Steve Vai

Passion and Warfare (25th Anniversary Edition) / Modern Primitive

by Brice Ezell

24 June 2016

The 25th anniversary edition of Passion and Warfare does something that anniversary reissues rarely do: provide a re-framing of a classic album.
 
cover art

Steve Vai

Passion and Warfare (25th Anniversary Edition)

(Sony Legacy)
US: 24 Jun 2016
UK: 24 Jun 2016

In 2016, Steve Vai‘s Passion and Warfare remains one of the most lasting documents of the guitar virtuoso genre, even as some of its textures have become somewhat dated. The chicken-pickin’, Van Halen-esque riff of “The Audience is Listening” and the ‘80s radio rock of “I Would Love To” clearly place this album in the era of bright spandex and grandiose, hairspray-coated locks. (Vai did bring back the latter’s distinct guitar tones on “Sunshine Electric Raindrops”, the closing number on his 2012 LP The Story of Light.) A good half of Passion and Warfare‘s songs have since become Vai classics, if not calling cards (“For the Love of God,” “The Animal”). For this reason, it might at first seem pointless for Vai and label Sony Legacy to release a 25th anniversary edition of Passion and Warfare: over that time (actually 26 years; the album was released in 1990), the music hasn’t lost its staying power, nor its definitive status as the Steve Vai record.

For Passion and Warfare‘s quarter-centennial, Vai has opted not to release the perfunctory anniversary edition. Admittedly, doing nothing more than remastering the original Passion and Warfare tunes is par for the course in the world of anniversary editions, but Vai does something that those editions rarely do: offer a re-framing of his breakthrough LP. Rather than releasing a mildly gussied-up version of Passion and Warfare with a couple of bonus tracks (there are four here), Vai bundles it up with a collection of unreleased tunes from the era between this album and its predecessor, Flex-Able (1984). Vai’s rationale for this double LP release is understandable; in the liner notes for this anniversary edition, he writes, “The music on ‘Flex-Able’ is so vastly different from ‘Passion And Warfare’, one could wonder if the same guy actually made both records. “What Modern Warfare offers, per Vai’s account, is the missing link between these two discs, “a sort of Cro-Magnon Vai.”

Vai is not wrong about the six-year leap between Flex-Able and Passion and Warfare. The former, a quirky but unassuming thing, does house some Vai essentials (“Salamanders in the Sun” and “The Attitude Song”), but on the whole it does pale in comparison to its successor. The production quality of Flex-Able is markedly diminished from what Vai would go on to achieve, and its sonic and compositional eccentricities feel like carryovers from Vai’s time playing guitar for his mentor Frank Zappa. If one listens to the synclavier music Zappa released in his final years, she’ll hear right away that Flex-Able is a cousin to the Zappa catalogue. In the years between his first two records, Vai was a prolific studio and live musician, performing with artists like David Lee Roth and Alcatrazz. By the time 1990 rolled around, Vai had refined his guitar craft to a degree far greater than Flex-Able implied. Modern Primitive is, in addition to Vai’s collaboration with other artists during the mid-to-late ‘80s, a well-rounded album that is also an explanatory account for how the guitarist of Flex-Able became the revered shredder that released Passion and Warfare. However, the value of Modern Primitive is not merely for historical narrative: Vai has gone as far as to say, “Modern Primitive is by far my most adventurous recording to date, and I feel as though it’s my most telling release.”

While Vai has had far more time to sit with the Modern Primitive material, meaning his judgment about the music is more informed than the 2016 listener, the importance of the record in comparison to Passion and Warfare will likely be a subject played out across web forums and the pages of guitar magazines for decades to come. For now, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Passion and Warfare is the preeminent Vai release. Though it lacks the orchestral flair of Sound Theories (2007), the vocal-driven tunes of Fire Garden‘s (1996) second half, Passion and Warfare captures the Vai spirit in both compositional finesse and style. Vai may not have put out an album cover as esoteric and flashy as Passion and Warfare since 1991, but he has in recent years performed with a glowing guitar. The influence of ‘80s rock and metal has since diminished in Vai’s work (especially in favor of more orchestral compositions, the kind on Sound Theories and to a lesser extent 2005’s Real Illusions: Reflections), but the legato clean guitar on “For the Love of God” and “The Riddle” are still staples of Vai’s sound. Vai’s discography is a smorgasbord, containing James Brown-esque funk (“Firewall” on Real Illusions), chunky metal (“Bad Horsie” on the 1995 EP Alien Love Secrets), and even a smartly incorporated extended quotation of a theme from the 1984 ABBA-penned musical Chess (“Bangkok”, which appears on both Fire Garden and Sound Theories). But in mapping out his sonic travelogue, there are almost always trails back to the rock-solid tunes of Vai’s 1990 landmark—the only one of his studio LPs to receive an RIAA Gold certification.

