Review : Steve Vai - The Story of Light
PopmattersInstrumental guitar rock is a tricky thing to do well. I’m not talking about styles like post-rock and all of its other “post” variants, which by their nature are cinematic and don’t require vocals most of the time. (Even when vocals are present, they’re usually ethereal and low or equal to other instruments in the mix.) Instead, I’m talking about guys like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, arguably the two most important musicians working in the genre today. Satriani, famous for teaching both Vai and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, laid the groundwork for instrumental rock with 1987’s Surfing with the Alien, following that up with an impressive string of late ‘90s albums that showed both his skill on the instrument and his ability to mold the guitar to different styles (2000’s electronic-heavy Engines of Creation is an intriguing example). Unfortunately, the last good thing we’ve heard from him is 2006’s Super Colossal, and even that lacked the strength of his best material. Satriani has become a victim of writing great hooks. You may think this would be a good thing for a songwriter of his type, and you’d be right, but when writing instrumental rock that retains typical pop song structures, the guitar often ends up taking the place of the vocalist. The result is that, despite some tasty solos (of which Satriani is in no shortage), his latest records sound like a collection of above-average backing tracks. Well, that, and no self-respecting artist should ever refer to himself Professor Satchafunkilus. Ever.
In the classic case of the student becoming the master, Vai has upstaged his cohort by elevating guitar rock to the level of classical compositions, as well as a strong Eastern melodicism running through his most recent work. Yes, some songs do suffer from being a rock song in need of vocals, but as he has matured, so have his backing arrangements. Vai’s career jumpstarted when he sent Frank Zappa tabulations of some of his most difficult pieces. Zappa, wisely seeing the talent in this young “stunt guitarist”, as he called him, included him in the rotating group of musicians who participated in the late composer’s highly productive run in the ‘80s. Zappa’s influence has always been present in Vai’s music: His 1984 debut Flex-Able reeks of Zappa’s eclecticism. But when Vai put Sound Theories, Vol. I and II, where he collaborated with Holland’s Metropole Orkest for an invigorating set of modern classical pieces that merged Vai’s guitar noodling with unique orchestral arrangements, Zappa’s role in his artistic journey was most clear. Zappa himself had written classical music, the best example being his final album The Yellow Shark. For years, however, it was plainly obvious that Zappa, while a rock musician, was by no means just an ax-slinger/songwriter. He approached his music with a sensibility of one well-versed in music theory and daring composition. The echoes of Stravinsky in Zappa’s music are undeniable....full text
ConsequenceofsoundBeneath the impossibly fast salvos of notes and dramatic whammy bar heroics, guitarist and composer Steve Vai retains an immense understanding of music. The man wrote his first orchestral arrangements while still in his teens. However, Vai’s grasp on the inner workings of music has never really translated into records for average music fans t0 enjoy: He makes music for musicians, and he’s quite proud of that fact, even going so far as to find a record label dedicated solely to providing a place for those artists with similarly athletic styles to call home.
Vai’s latest release, The Story of Light, is the second part of a planned trilogy that began with 2005′s Real Illusions: Reflections. Though the trio of albums are intended to eventually be arranged as something of a singular concept piece, there is no chronological organization or specific plot to speak of between the first two albums — at least not one that can be sorted by listening alone — though Vai has explained it as being “the cosmic journey of a man driven mad by grief, intertwining tragedy, revelation, enlightenment, and redemption.”
The Story of Light has little in the way of vocals, though when voices other than Vai’s guitar do appear, they are certainly substantial. The lead single for the album — a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator” — features The Voice finalist Beverly McClellan belting her way through the gospel number, which has been given the proper Vai treatment. The final result is an exciting mix of chunky and warped guitar rhythms holding down the fort as Vai’s unbelievably deft lead guitar twists in and out of McClellan’s call and response with a full choir. The song links up immediately with “Book of the Seven Seals”, a track that contrasts the bombast of “Revelator” with a hokey-sounding choir and an awkward vibe that would be at home as the soundtrack to the bonus round of your average B-list Sega Genesis game. Though the two were obviously intended to juxtapose one another, “Book of the Seven Seals” has a cheesiness that earns it the distinction of being the weakest track on the album....full text
AllmusicGuitar virtuoso Steve Vai's music has its roots in some unknown interstellar worlds. From his earliest mid-'80s solo output, Vai's largely instrumental tricked-out guitar compositions found some strange middle ground between heavy metal bliss and space-traveling experimentalism. Released in 2005, Real Illusions: Reflection found Vai shifting from his alien undercurrents to a more spiritual vibe, with themes of new age discovery and introspection filling the album. The Story of Light, Vai's eighth studio album of solo work, continues down the spiritual path, infusing his monolithic metal fusion playing with inward reflections, as well as expanding on the "rock fable" begun on the last album. His signature heavily processed tone and liquid playing characterize barnburning runs like the funky "Velorum" and the roadhouse stomp of "Gravity Storm," while softer tracks like "Creamsicle Sunset" and "The Moon and I" wander longingly through various time signatures and modes, the later dabbling with Middle Eastern scales. The most winning moments on The Story of Light are the unexpected ones, as with "No More Amsterdam," a zigzagging ballad about the ennui of world travel that finds Vai duetting with singer/songwriter institution Aimee Mann, who also wrote the song's lyrics. Most uncommon to the guitarist's catalog thus far is his two-part cover of bluesman Blind Willie Johnson's "John the Revelator." This surprising cut is sung largely by Beverly McClellan from television's The Voice, backed by a full gospel choir with samples of Johnson's original recording of the song sampled in intermittently. The effect, much like the entire album, is epic, but not the type of epic we've come to expect from one of the longer-running guitar gods of his era. While always prolific, uncompromising, and inarguably shredding, it's refreshing to see that Vai is still deeply interested in expanding his sound. Even at a well-established level and decades into his craft, Vai takes some surprising risks on The Story of Light, and the album almost always benefits from them....full text
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