Passion and Warfare was released in 1990. I didn’t expect it to chart, but it did! It was an exciting time for instrumental guitar records. Joe Satriani had recently become a household name with albums such as Surfing With the Alien and Flying in a Blue Dream, but Flying had vocals on some songs. Now his student Steve Vai was on the charts with his own solo album.
Different from Flex-able, which was basically just released demos, Passion and Warfare was a fully realized piece of art. Some consider it to be Steve’s “real” debut album. Some of the music dated back almost a decade. “Liberty”, said Steve, was a melody he heard in a lucid dream and tried to recall. Of the dream, Steve remembered saluting a flag he didn’t recognize, with an anthem playing. “Liberty” opens the CD, which is actually a lyricless concept album. Steve Vai is nothing if not ambitious. There is some dialogue on and between songs (some performed by Steve’s then-Whitesnake bandmate David Coverdale), and the liner notes trace out some of the dreams that inspired the music.
“Erotic Nightmares” is self-explanatory. Steve composed a chunky rock track with so much guitar that I doubt he even knows how many tracks of shredding is on it anymore. Guitars build layer after layer, playing melodies that don’t seem possible to perform with fingers. It’s not mindless shredding for the sake of shredding. The “concept album” aspect means that the songs have movement and go to different places, trying to convey these ideas to the listener. Steve used an Eventide harmonizer to give his guitar flute and keyboard-like tones. Those bizarre sounds compounded with Steve’s impossible fretwork means this is one hell of an ambitious song and album.
Steve was using his new Ibanez 7-string guitar exclusively now. I believe he stated in an interview that there is hardly any 6-string on Passion and Warfare at all. It’s that 7th string that enables Steve to dig low on the groovy “The Animal”. With the expert rhythm section of Stu Hamm (bass) and Chris Frazier (drums), there is no way this would suck. Steve remembers to throw enough melodic hooks down to keep it listenable for laypeople. “Answers” is less accessible, a cute dance of strange munchkin-like melodies. There is a melody here, however, that recurs through the length of the album. It’s an old melody, and part of it appeared on Flex-able and an Alcatrazz album as well. Clearly these ideas had been gestating a long time before they were fully realized on tape.
After a brief dialogue snippet (a tape of a preacher that Steve recorded off the radio many years prior) comes the track “The Riddle”. That’s right — the answer came before the riddle. I love stuff like that. It sounds like there are backwards guitars on this song, but who knows! I’m sure Steve can make his guitar sound backwards. “The Riddle” is a long epic that goes to exotic territories, and many textures. “Ballerina 12/24” is a short transitional piece that shows off the Evontide harmonizer – the notes are moved up a few octaves making it sound unlike a guitar at all. Then a deep breath and it’s onto the serious album epic — “For the Love of God”. Considered by some as one of the greatest guitar songs of all time, you can hear what all the hype is about. The melody that it is based on becomes increasingly more complex and expressive as the song progresses. That’s not a sitar on the song either, just Steve wrenching sounds of the guitar that it was not intended to make!
You can’t close a side better than with “For the Love of God”. The second half of the album commenced with the jokey “The Audience is Listening”. While this is a smoking track, the dialogue (performed by Steve’s actual grade school teacher) doesn’t stand up to repeated listens. It’s amusing but it has a short shelf life. The school room theme had some comparing it to “Hot For Teacher” by Van Halen, but there’s no similarity beyond that. It was an obvious choice to release as a single/video, with Thomas McRocklin playing young Stevie.
“I Would Love To” was the most accessible track on the album, and it too was chosen as a single/video. This is as mainstream as Passion and Warfare gets! An uptempo rock track like this is an easy point of entry for the uninitiated. That’s not to say anything is sacrificed for the sake of simplicity. Steve’s guitar is as dropping as ever. I’m not sure where it fits into the concept of the album. The liner notes tell us that the next song, “Blue Powder”, depicts a scene “high above the trees. Everything was more vivid than I thought was ever possible. I saw things from all sides. Then I realized I wasn’t perceiving things through human eyes.” Deep stuff, but musically it starts as a slow blues. Through the fingers of Steve Vai of course, so that means different from any slow electric blues you’ve heard before. And then it goes to outer space, anyway. It’s incredible how well Steve can play the blues, as well as the space-age stuff, and make it sound authentic. “Blue Powder” also boasts a freaky-funky bass solo from Stu Hamm.
I love that they make fun of New Kids on the Block in this video
“Greasy Kid’s Stuff” serves as an upbeat track with the smoking-guitar quotient at max. “Alien Water Kiss” is another brief demonstration of how a harmonizer could make the guitar sounds like a not-guitar. “Alien Water Kiss” actually sounds like what it’s supposed to sound like — assuming aliens have lips. You get the feeling that a lot of Steve’s lucid dreams were wet dreams! “They must have sensed that my actions and thoughts were harmless, being that they induced a union between us.” Yikes!
Sometimes Steve Vai doesn’t get too weird and just writes beautiful music. “For the Love of God” is one such song, and so is “Sisters”. This soft ballad showcases a side of Steve Vai that some don’t know. His technique is flawless, but so is his feel. It doesn’t hurt to have Hamm and Frazier playing with him, who are also able to wrench feeling from their instruments. The final song, “Love Secrets” is just Steve, at his most bizarre. It’s a dramatic close to a confusing concept album, that leaves you with the feeling that you just heard something really significant. You don’t know what that is, but it has a weight to it — and that’s what draws you back.
I’ve been listening to and enjoying Passion and Warfare for 25 years now. Although Steve’s guitar tone sounds a little thin by comparison to today’s standards, I am just as enthralled as I was in 1990. Passion and Warfare remains a genius album, and to this day it is still my favourite.