Relativity

REVIEW: Steve Vai – Alien Love Secrets (1995)

STEVE VAI – Alien Love Secrets (1995 Relativity)

You can always count on lil’ Stevie Vai to deliver something completely off the wall…except when he’s trying to play it straight.

Compared to Passion and Warfare and Sex & Religion, Steve plays it remarkably straight on the stripped back mini-album Alien Love Secrets. Remarkably straight for Steve Vai, that is. This is a guy who is known to make his guitar sound like anything except a guitar.  There’s plenty of that here (check out “Bad Horsie”, which sounds like some kind of bad horsie at times), but there are also actual grooves and riffs too.  Alien Love Secrets is an instrumental mini-album that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Steve’s music has always been an alternative to the mainstream, but grunge and heavy rock play an influence on “Bad Horsie”, one of the heaviest Vai riffs in existence.  Former Ozzy/Journey drummer Deen Castronovo is there to help cement the grooves (Deen also played on Ozzy’s Vai-written song “My Little Man”).  Alien Love Secrets is the ideal starter for people who don’t think they’re Vai fans.  The heavy rock continues on “Kill the Guy With the Ball”, featuring Deen doing some serious steppin’.

It’s wall to wall shred, but if you’re looking for something even more straight-ahead, you’ll dig “Juice” which is just a classic Van Halen shuffle done a-la Steve.  What about ballads?  From the very beginning, Planet Steve has included ballads.  “Die to Live” is a stock Vai ballad, melodic with tricky lead parts.  Some of the licks remind of “Hina” from David Lee Roth’s Skyscraper.  “The Boy From Seattle” would also be pegged as a ballad, but it’s definitely a bit more challenging.  Then there’s the beautiful closing track “Tender Surrender”, which is blues for the intergalactic age.

People who don’t like Steve’s goofy side will loathe “Ya-Yo Gakk”, a duet between infant child and lead guitar.  Steve has always experimented with guitar imitating the melody of a human voice, like “So Happy” from Flex-Able.  This is more of a song, but still a matter of taste.

Alien Love Secrets will still be incomprehensible to some, but it’s probably Steve’s most accessible release overall.  Without the layers upon layers of tracks, you can get in there and just listen.  If you want more, there is a cool DVD release, with a video for each track on the album!

3.25/5 stars

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REVIEW: Talas – Live Speed on Ice (1983)

Second in a two-part review of the 1989 compilation CD, Billy Sheehan – The Talas Years.  Part one is here:  Sink Your Teeth Into That.  More Talas tomorrow!

scan_20161210BILLY SHEEHAN – The Talas Years (Part Two of Two)  (1989 Relativity)
TALAS – Live Speed on Ice (1983 Relativity)

When we last met Talas, they were a power trio.  On their 1984 live album, they were a quartet.  Billy Sheehan was the only remaining member of the original lineup, with some hot talent behind him:  Mark Miller on drums, Mitch Perry (MSG) on guitar, and the hugely talented Phil Naro singing.  Naro has been around, including a stint with Peter Criss.  (You can hear a number of his performances on Mitch Lafon’s Kiss tribute CD A World With Heroes.)

There is little question that Naro’s voice brings the songs to another level.  “Sink Your Teeth Into That” benefits from his young rasp.  Mitch Perry throws in a more articulated guitar solo for an extended section leaving Billy to hold down the riff.  Second in line is a new song, “Crystal Clear” which has a biting Police guitar riff.  The busy bass holds down the melodic center as Naro soars on top.  Live Speed on Ice has great value, since much of its material was actually brand new and never released on anything else.  “The Farandole” is another new one, an instrumental of jaw-dropping ability.  Dueling bass and guitars dance and parry while the drums hit the heavy blows.

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More new tunes:  “Do You Feel Any Better”, “Lone Rock”, and “Inner Mounting Flame” continue the ass-kicking streak.  Each has their own groove, but “Inner Mounting Flame” truly is live speed on ice.  A few older tracks from the album are solid winners:  “King of the World”, “High Speed on Ice” and of course “Shy Boy”, the one Talas song that people know today thanks to David Lee Roth.  Billy’s signature bass solo is also performed live (and extended), but cleverly retitled.  While “NVH 3345” meant “SHEEHAN” upside down, “7718 (3A17)” means “BILL (LIVE)”.  With the freedom of the live setting, Bill took his time to showcase some unheard of chops and effects.

Any album that has Billy Sheehan on bass is bound to include a thousand notes of pure thrills, and any record with Phil Naro is going to sound awesome vocally.  Therefore, Live Speed on Ice should be a welcome addition to the discerning rock fan’s personal library.  The easiest way to get it is on CD combined with Sink Your Teeth Into That as the 1989 compilation Billy Sheehan – The Talas Years.  Either way, you win.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: Talas – Sink Your Teeth Into That (1982)

A two-part review of the 1989 compilation CD, Billy Sheehan – The Talas Years.

scan_20161210BILLY SHEEHAN – The Talas Years (Part One of Two)  (1989 Relativity)
TALAS – Sink Your Teeth Into That (1982 Relativity)

Fans of David Lee Roth are probably already aware of Talas via their incredible bassist Billy Sheehan, an innovative genius of the four-string rumble.  His first recordings were with Talas (1979-1983), a Buffalo power trio.  With Roth, he re-recorded the Talas track “Shy Boy” on Eat ‘Em And Smile.  The Talas original can be found on their second LP Sink Your Teeth Into That, or the compilation The Talas Years.

The focus is immediately and obvious on the bass.  Billy plays it simultaneously as a lead instrument, and the rhythmic foundation.  “Sink Your Teeth Into That”, the title track boasts not only insane playing, but sounds that had never been heard before from a bass guitar.  And the song’s pretty good too.  It’s raw 80s hard rock, no more no less, except for that bass.  “Hit and Run” is just as strong.  Talas were not just a bass showcase, but a band that could actually write good songs.  These are unpolished and rough songs, with the band (Dave Constantino on guitar and Paul Varga on drums) alternating lead vocals.

The centerpiece of the album is the bass solo “NVH 3345”.  Write that down and turn it upside down:  it spells “SHEEHAN”.  It has been said before that as Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” was a game changer on guitar,  “NVH 3345” is the “Eruption” of the bass guitar.  It is hard to imagine more sheer technique stuffed into 2:21.  For anyone who is a serious collector of hard rock heroes, “NVH 3345” must find a way into your collection.

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“High Speed On Ice” returns to a hard rocking momentum, like “Highway Star” via Buffalo New York.  Then “Shy Boy” which needed David Lee Roth and Steve Vai to finally perfect it.  Think of this version as a prototype.  It is hard to believe that David Lee Roth did not write the line “Gotta keep things movin’ ’til my personality starts it groovin'”, but Roth made it sound like he meant it.

“King of the World” and “Outside Lookin’ In” occupy the mid-tempo range, and that would be Billy singing those high screams.  Both good songs with the memorable hooks to go with the bass hijinks.  Shadows fall on “Never See Me Cry”, a darker side of Talas but still with the hooks intact.  Second to last song “Smart Lady” is the only loser.  There isn’t room for songs that just don’t cut it.  “Hick Town” ends the album on a better note, with bass pyrotechnics and thrills to go.

Sink your teeth into Talas, and come back tomorrow for a look at Live Speed on Ice.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: VAI – Sex & Religion (1993)

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?

HI TRACY

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.

5/5 stars