Eleven albums into his career the titan of the slide guitar Sonny Landreth demonstrates what an artist is made of by continuing to find new and challenging avenues of expression. On Elemental Journey the task he sets for himself is to do solely with his guitar what he’s done with guitar and vocals on his previous albums—make it sing. Job done. Not only is his playing supercharged here, but it’s also supremely lyrical, unpredictably angular, harmonically and tonally scintillating. As is his wont, Landreth has a few guests come on board for the ride, including guitarists Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson (the latter having been featured with Landreth on the merciless rocker “The Milky Way Home” on Landreth’s acclaimed 2008 long player, From the Reach), but also, and most evocatively, steel drum master Robert Greenidge and the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Mariusz Smolij with string arrangements by Sam Broussard, otherwise known as the guitarist in Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys (Landreth also employs drummers Doug Belote, Brian Brignac and Mike Burch, all of whom he’s used on earlier projects, along with his longtime bassist David Ranson and keyboardist Steve Conn.) You can probably guess from this roster that the music is going to be a bit eclectic, and you would be right. Thanks to the interesting deployment of strings, the album has a kind of Cinemascope grandeur about it, as songs change course or texture and the strings respond with surging intensity or a propulsive charge in step with the guitar’s thrust (witness the zig-zagging, bluesy patterns of “Wonderide” that answer each other with ferocity). “Gaia Tribe” kicks off the album with a no-holds-barred, surf-influenced rock attack marked by some classic Landreth atmospherics in the sustained howls his slide emits, before the tune takes a hard left into abstract, neo-classical territory, setting up a doozy of a sputtering, fiery Satriani solo that crests as the strings ascend before the song makes a gentle landing slightly past the five-minute mark.
From Elemental Journey, ‘Passionola,’ with guest guitarist Eric Johnson joining Sonny Landreth
The blistering pace eases up now and again. The bright melody and easygoing groove of “Forgotten Story” are enhanced by the playful pings from Greenidge’s steel drum before Landreth swoops in with a dark, unsettling slide moan that adds compelling tension to the otherwise languorous goings-on. Eric Johnson dominates “Passionola” with an array of dips, dives and soaring bluesy soloing in a straight-ahead stomp that Landreth enhances with a couple of judiciously timed spare, stinging solos while allowing Johnson mostly free reign to put his stamp on the moment. Appropriately enough, Landreth closes up shop with “Opening Sky,” a sedate, ruminative benediction with the slightest bit of edge in the steadily rising slide lines. Much as he began in a fury on “Gaia Tribe,” so does he close with restraint, making of this moment a soulful coda to a journey otherwise marked by the heat of its passion and the energy of its ideas. It’s only a breather, though—you know this fellow Landreth will be back in these parts again soon, daring to top himself yet again.