Steve Vai: guitar’s mad genius10/30/2013
The phrase “make it talk” was seemingly coined with Steve Vai in mind. Forged in the fires of Joe Satriani’s tutelage, shaped by the mind of Frank Zappa, Vai is one of those “guitarist’s guitarist” guys: someone who may not always be first in the mainstream line — he was twice left off Rolling Stone’s “100 greatest guitarists” list — but who nevertheless is regarded in musical circles as an unparalleled talent. Zappa referred to Vai as his “stunt guitarist,” and Vai was the first choice for David Lee Roth’s post-Van Halen supergroup, The Eat ‘em and Smile Band.
The fact that nobody plays like Vai is a reflection of the fact that nobody thinks like Vai. Much of his work strikes out at the listener from such obtuse angles that it’s difficult to imagine anyone approaching music this way. Like a master Chess player, Vai is always looking at the long game. His last two albums, 2005’s “Real Illusions: Reflections” and 2012’s “The Story of Light,” aren’t just concept albums. They are two-thirds of a concept trilogy, a story that’s a decade in the making and another one in the telling.
“When I started ‘Real Illusions’ I wanted to do a concept record, but I didn’t want to do it in the conventional way,” Vai said in an interview. “I wanted it to span a long period of time. I wanted to break it up into little pieces and put it out, not in a linear way. If you listen to ‘Real Illusions,’ then you will just hear a studio album, as you will not be able to put all of the pieces together. If you read the liner notes, then you can start to put little pieces together.
The idea is the same with ‘The Story of Light.’ It is like ‘Real Illusions’ as it is a studio album. That said, the songs are all based on characters in the story, but they are not in the right order. The third part of the trilogy, which I will do sometime in the future, will be similar.”
But, in keeping with Vai’s heady approach to, well, everything, his vision for the trilogy is one of layers upon layers. The result, as far as Vai is concerned anyway, is something for everyone.
“If you want to listen to the music without having to wrap your head around the heady esoteric story that I’m unfolding, that’s fine. You don’t have to follow the story,” Vai said. “But the plan is, and the plan has always been, to do three records based on this story — the ‘Real Illusions’ story. And then when they’re done, take all those three records and maybe create a box-set and put the songs in the proper order. Take the melody songs and put vocals on ‘em, and then glue them together with more material to make it a cohesive, linear, beginning-to-end kind of story.
“And that’s where I think the real story behind ‘Real Illusions’ will be understandable and more accessible. But right now, for those people who like to fetish the piecemeal, it’s kind of there, too.”
But, of course, Vai ultimately isn’t concerned about his work’s accessibility. He’s never viewed his audience as so worthy of contempt as to need their hands held. For Vai, the journey through an album is a personal experience that only really works when you’re given the opportunity to make your own conclusions.
“That’s why Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie and Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin were so successful,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Is radio going to like this? Are fans going to like this?’ The fans will like what is most inspiring to you.” CV