Album Review: Steven Vai, ‘Modern Primitive’

Written by Lucas Jones

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Steve Vai has been a force to be reckoned with on the guitar for decades. He began his career with Frank Zappa in 1980, and began his solo career in 1983. He has toured with David Lee Roth, Alcatrazz, Whitesnake, G3, and the Generation Axe Tour. With 15 million records sold, three Grammy’s and a signature line of Ibanez guitars, Vai has undoubtedly changed the landscape of rock music, and inspired a generation of shred-heads (myself included) to pick up guitars and chase seemingly impossible speeds and techniques.

His latest release Modern Primitive, seeks to answer the question that many Vai fans have asked for a long time. What the heck happened between his 1984 album Flex-Able and his 1990 album Passion and Warfare? The two albums could not be more different. Flex-Able moves from the laid back grooves of “Viv Woman” to the ridiculous time signature of “The Attitude Song”, finally resting at…well at some weird songs like “Little Green Men”, “Next Stop Earth”, and “There’s Something Dead in Here”. Passion and Warfare, however, is what many consider to be a pinnacle of virtuosity and guitar technique. “Blue Powder”, “For the Love of God”, and “The Audience is Listening”, are staples at any Vai show, combining all types of mind-blowing solos, and jaw dropping techniques.

So, on to his newest release, Modern Primitive. We start with the weird. “Bop!” is straight out of Flex-Able, with its vocal synth sounds and catchy rhythms. We almost immediately switch gears, and are given a heavy dose of Vai-style funk on “Dark Matter”, where the listener is treated to Vai’s fairly unique compressed strumming and whammy bar manipulation, which brings back memories of “Kill the Guy With the Ball” off of Alien Love Secrets. The middle of the album continues to impress, with the slow and airy track “The Lost Chord” featuring Devin Townsend on vocals backed up with some mostly free form Vai solo and sound effects. “Upanishads”, “Fast Note People”, and “And We Are One” are great examples of Vai’s ability to write complete songs, and work really well as the middle of this album, especially considering the back-end of Primitive is chock full of classic guitar forward tracks.

“Lights are On” is essentially six minutes of guitar solo. Going from full speed to melodic to chaotic, from traditional notes to the slurred, wah-ed, whammy bar patterns that define Vai’s style, is going to be a song that I hope he performs on his next tour. “No Pockets” is more of a sing along reminiscent of “Little Alligators” from the Fire Garden album, in that the song features catchy guitars and simple but effective arrangement. The album ends on a three part song, “Pink and Blows Over”. Beginning as a slow guitar track, moving into a symphonic mix of synth and vocals, and finally ending with speed jazz, “Pink” is the best way to end what amounts to a tour de force through the creative evolution of Vai.

In short, Modern Primitive might be the most complete representation of Steve Vai as a guitar player and a composer. Combining the quirky and sometimes silly aspects of Zappa-era Vai with the fluid guitar playing of Passion and Warfare, the compositional mastery Fire Garden, and even some of the pop music tendencies of Real Illusions and The Story of Light, Modern Primitive shows us what a lifetime of guitar playing can produce. Personally, this would easily rank as my second favorite Vai album, just behind Fire Garden and narrowly ahead of Passion and Warfare, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next tour.

Rating 9 out of 10