In modern times, it seems perhaps more likely that Steve Vai is an alien. The unworldly music which fills his new Epic release “The Ultra Zone” does nothing to diminish that impression - this is an extraordinary album, drawn from a place in the heart to which precious few achieve access.
For sheer breathtaking facility on a guitar, Steve Vai is unmatched in the rock world. But the things that fascinate and move Vai as an artist soar a million miles beyond the concerns of most archetypal guitar gods. Starting with his groundbreaking “Passion and Warfare” album and throughout the years since, Vai has consistently used music as a microscope peering into the human spirit, with equal attention paid to both the darkest obsessions and the most exalted impulses contained there.
From the depths of his sonic laboratory, the forever restless Vai discusses how making what would likely have been the most amazing guitar album of all time wasn’t enough for him: "This album took a lot of twists and turns during the recording. Two years ago, I set out to record the most incredible guitar album ever, to unveil the most intense, provocative guitar playing of my career. But my direction radically shifted while going through tapes of stuff I've recorded over the last few years for an upcoming 10-CD boxed set.
"I fell so in love with some of that music that I just had to put it out on a real record, and it created a different focus - more on the compositions and less on the guitar playing. And it also took me away from the band-oriented sound I was planning on using and led me back towards playing everything myself. That allows me to reach into the very twisted side of my musical psyche, where the work of composers like Stravinsky, Bernstein, Sondheim and Zappa hold sway.”
The breadth of the album’s scope is instantly apparent from the stunning opener, “The Blood & Tears.” Samples of Indian prayers are woven throughout a melody and chordal structure of great power and simple beauty. While the guitar solo features traditional Vaian fireworks, the composition as a whole offers ample proof that Vai is not about flash, but rather about presenting the results of his ongoing spiritual quest with deep native wisdom and all-abiding love.
Vai does not take music-making lightly, and he’ll often go to near-unprecedented lengths to achieve his goals; take as an example the intensely emotional "Windows to the Soul": "On that song, I really wanted every note to mean something…I wanted to create a piece of music that pulled the listener and myself in different directions than a conventional soaring ballad would.
“I made a loop of the main arpeggio and played over it for two days, 15 hours a day. I went through every emotional phase there is - I played it with sheer joy and with tremendous anger, and I played it totally bored out of my mind. If you do that long enough, you can get to the point where you can actually hear what you're playing as a listener. You can send signals to yourself and hear them coming out of the amp.
"That's what I call getting into the Ultra Zone. That's what the phrase means to me, and it's how an artist achieves anything worthwhile. That's why I chose the name for the album. Hopefully, the music can help others get to a similar place."
The title track uses techno bass-and-drum techniques as a starting point, but refuses to stop there: "I like to evolve rhythmically and try different things…for instance, the techno beats on 'The Ultra Zone' are an interpretation of modern trend music, combined with what I can do well - playing the guitar. I get weary of ambient samples that just come and go. I love melody first and foremost, and had to figure out how to combine those things."
Vai’s “very twisted side” gets its most unabashed airings on the mind-melting “Voodoo Acid” (which marries an irresistibly deep dance groove to a full-technicolor array of shifting sounds and textures, all in the service of a narrative fable which manages to make being threatened by a swarm of bees sexually alluring); "Oooo" (where Vai plays call and response between an impossibly heavy guitar riff, soaring, heavenly synthesizer squiggles, and eerie choirs - the type of quirky juxtaposition which only he could bring off as organically as a 12-bar blues); and “Lucky Charms” (ferocious complexity made truly charming, as a heavenly band of munchkins float through the piece’s rhythmic labyrinth).
Two tracks come across as relatively straightforward guitar showcases - although with Vai at the helm, nothing is ever quite as straightforward as it seems – “Frank” and “Jibboom” are micro-studded with enough terrifying playing to keep guitar aficionados weeping for years. Both tracks are tributes to great guitar innovators taken too soon; the elegant “Frank” is for Vai’s mentor Frank Zappa. Regarding “Jibboom”: "That is a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan," Vai says. "I heard the song 'Scuttle Buttin'" and was inspired to write that. It's actually based on one of the first riffs I ever wrote. If I want to listen to great guitar playing, I put on Stevie Ray. He's like raw honesty rolled into six strings and a cool hat."
“The Ultra Zone” is primarily instrumental, but Vai’s vocal performances cover a whole lot of ground, with a sureness that defies the easy categorizing of critics and fans who like to keep their guitar heroes in a box. He brings us into the tortured soul of "Silent Within" completely and convincingly, and turns on a dime to invite us into the warm heart of a committed lover and friend on “I’ll Be Around.” Clearly, Vai is not afraid to be versatile. "I like to hear a lot of different elements in my music," he understates. "Some songs are comical, some are sensitive and tender and some are of a downright spiritual nature."
While Vai clearly had what was needed to make indelible impressions during his stays with Zappa, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, it’s as a solo artist that he’s made his most precious contributions. Each of his releases is unique, varied, compelling and – even when the music is looking darkness square in the face – genuinely uplifting.
At a time when so many musicians are content merely to mirror the tragedies of the modern world, Steve Vai, while acknowledging the existence of such sadness, seeks to provide a glimpse of a better life – and succeeds time and time again. “The Ultra Zone” is a major achievement from a musical alchemist of the highest order. Steve Vai made his Epic label debut on September 17, 1996 with Fire Garden, a new solo album produced, arranged and engineered by Steve himself. Featuring 18 new tracks includ- ing the four-part "Fire Garden Suite," the album is the latest of six successful solo recordings for the man Frank Zappa once dubbed "my little Italian virtuoso." Vai has been touring non-stop since the release of Fire Garden, completing over 185 shows on an extensive world tour that has reached five continents.
Since his remarkable professional career began with Zappa in 1980, through his work with David Lee Roth, Whitesnake and others (not to mention his memorable performance as the Devil's guitar player in the Walter Hill movie Crossroads), Steve Vai's worldwide sales as a solo recording artist total more than 2.7 million – and over 10.8 million if one includes his work with other artists. In addition to a multitude of worldwide guitar honors, Vai has earned three Grammy nominations, including his 1993 win for Best Rock Instrumental Performance on the critically acclaimed album Zappa's Universe. Whether as guitar player, producer, film compo- ser or orchestrator, Steve Vai continues to be an exciting and visionary musician.