I’ve recently purchased The Ultimate Fortress box set by hard rock band Alcatrazz, a band most famous for having two legendary, virtuoso-level guitar players, Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai, in their lineup during early phases of their respective careers. It’s been fun exploring the audio and visual content of this package, and the Steve Vai presence reminded me of another topic I wanted to discuss.
This entry starts with yet another gem of an ad that I found in an old music magazine.
This was pulled from the July 1993 issue of Musician. It took up around half of a page, wedged to the left of the magazine’s production credits. It’s very non-descriptive and rather bland visually considering the space it took up. Aside from the word Vai and the fact it’s being released through Relativity (the label that also helped launch his sophmore album, Passion and Warfare), you may even doubt this was an ad for a Steve Vai-led project. VAI could very well have been an acronym of some kind (Virile Austrian Imports? Vampire Assassins Incorporated? Virtuous Artistic Inbreeding?)
This album would be released as Sex & Religion when all was said and done. It’s unusual that the incorrect name went to print so close to when the album was released, which was in late-July. If ads like this appeared in other publications, did listing the Light Without Heat title impact on the album’s commercial success? Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder if Sex Without Lights was used an intermediate name.
When compared to other so-called guitar “shredders”, I always felt that Steve Vai’s work stood out due to his interesting rhythm tracks that form the foundation of many of his songs. Some of the less memorable guitarists of the era essentially sounded as if they were jamming over a drum machine, making their songs seem more like practices in dexterity instead of compositions. I’d liken his writing approach to another guitar-playing Steve, Steve Morse, though the execution differs. They both keep the melodies strong without sacrificing the rhythm’s intricacy or ability to drive the composition forward.
While some tracks of his feature more of a sparse backdrop over which he lays down his leads, such as perhaps his most famous solo album piece “For The Love Of God”, he has established significantly varied approaches to songwriting. He’s also penned tracks like “The Attitude Song” that demonstrates as much skillful playing from the bass and drums as it does the guitar, “Bad Horsie”, which is more groove-based and showcases an imitative (of a horse, of course!), playful side, and “The Fire Garden Suite”, which pretty much goes all over the map. It’s hard to pin down what a typical Vai composition is gonna sound like.
His Sex & Religion album could be argued to be his most straight-forward release, but I appreciate it as it seemed to be going against expectations. While many likely wanted to see how much further he could push instrumental rock music, he opted to simplify his approach to music in a way. For his third solo album, he actually assembled a band, a rather solid one at that. You get fellow School of Frank Zappa graduate Terry Bozzio behind the drum kit, with the slap-happy T.M. Stevens on bass to complete the rhythm section. Possibly most noteworthy, this project introduced vocalist Devin Townsend’s to a wide audience. Filling the background vocal roles includes (among many) Ahmet Zappa (Frank’s son) and everyone’s favourite Rambo impersonator, Kane Roberts.
Being a fan of much of Devin Townsend’s output throughout his career, learning that he had sung on a Steve Vai album as a twenty year old surprised me. The only sampling of Devin I had heard prior to hearing Sex & Religion was a few of his albums with Strapping Young Lad. I had yet to listen to much of his solo material, the exceptions being “Vampira” and a few other songs that were still practically straight-up hard rock and metal songs. I did not quite know exactly how powerful he was as a vocalist. Here, he not only demonstrated power, but a unique combination of tenderness and rage one might not expect to find in a kid from New Westminster, British Columbia. And if you listen to Sex & Religion in it’s entirety and still don’t think Devin Townsend has enough character, this Headbanger’s Ball appearance will put that doubt aside, and then some!
Stylistically, this album brought the focus back towards the rock band dynamic that began in Alcatrazz and gained him wider fame with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. I have to say, I really enjoy the results. This album could have easily been accomplished with an excess of guitars taking on the role of vocalist in handling melody over top of the rhythm tracks, but I think taking a chance on an unknown vocalist was a worthwhile experiment. While there are still several solos to be found and colorful guitar flourishes aplenty, the middle of the album’s “Touching Tongues” and “State of Grace” seem to be what you’d most expect for a guitarist’s instrumental album, but they serve to break up the more conventional hard rock songs.
Using vocals had the potential to reach a wider audience, which surely must have played into some of Vai’s decision making. You usually don’t get Desmond Child to help co-write a song (“In My Dreams With You”) without aspirations for at least a minor hit. As far as what I believe to be the highlights, I’ll direct you to check out “Here & Now”, “Still My Bleeding Heart”, and “Survive”.
So why did the ad print with Light Without Heat as the album title? I still haven’t figured it out. I thought it may have been pulled from a lyric on the album, but I don’t see it listed. Could it have to do with the Russian play of the same name? The album is full of religious references, so is it in reference to the burning bush in which God appeared to Moses? It could simply have been a working title Steve Vai would slap onto something until a better idea formed. After all, he must have had at least a minor obsession with the phrase, using it as a label to release a significant portion of his discography.
As if to make up for the error (or last-minute change in title), guess what the cover story in Musician was the following month.
Not only that, the issue featured a full-page advertisement (now in colour!) to give the music a proper introduction.
It’s a slightly modified version of the album cover. That being the case, I never noticed until seeing this image that the border around the nearly-nude man with the arrows in him (Devin Townsend) subtlely contains the word “Vai” repeated in a loop. Between the feature article and stunning ad, there’s so much detail this time around.
What a difference a month can make!