304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
Bluesdoodles rating: 4 Doodle Paws – a wonderful listen for guitar instrumental lovers who like songs, not unfettered widdling! Vai can write and play all moods and puts both skills to very good
I first came across Steve Vai when he was but one of a long list of musicians listed on a Frank Zappa album; the Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar album was the one and Steve was a rhythm guitarist. Then in 1986 I discovered his lead abilities on the Alcatraz Disturbing the Peace album (especially on the very apt Wire and Wood track.) Then, there he was on the David Lee Roth solo albums, Eat ‘Em and Smile and Skyscraper…two very fine albums that illustrated his abilities to be subtle was well as rapid. He appeared again with Whitesnake in 1989 on Slip Of The Tongue and caused a bit of a stir amongst fans as his lead techniques were deemed by some to be unsuited to their style: I always thought he did a canny job as he was standing in, on mostly finished songs, for the injured Vandenburg and certainly shone at Donnington on the Slip… tour. His first solo album however, (Flex-able from 1984) was the one that further demonstrated his abilities and invention as he progressed to a major solo star in his own right. The rest, as they say is history, with all his solo virtuoso albums selling by the bucket load. (If you’re a completist beware: he appears on over sixty albums from G3 to my only permissible Christmas music, Merry Axemas.)
He has a new solo release, called Inviolate, out in January and I can’t be the only one that expected the title to be spelt In – Vai-olate surely. Anyway, it is significant, especially to guitar geeks, in that it features his two latest guitars: the Ibanez PIA signature (a newly designed variation on his ‘go to’ brand and design) but more interestingly, the weird-looking, three-necked (but only two headstocks) beast of a thing he has called “The Hydra” for obvious reasons…it has a seven and twelve-string (which is only half fretted) neck with a four-string bass on the headless neck! It’s also stacked with loads of electronic wizardry. How does it sound?
Well, the opening track, Teeth of the Hydra, was written on and for this beast and it sounds rather good. The track ranges through some nice subtle bends and runs, interspersed with a quality riff. It also has the essential ingredient for me when listening to instrumental albums…the words may not be there, but the guitar does the talking and the track doesn’t dissolve into a pointless shred-fest. This one tells a story in three chapters of inventive playing.
Zeus in Chains adds a doozy backing to some excellent and, again, subtle and expressive lead work with the harmonised bridge a lightness over the dark riff. Little Pretty is a funky workout played almost exclusively on a Gretsch hollow body guitar that brings a different tone and feel from the Ibanez domination. The ‘verses’ he teases out of it are clever, melodic and show his innate feel.
Candlepower could be Zappa at his most playful as the complex rhythm work sets the stage for the picked chords and, what sounds like, tightening and loosening the machine heads to make for a fascinating song. Apollo in Color sound as though nearly all of his 400 plus guitars get an airing…the sounds are that dense and yet shine clear through the frantic bass line. Avalancha is heavy rock without a vocalist but retains the melodies over a weighty riff, bass and drum backing.
Greenish Blues is next and a title like that suggests the influence of the great Peter Green to me: sure enough, the pace slows and the blues shine through although Peter never used the same dragging and bending techniques in quite the same way. It is a well crafted and released modern blues song and, I guess because of that, it’s the track I usually go to first.
The next song becomes even more amazing when you realise that it was written and performed by Vai with his right arm in a sling! Apparently his surgeon, a Dr Knapp) called the sling a Knappsack. So this one-handed performance (also on video) is all the more amazing as it is frantically paced at times plus the control and power he must have in his left hand. To see his hand gliding and hammering the fretboard is a sight to see.
The final track, Sandman Cloud Mist, is the only one on this release I would class as archetypal Vai: the subtle bends and runs over a gentle backing that lasts throughout, amply showing all of his strengths as he, inevitably, fits dazzling runs into the subtlety.
I think, needless to say, that if you like guitar instrumental albums, you cannot help but love this one. Vai is still an innovator of sound as well as guitars. Unlike many, he supplies a varied and structured, listenable collection and this one is probably one of his best.
Teeth of the Hydra
Zeus in Chains
Apollo in Color
Sandman Cloud Mist
Steve Vai: guitars
Terry Bozzio and Vinnie Colaiuta: drums
Bryan Beller, Philip Bynoe and Henrik Linder: bass
David Rosenthal: keyboards
Inviolate will be released digitally and on CD on January 28, 2022, by Favored Nations / Mascot Label Group. The LP will follow on March 18.
((Because, for whatever reason, iTunes files by first name, after more Steve Vai, I was listening to one of the masters and innovators of blues guitar…Stevie Ray Vaughan with a healthy dose of House Is A Rockin’ and some Crossfire for good measure.)