Satriani released after that. Joe always seemed to be more of a “cerebral” player than Eddie Van Halen or Yngwie Malmsteen.

You get the shredding of the title track and Satch Boogie, along with the slower masterpiece Always with Me, Always with You. And then you get the cool moods of Hill of the Skull and Circles.

Back to the concept of attracting a non-guitar playing audience, Satriani structures the songs so that one guitar track is the “vocal”, so you think you’re hearing a vocal, but you're not. But that keeps your attention. Again, probably not the first instrumental guitar album to do that. Your mind hears or expects a vocal when there is none. 

I remember listening to this in the car and my son was in the back, about 5 or 6 at the time. Listening to this he goes “when is he going to start singing?” I laughed because I thought it was funny that even he picked that out: the song structure was leading you up to where you expected a vocal to kick in.

And like every good shredder, Satch does let it rip in a few places along the way, but it fits the song and not some 10 minute wank-fest on his Ibanez. But then again, none of would complain if that was the case.

Great album to introduce himself to the masses!

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Final score: 8.56 (92 votes cast, total score 788)

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