Passion and Warfare is a case where the hits continue to justify their status as such. “For the Love of God” is every bit the virtuoso staple that it deserves to be. intensely spiritual (Vai went on a 10-day fast during the writing of the song) and musically astonishing, “For the Love of God” has not only retained staying power in its studio rendition, but also as an orchestral piece on Sound Theories. The funky swagger of “The Animal” is still a thing to behold in a live setting—see the 2004 Live in London album for a case in point. The sketch comedy idea behind “The Audience is Listening”, wherein a young Vai raises hell with a rip-roaring guitar solo during his class show-and-tell, is as cloying as it was in 1990, but in its unabashed joy at the thrill of making one’s way up and down the guitar neck, it remains an essential track about the appeal of shredding.

The lesser-known Passion and Warfare cuts hold up just as well as their famous counterparts. “Ballerina 12/24”, with its glassy Eventide effects, is the shredder’s equivalent of a Bach prelude; both in its demands of dexterity and its refracted guitar effects, it is a brief but compelling case study for the compositional depth of the guitar virtuoso style. At some point, all guitar shredders fall prey to the problem of technicality for technicality’s sake—the G3 guitar tours, of which Vai is a frequent participant, sometimes lapse into this—but Passion and Warfare embraces technicality for the sonic enjoyment it provides, not for the ego fires that it stokes. The same can be said of the unusual and appealing chord progressions on “Sisters”, whose sparkling guitar tone Vai would bring back to memorable effect on Alien Love Secrets‘s Jimi Hendrix tribute “The Boy from Seattle”.

The 14 original album tunes on Passion and Warfare are joined on the 25th anniversary edition by four bonus tracks. The best of these, the sitar-accented “Lovely Elixir” is anchored by powerful chord strums atop which Vai lays down some appealing guitar lines. The remaining three—“And We Are One”, “As Above”, and “So Below (Niels Bye Nielsen Orchestration)”—are interesting curios, but not full-fledged songs in the way the other Passion and Warfare tunes are. They do function as further snippets of Vai exploring his guitar technique, and those looking to pull apart the nuances of what Vai does with the guitar would do well to give them a spin.

It should come as little surprise that Passion and Warfare holds up as well as it does over 25 years later. The precedent Vai set with the record is one that many virtuoso guitarists, even those responsible for laying the groundwork for the genre, regularly far short of: namely, the importance of the instrumental guitar song as a vocal-independent form. Joe Satriani, an early teacher of Vai’s whose 1987 LP Surfing with the Alien is a hallmark of shred guitar, has in his later career often written tunes where the lead guitar simply fills the space where a vocal would normally be. Instead of the instrumental being shaped around the unique opportunities that the guitar provides, these accidental backing tracks sounds like songs written for the human voice to take the lead, with the guitar serving as a substitute. Passion and Warfare, in addition to the bulk of Vai’s records, avoids this problem, as each song is framed around the voice of the guitar. The jazzy seventh chords of “Answers” would sound odd with a vocal, as would the National Anthem-aspiring opening number “Liberty”.

cover art

Steve Vai

Modern Primitive

(Sony Legacy)
US: 24 Jun 2016
UK: 24 Jun 2016

This ability of Vai’s to foreground the identity of the guitar is also present on Modern Primitive. This pre-Passion and Warfare collection is more scatterbrained in its sonic experiments, but it is no mere B-sides and rarities collection. The oddball textures of Flex-Able and the inventiveness of Passion and Warfare cohabitate on Modern Primitive; to an extent, it’s easy to imagine this album as having been released in 1987. In bridging the aforementioned two records, Modern Primitive reveals that there are clear connections between the two, even though, as Vai rightly notes, there is a night-and-day feeling to the transition. Both share an interest in unusual guitar effects, scales and melodies from outside the Western musical tradition, and an affinity for strong foundational guitar riffs. Differences in production quality notwithstanding, “The Attitude Song” and “Erotic Nightmares” are definitely sonic brethren.

