“I have had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) since I was almost 20 years old. I was a guitarist until this disease swiped that little skill (for the time being, anyway). I wrote songs and recorded four albums. But as my guitar playing dwindled, something else in my music got better. Something indefinable”.
Jason Becker’s story is as inspiring as it is sad. A guitar prodigy, Becker first achieved success in his mid-teens with the speed-metal outfit Cacophony, formed by he and guitarist Marty Friedman (Megadeth). Together, Becker and Friedman released two critically acclaimed albums, Go Off! and Speed Metal Symphony that resulted in successful tours of the U.S. and Japan. In 1988, Becker released his solo tour-de-force, Perpetual Burn, which further bolstered an already legendary reputation. His big break came in 1989 when he was handpicked by former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth to fill his band’s guitar slot once owned by guitarist extraordinaire Steve Vai. The celebration would be short-lived.
A week after joining Roth’s band, Jason Becker was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a disease that affects the central nervous system and for which there is no known cure. While Becker was able to finish the recording sessions for Roth’s A Little Ain’t Enough album, the disease had left him too weak to tour and his tenure with the band ended almost as quickly as it began.
While ALS slowly eroded Jason Becker’s command of the guitar, his determination to make music remained untouched, as evidenced on his latest release, Perspective—a record that was five years in the making. But as the recording of the album progressed, so did the effects of ALS. Jason Becker plays guitar on only five of the album’s nine tracks. “Primal”, “Rain”, “Blue”, “Empire” and the Bob Dylan-penned “Meet Me in the Morning” were the earliest recorded songs, made while Becker was experiencing an extreme weakness in his left hand—before the disease had totally ravaged his dynamic fretboard skills. The four remaining compositions, “End of the Beginning”, “Higher”, “Life and Death” and “Serrana” were recorded by numerous friends including guitarist Michael Lee Firkins, Steve Perry (Journey) and keyboardist Danny Alvarez, who were able to perfectly translate Becker’s lofty muscial vision.
Perspective is not what one would classify as “a typical Jason Becker shred record”. The album, originally released in 1996, is largely an instrumental affair (only “Meet Me in the Morning” contains singable lyrics), but the vibe leans more towards New Age than metal. “Primal” is almost tribal, utilizing an array of unorthodox instrumentation like bamboo flutes, rain sticks and Steve Perry’s marvelous vocals which carry the chanting melody, while the Bobby McFerrin inspired “Higher” features members of Voicestra adding multi-layered harmonies to this heavenly composition.
If Jason Becker is never able to play guitar again (which we pray he will), he has left his fans two monumental guitar-soaked swan songs in “Rain” and “Blue”. “Rain” features Becker’s emotional, gut-wrenching soloing with Alvarez providing the somber orchestral background, while “Blue” begins on more of a country note with Becker’s bright, Arlen Roth-inspired riffs bouncing across the speakers before treating us to atmospheric, Satriani-laced passages. But what could be more inspiring than Perspective‘s two epic numbers “End of the Beginning” and “Life and Death”. These two priceless compositions represent Jason Becker’s finest hour. “End of the Beginning” is a 12-minute opus that takes the listener on a classical journey of musical thoughts and emotions that are both powerful and uplifting, showcasing the beautiful piano playing and string orchestration of Alvarez, as well as Michael Lee Firkins’ amazing guitar flourishes. “Life and Death” is a nine-minute classical extravaganza that would be right at home on the soundtrack of Fantasia. The last song written for the album, “Life and Death” is big, symphonic and, like “End of the Beginning”, is loaded with a bevy of emotional twists and turns that are nothing short of inspiring.
If Perspective does nothing else, it confirms Jason Becker’s brilliance as a composer; we already knew he was a brilliant guitarist. Though the year 2001 finds Becker only able to communicate through a series of eye movements as a result of the progressive effects of ALS, one can only wonder what beautiful compositions lie behind those eyes. Perhaps one day we’ll find out. But for Perspective, something in the music got better—something indefinable. I have no idea what that is, but Jason Becker obviously does.
// Notes from the Road
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