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With all of the guitar magazines touting Michael Angelo Batio as being the fastest in the business, it’s easy to get sucked into the rather ridiculous nonsense going around that he lacks anything in musicality or has a swelled ego as a result. I actually had the opportunity to speak with him when he did a clinic at my former guitar store a few months back and the guy is about as down to earth as you can get, not to mention very passionate about putting an actual song underneath his technical wonders rather than simply jamming notes into small spaces of time for the mere sake of it. Tabloid journalism and muckraking is often performed due to personal insecurities on the part of the pursuant; in the metal realm should be reserved only for the most mentally inept in our ranks, and by no coincidence, always is.
“Hands without Shadows” definitely lives up to its name and features some extremely technical moments, but when compared with the outlandish things that he does live, Batio provides us with a somewhat reserved presentation. It is mostly a collection of instrumental cover songs and medleys/homages to those who influenced him as a player. In some cases like “Burn” and “Dream On” the changes are mostly in added ornamentation to the melodies and further elaboration of the solos with a combination of various advanced techniques.
By contrast, in other tracks like “Tribute to Randy” and “All Along the Watchtower” the songs themselves have had their arrangements tinkered with to the point that they sound extremely different. The Hendrix cover can only really be truly recognized when he quotes the original guitar solos, while the verses sound a bit more melancholy. The “Crazy Train” portion of the Randy Rhoades tribute has been elaborated melodically, replacing the verse melody with some technical acrobatics. Batio discussed his reasoning for doing this at the clinic, stating that the verse line doesn’t particularly work well on any other instrument than a voice with words, which I agree with as I’ve played the melody note for note on the guitar and can testify that when played on a guitar, even Mozart at age 11 would agree, it sounds extremely comical.
The original instrumental compositions on here are a fairly intricate mix of shred and prog. metal. The only artist that I’d say sounds similar to him in this capacity is Patrick Rondat. There is a good deal of odd time signature usage, modal interludes, and even some jazzy sounding chord harmonies. Batio maintains a good balance of thematic material to counteract the temptation to simply spew out scale runs, a trap that many often fall into during their 1st year as a qualified shredder (I was not immune to this either). The title song is slightly more memorable than “Pray on, Prey”, but both are definitely keepers if you have a taste for elaborate instrumental metal.
If I had to pick a favorite of the collection on here, however, the Zepplin medley takes the lead hands down. I’ve never heard such an ingenious collage of classic Zepplin songs arranged in such an elaborate way, each one flowing perfectly into the next. Through it all Batio is mindful to keep the musical quotations obvious so that he doesn’t lose the listener, and successfully combines 6 timeless classics into a 7 minute epic. My favorite moment is the transition out of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” into the solo of “Whole Lotta Love”, which is again touched up with some tastefully realized shredding genius.
If you take a liking to virtuoso rock/metal guitar music and have an appreciation for the bands whose music is featured on here, this is an essential buy. I am proud to say that I have a copy signed by the creator of it himself. And for those of you who can’t get past the notion that music has to have words and singing or else it isn’t worth listening to, I’ll leave you with my favorite Eddie Van Halen quote. “Some people think a song without words isn't a real song. Tell that to Beethoven and he'll kick your ass!”