Modern Primitive opens with a gonzo tune that belongs more to the Flex-Able era, “Bop!”, which like Todd Terje‘s “Svensk Sas” some years later, bends together a series of doo-wop a capella vocals into a knotty series of lightning-speed riffs. “Fast Note People”—an apt name for the legions of guitarists inspired by Vai—also feels of the Flex-Able spirit, especially in its chirpy notes and Vai’s semi-comic spoken word parts.

On the whole, however, Modern Primitive trends toward Passion and Warfare‘s style of songwriting. “Dark Matter”‘s seventh chords tie link it to “Answers”, and its melodic leads are a decent match for “Erotic Nightmares” and “The Audience is Listening”. “Upanishads” drinks from the same spiritual pool that intoxicates “For the Love of God”. Vai’s framing of Modern Primitive as the “missing link” between Flex-Able and Passion and Warfare is irresistible in that it invites listeners to re-listen to Vai’s first two albums and search for the ways in which this music from the transitory period between the two fits into the overall scheme of Vai’s early studio career.

But Modern Primitive is not merely a bridge between Vai’s first two records. Vai’s strategy in recording and releasing the music of Modern Primitive clearly makes it far more than that. He reports,

Seven or eight songs are already tracked and they just need a couple of finishing touches, then I’m gonna have the old band get together that I had back then just to lay down some other tracks we used to perform in that period. So it’s new music, and frankly it’s turning out to be one of my favorite records.

It is to Vai’s credit that he did not simply unearth the old rough mixes of the Modern Primitive tunes and release them as bonus material for the Passion and Warfare anniversary edition. Far from a cash-grab, the release of these long-lost tunes is precisely, as Vai says, a new record. By bringing back together the musicians that he worked with during the time the Modern Primitive tunes were recorded, Vai clearly aimed at re-capturing the spirit of that time, and staying faithful to the songs as they were initially conceived. But the phrase new music is the most important part of Vai’s description of Modern Primitive: this album is just as much, if not more, a new recording as it is an archival gem.

Because of that, one can find just as many connections between Modern Primitive and Vai’s later albums as she can between Modern Primitive and Passion and Warfare. The catchy, vocal-led “Mighty Messengers” could have well been recorded for Fire Garden. “Upanishads” explores territory adjacent to Real Illusions‘s ode to Bulgarian wedding music, “Freak Show Excess”. In its chord progression, “No Pockets” bears some similarity to “Love Blood”, the vampiric rock number off of the 2002 rarities compilation The Elusive Light and Sound Vol. 1. By deciding to make a new album out of an old one with Modern Primitive, Vai inextricably linked the present and the past. As a consequence the record becomes a paradoxical amalgam: a new album wearing an old one’s clothes. Modern Primitive is a transition between Flex-Able and Passion and Warfare, and it is a transition between the Vai of Passion and Warfare and the Vai of 2016.

This experience is a wholly singular one in the realm of anniversary reissues. Too often, reissues are nothing more than repackagings, a chance to sell the consumer the same album she has already bought once before. Music critics will wring the obligatory anniversary editions for all of the sap they can possibly get out of it, whether that is to establish a new take on a well-known album or to reify a commonly accepted narrative about it. Ultimately, such perfunctory releases do little to alter the popular or critical understandings of those records; what shifts might happen will rarely amount to anything seismic. But Steve Vai is a reflective composer, and the 25th anniversary of Passion and Warfare is a product of reflection, both on that time in Vai’s career and on how that time relates to what he has achieved since then. In making the familiar new again, all the while bringing to light a set of perplexingly delightful tunes, Vai does justice to his defining statement and challenges the (admittedly forgivable) cynicism that regularly accompanies anniversary re-releases. The trick in redeeming the anniversary re-issue is deceptively simple, as Vai sees it: if one sees a past work as alive in the present, he won’t simply be indulging in nostalgia. Ask not what a work meant, but what it means.

Passion and Warfare (25th Anniversary Edition)

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Modern Primitive

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