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Santana: Abraxas - Album Of The Week Club review

Fusing Afro-Latin rhythms and West Coast rock more more successfully than previously, Santana's Abraxas was also the soundtrack to at least two European back-packing adventures

Santana: Abraxis cover art
(Image: © Columbia)
Santana: Abraxis

Santana: Abraxis cover art

(Image credit: Columbia)

Singing Winds, Crying Beasts
Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen
Oye Cómo Va
Incident at Neshabur
Se a Cabó
Mother's Daughter
Samba Pa Ti
Hope You're Feeling Better
El Nicoya

Fusing Afro-Latin rhythms and West Coast rock more effectively, more excitingly and more successfully than had been done before, Santana's second album and still their definitive masterpiece, Abraxas, caught the full force of Santana’s style and infused it with the heady spirit of the era. 

The swirling atmospherics of the opening Singing Winds, Crying Beats merge seamlessly into the languid Black Magic Woman, the combustible Gypsy Queen and the vibrant Oye Como Va to produce a continuous 15-minute suite that portrays the band’s broad emotional range. 

There are also the complex, jazz-influenced Incident At Neshabur, more percussion pyrotechnics on Se A Cabo, and the sublime instrumental Samba Pa Ti, which has become Carlos’s signature tune.

"I felt Santana had a very dynamic range," Metallica's Rob Trujillo told us. "He’d bring in heavy guitars for the riff to get everyone excited, and with the use of percussion there was this indigenous quality to the beat, the rhythm, the flow of the music he was producing - not to mention all those nice, beautiful instrumental moments.

“The album cover was really fascinating too. His artwork was psychedelic and trippy with beautiful women in it that made you look and go ‘wow’. There were many emotions stirred with that record."

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Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in September 1970

  • Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! - The Rolling Stones
  • I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You - Caravan
  • Untitled - The Byrds
  • Kiln House - Fleetwood Mac
  • Paranoid - Black Sabbath
  • After the Gold Rush - Neil Young
  • Idlewild South - The Allman Brothers Band
  • Beaucoups of Blues – Ringo Starr
  • Down Home - Seals and Crofts
  • If - If
  • Johnny Winter And - Johnny Winter
  • Mad Shadows - Mott the Hoople
  • The Original Human Being - Blue Cheer

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What they said...

"In a band with three percussionists and one of the most innovative blues guitarists of all time, reason stands that the music’s entry point might be to tap into our pulse as it does in the opening, dance-inducing drumming on Santana or to strike a nerve via a melodic guitar groove that manages to be infectiously sweet one moment and sharply penetrating the next." (Consequence Of Sound (opens in new tab))

"In the mid-'90s, an album as eclectic as Abraxas would be considered a marketing exec's worst nightmare. But at the dawn of the 1970s, this unorthodox mix of rock, jazz, salsa, and blues proved quite successful. Whether adding rock elements to salsa king Tito Puente's Oye Como Va, embracing instrumental jazz-rock on Incident at Neshabur and Samba Pa Ti, or tackling moody blues-rock on Fleetwood Mac's Black Magic Woman, the band keeps things unpredictable yet cohesive." (AllMusic (opens in new tab))

"Abraxas contains some of their best songs over a long career: Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen, Oye Como Va, Samba Pa Ti. Add Evil Ways and you may have the four cornerstones of classic Santana. But this is more than a few foundational songs; it’s a self-standing monument that grows higher with each song... Abraxas is the sound of Santana captured in the act of creation; you get the sense that they could have easily made this a double album." (Progrography (opens in new tab))

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What you said...

Mike Canoe: Carlos Santana, with and without the band named after him, has made music for well more than five decades. Whenever I am clicking off Santana's Smooth from whatever device is blaring it, I remind myself that this is the man who helped invent a radically new form of music by blending heavy rock with blues and jazz and, maybe most importantly, Latin rhythms and percussion.

Abraxas is likely the best starting point to explore Santana's work. It has two of the band's biggest hits: Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen - gotta include that blazing and amazing guitar coda - which I still love to hear and Oye Como Va, which I think I have heard enough for this lifetime.

But once one gets past those two, there's still plenty to explore. There's the jazzy transportive instrumentals of opener Singing Winds, Crying Beasts or the thrilling Incident at Neshabur. There are the exotic and fascinating percussion heavy chants like Se a Cabo and El Nicoya. There are a couple of more rockers sung by Gregg Rolie, one great (Hope You're Feeling Better) and one less so (Mother's Daughter). And of course there's the beautiful instrumental, Samba Pa Ti.

Like anyone who has been in the biz for half a century, Santana has had his share of hits and misses. After exploring his extensive back catalog this week, even the alleged misses I've listened to have something going for them. While I still can't bring myself to listen to all of Supernatural because of that damn Smooth song, I continue to be enthralled and inspired by this visionary musician.

Marco LG: Dreamy prog atmospheres mixed with Latin rhythms just about sums up my idea of sonic hell, yet this album somehow made it into my collection around the turn of the century and I even seem to remember I liked it, once. Listening to it this week somehow confirmed its place in my collection, but I have a feeling it will be another 20 years before the CD will see the light again.

My main problem is that I find it difficult to take this music seriously, but at the same time I cannot possibly embrace the Latin aspect to the point of going around the room showing off my whisks and my botafogos. The whole purpose of the music is lost on me, and some great guitar work by the man himself is not enough to rescue it.

It is not all that bad of course, after all the CD has been in my collection for more than twenty years, and this week received repeated listens. The album works a treat as a background for a romantic night and does have a few moments of guitar brilliance. The prog parts are dreamy, but at least are not as cringey as Pink Floyd can be (I should hastily add “for me” at this point to try and contain the deluge of abuse from the prog police).

