Beneath 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.
“Creamsicle Sunset” shows Vai’s guitar playing in rather uncharted territory for the axe-man, floating through lush, clean tones that recall the great lullaby-esque ballads of the Hawaiian-influenced guitarists of the 1950s, and rounded out by Vai using a playing technique that produces a pinched sound, similar to traditional Eastern stringed instruments. This is just one of countless reminders why Vai is one of the most revered guitarists on the planet: His progressing ability to coax different sounds from his guitars. Later in the album, Vai similarly exhibits his uncanny musicality on the track “Mullach A’tSi”, which is possibly the most dynamic number of the entire album, and features Vai paying homage to the vocal-style of guitar work that Jeff Beck pioneered, over a subtle-but-crucial harp part. Yes, harp.
Fans of Vai’s high-energy rock playing will not be left wanting with this album. The track “Velorum” has a prog-meets-Hendrix vibe and is significant for its monstrous display of guitar chops. However, “Gravity Storm” is the shred coup-de-grace, a hectic romp through all of the man’s signature tricks and licks over a heavy groove. The track’s title is also the name of his new signature guitar pickups, which hints at Vai’s own fondness for the song.
The Story of Light is business as usual for Vai, a man who fights to avoid repeating himself and always tries to find new territory on an instrument that he has described as being “infinite” in its creative potential.
Essential Tracks: “John the Revelator”, “Creamsicle Sunset”