Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Steve Vai "The Story Of Light" Album Review - Virtuoso Vs a Good Listen?

When I am asked who my favourite guitarist is, one name invades my mind before my inevitable mumbling about how I can't just pick one player yadda yadda yadda.
Steve Vai.
My first encounter with the man who would cause my jaw to drop for the rest of my life was in 1986. David Lee Roth had released his first album post-Van Halen, and the single "Yankee Rose" had entered the charts. Being a Van Halen fan, I was not entirely sure Roth could do hard rock without Eddie backing him up.
Then, "Yankee Rose's" talking guitar intro convinced me that Roth would be OK without King Edward.

Queue teenage me freaking out - "How did he do that??" I kept wondering. (of course since then, I have come to realise that Vai's talking guitar is probably one of the more achievable things on the instrument technically that he does... but to teenage me, it sounded incredible and impossible.)
Over the years, I would never tire of Vai's playing - individual, manic, pristine, rude and always verging on the impossible technically. You knew when you were hearing him play - he had a clear, definable voice.
But - if there was one slight complaint, it would have to be that on his solo work, the songcraft could occasionally be... well, let's say it could be sonically similar. I know many Vai fans who will leap to the defense of the master here, pointing out the myriad of rhythmic grooves, tones... but there is a feeling with some of Vai's work that although your brain can pull apart the pieces and talk about why they are different to each other, your heart feels slightly unmoved at times.
In that context, I approach Vai's 2012 album The Story Of Light - a follow up to his 2005 album Real Illusions: Reflections. That album had been his most interesting release in quite a while, with that individual voice of his really 'speaking' throughout. (The voice and speaking metaphors are very difficult to avoid with Vai - his guitar playing really does have such a vocal quality to it.) The songs were also interesting - complex, idiosyncratic arrangements with thick layers - but retaining a nice, raw feel.
The Story Of Light continues along this vein, as you would expect with the release being designated the follow up. I won't go too deep into the dramatic backdrop that Vai has created for the work, suffice to say there is a strong story telling element that carries on from Reflections. And while that grandiose, thickly layered production is still in evidence, there is a lot more sonically carefree moments than is usual from Vai.
At his core, he is a control freak. He likes complex, mapped out arrangements and he likes precise, on the beat musicianship playing them. But this album feels different in more than a few moments. There are actual moments of jamming - and not shredding over a tight rock beat, but very much looser and more free form - a drummer who lays back loose on the beat and messes around with time; a bass player accenting interesting textures around the key and acting as counterpoint; and layers of Mr Vai himself, experimentally letting the feel take him to many different places. Is this Vai's version of jazz?
There are still songs, make no mistake. His raw take on the traditional blues of "John The Revelator" devolves into the semi-cheesy broadway of "Book Of The Seven Seals" - gotta love the tongue in cheek of that. Much as I tried, "The Moon And I" came across as a little too earnest for me - always a risk on the more ballad like tunes. Some cuts seem like 'stock' Vai - "Racing The World" and "No More Amsterdam" (special appearance from Aimee Mann) fit this mold for me. And in general, the album's pacing loses a little steam for mine.
But, the early creative energy of the jammy moments on "The Story Of Light", "Velorum" and the aforementioned duo of "John The Revelator" and "Book Of The Seven Seals" make up for it.
And "Gravity Storm" is pretty darn ripping.
My last gripe is that the keyboard sounds at times poke out a little too much - Steve has always liked his Synth's to sound 'out there' in mixes, but running them through a few dirty amps might have glued them into the overall texture a little more - or maybe he already did that and I am talking out of school. But I notice them at times, and my reaction is to wince rather than smile, which can't have been the intention.
I think overall Reflections is still the better album, but this is solid work from the master.
But then, what do I know? I really loved Sex & Religion, and not too many Vai fans seem to fall into that category.

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