Prashant Aswani’s latest album Sonically Speaking (Exotic Rhythms) features a rich set of melodic instrumental rock fusion songs that not only show his strengths as a guitarist and composer, but as a producer and arranger as well. The album is full of exceptional playing by both Aswani, and the lineup of great musicians he has brought along to support him. Aswani is joined on this release by Rhonda Smith (Jeff Beck, Prince) on bass, and Joey Heredia (Stevie Wonder, Tribal Tech, Steve Lukather) on drums. Abhijit Banerjee also appears on the album playing the Tabla, an Indian percussion instrument. This proves to be a fantastic personnel choice as Banerjee adds a highly distinctive dimension to the album. Guitarists Brett Garsed and Rob Caggiano are also onboard turning in some killer guest solos.
Sonically Speaking is Aswani’s first full album of new material since 2000’s Duality (in 2007, Aswani re-released his 1998 debut Revelation as Revelation: Fully Loaded with new artwork and three new tracks). It’s also the first album in his catalog that he’s produced solely on his own. And while the playing and writing on this album are certainly top-notch, Aswani’s production work is equally impressive. He uses a multitude of layered guitar tones on most tracks to give the album a deep rich sound. The guitar parts themselves are arranged with a similar approach - many songs feature multiple clean rhythm tracks mixed together in such a way that you often forget there is no keyboard player on the album. Banerjee’s Tabla work is a major factor in the overall sound of Sonically Speaking as well. His contributions not only aid Aswani’s effort to lend the album some shades of his Indian roots - they also give the entire disc a unique sound that helps to separate it from the pack of often “cookie cutter” sounding instrumental rock guitar albums. Aswani’s highly melodic approach to writing is unique for this genre as well. Though there’s a motherlode of complex playing on Sonically Speaking, nearly all of the main song melodies are simple, hummable, and very catchy. As a result, this disc is full of tunes that stick in your head.
From a guitar geek perspective, Sonically Speaking is a goldmine of killer tones and state-or-the-art playing. Aswani’s lead tone on the disc is buttery smooth - warmly overdriven without a hint of fuzz, while his clean tones range from Strat-like snappy to more glassy, atmospheric sounds. As a guitarist, Aswani comes from the Greg Howe / Brett Garsed school of rock-meets-fusion. He has the touch and feel a rock player, yet has no trouble navigating through changes while dropping in cool intervallic and outside ideas. He also has a highly developed hybrid-picking technique that allows him to execute complex legato runs that are smooth yet punchy.
Sonically Speaking opens with “Stephanie” - a light, airy ballad that features Banerlee’s Tabla as the sole percussion. This tune is a great example of Aswani’s aforementioned production skills; multiple clean guitar tracks are used to give the piece a big, lush sound. Things get heavier with “Drive” which has Aswani sharing the spotlight with Aussie guitarist Brett Garsed on the cool Phrygian-based solo section. Garsed is great as always, peeling off plenty of his signature spidery legato lines. Aswani takes a more aggressive approach in his solo by adding some wild tapped licks and whammy accents. This tune also has one of the best riffs on the album, and features nice bass break from Rhonda Smith. “Drive” is followed by one of the most interesting tracks on the album - the prog-like “Make It 14.” With its eastern-tinged melody and rapid mood shifts, this is one of the most exotic tunes on the disc. In his solo, Aswani plays some great dynamic phrases over the changes. This song ends with a wah-wah based rhythm part that is one of the coolest grooves on the record.
“11 Miles” is a bluesy power ballad of sorts with a nice odd meter A section. Aswani’s solo on this one is loaded with smooth sixteenth note lines. Other ballads on the disc include “Pardon Me” - which prominently features the Tabla, and includes some of Aswani’s fastest runs, and “Rain” - another song (like “Stephanie”) where all of the percussion is handled by the Tabla. This piece also has some great harmony and acoustic guitar parts. Aswani is definitely at his jazziest on this track, both with his lines and his tone.
The heaviest songs on the album are “5 am” and “Narrow Path.” On “5 am,” the core tune features hard distorted riffs over a backdrop of Police-esque clean chord stabs. Aswani uncorks a killer solo on this one over a cool “fusiony” chord progression. “Narrow Path” is Aswani’s most “metallic” song on the disc - this tune is dripping with middle eastern vibes in its heavy riffs and melody.
“Shades of Gray” is probably Sonically Speaking’s most commercial-sounding track. The song has a great singing melody, and a pair of cool solos from Aswani (first with a clean tone during the main solo section - a nice change of pace - then distorted for the outro). The album closes with “Pure at Heart” which features Rob Caggiano from Anthrax contributing a wicked solo and some melody lines. Caggiano’s wild aggression provides a nice counter to Aswani’s more even-keeled approach. The song - and the album - fittingly ends with the Tabla right out front.
With Sonically Speaking, Aswani has crafted a deep album that subtly harkens back to his Indian roots, while showing off his considerable playing, writing, and producing chops. The album is loaded with great examples of his cutting edge technique, and fine contributions from his well chosen supporting lineup. Highly recommended.