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Main Category: Guitar Heroes
Also applicable: Jazz Rock, Meta-Rock
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Steve Vai fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Steve Vai fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1984
Overall rating =

Great album title - fully illustrating the difference between Steve and all those OTHER shredders.

Best song: JUNKIE

Track listing: 1) Little Green Men; 2) Viv Woman; 3) Lovers Are Crazy; 4) Salamanders In The Sun; 5) The Boy-Girl Song; 6) The Attitude Song; 7) Call It Sleep; 8) Junkie; 9) Bill's Private Parts; 10) Next Step Earth; 11) There's Something Dead In Here.

If you needed some proof that out of all the speed-happy guitar spiders out there, Steve Vai was the most inventive and truly 'entertaining' one, Flex-Able is all the evidence you need. It's his only true solo venture in a long time; upon releasing the album, he went on a long long hike to serve as backing guy for Alcatrazz (replacing Yngwie Malmsteem), David Lee Roth (replacing Eddie Van Halen), and Whitesnake (replacing whatever dipshit had been hired there, because only a dipshit would want to back up David "My Cock Is Bigger Than Your Brain" Coverdale. Ohmygod, wait a minute, that makes Steve Vai a dipshit? Oh just you look where all these sophisticated insults have ended me up at in of.).

But anyway, we're running a little ahead of the herd. Come back, herd. In 1984, or, more precisely, 1983, when this album was being recorded, Steve Vai was still a Frank Zappa alumnus/devotee, and unsurprisingly, Flex-Able sounds a lot like the Vai-period Zappa albums (like You Are What You Is and Them Or Us, for instance). According to highly reliable sources like Internet gossip, it was recorded by him at home on an 8-track in its entirety, although Vai is not the only creator of the tracks on here, being aided by lots of buddies, from the contemporary Zappa band as well as other sources. It was subsequently released by him independently - wonder where he got the money - and became sort of a local cult favourite, for obvious reasons.

Now, Frank Zappa was a perfectly unpredictable guy, but even for perfectly unpredictable guys there exists a long list of things about which it is quite riskless to predict that they will not do them, whatever the price may be. For instance, it's impossible to imagine Zappa performing 'Stairway To Heaven' with a straight face on. Likewise, despite valuing impressive guitar technique (and being the proud owner of one himself), Frank can't be said to have embraced "shredding" at any point in his career. Thus, it's hardly surprising that Flex-Able is not about playing all the existing scales in a matter of nanoseconds, even if Joe Satriani, Vai's "teacher", is also a huge influence. In fact, it's even not always about displaying flashy guitar technique! Many of the tracks can, and must be, assessed as complex, experimental (and sometimes not so experimental) musical compositions where chord changes, weird progressions, and arrangements matter much more than the actual length of Vai's fingers. (And according to rumours, they're even longer than Dave Coverdale's cock! Imagine that!). Plus, quite a few of them actually have vocals, male (Stevie's own?) as well as female (no idea of the owner), which is another argument in favour of treating Flex-Able as a 'music album' rather than a 'guitar project'.

In short, above everything it is an intelligently crafted, tasteful record, and unless you're already well familiar with Zappa, you can certainly be taken aback. I've read several reviews of this album on metal sites by people who were frankly befuddled by it, and most of them ended up with some or other disclaimer along the lines of "if you want speedy metal solos and kick-ass energy, better go elsewhere", although even then most of these metal fans never dared to openly proclaim that Flex-Able sucks. Because it's just too obvious that Flex-Able doesn't suck.

Now, to reassure the non-weirdos in the audience, there certainly are a couple first-rate "normal" guitar rockers on here, most notably the fantastic 'Attitude Song', a breathtaking slab of "metal-funk" which frankly sounds like nothing else - you don't often get guitarists who know everything about correct funk syncopation and use the gruffest, angriest power-metal guitar tones to play that syncopation at the same time, and then there are the breaks, where Vai's Hendrix and Satriani influences are showing up. And at the same time, it's hilarious - any aggression expressed in the guitar tone is effectively "detoxicated" by the goofiness of the melody and the 'whiny' passages.

By contrast, the instrumental 'Viv Woman' is more in the traditional rock'n'roll vein, all jagged meticulously played mid-tempo riffs and almost never an improvisational solo passage, as if we were actually listening to an underproduced Iron Maiden song or something - until a female voice cries 'just go for it!' (in an annoyed voice, too, as if people were pissed off about the song's development) and Vai launches into an effective, but very brief solo passage. And that's it for loudness. Oh yeah, parts of the seven-minute epic 'Junkie' are pretty loud and distorted as well, although never fast. (It's actually the lyrical part of the song that's the most bizarre - switching from gruesome lyrics like 'I need some junk/To shoot in my veins/Would you give me some/To relieve the pain?' to plain comedy like 'I need some food/To stuff in my face/But the garbage man/He took the trash away').

But usually, it is more like avantgarde jazz/fusion/jazz-rock in the Zappa vein, with a solid touch of goofiness, whether it be the vocal or the instrumental numbers. The album kicks off with the mock-sci-fi number 'Little Green Men', for instance (said to be dedicated to Nina Hagen? WHY?), all tricky signature changes, chimy kiddy synthesizers, complex (and at times, almost unhearable) guitar rhythms, and sped-up "cosmic" vocals from the 'little green men' in question. 'Lovers Are Crazy' is almost like a straightforward R'n'B love song, except that, of course, the R'n'B is pretty messed up as well; again, the only solos on the song are played by a brass section, while Vai sticks straightly to syncopated guitar rhythms. 'The Boy-Girl Song', played entirely on acoustic, is even more straightforward - here, Vai was obviously trying to write a "mock-pop song" a la Frank, and the results aren't half-bad, even if hearing the same acoustic strum from a supposed guitar genius for four minutes straight can get somewhat annoying. But the melody is catchy! And dumb!

