Instrumental guitar rock is a tricky thing to do well. I’m not talking about styles like post-rock and all of its other “post” variants, which by their nature are cinematic and don’t require vocals most of the time. (Even when vocals are present, they’re usually ethereal and low or equal to other instruments in the mix.) Instead, I’m talking about guys like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, arguably the two most important musicians working in the genre today. Satriani, famous for teaching both Vai and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, laid the groundwork for instrumental rock with 1987’s Surfing with the Alien, following that up with an impressive string of late ‘90s albums that showed both his skill on the instrument and his ability to mold the guitar to different styles (2000’s electronic-heavy Engines of Creation is an intriguing example). Unfortunately, the last good thing we’ve heard from him is 2006’s Super Colossal, and even that lacked the strength of his best material. Satriani has become a victim of writing great hooks. You may think this would be a good thing for a songwriter of his type, and you’d be right, but when writing instrumental rock that retains typical pop song structures, the guitar often ends up taking the place of the vocalist. The result is that, despite some tasty solos (of which Satriani is in no shortage), his latest records sound like a collection of above-average backing tracks. Well, that, and no self-respecting artist should ever refer to himself Professor Satchafunkilus. Ever.
In the classic case of the student becoming the master, Vai has upstaged his cohort by elevating guitar rock to the level of classical compositions, as well as a strong Eastern melodicism running through his most recent work. Yes, some songs do suffer from being a rock song in need of vocals, but as he has matured, so have his backing arrangements. Vai’s career jumpstarted when he sent Frank Zappa tabulations of some of his most difficult pieces. Zappa, wisely seeing the talent in this young “stunt guitarist”, as he called him, included him in the rotating group of musicians who participated in the late composer’s highly productive run in the ‘80s. Zappa’s influence has always been present in Vai’s music: His 1984 debut Flex-Able reeks of Zappa’s eclecticism. But when Vai put Sound Theories, Vol. I and II, where he collaborated with Holland’s Metropole Orkest for an invigorating set of modern classical pieces that merged Vai’s guitar noodling with unique orchestral arrangements, Zappa’s role in his artistic journey was most clear. Zappa himself had written classical music, the best example being his final album The Yellow Shark. For years, however, it was plainly obvious that Zappa, while a rock musician, was by no means just an ax-slinger/songwriter. He approached his music with a sensibility of one well-versed in music theory and daring composition. The echoes of Stravinsky in Zappa’s music are undeniable.
Sound Theories is the only thing bridging Real Illusions: Reflections, Vai’s last studio recording, and the sequel, The Story of Light. A live album of the Sound Theories tour, Where the Wild Things Are, also filled that gap, but having seen Vai live on that tour, I can say that particular live document paled in comparison to the real experience. Vai fans have likely been waiting in eager anticipation for The Story of Light; seven years is quite awhile to wait for a new studio LP. As great as Sound Theories was, people usually come to Vai expecting guitar pyrotechnics rather than complex orchestral pieces. It did, however, give off many possible hints as to the direction Vai would take following Real Illusions: Would there be less rock? Would we have more tracks like “Lotus Feet” with the orchestra at the forefront?
With The Story of Light now released, the answer is a surprising no. His compositional savvy is still evident, but there are no grand, dramatic sweeping arrangements or string sections. The comfort of Vai’s requisite style is evident right from the get-go; the title track opens the album with the same seven-string guitar sounds that drove “Under it All”, which closed Real Illusions. A good deal of what’s here could have been B-sides to the last album’s singles, namely the heavy grooves of “Velorum” and “Gravity Storm”. Most of the time, these are executed in a satisfying manner, especially on the excellent “Velorum”. With a great sigh of relief, I can say Vai hasn’t lost his touch. With his past releases, though, he was always able to make nuanced and subtle shifts away from what came before. The moody riffing on “Building the Church” would have sounded entirely out of place on The Ultra Zone, but his soloing style was still the one we’ve all come to expect. Since this is the second part of a multi album-spanning narrative, there is bound to be some overlap and recurring of themes, but the familiarity is a little too strong in many cases. The beautiful, Hawaiian-style chord patterns on “Creamsicle Sunset” are backed by a bassline and drumline reminiscent of parts of “Lotus Feet”. “Racing the World” borrows from the guitar tone heavily present on Satriani’s Crystal Planet. Weirdest of all is “Sunshine Electric Raindrops”, a kind of second take on Passion and Warfare’s “I Would Love To”. The overt ‘80s-ness of that cut is a strange way to close all this; if anything, The Story of Light should have opened with “Velorum” and ended with the title track.
When Vai does take to experimenting here, the result is breathtaking. “John the Revelator” (a cover of the blues standard) and “The Book of Seven Seals”, despite being divided into two separate songs, really stand together as one to form The Story of Light’s mini-opus. The former begins with a hushed, swamp-blues introduction that playfully nods to Vai’s devil-with-a-guitar turn in the late ‘80’s film Crossroads. From there, it blows up into a real barnburner, providing convincing evidence that Vai could be one hell of a blues guitarist were he to take on such a role. This then segues into the perfectly arranged gospel choir of “The Book of Seven Seals”, easily the best performance here. The success of this mini-opus comes in how it balances the great vocal contributions with Vai’s guitar; instead of the singing overpowering the guitar noodling or vice versa, we get a fresh take on Vai’s signature sound. It’s never clear who or what “John the Revelator” is; this may be a concept record, but its asymmetrical narrative is more akin to the political films of Jean-Luc Godard: Things happen, there are identifiable characters, but it’s never exactly clear how they all fit into a neat, cohesive order.
Less successful is the perplexing vocal duo of Vai and indie darling Aimee Mann on “No More Amsterdam”, a spiritual successor to the equally stripped-down ballad “I’m Your Secrets”. Instrumental guitarists are usually given terrible marks for their voices, usually with good reason, but Vai’s is quite good. Paired against the subdued tone of Mann’s voice, however, it’s less powerful.
For someone willing to wear a lot of hats, Vai is a lot more successful than he should be. After all, this is the same guy who made a brilliant-but-conceptually-insane live album where, on one world tour, he decided to write a song for each country he visited and record it live after only a few rehearsals. What The Story of Light shows in the end is that for every daring composition he gets right, there will be a few that are either too safe or not as well thought out. Some of these songs will end up being undoubtable career classics, namely “John the Revelator/The Book of Seven Seals”, whereas many others will take a back seat to classics like “For the Love of God” and “Building the Church”. But for all of the missteps here, Vai has made an solid case for his continued spot as the best modern guitar virtuoso, one who even in his comparatively weaker moments is writing rock music with bold sophistication.