From bubblegrunge to Steve Vai's hollowbody dalliance: here are this week's essential guitar tracks

Tim Ohrstrom performs with Avatar at USF Verftet in Bergen, Norway on March 7, 2019
(Image credit: Gonzales Photo/Jarle H. Moe/PYMCA/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Though team GW took a break from this column last week – attending as we were to all things Black Friday and Cyber Monday guitar deals –  we had our ears to the ground all the while.

Now, we return with not one, but two, weeks worth of delectable guitar goodness to share with you, including a riff-heavy return to form from Bloc Party, Steve Vai’s dalliance with hollowbodies, a typically theatrical crusher from Avatar, a moody rocker from Failure, and much more. 

Don’t assemble your best-of-the-year lists quite yet then, 2021’s by no means finished producing guitar-heavy music to remember. 

Steve Vai – Little Pretty 

What’s this? Vai without his Ibanez? That’s right. After announcing via social media that his new album, Inviolate, will be arriving in less than four weeks, Steve Vai capped off a busy seven days by releasing his surprise new single, Little Pretty – a moody track that he recorded almost entirely with a hollowbody Gretsch.

Of course, you give Vai a cardboard box with six rubber bands strapped to it and he’ll make it sing like a lark, so it’s no surprise that he takes to the fretboard of his Gretsch like a duck takes to water. There’s six-string sorcery in abundance, as you’d expect from any Vai track, though the choice of guitar certainly introduces a unique tonal element that makes Little Pretty stand out from the rest of his ouvre.

Luring listeners in with an exquisite open-string-loaded melody line, Vai then ups the ante and dials in the grit for some soaring, whammy-heavy bends and lead passages. And, as the six-and-a-half minute Little Pretty canters along, Vai reaches further and further up his sleeve to pull out every trick in his book.

Blink-and-you’ll-miss-them scale runs? Yep. Tension-and-release-charged melodies? Check. Solo lines that will have you questioning the laws of physics? Absolutely.

Inviolate has been dubbed by Vai as his most “honest” piece of work to date. If the first three tracks – Knappsack, Candle Power and Little Pretty – are anything to go by, the instrumental effort could also be one of his best. (MO)

Bloc Party – Traps

It’s easy to be a bit cynical when a media talking head tells you a band’s new song shows them “returning to their roots” and recapturing some of the ol’ glory, but indeed Bloc Party have with their new single, Traps

The quartet’s last full-length effort, 2016’s Hymns, showed them simultaneously adapting to a new rhythm section and attempting – with mixed results – the renaissance described above.

With an angular, go-for-the-throat dual-guitar attack that, with a slight uptick in menace and bpm, could conceivably called ‘thrash-y,’ Traps is a statement piece that’s out for blood. Frontman Kele Okereke even said as much upon the song’s release: “From the moment we wrote Traps, we knew it had to be the first thing people heard from this album.”

Though not without a couple of the eyebrow-raising detours that have plagued the recent entries in the group’s catalog (“lick lick lick, lickety split”), Traps is ultimately hard to resist, a sub-three-minute expression of pure desire delivered with all the passion it necessitates by Okereke.

With lead guitarist Russell Lissack jumping octaves in his guitar leads like it’s 2007 and a beautiful, bulls-eye chorus, Traps will bring to mind the days when this London quartet was one of the best things rock music had going for it. (JM)

Avatar – Construction of Souls

Every December, we’re treated to a seemingly endless stream of Christmas classics in supermarkets, stores and just about everywhere, really. But if Mariah Carey, Michael Bublé and the Pogues aren’t your cup of tea, perhaps Avatar will float your boat.

This year, the Swedish metallers have offered up their own Christmas song in the hopes of making onto festive playlists the world over. As they explain, Construction of Souls is “to Christmas songs what Die Hard is to Christmas movies”.

And, indeed, the resultant track is as explosive as the Bruce Willis classic, kicking off with a swinging slow-tempo guitar riff, before frontman Johannes Eckerström enters the fray with his characteristic demonic vocal tones. A killer solo around the three-minute mark solidifies this as easily one of the best metal tracks of the week. (SR)

Failure – Submarines

A late contender for riff of the year comes via cult heroes Failure, arguably one of the most influential guitar bands of the ’90s in their explorations of guitar tones and textures.

Submarines comes from Wild Type Droid, the band’s third album since reuniting, and hits just as hard as any of the band’s classic-era tracks, with a lithe, wiry opening salvo, doubled on a Fender Bass VI, landing like a sledgehammer to the gut.

It’s the neat production touches that make Failure’s particular brand of doom-grunge such a rewarding listen, and Submarines is rich with cunning overdubs that elevate its riffier sections and monster chorus.

Wild Type Droid lands tomorrow – a mere three weeks after it was announced – and we have zero doubts that it will be one of the most inspiring alternative guitar records to arrive in 2021. (MAB)

Ovlov – Cheer Up, Chihiro!

Yesterday (December 1), Spotify dropped its highly anticipated 2021 Spotify Wrapped personal round-ups into the curious hands of its users. Though each aspect of Spotify Wrapped is immaculately designed for social media sharing and consumption, one aspect – from Wrapped’s genre round-up – gained particular notice: “Bubblegrunge”.

Appearing in many users’ ‘top genre’ lists, it was a curious classification that was new to many (this writer included). If we had to pick a tune that matches the description though, Ovlov’s terrific Cheer Up, Chihiro! fits the bill, in the best possible way.

Taken from the Connecticut band’s third album, buds, Cheer Up, Chihiro! – a letter of sorts to Chihiro, the protagonist of the classic film Spirited Away – is a song that the quartet spent years attempting to get right, only to repeatedly ditch in light of its poppiness. 

The bubbliness on Cheer Up, Chihiro! comes from its inviting, hypnotic arpeggios, Steve Hartlett’s confident vocal delivery, and gorgeous harmonies from Ringo Deathstarr’s Alex Gehring.

The grunge, in turn, comes from the wall of fuzzed-out distortion that covers most everything else – most prominently the tune’s absolute titan of a riff – like a sheet of armor. Bubblegrunge, indeed! (JM)

Imminence – Surrender

With their newly released fourth studio album Heaven in Hiding, Swedish heavy metal purveyors Imminence serve up 13 tracks of unadulterated metalcore. Among the record’s highlights is fourth track Surrender, which strikes the perfect blend of monstrously heavy and undeniably melodic.

It’s got the breakdowns to keep the pit ragers happy, and slower sing-along-style sections to keep the rest of a crowd entertained, and plenty of killer guitar work from Harald Barrett and Alex Arnoldsson, and thus it’s a winner in our eyes. (SR)

Honne – Three Strikes 

Honne – the English electronic duo comprising James Hatcher and Andy Clutterbuck – are predominantly known for three things: their effortlessly expert compositional skills, awe-inspiring productions and densely layered tracks. Strip that all away, though, and give them just a guitar and microphone, and the results are equally spellbinding.

Evidenced from the Lanesborough Session version of recently released single Three Strikes – a significantly altered rendition compared to the produced, Khalid-featuring studio track – Hatcher and Clutterbuck show that, behind all the electronic sounds and production value, is some utterly flawless guitar work.

An unproduced, neo-soul-esque guitar chord melody hook – coming from the fretboard of a D’Angelico Excel 59 – replaces the ultra-squeezed sound of the studio six-string, and plays a far more prominent role in proceedings. A blessing, really, given how dreamy the reverb-drenched progression sounds throughout the track.

The mosaic-like vocals are equally dreamy, and amalgamate with the sole guitars to form three-and-a-half minutes of stripped-back bliss. Sometimes less really is more. (MO)

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.