For pure guitar technique, there's the classy instrumental 'Call It Sleep', where Vai fiddles around with an acoustic, sounding like Santana in a romantic mood but delivered from the Patented Carlos Santana Elevator Muzak Curse by means of an added touch of humour (which reminds me of that one Zappa title - 'Variations On The Hidden Carlos Santana Progression' was it?), then switches to the electric to do the same stuff louder, then reverts to acoustic again; and for "mock-psychedelic" guitar weirdness, there's the last track, 'There's Something Dead In Here', which isn't really my favourite because there's too much chaos and dissonance, but then again I never was much of a Chaos Lover, I like my world better structured, while you may not.

So frankly, there's a little something for everyone here - that is, everyone who enjoys a little bit of adventurousness in guitar playing. Most certainly you will not like all of it: the metal parts, the funk parts, the fusion parts, the avantgarde parts, the acoustic pop parts, that's a little too much to take even for an eclectic kind of person. But one thing is certain: this is THE album to turn to in order to get rid of the myth that "shredders" have too many little diesels in their fingers and too few curves in their brains.



Year Of Release: 1990

A lot of things happened in between Vai's first and second solo album. He left Zappa and went to play for David Lee Roth. Then he left David Lee Roth and, if I get my facts right, went to replace Yngwie Malmsteem in Alcatrazz. Then he left Alcatrazz and went to play for Whitesnake. Then he left Whitesnake and went to play for Tori Amos. Then he left Tori Amos and finally decided to play something for himself. [Hey, spot the odd one out! I'm not intentionally desinforming you, I'm just in a playful mood!]

Anyway, this here record is different. It's not Flex-Able II by any means. It's more like, uh, heavy metal this time. And with a fair amount of shredding and all the things "guitar technicians" are always accused of - speed, flashiness, tapping, hammer-ons, blah blah blah you name it, I'm not gonna dig myself into a heap of old guitar textbooks just to know all the right words. I'm not here for formal musicological analysis anyway. But one thing I gotta tell you: Passion And Warfare is real real good as far as 'shredder' albums go. And whoever keeps on accusing Steve Vai of being all flash and show-off and no substance has simply never listened to it, or has listened to it with metaphorically closed ears.

For one thing, it shows that Steve is still displaying a slightly Zappaesque sense of humor, and he still takes that 'playful' approach to his music which we saw in spades on the 1984 album. Take 'The Audience Is Listening', for instance. It's essentially a speedy multi-part jazz-fusion-funk-metal instrumental, not unlike the kind of stuff Van Halen used to do when Dave Lee was still in the band and they did cool speedy mammoth stuff like 'Hot For Teacher' before Dave Lee quit and they started doing sucky generic dumpster garbage stuff like 'Why Can't This Be Love'. But it's arranged as this really funny event when the 'teacher' or whoever it is addresses 'little Stevie' and tells him to go ahead and play his classmates some of that 'really nice music' he's been composing, and then little Stevie goes onstage and says 'I wrote this song for all my friends, when I grow up, I'm gonna be a famous rock'n'roll guitar player', and then he cranks up the volume and plays all these really loud metal parts and the 'teacher' goes mad at him and starts shouting at him to turn it down and desperately cries that 'you'll never amount to anything, Steve Vai, you'll be a bum in the street!'. Ah, I can't really narrate this stuff. It's hilarious.

Then there's this another really cool funk-metal jam called 'Erotic Nightmares' - not bad, eh? And it really does sound a bit like you'd expect an erotic nightmare to sound, except that it's really diverse and moves from fusion to speed metal to "astral psychedelia" and back again, with only a limited amount of true shredding and all of it in the right places. And then there's this really kick-ass instrumental called 'Greasy Kid's Stuff' which rips your speakers apart with that insane opening "barking" riff and all. Yeah, maybe "little Stevie" is showing off here, but I don't mind people showing off if it kicks so much booty in the process - why do you think I keep heaping all those praises on Ritchie Blackmore even if he's obviously one of the most egotistic pricks to ever exist? Definitely more egotistic than little humble Stevie Vai ('no I'm very very shy', "little Stevie" admits at the beginning of 'I Would Love To').

A couple of tracks are slower and moodier, more like 'power ballads' of sorts, but the kind of power ballads that look good because the guy doing them has enough chops to produce a true cathartic effect without looking generic. 'For The Love Of God' draws on for six minutes and is obviously a pretty serious composition - with the irony and tongue-in-cheekiness dropped to give Steve ample space for stretching out in the "emotional" department. He really comes up with a great set of melodies for the tune, at the same time avoiding any temptation to slip into weather-channel-mode (like, say, Santana) because the tune is so loud and jarring, not a bit "smoothed out" for popular consumption or something. The first two and a half minutes or so are just Stevie tearing away at the strings, slowly but powerfully - no shredding; but when he goes into shredding mode, it seems just so perfectly natural, and you actually want him to get into shredding mode - to develop the song's potential, and he does. And that's some beautiful shredding out there. Who dares to say shredders don't have any soul?

For breathers, you get occasional "softer" compositions, too, like the mild jazzy 'Sisters' or the funny arpeggio mishmash of 'Ballerina'. They're not the album's main highlights, but I'm glad they're there. In short, it's a cool experience - I hesitate to give it too high a rating because I'm not the world's biggest fan of instrumental guitar-driven fiestas, but as far as these albums go, Passion And Warfare is one of the best and it once again supports the notion of "little Stevie" as one of the most interesting shredders out there.


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