Steve Vai is the Marmite (other yeast extract spreads are available) of the guitar world. Talk to any guitarist and they will have an opinion to offer, likely to be either ‘stunning, virtuoso talent’ or ‘widdly, wanky stuff with no emotion’. I’ll come clean for this review and admit that I fall into the virtuoso camp and will gladly argue the point for hours if anyone fancies it 😉
The tracks Gravity Storm and Mullach a’ tSí (not a typo on my part, it is a version of the Irish lullaby originally recorded by Padraigín Ní Uallacháin) on the album show the two sides of the coin when it comes to Steve’s playing. Gravity Storm (below) is in your face, driving and full of ‘flailing’ as Steve so eloquently describes that particular facet of his playing. In complete contrast to that is Mullach a’ tSí which is a delicate, floating and beautiful piece of music.
Long time listeners will know that track 7 on any Steve Vai album tends to be reserved for the signature piece and Mullach a’ tSí has a similar feel to the amazing, Grammy award winning ‘Whispering A Prayer‘ – not as good in my opinion but a lovely song nonetheless.
The album itself is an indirect follow-on from the 2005 release ‘Real Illusion: Reflections’ and though there is a concept and a theme it isn’t a direct one. Listen to the two albums back-to-back and you will hear certain pieces that seem to fit but nothing that leaps out at you. The intention is that each record stands on its own but that over the three records in the series the concept will be dotted around, with a final release putting them into order and tying them all together. A lot of the narrative of these songs is based around Steve being a very spiritual person, exploring the relationship we have with nature and the world around us.
As with many things in life you can consume this album on a number of levels, pop it on in the background and enjoy it as an album of guitar based songs. Alternatively you could sit down and REALLY listen to it, pick out the subtle nuances and realise that, for example, on Gravity Storm the string bends at the end of each phrase must be incredibly hard to nail, keeping them in tune and in time.
Another example would be ‘Weeping China Doll’. On face value it sounds like a brooding, full bodied guitar riff that leads into a haunting and emotive song. However, delve a little deeper and you find that the inspiration for it came from Steve looking out of his studio window at roses his wife had planted, which set against the fence looked like notes on a sheet of music. He snapped a photo of the roses and transcribed nature into music…. the breed of rose being called ‘Weeping China Doll’.
This isn’t an entirely instrumental album and Steve has called upon the vocal talents of Aimee Mann and Beverly McClellan to bring a different dynamic to the record. Aimee Mann attended Berklee Music College at the same time as Steve and is an established artist in her own right. Fascinating fact for any Rush fans out there, the laughter at the start of Force Ten is her and she sang backing vocals on ‘Time Stand Still’. Aimee sings a duet with Steve on ‘No More Amsterdam’, a song she produced the lyrics for and it really works well, their voices sit together nicely.
Beverly McClellan will be familiar to American listeners as a contestant on the first series of The Voice (yes, the same awful show we have in the UK). Steve met Beverly while hosting an event for The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and was so impressed with her vocal prowess that once he had written John the Revelator knew that she was perfect for the job. She has also accompanied him on tour, showing audiences her multi-instrumental abilities and that sometimes these talent shows do have their uses.
John the Revelator is a bit of a stand-out track for me on the album, being inspired by the 1930 song by Blind Willie Johnson and featuring a sample of the original vocal at the start of the track. Beverly sings the calls, with an assembled gospel choir answering back the response.
If you have never seen a photo of Beverly before you would think from listening to the song that someone along the lines of Whoopi Goldberg is singing, testament to the power and range of her amazing voice. The track flows seamlessly into the next, ‘Book of the Seven Seals’, carrying on the gospel theme to the accompaniment of a surprisingly heavy guitar riff but it all seems to work rather well.
So while this might not be the greatest release we have ever seen from Steve Vai and any new listeners would be advised to start elsewhere in his back catalogue (Fire Garden for instance) any ardent fans will lap it up with eagerness. Maybe once the concept has been fulfilled and has been pulled together into a coherent piece it will ‘fit’ better… we shall have to wait and see, hopefully not another seven years please Mr Vai!
The Story of Light is out now on Favoured Nations. You can catch Steve on tour across America and Europe this autumn, check http://www.vai.com/tourdates for more details.