The ‘80s are alive and well – at least, the music they inspired is. Guitar master Steve Vai released yet another solo album last week, the second in a three-part series that has the potential to become legendary. Vai’s latest installment The Story of Light is much wider in scope both culturally and musically than his 2005 release of Real Illusions: Reflections. Genre infusions, guest appearances, and Vai’s trademark talent all surround an exquisite musical and lyrical narrative, the breadth of which will remain a mystery until Vai unveils his third and final album in the series at some point in the future.
On Real Illusions, Vai emphasized his musical strengths by penning the compositions and recording some impressive shredding; while vocals certainly had a place on the album, they were not essential to the storytelling process. This is not so with The Story of Light. Much of the album’s power actually sprouts from the layered vocals. For the gospel-inspired tunes “John the Revelator” and “Book of the Seven Seals,” Beverly McClellan steps in to take the lead, a bit distanced now from her days on NBC’s The Voice and an interesting but exciting match for Vai’s project. “John the Revelator” is a fascinating track – Vai’s version drastically alters Blind Willie Johnson’s original 1930 recording, taking the song to new and rather extreme levels. After first paying tribute to Johnson with a clip from the eighty-year-old recording, McClellan swiftly enters to dominate the song with her no-messing-around vocals (her voice is enough to get anyone to hit the repeat button). The music blends in nicely behind McClellan, and while there is a series of powerful guitar chords mixed in with the first verse, no instruments really grab for the listener’s attention until Vai slices through with his solo three minutes in. At that point, it’s easier to simply give in to Vai’s talent and let the music take its course.
Vai’s experimental mixing of gospel, blues, and metal is a consistent theme throughout The Story of Light, though it is risky to limit Vai in terms of influences when reviewing his work. While gospel pops up on tracks like “Book of the Seven Seals” and “The Story of Light,” Vai surprises listeners with his version of an Irish folk song titled “Mullach a’ tSí.” For this track, Vai departs briefly from his mastery of guitar picking and shredding and switches over to exercise his unmatched control over the sonic shapes of notes and chords. Harpist Deborah Hensen contributes dreamlike waves to the piece, emphasizing that The Story of Light is not simply another Steve Vai solo record – it is much more than that, a project that seeks to grasp at some larger concept involving culture, limits, and the ever-wavering human spirit.
Just two albums in, Vai’s trilogy is already an exciting endeavor. Without the final installment, it is impossible to say how the larger project as a whole will come together, just as it is difficult to determine how the narrative Vai is in the process of deconstructing will close. Taken independently, The Story of Light is a strong, solid body of work, chock full of songs that stand well enough on their own and a splice of evidence of Vai’s continuing musical skill and sagacity.
The Story of Light is available on iTunes and through Vai’s website http://www.vai.com and you can check out “John the Revelator” at the YouTube link below.