Style: Hard Rock
Release Date: 27 Jan 2023
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Well, this is very different to Steve Vai's previous album, the far more expected Inviolate. That's a guitar album, the sort of thing that showcases what Vai can do with his instruments, including an impressive new one, the Hydra. Of course, he plays guitar here as well and sounds amazing, but it isn't a guitar album. It's an album of songs, performed in a variety of styles, with an actual singer delivering the sort of hooks you never hear on Steve Vai albums.
That's because this isn't remotely a new project, as highlighted by the fact that the Gash credited alongside Vai passed in 1998. That's Johnny "Gash" Sombretti, a friend of Vai's who helped him to record half an hour of the type of songs that they both enjoyed listening to while out riding their motorcycles. The entire bunch were written and recorded in only a couple of weeks, in "stream of consciousness" mode, presumably just jamming and seeing what worked, though Vai had demoed them already without a vocalist.
What's notable is that Gash wasn't known as a singer at all. He was just a biker friend who Vai had a feeling about, so invited him into the studio for no apparent reason, only to find how damn good he is behind the mike. It's a shame that Vai wasn't able to find a way to release these back then, so they continued to sit on a shelf for over thirty years, taken down annually around the anniversary of Gash's passing so Vai could remember his friend in music. He doesn't know why the time is now right to share them with the world, but he felt the need and I'm glad of that.
Nothing here is particularly unusual, because it was very deliberately written in a particular style to meet a particular need. That style turns out to be an upbeat, swaggering hard rock sound from the seventies, brought into the eighties by Van Halen and promptly tuned into the party mindset of the city of angels. So there's AC/DC here, there's Montrose, there's Black Oak Arkansas, mostly free of what the eighties transformed them into, though Busted is right out of the solo David Lee Roth playbook.
So don't come to this looking for imagination or originality. That was never what this was meant to be and it's telling that Vai seems rather subdued, apparently enjoying just playing music without a need to dive into his already sizeable bag of guitar tricks. He was firmly established as a star back in 1991, a cult following spawned from his years playing stunt guitar for Frank Zappa and the indie release Flex-Able enhanced by commercial work for Alcatrazz, Roth and Whitesnake, with Passion and Warfare a new highlight. He'd recorded far more inventive, technical and daunting material than this but doing that sort of thing would have been out of place here.
Come to this looking for fun, because it's a whole bundle of that. I never knew Gash, of course, so I've never mourned his passing, but this is so upbeat and vibrant that it doesn't remotely feel like a memorial. It feels like a glimpse into two musicians in a studio enjoying the moment and pouring out emotion in the universal form of music. That's why I don't feel sadness listening to this. I feel gratitude for the songs and joy in their being.
If you want to dip, the sassiest track is Busted, over a set of solid rockers like In the Wind, Let's Jam and Danger Zone. New Generation seems tailor made to perform in a small club, and She Saved My Life Tonight feels like something better suited to an arena but to much the same effect. They slow the pace down for Woman Fever to focus on the bluesy underbelly of this style and, if I could throw out a concern from the imaginary mindset of someone listening in 1991, I'd want more of that sort of thing. The closer, Flowers of Fire, softens things up in a different way but still keeps a loose and engaging party mindset.
But hey, this isn't an album to deconstruct. It's an album to just enjoy. It's easy to see Vai listening to these songs while hurting around California on his bike, losing himself in the music and a sheer sense of freedom and it may be that that's the best way to experience the album. So, get on your bike and ride!
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