Of all the myriad styles of rock and metal, the toughest for me to review tend to be instrumental guitar albums like this one, the tenth from guitar wizard Steve Vai. Instrumental albums in other styles, especially post-rock, stoner rock and psychedelic rock, tend to be about conjuring journeys into existence for us to take with the band. One measure of success is whether we as listeners feel transported. It doesn't really matter where, as long as we're taken somewhere. However, albums like this are more about conjuring new sounds out of an old instrument.
And that's where Vai, because he can, kinda cheats, because he brings a new instrument to the table. That insane creation on the cover of this one is the Hydra, a combination instrument constructed by Hoshino from his vague designs, and, just in case you wondered, yes, he absolutely plays the beast on this album. I would highly recommend checking out the official music video for Teeth of the Hydra, which showcases both the instrument itself and his techniques for playing it. In addition to the regular six string guitar, it also contains a fretless bass, a twelve string guitar and a limited harp, enabling to be an effective one man band. All he needs behind him is percussion.
Teeth of the Hydra is fascinating and that's the first thing I want from Steve Vai. No, it didn't take me anywhere but it sounds good and it never lost my interest from a technical perspective, even a half dozen views in. The other thing I want are those new sounds and he stirs some of those up on the second track, Zeus in Chains, which has all the melodies and tone we might want from a guitar piece playing in the background that catches our attention, plus the quirky weirdness that is Vai doing new things with his instrument.
So far, so good. The good news for the rest of the album is that it's a delightful listen. I could listen to that fluid tone all day and almost did, and any random moment you care to skip ahead to will be as delightful as the one you left. The bad news is that it's pretty consistent throughout, which may or may not be a problem, depending on what you're looking for. If you just adore Vai's tone, then I would guarantee that you're going to adore this album. Let it play and let it repeat. You won't be disappointed. However, if you're looking for variety and more of those interesting sounds, it's not as straightforward for you. He's playing music here more than he is stunt guitar.
There are nine songs on offer, racking up three quarters of an hour of running time, and there are maybe two that stand out from the crowd for some reason. However, there are moments in most of them that will have you wondering what he just did and how he did it. Little Pretty is a fantastic example of this, because it's just another piece of almost the metal equivalent of smooth jazz, an accomplished delivery of smooth jazz but smooth jazz nonetheless, until a few odd moments when it goes somewhere surprising and we perk up and wonder what just happened. Those moments do make the piece, but they need the rest of it to serve as the build and contrast.
The two that stand out are Avalancha and Knappsack. The former is much heavier than the rest of the album, suggesting that Vai isn't just able to step in to Whitesnake on a moment's notice when needed but Testament too, should Alex Skolnick ever need a stand in some night. I'd love to hear a sample of what that might sound like and Avalancha may be as close as we get. The latter has him imitate a bee for a while, which is definitely strange but clearly a comfortable part of his musical toolbox, which we all know is one of the most fleshed out toolboxes in the business.
I should mention also that these stand out because of style rather than quality. Everything here is pretty consistent in quality, that quality being high. If you twisted my arm viciously enough that I just had to name one piece as the best, I might think for a while and give you Candlepower. I'd say that it works better as a complete piece than many of the other tracks, while still doing plenty of interesting things. It doesn't soar so much as it picks, but it picks really well.
So there's Vai's new album, which really does what you think it's going to do. If you're a fan of this sort of thing, then you're going to love it. Vai is, and has been for decades, easily one of the most technically accomplished and most inventive guitarists in the business. This is close to everything you might want from a new album of his. If you don't like displays of virtuoso talent and prefer an album of riffs and hooks and, dare I say it, vocals, then, of course, this isn't for you.