Legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix released only four albums in his short lifetime, yet far more now bear his name. South Saturn Delta is the most recent in a line of recordings assembling previously unreleased or difficult-to-find material from the influential musician. The tracks on Delta are all studio recordings, but they have little else in common--B-sides, alternate versions and early demos complete the mix.
Unlike the recently released First Rays of the New Rising Sun, which collected songs slated for an unfinished fourth studio album, Delta draws material from several different periods of Hendrix's career. Though First Rays rightly belongs in the top tier of Hendrix albums, Delta is neither coherent nor strong enough to reach that height.
Listeners expecting the consistent brilliance of the studio albums Hendrix completed will be disappointed--after all, the fact that Hendrix himself could have included these recordings on his albums is a sign of their lesser potential. Delta should serve as a supplement to a complete collection of Hendrix's studio recordings, one that already includes Are You Experienced?., Axis: Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland and First Rays.
Nevertheless, saying that something is second-rate for Jimi Hendrix still means it can be very good. A few of these tracks rank among Hendrix's most remarkable recordings, while others--"Little Wing," "All Along the Watchtower," and "Sweet Angel" --are different versions of his best songs. Guitar-playing Hendrix disciples will also not be disappointed by the wealth of blistering fretwork this album offers, particularly because nearly half of its tracks are instrumentals.
Delta opens with the soul-tinged, thickly textured sound of "Look Over Yonder," which moves insistently forward, propelled by Hendrix's typically stinging guitar leads. Despite being an elaborately finished product that holds the listener's attention, the song is simply not very distinguished. This explains why Hendrix chose not to include a version of it in Axis: Bold As Love, his second studio album.
A curious instrumental version of the classic Hendrix balled "Little Wing" follows. An early demo with only guitar and drums, its heavy, muscular feel is very different from the delicate beauty of the final version. Many will be hard-pressed to recognize it as "Little Wing" --it seems more like Hendrix's "Angel," an early demo of which is also included on this collection. This "Angel" is much closer in feel to the almost final version available on First Rays, but is marred by the sound of the primitive drum machine Hendrix was using to keep time.
The title track of the collection is probably the most interesting stylistically. With its jazz sensibility and horn accompaniment, "South Saturn Delta" marks one of the most intriguing musical avenues Hendrix was pursuing before his death. One can only imagine what would have resulted had plans to collaborate with such jazz greats as trumpeter Miles Davis actually come to fruition. While the song represents an embryonic conception, the fusion of "South Saturn Delta" hints at what would undoubtedly have been a very exciting phase of Hendrix's career.
"Power of Soul" and "Message To The Universe" are both studio versions of songs which were featured on Band of Gypsys in live form. Both exhibit the funky tendencies of the rhythm section Hendrix assembled after the breakup of the original Experience band. With its overdubs and delay effects, this "Power of Soul" is distinct from the rawer Band of Gypsys version, but "Message to the Universe" has little to offer over its brilliant live counterpart.
There are three extended, bluesy instrumental jams on the album: "Tax Free," "Midnight" and "Pali Gap." All have merit--after all, anytime Hendrix digs into his guitar, sparks are bound to fly. "Pali Gap," with the flowing interplay between its two guitar parts, is the most remarkable and brilliant performance on this album, with inspired soloing and beautiful textures from beginning to end. "Pali Gap" belongs in the company of Hendrix's greatest recordings ever and is probably the most lamented omission from First Rays (the compilers of that album believed Hendrix did not intend to include the song).
Hendrix was a great admirer of songwriter and performer Bob Dylan's work and was a brilliant interpreter of his songs. The most well-known of these covers, "All Along The Watchtower," is included here along with a version of "Drifter's Escape." To the certain disappointment of many listeners, this "Watchtower" is not even a different take of the song but simply an earlier mix of the version included on Electric Ladyland. Since the differences are subtle at best--the original final version was mixed by Jimi himself while this one bears Chas Chandler's mark--there seems to be little point to its inclusion here. "Drifter's Escape" is fairly polished and interesting, but clearly does not lend itself to Hendrix's style as well as "Watchtower."
The second real standout in this collection is "The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam's Dice," a whimsical tune originally released as a B-side. Understandably excluded from Hendrix's studio albums because of its outlandishness, "Stars" nevertheless has an enjoyable verse and absolutely scorching guitar work--perhaps the most intense-sounding of any Hendrix studio recording. Enhanced by special effects pedals, his amplifier seems ready to explode any second. "Stars" is certainly a thrill ride not to be missed.
The recent transfer of control of Hendrix's estate to his father has begun a new era for the guitarist's legacy. Previous recordings were mostly in the hands of producer Alan Douglas, who selectively released and doctored them for over twenty years, arousing much controversy among Hendrix fans. With the release of Delta and First Rays, many are hopeful that all existing Hendrix recordings will be released and in their original forms.
Hendrix single-handedly revolutionized--perhaps defined--rock guitar, and the release of documents of his brilliance, such as South Saturn Delta, will always be greatly appreciated.