Overall I will score this pretty low, knowing full well I am going against the crowd here. It’s not you I promise, it’s definitely me. Blame it on Lars Ulrich and James Hatfield and call me Dave.

John Davidson: A defining album from an essential artist. The Latin grooves and the bluesy electric guitar blend wonderfully to create a unique sound that defies you not to start dancing .

Other than the two covers (Black Magic Woman and Oye Como Va) the songs do blend into one a bit - perhaps foreshadowing the jazz fusion of the early 70s albums - but the music here is that loose but tight way that shows this was a band at or near its peak .

The keyboards remind me of Ray Manzerak at times and you can tell this is group effort from the way the organ gets centre stage almost as often as the guitar.

Greg Schwepe: This is it. This is the one. This is where you start. When you have someone ask “So, Classic Rock Album of the Week Club Expert, if I wanted to check out Santana, which album would you steer me to?” And "Abraxus" would be your quick and loud reply.

Santana has had a long and varied career with many lineups. But the first 3-4 albums with many of the same core members almost created a genre in itself. Groovy drumbeats of all types with the sustaining notes emanating from Carlos’s guitar; that’s cool defined.

And while their debut was no slouch, Abraxus just seems to take it to the next level. A look at the track listing and you can see how many are still in their set and played on the radio daily. Not a lot more to say on this one. Just a great album!

Adam Ranger: Difficult for me to be objective as this album was a soundtrack to my early teens and just takes me back to those happy days, The cover just enthralled me at the time. l got lost in its magic as the album played constantly.

But, listening again, trying to be objective, what do I think now?

The first thing that strikes me is that this is Santana the band, not just a vehicle for Carlos. Percussion and organ take as much of the limelight as guitar. And sometimes that guitar is used sparingly, but to wonderful effect. Sometimes less is more.

The whole album is a beautiful listen, Gentle aural soundscapes for the most part.

A great cover of Black Magic Woman. I love Fleetwood Mac's original, but this version has become the definitive version to me. My favourite track is probably Mother's Daughter, where the percussion and bass really drive, and the guitar sings along. Still to me one of the essential Santana albums for me.

David Longman: Samba Pa Ti is a classic example of allowing space for an instrumental to breathe rather than trying to fill it with too many notes - a failing in later Carlos Santana albums. However for me this album is an appetiser for Santana III, which I would always rank at number one in the (extensive) list of Santana albums.

Zak Browne: I love this album, and I always think of Oye Como Va being used in The Big Lebowski.

Mark Herrington: Some music is so evocative of time and place. I recall backpacking round the lesser known spots of Europe with my mate back in the late 70s. After one gruelling overnight train journey we staggered blinking into the sunlight of San Sebastián (Northern Spain) and headed straight for a beach front bar.

The beer was good and the music even better. Samba Pa Ti came on to a background of big surf and Santa Clara island sitting in the bay. They played the whole of Abraxas over and over and it just washed over us. Wonderful, transporting and intoxicating, this album is a total classic. It’s a 10 from me .

Philip Qvist: My first introduction to Santana came during the Inner Secrets and Marathon era, when the band went the commercial route. To be honest there isn't anything wrong with those albums, but their earlier stuff is definitely the real deal; especially Abraxas.

Although I doubt it would see the light of day these days, there is no denying the iconic nature of the album cover - one of those covers that is instantly recognisable, even if the music might not be.

So onto the music; the two covers, Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen and Oye Como Va, should be familiar to most listeners. The two percussionists, Jose Areas and Michael Carabello, wrote three rather good Latin influenced instrumentals; Greg Rolie wrote the two songs that broke away from the general Latin feel with two decent rockers; while the man himself, Carlos Santana, wrote the rest - including my two highlights of the album; Incident at Neshabur and Samba Pa Ti.

What is also great about Abraxas is that Carlos Santana himself allows space for the rest of the band to shine; it certainly isn't a case of his guitar dominating everything and overwhelming the rest of the band.

The only minor quibble that I do have is with Greg Rolie's vocals. Sure, he is a decent enough singer, but I wish somebody like Greg Walker had been introduced to the band much earlier. He would have taken those songs to a much higher level. But yeah, that issue aside, this is a classic from start to finish.

Gerry Ranson: This is one of those albums I grew up with listening to Radio Caroline under the covers. Then when I was old enough to backpack, began hearing it in endless foreign bars. A real aural comfort blanket to this day.

Jon Peacock: Simply put it is up there as one of the classic albums, timeless, a true breakthrough album that brought the Latin sound with rock edge to us all. I have never tired of this album, I doubt I ever will. It is unquestionably a 10/10.

Andrew Bramah: The only Santana album you need.

Scott Baker: Ace album, along with the Third Album, Caravansarai, and Moonflower. To a kid living on a back-end of nowhere council estate who had to work 26 hours a day for a handful of cold gravel, this was exoticism in the extreme.

Uli Hassinger: It’s the perfect album for sitting on the patio on a warm summer night sipping a decent wine. I even can imagine how it must have been for visitors to the Woodstock Festival to listen to the band for the very first time - which was the case for most - after smoking weed the whole day. The music was sexy, and it must have been a whole new experience.

Santana was something spectacular and new, and it's still unique. The combination of rock, bar jazz and Latin is groundbreaking and probably the start of what we know asa World Music in general. Never before or since have congas and timbale played such a dominate role in rock music.

Santana himself is the most soulful and emotional guitar player ever. Mixed with the incredible organ and keyboard playing (the sound of the late 60s/early 70s is just groovy, love it) and the whole rhythm section it‘s mind blowing, even by today's standards. All songs are marvellous. The whole album is just brilliant. 10/10.

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Final Score: 8.77 (115 votes cast, total score 1009)

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