Sound — 9
Between his 1984 debut, "Flex-Able," and his breakthrough 1990 record "Passion and Warfare," Steve Vai's embarked on tours and recording cycles with various big name acts as David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, developing the pioneering style of shred he would bring to the guitar world of the 1990s. But in this six-year period, he had no solo output. Some of this is attributable to disputes with record labels (as attested to in the introduction to the tab book for "Passion and Warfare"), but the man was not silent as a songwriter during this time. With his newest album, "Modern Primitive," Steve revisits these years and finally releases the songs he had been working on during this period. As such, the album draws from the "Flex-Able" era's Frank Zappa-isms, and also shows Steve's upcoming instrumental guitar style he would go on to pioneer. But one thing about Steve Vai's music is that all of it sounds fresh, with Steve's use of tonalities and effects being something that he's used since his days working with Frank Zappa.
Even though the songs were written and demoed in the '80s, the album was re-recorded this past year (often utilizing the same musicians that performed on the original demos), the production is crisp and modern, and sonically speaking, it's as 2016 as anything Steve could have written this year. In fact, many of the tracks sound like they could have been written after his last studio album, 2012's excellent "The Story of Light." Perhaps the only indication that this album comes from that interim era of the late '80s for Steve is the predisposition towards some of "Flex-able's" more silly attributes. Album opener "Bop!," featuring bass prodigy Mohini Dey, features some absolutely ridiculous synthesizer work that would have sounded completely comfortable on any of Frank Zappa's '80s Synclavier-led albums. Speaking of Mohini Dey, her bass playing on this track is simply sublime. In fact, the bass playing on many of the songs, performed most of the time either by Steve Vai himself, Stu Hamm (Vai's bass player on "Passion and Warfare"), or current Vai bassist Philip Bynoe, is almost as excellent and up-front as Steve's guitar playing. There are also a selection of vocal-led tracks on this album (the fact that Vai's music is always referred to as "instrumental rock" is something that bothers me, as Steve usually includes several vocal tracks on his records), including the absolutely beautiful "The Lost Chord," sung by Devin Townsend, who's big break in the music industry was actually on Steve Vai's 1993 album "Sex and Religion." Devin's performance on this track is absolutely spine-tingling, and worth listening to in its own right. Steve Vai's own vocals are worthy of praise as well, on tracks such as "Mighty Messengers," "Never Forever" and "Fast Note People."
Steve is a far more capable songwriter than many of his detractors (mostly people who simply shy away from the "shred" scene on principle alone) would have you believe, with every song containing beautiful, concise melodies. His use of modal tonalities (especially Lydian mode) is something that's unsurpassed in the current popular music scene in general, and lends a lot to Steve's uniqueness as a songwriter. Many of the songs on this album are vocal-led, and the guitar solos vary in tempo and feel. And it wouldn't be a proper Steve Vai review without mentioning his guitar playing, which is as fluid as ever. Sometimes, his solos get to fairly avant-garde territory, like the strange whammy bar tricks in the solo for "And We Are One," which may be difficult to listen to for the uninitiated. Sometimes, he really does let the '80s Zappa-isms get a little out of hand, like on the track "Lights Are On," but for those who are fans of that style, this will be a real treat.
The album closer, "Pink and Blows Over," is an epic-length experiment in three movements, and is likely the longest track in Vai's discography. Featuring jazz-fusion melodies, loose rubato rhythms, strange whistling melodies, piano explorations, and even excerpts from "The Nutcracker Suite," this piece plays less like anything typical from Vai and almost more like an avant-garde classical composition. Think of the "Fire Garden Suite" on psychedelic drugs. At times, the second movement can be a difficult listen, with its scat vocals and lack of any real structure. The third movement plays like an almost traditional jazz-fusion piece (it could have very easily come from the fingers of Allan Holdsworth). All in all, it's definitely one of the strangest things Steve Vai has ever recorded, and that's a pretty big statement to make for an artist where "strange" is just a day at the office.
The album was also packaged with the remastered 25th anniversary edition of "Passion and Warfare," and while volumes have already been written about that album, the disc containing that also contains some bonus material, like an alternate mix of "And We Are One," with a different solo, as well as some new tracks like "Lovely Elixir" and the heavily orchestrated "As Below" and "So Above."
Lyrics — 9
Steve Vai may be known around guitar circles for his instrumental playing, but people do have a tendency to forget that he does focus quite a bit on vocals and lyrics in his work as well, and fewer of the tracks on this album are instrumental than vocal-led. And lyrically, Steve Vai paints as many abstract pictures as he does with his music. From lyrics like this in "Mighty Messengers": "We get a feeling/a rising motion/never knowing where it comes from/born and silent/comes the voices of our conscience," or "The Lost Chord"'s almost mystic sounding "Maybe in a million years, you can see them/They're something that you can't hear, but you can feel them," and what seems like a spiritual theme in "Never Forever": "And what you see/May or may not be/What you believed/That it would be/When you were living." The seventh song on the album, "And We Are One," reads like a love poem between Steve and his wife Pia, and seems rather fitting for the seventh track (which is always a ballad of sort on every Vai record, and usually has some special status among his songs).
Vocally, Steve Vai's voice is amazingly suited to the music, and he proves himself to be as equally proficient of a singer as he is a guitarist. This will be nothing new to Vai fans, but the fact that he sings so frequently on this album, even compared to his past works, might surprise some. Taking up the job on "The Lost Chord" is former collaborator and now a star in his own right, Devin Townsend, whose vocal is also a perfect match for Vai's mystical musical madness. A vocalist by the name of Jazz James performs vocals on "Pink and Blows Over." Backing vocals are provided by Alvin Chea, Antonio Sol, Fletcher Sheridan, Mandy Vejar, and Nayanna Holley throughout the album.
Overall Impression — 9
This latest taste of Steve Vai's madness might come from an entirely different era, but being as ahead of his time as he's always been, this album is a more than worthy follow-up to "The Story of Light," and sounds like nothing else out there. For those who may not be too familiar with Steve Vai's work, this is also an interesting release as its second disc is a remastered version of his most famous and well-regarded record, "Passion and Warfare," so picking up a copy of it would be highly recommended for those looking for something to start with.
The way this album connects the dots between his strange, experimental "Flex-Able" album and the more conventional "Passion and Warfare" makes this an interesting bit of Vai archaeology for those who are interested in knowing what kind of work Steve had been doing outside of his big-name appearances in the '80s. The connections one can draw to both his Frank Zappa-era playing and his more current style are also interesting.
This album is simply stunning, and the only flaw I'd really say it has is that there is a bit of a "learning curve" with Vai's music, especially when you start getting into his more avant-garde material. There's very little that's conventional about this album, even for Vai's standards, and that can be enough to put some people off. However, I had been a big fan of "Flex-Able" (and the collection of outtakes, "Flex-Able Leftovers"), so for me, this album was a good fit for my tastes.
I'd recommend this album to anyone looking for something truly "progressive," but perhaps not in the traditional "prog-rock" sense. But just something challenging to listen to, that's rewarding when it all clicks. It's probably not an album that's going to appeal to an audience looking for a more conventional rock or even guitar-oriented shred record, and if that's what you're looking for, I'd probably steer you away from this record. But for an album that's so left of center field, this one can't be beat. Strange but beautiful music, indeed!