I remember first hearing Steve Vai on Alcatrazz’s 1985 album Disturbing the Peace and thinking, “who is that guy on guitar?” The single “God Blessed Video” was a downright awful song, but what made it interesting was the guitar playing of the 25-year-old Vai, who spiced up the tune with his slick fretboard tapping, upstaging bland vocalist Graham Bonnett. The guy sounded daring enough to seem like a fine replacement for Eddie Van Halen, who was by then mucking around too much with keyboards in his own band. It didn’t take long for Vai to rank among the elite of hard rock guitarists in the mid-‘80s, right up there with fellow noodlers Yngwie Malmsteen, Dokken’s George Lynch, and his former Long Island, New York schoolmate (and guitar teacher), Joe Satriani. Vai spent much of the decade as a hired gun, adding his technical expertise to the likes of Frank Zappa, Alcatrazz, Public Image Ltd., David Lee Roth, and Whitesnake, but one thing that always hampered every album he played on with those bands was the fact that underneath all the technique, all the flash, was very little substance whatsoever.
It was Zappa, who first hired a 21-year-old Vai as his new lead guitarist in 1981, who referred to Vai as his “stunt guitarist”, and nobody since has come up with a better description of his style. His style was all gimmicks, be it the “talking guitar” trick he did in the intro of Roth’s “Yankee Rose”, or his silly cameo role as Satan’s axeman in the film Crossroads that had him dueling with Ralph Macchio, of all people, or, lest we forget, that hideous triple-neck, heart-shaped Ibanez guitar he used with Roth in 1988. As a supporting player, he showed off too much, and every band recording he made sounded like he was constantly trying to steal the show. His nadir as a sideman was without a doubt his appearance on Whitesnake’s disastrous 1989 album Slip of the Tongue, where his work on the re-recorded version of Whitesnake’s own 1980 hit “Fool For Your Lovin’” pales in comparison to the original, much more simple guitar work by Mickey Moody and Bernie Marsden. While his buddy Satriani was quickly making a name for himself with his two superb solo efforts Surfing With the Alien and Flying in a Blue Dream, Vai seemed too busy worrying about being a rock god instead of settling down and making good music.
In the time since his brief stint with Whitesnake, Vai did begin to focus on recording solo material, and while his music as a solo artist is considerably better than his work with various bands, it’s still a bit of a mixed bag. Epic has done their part to introduce more people to Vai’s solo output with The Infinite Steve Vai: An Anthology, and while it does showcase Vai’s supreme talents as a shredder extraordinaire, as well as an often clever composer, this two-disc set does prove to be a bit too exhausting.
Vai’s self-produced, self-released 1984 solo debut Flex Able came out between his collaborations with Frank Zappa and Alcatrazz, and it still remains one of his best albums. Alternately playful, soulful, and hard-rocking, the three selections from this album on the compilation are ambitious, yet accessible. The gorgeous “Salamanders in the Sun” has Zappa written all over it, with its complex rhythms, whimsical melody, and jazz influences. “The Attitude Song” fuses rock and funk, while the more wistful acoustic tune “Burnin’ Down the Mountain”, from the outtakes collection Flex-Able Leftovers, has more of a contemplative, Jimmy Page feel, not to mention a hint of an Eastern feel that Vai would explore more deeply on subsequent releases.
1990’s Passion and Warfare has Vai at his most ambitious, as he seemingly tries anything and everything, from the pompous strains of “Liberty”, to the wicked hard rock of “The Animal”, but it’s the more progressive rock-influenced songs such as “The Riddle”, “For the Love of God”, and especially the emotional “Blue Powder” that stand out the most. The tracks “Babylon” and “Fire Garden Suite: Bull Whip, Pusa Road, Angel Food, Taurus Bulba”, from 1996’s Fire Garden reach thrilling heights for its 13 minute duration, coming close to matching the likes of King Crimson, with its intricate prog-rock arrangement. The much more silly “Ya-Yo Gakk” is a cute interchange between Vai’s guitar and his son’s toddler babbling, while “The Blood & Tears”, from 1999’s The Ultra Zone, is a sumptuous blend of Vai’s guitar rock with Indian vocals. Also from the same album, Vai pays fitting tribute to Frank Zappa on the aptly titled “Frank”, and to Steve Ray Vaughan on “Jibboom”.
The rest of the anthology, though, starts to get too repetitive for anyone who isn’t the biggest guitar enthusiast, and it’s also disappointing to note that none of Vai’s work with Zappa and Public Image Ltd. is represented on the compilation. The problem with the compositions that fail to work is an obvious one, in that there’s no memorable melody whatsoever, as the listener quickly gets overwhelmed by preening, emotionless solos and forgettable riffs. Songs like “Rescue Me or Bury Me” and Whitesnake’s “Kittens Got Claws” are nothing but empty exercises in shallow lite metal, and Vai’s tepid cover of “Christmas Time is Here” lacks any feeling whatsoever. That remains the one major flaw in Vai’s music; unlike his buddy Satriani, whose Surfing With the Alien is simple, fun, instrumental rock ‘n’ roll, Vai often tries too hard to impress. He’s managed to make good music sporadically for the past two decades, but The Infinite Steve Vai lacks enough quality material to warrant a two-disc set.