Reviewing a Steve Vai album is not the sinecure it may feel like to listen to. It’s not as if your correspondent can blush, clumsily tripping all over his own colossal ignorance: “Steve has made vast improvements in his playing” or “Steve’s songwriting on this album is the subject of considerable innovation”. With a discography as literally mind-blowingly esoteric as Vai’s and already worthy of a lifetime of study for guitar cognoscenti – let alone the rest of us lesser mortals – this is the stuff of genuine musicology, where one could spend a year attempting to comprehend the intertwining deliberation of two discordant notes. The auditory challenge is of a different order entirely to say Yngwie Malmsteen, where, for better or worse (for better, obviously!), one knows what to expect. But not so from supernal Steve – who emancipated himself from the strictures of metal, hard rock (and any identifiable genre, for that matter) long ago – embracing fusion, funk, and just about everything in the majesty of Gaia’s womb; throwing it into his own massive warlock’s cauldron….and simply calling it Steve Vai.
Nevertheless, that’s not to say Vai has ever forgotten how to be heavy, whether in the strictly metal or the figurative, aesthetic sense, and Inviolate has an Aladdin’s cave’s worth of the latter; while not neglecting to provide a congenial dollop of the former. While the best one can allow oneself here is to spout inane generalities and delineate broad tendencies pertaining to an album of this scope, this is all in Vai’s favour. His music is intended not to be analysed as much as to be spontaneously experienced without restraint or prejudice – in a kind of artful performative contradiction that raises consciousness while simultaneously mollifying the mind. As such, the atmospherically nonchalant Inviolate gracefully floats effortlessly upon a magic carpet far above mundane earthly matters which, frankly, is a rather welcome and pleasant sensation in times of political chaos, social disintegration, and the utterly criminal Spotified-plague of music “listening” (and yes, it’s all connected. Buy Neil Young records).
Lead single “Little Pretty” is an excellent illustration of this, with its virtuosity, exhilarating melody, and complete lack of window dressing (Vai plays for himself, not us). And even when the magus quickdraws an overly obstruse “Candle Power” in short order (supported on drums by fellow Frank Zappa alumni Terry Bozzio and [elsewhere] Vinnie Colaiuta) and which features, apparently, an entirely new guitar technique Vai developed named “joint shifting” or enacting multiple string bends in opposite directions simultaneously (!), what astonishes is not the maddening technicality, but the degree of unfiltered melodicity the piece retains. The same applies to the playful, seductively serpentine album opener “Teeth Of The Hydra”, composed and presumably played seamlessly in one take on the, uh, stupefying properties of Vai’s by-now infamous Ibanez two-headstock, three-necked hybrid “Hydra” guitar (hosting 7 and 12-string guitars, a ¾ scale-length bass, 13 sympathetic harp strings [I’m not making this up] on its back, half-fretless necks and all manner of technical accoutrements). Hypnotically drawing the listener in like Mowgli by The Jungle Book’s Kaa, “…Hydra” even slips in some Whitesnake Slip Of The Tongue-style Shangri-La-futurism next to the sitars, slap bass, and the Buddha of perception knows what else.
Because it’s all very… sexual, as “Zeus In Chains” also attests, whose keyboards (courtesy of David Rosenthal), amusingly enough, almost make it sound like it could have appeared on the more, well, erotomaniacal parts of Dream Theater’s magisterial Awake album. The bacchanalia continues (replete with God complex?) with the jazz rock of “Apollo in Color” thanks to its particularly juicy bass, thrusting away in a ouroboros-like duel (on the same instrument, naturally) with the guitar lead before being given its own solo space to, er, discharge. “Knappsack”, recorded with Vai using only his left hand (his right arm was in a specially-designed – natch – sling due to an accident while making pizza – yes, even he walks among men, occasionally – and engineered by one Dr Knapp, obviously) summons to mind a frantic game of speed-dating, complete with doomed, frustrated-bumblebee nervosity over which last cold-shouldering flower to attempt to pollinate before time is up. And, as the good man literally has nothing left to prove, he even allows himself a proto-metal fretwank-fest in “Avalancha”, which, frankly, adds little to Inviolate, other than to demonstrate the attainment of complete and total artistic freedom with this rather deliberate, one senses, exception to the rule.
But it’s (album closer) “Sandman Cloud Mist” and “Greenish Blues” which are the definitive highlights of Inviolate. Vai has always excelled at soothing yet supple pieces where the exact right note at the exact right moment (a bit like the right spot at the right time in certain types of carnal activity, really) makes one disintegrate into a mountain of goosebumps through the perfect harmony of technicality and sensuality, an otherworldly level of mastery achieved by very few of even his direct guitar hero competitors. “Sandman…” fittingly provides the cure to insomnia, not via pharmaceutical persiflage but rather with the musical equivalent to post-coital satisfaction, while the supremely tender “Greenish Blues” is that rarest of things – the bewildering and fleeting sensation that love may actually be able to accompany it. Not to be too vulgar, but you’ll want to play this subtly in the background with someone you really, really, like… and not just for the immediate potential payoff, either.
So, what’s in all this for metalheads? Beyond the obvious by now – everything, really. Including (but certainly not limited to) the aesthetic, mind-blowing and emancipatory extremes to which dedication to supreme (musical) technicality can go, something common to all serious players and something beloved by all serious fans. While the halcyon days of the David Lee Roth band, Whitesnake, the iconoclastic Passion & Warfare album, or launching the career of peculiar metal prodigy and Strapping Young Lad (well, OK) Devin Townsend (Sex & Religion) may be long gone, metalheads of all stripes will find plenty to worship here (and as has always been the case). For Immanuel Kant, “genius is the innate aptitude through which nature gives the rule to art”; for Steve Vai, art expands the vistas of nature and gives new rules to genius. Inviolate flows like a river of mineral water through valleys of illumination and peaks of perception; The Audience Is Listening.
In a show of gratitude, no rating – this music emphatically isn’t created to be rated (and feeling a bit, erm, violated – in a good way, clearly). Behold the poverty of words compared to what music can do – and listen without prejudice.
Steve Vai’s Inviolate was released by Favored Nations / Mascot Label Group on January 28th, 2022.