That's My Jam: That Sounds Like Noise, Mr. Vai

See, this is what's wrong with me.
This is what makes me different from the rest of ya'll. Because the first time I saw this clip I didn't immediately find myself saying things like, "Wait, did he play those notes with his butt?" or "Dude, Xanadu sucked -- why are you trying to bring that back?" -- instead I was trying to figure out if he actually had one of those midi breath controllers wired into his guitar allowing him to make the flute noises in the beginning, and rewinding certain parts of the video to confirm my suspicion that he might have a theremin hiding somewhere near his pedalboard (which would actually allow him to create quasi-musical passages while swinging his guitar around like that).
Seriously, I love you Steve -- but what the heck am I supposed to do with this mess?
As a longtime fan of Vai's, I will say this -- throughout his career he's had periods where he's delved in and out of performance art/experimental music territory -- and even back in the days when he was playing alongside Frank Zappa on-stage theatrics were part of the deal, so for me some of the more ..fruity parts of this particular piece don't come as a total surprise (this is the same guy who featured a photo of himself in a zebra print speedo on the inside of one of his solo albums, an image I'm still trying to erase from my consciousness) -- but it's almost impressive in a way how Steve not only manages to push the boundaries of guitar playing with each new album he releases, but how he continually comes up with ways to out-cheese himself every few years or so.

It's kind of part of what makes him such an interesting artist -- because he's as much a technician as he is sort of a wackjob, leaving the rest of us with this sort of brilliant mad scientist bent on recreating the soundtrack from his latest astral projection dream for the rest of us to hear who just happens to be one of the most technically proficient players in the world.

I was explaining it to someone the other day -- we were talking about Hendrix and I was telling the guy that I have this theory about there being two Jimi's; the blues player who spent years playing on the Chitlin Circuit backing up artists like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, and the psychedelic artist who spent hours in studios coming up with tunes like "Are You Experienced," "EXP," and "1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" -- which were filled with processed sounds, backwards guitar playing, and deep echo effects.
Most players and fans tend to gravitate towards the pop hits and blues-influenced songs. But this other side, the more experimental side of Hendrix is the one that rarely gets explored or recreated.
And yet if you listen for it, you'll hear shades of it in certain artists -- especially guys like Prince, Vernon Reid, and Steve Vai.
So yeah, the butt guitar and Tron-inspired video effects in that Vai clip above are sorta ..lame, but I tend to appreciate where it comes from, even if it's not something I like to listen to very often compared to his other work.

All that being said, I think creative people need their crazysauce sides. They need to be able to run into the darkness if they want to be able to better find the light they need to compose their best work. It's my experience that musicians and artists who only do one thing, only revisit their own victories again and again tend to burn out and fade after a while.

In other words, if you're a fan you sorta need Garth Brooks to have Chris Gaines. You kinda need Radiohead and Bjork to put out a few electronica albums, Kanye to go 808 or Heartbreak, or David Bowie to be the Thin White Duke for a few years.
Exploration and risk taking is part of what helps an artist grow.
I'm sure I'm not alone in noticing this. Do you have any favorite artists who have decided to take that turn into the exotic and unexpected, and if so -- did you like it?
Because personally, I'm all about it.

- Curse YouTube for not having a decent vid of my favorite BodyCount song, but this one will do.

[Listening to:  Ryuichi Sakamoto - "World Citizen" ]


wigsf said…
So, like the time Bowie said "I'm just a chap in the band," which was really his way of placing blame for why Tin Machine wasn't very good on the Sales brothers.

Or Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.

Or like the time the Beastie Boys tried to make an actual album without the lame Brooklyn Mickey Mouse impression vocals only to quickly disown it and say it was "experimental."

Or like the time Prince tried to make an erotic gospel record. (Did he ever finish that?)

Or everything Todd Rundgren did after the third song on his fourth album.

Or everything Neil Young did in the 1980s.

That's the one. Neil Young's stuff from the 1980s. Let's see. There was the album he did entirely through a vocoder. (Still yet to be released on CD.) His first really country sounding album. His rockabilly album. His blues album. Or his 45 minutes of feedback and samples album.

By the way, of all the albums I've mentioned here, I've only got one in my possession, and that's MMM. I dare anybody, ANYBODY to listen to that record start to finish while sober. It's fuggin' hard man.
Anonymous said…
John Doe's new country stuff is what comes to my mind (particularly thinking about the duet he did with Kathleen Edwards on the Gram Parsons thing)
Anonymous said…
You could also make a pretty good case that this is what Brian Wilson was doing on Smile when he went 'round the bend. I was just listening to the a Capella mixes posted on Aquarium Drunkard last night and was blown away by how many color tones that man could imagine in a vocal arrangement.
JonDennis said…
I saw Vai on that tour. It was great. And Neil Young's Trans has been out on CD for well over a decade.
Heff said…
"Exploration and risk taking is part of what helps an artist grow."

Yeah, tell that to KISS when they went disco in '79. - STINKER! -
Werdna said…
Rush: Caress of Steel- departure from the first two, not as good as 2112. I still like it because they went out on a limb, and failed some. If not for that, there would be no later albums like 2112, Moving Pictures.

Almost any group artist who goes solo: Mike Ness didn't feel like he could release the country fried stuff he did with Social D. So he solo'd it. It is hit and miss. But an experiment for him.

Wu-Tang group solo albums are part and parcel of this as well.
van walker said…
Experimentation is all good to long as the artist in question doesn't try to sell it to me.

Seriously. I just watched that Steve Vai video, and the thought kept pounding through my head: I can do that right now. That's supposed to be special because it's Steve Vai? I can put my foot on my guitar neck and make a funny sound...because guitars weren't made to be played with one's shoes! Perhaps it's just me, but I believe that ALL guitars will make a funny sound when one puts his shoe on the neck.

That said, I have to disagree with Dan's point about guys playing the same stuff over and over and visiting the same victories and eventually dying. Eric Clapton is a superior guitar player now because he STOPPED experimenting and finally became what he always wanted to be: an old, black blues man. Billy Gibbons has played the same licks forever, and they still work because he makes them work. Edward Van Halen's scales and runs have been broken down and disseminated ad nauseam, and yet he's still the only guy doing what he does. Had Dime not been killed, he'd still be shredding relentlessly, market be damned, and he'd be right to do so. Les Claypool and Victor Wooten are about as innovative as it gets on bass, and their styles won't have changed in the next ten years, any more than they've changed in the last ten.

When you find what works for you (John Lee Hooker, Tom Morello), you keep doing it. That should ultimately be the point of experimenting. Anything else just seems like the artist in question ran out of ideas...
David K. said…
And with that video, Steve Vai has become nothing more than the bastard child of Yanni and David Copperfield. I mean really...there's experimentation and showmanship, and then there's just plain acting like a douchebag.

Congratulations, Steve Vai, on being the latter.