VAI – Sex & Religion (1993 Relativity)
Flash back to summer 1993: Steve Vai was just about to debut his brand new “commercial” rock band on Jay Leno. I had been tracking the progress of this band via the guitar mags. Vai already had TM Stevens (bass) on board, as well as the singer Devin Townsend, from Vancouver’s Caustic Thought on vocals. I had heard Vai say in a previous interview that “Nobody sings better than David Coverdale, and nobody is a better showman than David Lee Roth. But I need a singer who combines the best of both singers.” How could you not be psyched? Expectations and hopes were high.
Back to Leno — Vai comes out, his hair in dreads, and he strums the first chord of “Still My Bleeding Heart”. And the singer…holy crap…there was this bald, psycho-looking dude with stuff written all over his body in magic marker. “Caustic Thought” was written in huge letters on his leg. I was taken aback! What the deuce was this?
I taped the performance, so I rewound, rewatched…and quickly became hooked on the song, and the vocalist, Devin Townsend. Here was a guy, I thought, who would be the next Mike Patton. He had the power, and range and quirkiness, yet had his own style. Devin was a unique right from his first major release! Here, his style is based mostly on (as Devin once put it, and I quote) “screaming his balls off!” Devin said he was usually pretty happy as long as he sounded as if his larynx was bouncing off the studio walls.
This album is my second favourite Vai platter after Passion and Warfare. A band effort with Terry Bozzio on drums, Sex & Religion was a mindblowing album to me at the time. I thought it was extremely profound, though it sounds somewhat dated today. It still kicks my kicks my ass to listen to it, you cannot go wrong with this lineup. The music is intricate, composed with great care to both stimulate and rock. I don’t need to tell you that the guitar is a shredder’s wet dream.
To me, 90% of the songs here are winners. Highlights are “Still My Bleeding Heart” and the single “In My Dreams With You”. Both are extremely catchy rock songs with slightly off-kilter arrangement, innovative guitar playing, and challenging but powerful vocals. There is an emphasis on melody, even if they melodies are not typical of modern rock music. Elsewhere you will find “Down Deep Into The Pain”, a very fast and heavy song that was obviously designed to keep up with some of the newer heavy bands that were out at the time. The lead vocal here is absolutely shriek-tastic.
I’m also a big fan of “Dirty Black Hole” which combines a speedy assault of instrumentation with a soul-rock chorus. The title track is a bit funky, with Devin doing some scream-rapping. I remember my mom being offended by the lyric, “Jesus Christ is in your bed tonight.”
More standard rock arrangements can be found on songs like “Survive” and “Here And Now”, although they are still well coated in Vai-isms and guitar madness. There are instrumentals sprinkled in as well, “Touching Tongues” being especially sublime. And then there is “Pig”. It’s the only song with a co-write by Townsend. This is what happened, according to Vai, when he tried to write song “Remedy” by the Black Crowes. Vai was into the Crowes at the time, and somehow “Pig” was the result of that. Can you hear any connection to “Remedy”? I sure can’t! This song is where the album hits its peak of absolute madness. As Vai likes to say, “Sorry folks, I just can’t help myself”.
That sums up this album in a nutshell. “Sorry folks, I just can’t help myself.” It is a simply brilliant piece of work that will take some folks a while to get used to. For Vai fans, this might be easy listening compared to some of his instrumental workouts. Either way, if you can penetrate its sometimes off-putting weirdness, you’ll find a rewarding listening experience.
The final song , “Rescue Me or Bury Me”, is the only one I can do without. Featuring Steve singing lead, I find it too long and meandering, spoiling what was for me an otherwise gripping ride the whole way through.