Vai, Wylde, Malmsteen and Bettencourt vs. Tosin Abasi

By Vicente Mateu

Four great "axeslingers" of the '90s take one of their most brilliant 'students' on the road

I confess that I received the news with the same bored enthusiasm of the knowing fan still getting over the last hype campaign to emerge from rock’s marketing machine, namely that number involving Axl in an attempt to salvage the next-to-last tour of AC/DC. So the word out about Generation Axe struck me as being as tacky as the TV adverts for the famous deodorant that's ever so popular in Spanish superstores.

Although I still don't care for the name of the band much, I didn't have to wait very long to clear up any doubts about the true intentions of these five great guitarists: to have themselves one helluva good time, “a real treat”, in the words of Steve Vai, the real driving force behind the project along with  Zakk Wylde. Both of them are a sure thing; with Yngwie Malsmteen, Nuno Bettencourt and Tosin Abasi added to the mix, they are an unstoppable force. The G-3 was just a small taster.

Generation Axe
is a treat for the ears and also the best possible solution for the five members, who separately would never have achieved the high level of expectation and immediate interest the announcement of their joint tour awakened in the music world. It is the perfect platform for promoting their individual projects and their own tours.

Perhaps they would have preferred another 'line-up' for the initial game, but the selection has hardly created any controversy in the media: more would have been too much and we're not at the Olympic Games of guitar virtuosos here. All of them are undeniable maestros.

With a little bit of luck, maybe there will be a second version with new faces -- excuse me, new hands. For right now, each guitarist returned to his solo commitments come mid-June.

From all appearances, Steve Vai was the ‘coach’ who chose his teammates, and showed that he valued the music over all other considerations. The spotlight falls on the six strings and a fistful of old and new songs, not the players. Or not just them.

These are five distinct styles of understanding rock and playing the guitar. The exquisite perfection of Vai is complemented by the ferocity of Zakk Wylde, the classicism of Malmsteen, Nuno Bettencourt's elegance and the new progressive metal of Tosin Abasi. A quintet with the resources to please all kinds of tastes, capable of making a show that has to be long out of necessity to sustain interest without having the audience head off en masse to the bar.

The 'Wizard' and the 'Beast'

The hyperactive Steve Vai has revolutionized the electric guitar world ever since he graduated cum laude from the University of Frank Zappa. Vai himself is an enthusiastic teacher who appears all over the world, physically and virtually. He is also an excellent songwriter when he has time for it -his last studio album, Story of Light, came out in 2012-, but apparently his priority is spending more time on stage than on solid ground. It is a life completely dedicated to his favourite instrument, a wonderful 'wizard' with another seat reserved among the legends.

On his own tour apart from Generation Axe, Vai is performing Passion & Warfare practically in its entirety. The record just marked its 25th anniversary and is widely considered his best album, much more accessible than his most recent recording. If his supremacy was undeniable in the '90s, it's out of this world today. 

His band provides the foundation for both tours and features fellow Zappa veteran Pete Griffin, Nick Marinovich, formerly with Malmsteen, on keyboards and drummer Matt Gartska courtesy of Tosin Abasi's band, Animals as Leaders. Three more monster musicians reining in the five runaway horses in front of them until they actually manage to make them sound like a real band.

Zakk Wylde
for sure is an 'axeslinger' in the purest, undiluted sense. He just released his second solo album decades after the first one, an intimate and very acoustic "Book of Shadows".  With Generation Axe, he brought back the "Beast" to feel right at home in its natural environment, playing versions of his top classics. "N.I.B." will never sound like the same Black Sabbath song after being put through the wringer of his Flying V guitar.

It turns out to be pretty incredible listening to how Vai -even with his Whitesnake experience to draw on- and Wylde can pull sounds from the same instrument that seem like they originate from galaxies so far removed from one another.

Not even Yngwie Malsmteen has gone as far as Zakk when the time comes to ‘torture’ his guitar, to make it sound like he's delivering the goods without losing the southern and blues essence in his playing. Ozzy knew what he was doing when he chose him to replace Toni Iommi.

