In Greek and Roman mythology, there was a serpentine water monster, Hydra, which could regenerate its many heads: for every head chopped off, Hydra would regrow at least two. In a way, it is quite an apt metaphor for the eccentric guitar wizardry of Steve Vai. Just when you think you’ve got your head around one of his topsy-turvy guitar licks, along comes at least two new ones that will boggle your mind. Over the course of his more-than-40-year career, from the early days of being a Frank Zappa alumni and a trusted sidekick of David Lee Roth to his expansive solo work, Vai has routinely transformed what would appear to be outrageously impossible into something very much possible – and better yet, Vai’s other-worldly knack for writing fascinating music – music that is something more than just a collection of pyrotechnical circus tricks – has remained intact to this day. His latest installment of such invigorating tunes will be released digitally and on CD on January 28th, 2022, via Favored Nations/Mascot Label Group, under the title, “Inviolate.” The vinyl LP for the connoisseurs of the old-fashioned will follow on March 18th. In a rather endearing fashion, the new outing is laced with the sonic echoes of all the various collaborators with whom Vai has worked over the years, from Zappa and Roth to Devin Townsend – and of course, all of his trademark elements are present, too: the dive-bombing whammy-bar legatos, the rapid-fire guitar licks, and that enigmatic atmosphere which almost feels as though you’ve had your delicate ears exposed to some sort of alien love secrets.
The album sets things in motion with a strong cinematic feel. The fusion-tinged opener, “Teeth of Hydra,” is an instrumental stroll through the exotic, sonic badlands of vintage espionage films of the John le Carré variety, with the soundtrack duties handed over to Vai as though under the supervision of Devin Townsend. The zither-like elements in the song, quite obviously, evoke a somewhat Mediterranean feel – so deeply, in fact, that you cannot completely avoid thinking about the Sean Connery era film adaptation of the James Bond franchise, From Russia with Love, set in Istanbul – minus the iconic John Barry guitar twang.
The Greek mythology theme continues on the track, “Zeus in Chains,” with the music resonating by turns with a subtle Townsend vibe and the happy-go-lucky hard-rock aesthetics of the late 1980s David Lee Roth. When Vai lets his guitar sing, the skyscraping guitar melodies float like a butterfly, in nothing short of an acrobatic way, and then sting like a B-52. Yeah, you can almost hear the sound of the North Star calling.
On this album, there is a little bit of everything. The video single, “Little Pretty,” sounds as though the protagonist of the Legend of Zelda game series, Link, had taken to improvising with the Ocarina of Time while stoned out of his mind. The plastic jazz-funk of “Candlepower” seems to reminisce on the happy, pastel-shaded recollections from the “Passion & Warfare” era. ”Apollo in Color,” in turn, sounds like a full-on, cardio fusion-jazz punch-up in the mosh pit and ”Avalancha” is yet another track that will put a smile on every Devin fanboy. This wouldn’t be a genuine Steve Vai offering if it stuck to one genre, exclusively.
If one track stands out, it’s the bluesy ballad of a track, “Greenish Blues.” The blues puritans would probably lynch me if I claimed that the track was in any way blues, really. Besides, I wouldn’t know. I don’t really listen to that genre. What I do know is that the Gary Moore -styled passages soon give way to Vai‘s signature guitar mayhem – and against all odds, it works. It probably has very little to do with blues but it sounds pretty damn exciting – alien blues, maybe?
The album closer, “Sandman Cloud Mist,” is another ballad, but a distinctively more restrained one compared to the blues number. It brings things to a close with a somewhat dreamy and plaintive touch. It is perhaps a wise and deliberate move on Mr. Vai‘s part, since the previous track, “Knappsack,” is quite an extensive exercise in rapid-fire guitarism.
Usually, instrumental guitar albums fall in the category of “music to listen to while cruising down the highway.” Steve Vai has never really been a servant in that parish of 6-stringed instrumentalists though. Not to advocate the use of any type of narcotics, but Vai’s music would fit better on the soundtrack for a roller-coaster ride while under the influence of class-A hallucinogens. It has those distinguishing characteristics of a sonic free-fall into the unknown. That’s why it’s so intriguing and exciting, still, after 40 years.
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- Teeth of the Hydra
- Zeus in Chains
- Little Pretty
- Apollo in Color
- Greenish Blues
- Sandman Cloud Mist
Steve Vai – guitars
Favored Nations/Mascot Label Group