It's impossible to weigh the depth of influence Harvey "The Snake" Mandel has had on guitar players since recording the classic Cristo Redentor album in 1968. Though he didn’t invent the now widely used tapping technique, he was the first to adapt it to electric Chicago blues, psychedelic rock, and groove-oriented jazz, growing it out with his signature use of sustain. Mandel came up on the Chicago scene in the early '60s with peers Steve Miller, Charlie Musselwhite, Mike Bloomfield, and Barry Goldberg. A shortlist of the blues legends he's played with is arresting: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Albert King, and Otis Rush. He was a member of Canned Heat at Woodstock, and auditioned for the Rolling Stones, playing on some tracks from 1975's Black and Blue.
Snake Pit is his first widely distributed album in 20 years. It was recorded over two days at Berkley's Fantasy Studios and co-produced by the guitarist and Tompkins Square label boss Josh Rosenthal. Mandel's band is also from Chicago -- keyboardist Ben Boye, drummer Ryan Jewell, guitarist Brian Sulpizio, and bassist Anton Hatwich -- and have all have worked with Ryley Walker. None had met Mandel before the sessions. The guitarist played them sketches on his iPhone and the process happened organically. Strings and overdubs were added later, but most tracks were cut live in one or two takes. These eight instrumentals run the style gamut. The opening title track and "JackHammer" are snarling, unwieldy slices of funky, wrangling rock built on single vamps. Mandel's sustain slices and cuts through his fills and solo. "Space Monkeys" threads blurry surf to careening, distorted, dirty-ass psych with some killer comping and fills from the impressive Boye-Mandel's creative foil throughout. "Nightin Gail" is a dreamy ballad with gorgeous Rhodes, droning Eastern modes, lithe strings, and a bubbling bassline that Mandel builds up with lovely chord voicings. "Baby Batter" uses a psych groove to spiral out into action film-style jazz. The strings could have been arranged by Richard Evans or Johnny Pate. The same goes for "Before Six," which draws more on jazz-rock with funky overtones. The strings are swept into a maelstrom prompted by the rhythm section and the guitarist's transcendent playing. No Mandel album would be complete without blues. There are two excellent yet contrasting examples here. The slow-burning "Buckaroo" comes straight from the vintage Chicago lounge tradition, but is chock-full of nasty reverb, sustain, wah-wah, and controlled distortion. "Ode to BB" is a show-closing rave-up stroll, a grand finale of strut, swagger, and gutbucket boogie with jazzy interludes from Boye and Sulpizio shining. This young band pushes Mandel hard on Snake Pit. There's no room for noodling or hero worship, it's all red meat and bone. The boldness and hunger in Mandel's playing not only achieves the hallmarks of his best sides from the '60s and '70s, but at times reaches further. Not just a guitar nerd's album, Snake Pit is a stone killer from top to bottom.