The spark for Steve Vai’s 10th solo studio album Inviolate (28 January 2022; Favored Nations/Mascot Label Group) came around the start of the pandemic when he found that his shoulder was in a mess and needed surgery. Many guitarists might have left their six-string to gather dust at that moment but Vai typically saw it as an opportunity to do something new. Dr. Knapp, the surgeon who operated on his right arm, had invented a particular type of sling he called the “knappsack”, which the guitarist thought might be an amusing name for a tune. Shortly afterwards Vai received his signature Ibanez Onyx Black PIA and decided he wanted to create the song with just one hand. The subsequent March 2021 release left Vai “surprised by the response, it was really a stunner… lemonade was made out of lemons!”
One thing led to another and soon Vai had produced Inviolate, his first studio album since 2016’s Modern Primitive. Over the guitarist’s 40 year career he has worked with icons such as Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, and Whitesnake, and while there are inevitable nods to these artists’ work, over the ensuing decades he has constantly sought to innovate with his incredible capacity to shred always being balanced by his passion for melody, texture, and tone. It is not for nothing that he has received three Grammy Awards and shifted over 15 million records.
“It’s very ‘Vai,’ whatever that means,” he says, with a laugh. “It’s just very honest music. Because a lot of my records, they’re long and there’s a lot of concepts and playing around with stories. This one has none of that. This is nine pretty dense all-instrumental compositions that I wanted to capture and record so I could get out there and play them live.”
Inviolate shifts into gear with Teeth Of The Hydra, on which he employs a guitar that was co-designed with Hoshino Gakki based on a “steampunk template”, which was inspired by the recent Mad Max movie. This three-necked monster – one is a 12-string, with half of it fretless; another is a seven-string, and then there is a four-string bass… plus it’s got harp strings on it – can be lovingly enjoyed in the corresponding video. But of course it would be rather pointless if Vai was not then able to do something with it. As he himself says: “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. [But if the song] has no melody, it’s just wank… there’s always a little voice of fear in the background, but inevitably, there’s this other voice that always comes in and says, ‘Shut the fuck up. Just do it. You got this.’” And he has!
The Greek mythology theme continues on the melodic next cut, Zeus in Chains, on which you can hear the influence of Lee Roth. That is followed by the jazz-funk driven number Little Pretty, featuring Vai on (yes!) a Gretsch. The use of this model pushed the guitarist outside his comfort zone, but he just loved the sound of it. With “a Gretsch […] the notes have space around them,” he says. “The solo on Little Pretty, that’s a monumental achievement for me – that’s one of my best ever,” he reflects. “I can’t touch that, I mean it.”
Candlepower represented another challenge as he used finger-picking rather than a plectrum, a Strat and no tremolo. The song also required him to invent a new technique, which he calls ‘joint shifting’, where you bend a note while fretting another, but bending only the top joint of the finger. Again, it would be meaningless if he didn’t produce something cool – but he does: and it has a lovely seductive and jazzy hook.
Greenish Blues might be described as a ‘bluesy-marmite track’, which you might love or hate, but it is unlikely to leave you indifferent; and it moves me for that reason. The closer Sandman Cloud Mist is another ballad, which ends the record on a slightly soporific note; perhaps appropriate after such a diverse and adventurous musical journey.
“I’ve always turned a blind eye to what was supposed to be the most ‘successful’ course for me in the world, because you don’t know what that is,” Vai concludes. “So when it comes time to creating a piece of music, I always try to infuse it with something that really pushes my buttons. Something that says, ‘Okay, you’ve never done this before’. And that’s what turns me on. I love that– when I have a creative idea for something, and then I just do it.”