Favored Nations
rating icon 7.5 / 10

Track listing:

01. Teeth Of The Hydra
02. Zeus In Chains
03. Little Pretty
04. Candlepower
05. Apollo In Color
06. Avalancha
07. Greenish Blues
08. Knappsack
09. Sandman Cloud Mist

Fans of virtuoso shred will check out the new STEVE VAI album regardless of anything written in a review. Taking into consideration his extraordinary resume and fine catalogue of studio albums, that is just as it should be. Vai is a master beyond dispute, and while there is always the risk that a new record by a noted shred-god will be heard primarily by other guitarists, "Inviolate" nonchalantly bucks that trend by being both hugely accessible and coolly adventurous. In much the same way that past triumphs like 1990's seminal "Passion And Warfare" and 1993's "Sex & Religion" transcended guitar nerdiness and drew in a much broader audience, Vai's tenth full-length as a solo artist is incredibly easy to absorb and intermittently fascinating with it.

You do genuinely need to adore the sound of an electric guitar being played by a certified expert to enjoy this stuff, but there is warmth and looseness to these songs that sets the whole thing apart from the indulgent showboating that typifies the genre. Performed almost exclusively on a hollow body Gretsch guitar (and that's as in-depth as the guitar analysis is going to get, folks!),these feel like rounded, crafted songs, rather than exercises in blurred-finger frenetics. Opening with the explosive and elaborate "Teeth Of The Hydra" — during which Vai plays some unfathomable, triple-necked creation of his own devising — and the fluid fusion of "Zeus In Chains", "Inviolate" is full of artful, jazzy chord changes and the skittering charm of Latin percussion, with Vai delivering a steady stream of wonderfully tasteful solos. "Little Pretty" is a strutting, KING CRIMSON-esque epic, laced with dissonance and elegant, oddball detours; "Candlepower" is a quirky, jazz rock curio, with Vai employing the most delicate of touches to negotiate every inch of the fretboard; "Apollo In Color" is a high-tension funk rock sprawl; "Avalancha" is Vai in arched-back guitar hero mode, as he glides through the gears across six minutes of athletic-sounding prog metal.

The biggest payoff arrives with "Greenish Blues", wherein the silky tones of the Gretsch are put to their most effective use, over a gently meandering blues hymnal, steeped in bubbling Hammond. Has Vai ever played with more grace or finesse? Almost certainly not. It's a wonderfully serene and stately piece of music, and the guitarist's spotlit performance is genuinely extraordinary. Closing with the frantic, hyperactive clatter of "Knappsack" and the mellifluous, psychedelic mirage of "Sandman Cloud Mist", "Inviolate" is Steve Vai's most inviting and inventive album in quite some time — with or without that preposterous, triple-necked monstrosity. He can't help himself, bless him.

Author: Dom Lawson
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