The Stratocaster roars, strings bending and twisting in the wake of a furious fretboard assault. The vocalist takes a sweet and bluesy approach to deliver melodies simultaneously inventive and catchy. This combination of infectious pop music hooks with virtuosic, exploratory guitar hasn't been common in recent years. Eric Gales is anything but common. Ten years ago, at the age of 15, he released his first record and won Guitar World's readers' poll as Best New Talent. He made one other solo album and one with his brothers, but he hadn't released anything else until earlier this year. That's What I Am, his newest CD, reveals Gales to be not only a guitar prodigy but a gifted songwriter.The Hendrix comparisons are inevitable, if too simple. Gales plays the Stratocaster left-handed, and he's an African-American rock musician. His album was released on Nightbird Records, owned and operated by members of Hendrix's family. But if Gales recalls any classic rock figure, Robin Trower is probably a more direct influence. Hendrix was an innovator, a ceaseless inventor who pushed musical boundaries every time he picked up the guitar. Trower modeled his guitar sound after Hendrix's early work and dug around in all the nooks and crannies of style that were available there. Gales is the first player in two decades to pick up on many of those rich ideas.
Of course, if Gales were just a Trower imitator, he'd be pretty boring. Fortunately, there's a lot of ZZ Top in Gales' style, too, as well as some older blues approaches; hip-hop even sneaks in. Gales doesn't rap nearly as well as he sings, but his dropping in an odd verse or two of that style into the rock seasons things nicely, as do the heavily syncopated rhythms that drive some of the songs. But Gales succeeds on his own terms as well by mixing and matching his influences to create a sound that commands attention on its own merits.