My plans on how to write this review changed the more I listened to this album and unlike the presentation of the release I am going to start with CD2. I didn’t want to do this initially because I was actually pleased to see that the CD’s had been packaged with the re-release second and not as the number 1 CD that most releases would have gone for. What we have here is a double CD with a whopping 31 tracks included. CD 1 is Modern Primitive which are sketches and works in progress written shortly after Vai’s debut album in 1984, never before released. CD2 is the 25th Anniversary edition of the classic Passion & Warfare, remastered and including 4 bonus tracks not included on the original release but recorded at the same time.
The reason I want to start with the 25th Anniversary edition of Passion & Warfare is context really. I bought this album when it was first released in 1990 as a 14 year old and me and my pals were completely blown away with his style, the way he presented himself and the fact that he could make an album without vocals but make that album talk. It was mind-blowing at the time. At 14, we had never heard of Frank Zappa or the like. Vai was the one made us want to pick up a guitar, partly because his playing for us was out of this world but partly because it had 7 strings and paint splatters on it and we had never seen anything like it before.
I was also lucky enough to see Via play twice during that period. Firstly, at Wembley Arena when he was playing in David Lee Roth’s backing band and secondly with Whitesnake at Monster of Rock. At the Donington show we were actually treated to a full 15 minutes or so of Steve Vai playing from this album. I can still picture him now on that 7 string guitar, centre stage, all eyes on him creating an atmosphere of everything from maudlin to space fusion all by himself.
What it was about Passion & Warfare that so amazed us then and continues to this day (this is an album well worth a revisit) is quite simply the incredibly stunning range of emotions that Steve Vai is able to portray from his guitar. Take album opener “Liberty”, within about 10 seconds that guitar starts and already it has a story to tell, it is simple elegant and full of soul. It produces a song that is hopeful, triumphant and proud and this is before he even really shows what he can do. It is on “Erotic nightmares” where we start to get a real feel of the talent of Vai though, as he demonstrates his full range of skills, creating sounds that seemed alien and impressive to me then as they still do today. When that fast lead lick kicks in about half way through the song you are already drawn into his world.
What was so key to this album was that he holistically gelled it all together, it’s a concept album really. Stylistically it had its own sound, there no vocals and hardly any words but Vai was able to paint a thousand pictures with the way that he could make his guitar talk. The variety on the album meant that it always keeps you entertained. Take “Ballerina 12/24” for example. A Spanish style guitar is played at pace but almost in a gentle lullaby style. It creates images of sleeping and dreaming and of course gracefully dancing.
Two of the stand out tracks on the album are the same two tracks I was fortunate to witness Vai perform with Whitesnake. The first of those, is perhaps one of the most known tracks on the album “For The Love of God”. This really is just a guitar solo, but so beautiful. If you had to compare Vai’s playing style here I would probably point you in the direction of Gary Moore, Black Rose period Thin Lizzy. It has that same feel to it and same ability to completely transform the world around it. The other song played that day is more left field “The Audience is Listening”. You may remember this song, the young Vai talks back to the teacher via his guitar which is cheeky, ferocious and incredibly powerful. It’s a song that is a little bit of a cliché and you want to not like but it can’t help but make you smile and when you were 14 something you wished you could have done.
So what of the bonus tracks? There are 4 in total, the first of those is “Lovely Elixir” and it’s a great track. You can perhaps see why it was not included not because it lacks quality, it certainly doesn’t but it is perhaps as not full on as the album, there is a lot more space in the song but I love the relaxed almost 70’s edge to the song. “And We Are the One” is another song that could have made the album, great guitar solo, probably not included as similar to some other tracks. “As Above” on the other hand has a slightly different feel to it, less driven by that distinct guitar sound, more operatic. Final track “So Below” is an orchestrated piece, lovely short song but different that the rest of the fare, more like a film score.
So it is with this history, that I approach the Modern Primitive album. It was recorded at an earlier time than Passion & Warfare, a time when Vai was still fresh out of Zappa’s band and this influence can be seen throughout. It was also never recorded as an album so as you can imagine it is a little mishmash of styles at times. I have been given no extra notes, so I have no references to who was playing with Vai on these tracks or if there was any other reason he was recording these tracks at the time.
Album opener “Bop!” is the most Frank Zappaedque of the lot, with lots of tangents in both sound and structure introduced through, it has a 70’s spacerock feel to it as a result, intriguing track regardless. I liked “Dark Matter” a lot, a true blues track. Where the choppy blues guitars then make way for a Vai solo that he will become known for. I like the general pace of this song. “Mighty Messengers” stands out for a couple of reasons; firstly, it has that really funky 80’s bass as a starter and secondly it also has vocals and it is great song. The vocals suit the music well and the progressive chords sitting underneath the vocals make for a catchy song. The nearest I could compare it to is an early Sting song but with a cracking lead solo.
It’s not the only song with vocals. “The Lost Chord” has an ethereal voice over the top of mournful and far sounding guitarscape and again this works well. The Sting vibe is continued on “Fast Note People” but this time with a classic Vai solo that speaks volumes itself. Another song that stands out is “Never Forever”, again this is primarily due to the quality of Vai’s playing, it’s a prolonged guitar solo with elongated notes and a chilled pace. The guitar is almost singing to you and with the snare drum accompaniment it is a great track and vey indicative of what was to come on Passion & Warfare
Overall this is a fantastic release Modern Primitive has enough talented songwriting and presentation to keep you interested and listening. In some ways it is easier listening than some of his later work and I would highly recommend it. If this had been released in 1990 instead of Passion & Warfare however I cannot imagine I would have been blown away. That was a perfect album at the perfect time and something that Vai has never even tried to repeat himself. Time to revisit this classic and this double album package is well worth the investment.