I decided that I was going to treat myself this week, but it’s not without merit. Steve Vai is a legend. If there was ever a “Guitar God,” Stevie would be one of the first candidates. From his early days faced with the daunting task of transcribing Frank Zappa’s music, Vai would go on to play with many successful artists including David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, as well as becoming a staple of the guitarist showcase G3 Tour. Vai’s well known for his creative and technical approach to guitar, which is brought to flourish on his second and most popular solo album, Passion And Warfare. What kind of clinic are we in for?
Let me answer that one right away: one hell of a clinic. But the album feels like you’re at a clinic.
This is one of those albums I’ve always been aware of from my days of hankering away and trying to rip guitar solos with the best of them. Unless you’re particularly attached to the player, in modern days, I’ve seemed to notice guitarists tend to gravitate towards the singles or technique displays, and not the albums themselves. That’s all well and good for what it is, but you lose track of the artist’s voice. I knew Steve Vai could play guitar, but I didn’t know what he sounded like, and how his mind worked.
Passion And Warfare was released in 1990. It feels like an album from 1990. The early 90’s were a weird time for music. Hair had died, Hard Rock had come out of it, Grunge hadn’t risen to fruition yet, Pop wasn’t sure what it was doing, and we were just getting the genesis of our current Rap scene. Passion slots into the Hard Rock category well. It’s produced to that standard – it doesn’t sound cheesy or dated, just periodically relevant. I’d cringe at the crystal-like Piezo clean guitars in any modern context, but they help to create the texture of the album, especially during the more emotive track Sisters. It also serves to bolster Vai’s style and sound, which truthfully, feels more natural in big rock songs.
I mentioned that this album sounds like a clinic. It feels artificial – too good. Everything’s here. Want your tapping, legato phrases, whammy tricks, and general wankery? You won’t be searching for long. What distracted me wasn’t the playing and the soloing so much as the predictability of the melodic components. I get it. It’s hard to write an instrumental album. That doesn’t forgive Vai for assembling 14 vessels for showcases.
Maybe 10. There are some rather unnecessary moments on Passion And Warfare. The Audience Is Listening is punctuated by Vai’s “mom” giving a young “Stevie” a pep talk before an elementary school talent show. The song is a repetitive Van Halen style parody that’s consistently interrupted by narration that’s cringe-worthy the first time through, and entirely dismissible by the second. Ballerina 12/24 and Alien Water Kiss are effect-laden compositions, and judging by their track positions, meant to serve as sonic breaks during the course of the show.
Steve Vai is one of the best guitar players on the face of the planet. Passion And Warfare is most definitely an accomplished collection of exercises and lessons, and that’s how I prefer to digest it. It’s not all fast soulless guitar shredding. There’s a fair amount of expressive content here. When it’s good, it’s really good! If you’re a guitarist, you should listen to this album. If you’re a musician interested in composition, phrasing, structure, and melody/harmony, you should listen to this album. If you don’t fall into one of those two categories, there won’t be much here to hold your interest beyond the appreciation of an impeccable talent. I’m glad I listened to this album. I may go back to it when I hit the woodshed to really try and improve my skills. But as your average music listener, I felt a few playthroughs is enough to give me a taste of Steve Vai, and this album will go back on the shelf until I need my next reminder of where quadrillions of hours of focused practice will get you.