It almost seems as though it is becoming a habit to kick off the new year with a mighty new Steve Vai album. It was almost exactly a year ago when his previous studio outing, “Inviolate,” saw the light of day. That particular installment to his towering legacy was markedly of that idiosyncratic “no-holds-barred modal guitar capriccios” variety that he is so famous for, whereas this upcoming effort is perhaps a little less frantic; it is a sort of backflip in time, a nod toward his hard-rockin’ years as a sideman to David Lee Roth in the 1980s. It probably has something to do with the fact that this record was recorded back in 1991. Entitled “Vai/Gash,” the album is due out on January 27th, 2023, via Favored Nations / Mascot Label Group and there is a story as to why the endeavor was shelved for 30 years.
As Mr. Vai reflects in the liner notes, “around 1990, I was overcome with a desire to rip out what I thought would be a straight-ahead type of rock record that contained the kind of music I had to listen to when I was that teenager ensconced in the biker culture.” It was through these biker circles that Vai met Johnny ”Gash” Sombrotto, who is responsible for the robust hard-rock belting on the eight songs that were recorded as a spur-of-the-moment -type affair in 1991. As it happened, Vai was also starting to work on his third studio album, “Sex and Religion,” around that time, with Devin Townsend, so this biker-rock side project was put on hold for the time being. Unfortunately, Sombrotto passed away in 1998 before this project was fully brought to fruition, and, disheartened, Vai put the master tapes away for good – until now. After 3 decades, Vai has finally decided to share these songs with the world because, as he states in the press release, Gash “would have absolutely been the greatest rock lead singer you would ever want to know.”
So, with this back story in mind, I plunged into the album; I wasn’t really sure what to make of Vai‘s claim that Sombrotto was absolutely the greatest hard-rock singer – after all, Vai had released a good few absolutely brilliant hard-rock albums with David Lee Roth just a few years earlier. Then again, after a few spins, it becomes clear that these two rock singers represent two completely different schools of hard rock. In his prime in the 1980s, Roth was a hard-rock crooner of the vaudeville type, a sort of Cab Calloway character in spandex, whereas Sombrotto comes off more like a genuine Harley Davidson enthusiast (something that he actually was) having a blast at a biker meeting. On the same note, it also seems that Vai is holding back a little; while there is a hefty amount of guitar shredding present in the songs, Vai goes a tad easier on the whammy-bar dive bombs and over-the-top fretboard gymnastics than he did, say, on those late-1980s Roth albums. It feels almost as though the songs were crafted as a genuine and heartfelt homage to the genre. Judging by these tracks alone, you wouldn’t believe that this is the same guy that used to play with Frank Zappa. So, I would go as far as to say that this unearthed hard-rock effort is perhaps better targeted at the hard-rock audience rather than diehard fanboys of quantum guitar madness. Okay, Vai has flirted with the hard-rock aesthetic from day one but, as far as I can remember, he has not released such an orthodox hard-rock effort before.
About the songs… maybe it’s just me but, listening to the album, I got frequent flashbacks of David Lee Roth‘s 1986 studio album, “Eat ‘Em and Smile.” It was far less eccentric than “Skyscraper” released 2 years later and, quite frankly, it has some of the best spandex-clad hard-rock riffs ever recorded. So, with this effort, Vai would have carried the torch rather beautifully, had he not chosen to put this entire project on the shelf for decades. To be more precise, these songs resonate maybe a tad less with the air of the mid-1980s spandex-rock bravado and more with the aura of modern-day Easy Rider. The riffs in “Busted” slap particularly hard.
So, all things considered, Vai‘s new album does have its merits, especially if the vintage hard rock is your cup of tea. Then again, if you’re expecting to be bulldozed by Mr. Vai‘s signature pyrotechnics, you might be in for a slight disappointment. There are no circus tricks and even the shredding is served in moderation, compared to some of Vai‘s other efforts. It needs to be stated that Sombrotto did have a fantastic hard-rock voice, a cross between Ozzy Osbourne and the hard-rock crooners of the era, so for a quality hard-rock endeavor, “Vai/Gash” delivers up to specs. All you really need to do is press play and head down on the highway.
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- In the Wind
- Let’s Jam
- Woman Fever
- She Saved My Life Tonight
- Danger Zone
- New Sensation
- Flowers of Fire
Steve Vai – guitars
Johnny ”Gash” Sombrotto – vocals
Favored Nations / Mascot Label Group