Mozart with a Stratocaster

The Swedish guitar is in turn the Mozart of rock or the Paganini if he prefers that. The virtuoso par excellence adapted to his own century and his own six-string 'violin' plugged into a Marshall. Working as a luthier in his early years gave him that deep understanding and knowledge of the instrument worth a position of honour among the great guitarists of our time in his own genre -with the permission of Ritchie Blackmore-, the neo-classical power metal.

However, his career has recently progressed in fits and starts, constantly changing record companies out of habit and keeping his name in the public eye through a reissue of his "masterpieces". It is his nature and style, the one that made him record his last official release -Spellbound, four years ago now- completely solo from beginning to end, including the vocals after he lost Tim Ripper Owens. Yngwie, of course, can be allowed to do that although it would be better all-round if he looked for another vocalist in the future and concentrated on his vast -we're talking 200 or 300 here- collection of Stratocasters.

, in theory, is still active. They have even announced a new album for this year after their reunion in 2004 and the Saudades de Rock disc in 2008 broke a 13-year silence. And it's pretty clear from the title who was the lead voice (or guitar, to put it more accurately) Nevertheless, being able to see Nuno Bettencourt perform live in recent years meant waiting for Rihanna to hire him to give her teenage audience something brilliant to listen to and kick their butts, too.

The talent Nuno Bettencourt shows playing his Washburn simply cannot be argued with. He also excels as a composer even though 25 years have now passed since the success of the great Pornograffitti killed the rock star. More Than Words, that beautiful acoustic ballad, swallowed up one of the bands from the '90s with the most promising future and broke up barely six years later.

Nuno Duarte Gil Mendes Bettencourt
is not your typical axeslinger. If Malmsteen brought classical into metal, Bettencourt brought the funk. "Get the Funk Out" thrilled the ears of many people in 1990. Someone finally pulled it off without losing the essences of heavy metal, thanks in part to a very savvy horn section but mainly the dazzling technique of a guitarist who knew how to blend crushing riffs with the undulating hips of the dancefloor.

A master of the electric guitar, ironically that was unplugged when Nuno pulled "More Than Words" from his guitar, one of those songs that become a universal anthem. His acoustic set was the undoubtedly the best part of Generation Axe.

Fusion metal

Tosin Abasi
is actually the ‘anti- axeslinger’ and also doesn't come from the same generation as his colleagues on stage. But he is one of the bright future hopes for rock, and not only because he's the only one born in the '80s when everyone was born in the '60s. It's because he opened, or at least tried to open, a new path in the harsh world of over-the-top licks and double bass drums.

He calls it progressive instrumental metal, incorporating it into the same part of the universe as Dream Theater, when Abasi and his Animals As Leaders were closest to jazz, the fresh new seed for a new musical fusion.

The greatest proof of that lies in Abasi's side project with other metal musicians drawn from some of the best bands of recent times -The Mars Volta, Suicidal Tendencies…-, T.R.A.M, and his fellow guitarist from the Animals, Javier Reyes.

Lingua Franca
, the only 'vinyl' available from the combo, recorded in 2012, falls closer to Al DiMeola and Stanley Clarke than Yngwie Malmsteen and is one of the great undiscovered records  in the stagnant tidal wave of MP3s that globalization floods us with every day. Steve Vai, is clearly the point of reference, as clearly as he was one of the five "chosen ones" despite his youth and coming from a different generation. Perhaps the ''king' has now named his successor... they even share the same brand of guitar.

Generation Axe
was over in the blink of an eye, a mini-tour that managed to unite worship of the guitar with musical excellence and legitimately make use of the tremendous power the members could collectively summon to remind everyone they had not given up the fight. Gibson, Fender, Ibanez, Washburn… five warriors brandishing their razor-sharp, six-string axes over our heads.

But blood didn't flow from the wounds. Just music.

Listen now on Spotify:
T.R.A.M. - Lingua Franca
ZAKK WYLDE - Book Of Shadows II  
EXTREME - Saudades de Rock 
STEVE VAI - Passion and Warfare