Interview: Steve Vai Breaks Down His New Album, 'The Story of Light'
This story comes from the September issue of Guitar World, which also featured stories on Rush, Periphery and a special conversation between Steve Vai and Animals As Leaders' Tosin Abasi. Pick up the issue in our online store here.
“I was always one of those guys who was a seeker after truth,” Steve Vai says. “I want to know what’s going on.”
True enough. Vai’s relentless quest “to know what’s going on” has enabled him to plumb the transductive, vibratory mysteries of the electric guitar and come up with tonalities and techniques never before imagined. His place of honor in guitar history is secure. After all, of all the guitarists who emerged in the Eighties shred scene, Vai is quite arguably the most innovative. His fretboard mastery and highly innovative use of then-new technologies like the Fernandes Sustainer pickup and locking vibrato system came together to create one of the flashiest guitar styles of all time.
And he’s always pulled it off with such panache. No lame muso staring at his fretboard, Vai has never been shy about embracing rock and roll’s long tradition of over-the-top theatrical bombast. The lessons he learned onstage with rock icons like David Lee Roth and Whitesnake have been duly applied to his own live shows. It’s as much a part of his music as the obsessive musical discipline he absorbed during his years as Frank Zappa’s “stunt guitarist” and musical transcriptionist.
But even that has never gone deep enough for Vai. His musical quest has been but an outward manifestation of a profound and lifelong spiritual quest. When he says he wants to know what’s going on, he isn’t just talking about pickups and harmonic theory but also about the ultimate nature of reality itself. Spiritual and mystical themes run throughout Vai solo albums like Passion and Warfare, Sex & Religion, The Ultra Zone and Real Illusions: Reflections. The pursuit of spiritual awakening is also the theme of his new album, The Story of Light. “I’m not referring to physical light,” he says. “It’s more the divine light, the inner light, the spiritual light.”
Technically, The Story of Light is the second installment of Vai’s Real Illusions trilogy, which began with the Reflections album in 2005. The Story of Light takes the form of 12 dazzling guitar compositions that portray visions and realizations experienced by different characters in Vai’s narrative when they gaze into a reflecting pond that’s central to the plot. It’s essentially Vai’s take on the magic mirrors and enchanted ponds of mythology, fairy tales, sci-fi and other stories—symbolic portals between the ordinary world and a realm of sprit, imagination and self discovery.
“Throughout the story,” Vai says, “what happens is people come into this place where they look into this reflecting pond. And when they look into it they see these different layers of themselves. They start seeing various actions they performed, they see their past lives, they have these realizations and epiphanies. Then they finally experience the core of who they are for a moment.”
Vai drew some pretty scalding criticism for the abstruse conceptual abstractions of the first Real Illusions installment, and he isn’t exactly insensitive to criticism. But he also came of age amid the pomp and circumstance of the Seventies prog-rock era, a time when lengthy concept albums based around spiritual themes were not at all unusual. This time out, though, Vai has chosen to tell his story more through instrumental music than songs with lyrics, with very rewarding results. The rock instrumental has always been his métier anyway. And thanks to Vai’s uncanny command of the electric guitar, amplification, effects and all that goes with them, listeners will feel The Story of Light’s emotions far more palpably than they will grasp its story line. His guitar conjures the epic bliss and vast unfolding vistas of spiritual awakening, the anguish of modern life’s soul-crushing rat race, the terror of apocalyptic cataclysm and the heartbreak of betrayal. The story itself? The grand concept? Like any true spiritual seeker, Vai isn’t unduly attached.
“A lot of people won’t care at all,” he says. “And that’s fine. I don’t care. It’s just an added bonus if somebody is interested in exploring that kind of stuff. And I did my best to create a record that is true to me, true to my evolution, and something I think that the people who have been following me will get a kick out of.”