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Steve Vai - The Ultra Zone CD (album) cover


Steve Vai


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3.65 | 84 ratings

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4 stars This is the third of Steve's albums that I've had the pleasure to know. My other reviews of his records will inform you of the immense respect I have for him and musicians of his caliber who are able to transcend the label of being merely "pretty damn good" and soar into the realm of "holy crap incredible." To say that Vai is that kinda guy is to venture into the area known as the blatantly obvious. His mastery over the guitar frequently causes my stubbly jaw to drop. And he ain't just doing slight-of-hand studio tricks. I caught one of his concerts not long ago on the boob tube and I sat in amazement at the sounds he was coaxing out of his instrument in a live setting. Having said that, it's one thing to be proficient and another to be creative. A typical first chair violinist can play a difficult concerto by Mozart with his eyes closed yet not be able to conjure up an original musical idea on the order of "Wild Thing" even if his life depended on it. So, in order to be a complete package of skill and imagination, one must be gifted in both camps. Steve Vai is and his impressive "Ultra Zone" stands as proof positive.

He opens with the Indian-tinged "The Blood Tears," a curious blend of female spoken and sung segments weaving over, under and around a basic rock beat. The intriguing platform this song stands on promises that surprising things are in store for the listener. Steve's playing is clean and somewhat reserved throughout the tune, as if he were warming up in the bullpen. "The Ultra Zone" is next whereupon metallic, percussive thuds precede the number's launch into an up-tempo pace. Here Vai is adventurously dabbling into world rhythms and I commend him for it but it's his stunning guitar virtuosity that rivets my attention over all else. "Oooo" follows and it's a killer cut. Growling guitars are always a plus in my book but the witty and highly enjoyable Zappa-esque interludes push the song into the territory of the sublime. It has a strange arrangement (in a good way) while it wisely retains its melodic charms from beginning to end. Speaking of the late, great bearded wonder, Steve honors FZ with the heartfelt "Frank." His playing in this heavy ballad is quite beautiful without ever becoming wearily saccharine. The regal subtleties in Vai's performance add a touch of grace and class rarely found in Progland, making this tune the highlight of the record.

Steve pays tribute to Stevie (another icon taken from us too soon) on "Jibboon" by building the number upon a simple blues progression and then proceeding to blast a hole in the studio wall with a stream of spectacular six-string salvos. Even a novice guitarist can appreciate that this is a mad genius at work who has few peers. It sizzles. "Voodoo Acid" is next and its expected weird vibe suggested by the title doesn't disappoint. Thank heavens Vai's rhythmic narration stops short of falling into a rap trap. It's more along the lines of poetic story-telling than that. All in all it comes off as a fun experiment that turned out to be comprehensible and, since it never tries to become "scary," it's a loopy trip into surrealism. "Windows to the Soul" is a bright gem. Its semi-mellow groove in 6/4 time supports Steve's stratospheric guitar manipulations perfectly. This song efficiently displays the profound emotions that can be expressed through even the simplest of instruments when wielded by a maximally talented artist. "The Silent Within" follows and it succeeds in capitalizing on the momentum generated by its predecessor. It's another Indian-influenced piece but Vai adds an engaging vocal track that sets it apart from the album's curtain-raiser. The tune's clever harmony schemes and smartly orchestrated spurts of aural color add undiluted excitement.

"I'll Be Around" doesn't fare as well. It's a love song and, understandably, is inherently conservative and predictable. It's akin to what Dream Theater sounds like when they chill out but it pales in comparison to the other tracks. "Lucky Charms" is next and it does a superb job of allowing the record to quickly regain its traction. Possessing an incurably uplifting melody line delightfully augmented by sharp brass, it really spotlights Steve's versatility and willingness to shift gears at a moment's notice. After a thrilling start it morphs into a syncopated funk segment and then evolves into a movement involving stirring symphonic passages that'll keep you wondering where he's going next. This number is a truly impressive example of ingenuous prog rock done right. "Fever Dreams" is another of my favorites. Its smooth but zippy pace sustains the abrupt changes in mood that arise over and over. With Vai the tones he produces are so extraordinary that sometimes I forget it's a guitar he's playing and this is one of those instances as his innovative forays flourish and thrive. "Here I Am" is little more than an old-fashioned rawker with a decent lead vocal supplied by Mister Vai (who's no slouch in that department). Unfortunately, the song lacks the strong hook required to make it memorable. The vocal-heavy "Asian Sky" is the caboose on this train, a hard-hitting tune with a big, Styx-styled chorus that falls far short of inducing the intended goose bumps. Luckily for us Steve tosses in a spirited head-cutting sequence wherein he duels with himself to blazing results but I'm glad that he put this one last.

Face it, Steve Vai is a freak of nature who received a lion's share of the guitar-playing genes in his DNA design. I and 99.999% of the axe men in the world have no earthly idea how he does what he does so well but we can't deny the fact that what we hear him do so consistently is the real McCoy. He can play like an angel or a demon depending on what's required and he makes music that appeals to both aficionados of the genre and the most na´ve of its adherents at the same time. No easy feat, that. "The Ultra Zone" is a stellar work created by a remarkable savant. 4.2 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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