|Image courtesy Wikipedia.org
Despite taking some unconventional risks over the course of his career, there is an underlying continuity across all of Steve Vai's work (excepting his gig with Frank Zappa). Everything he writes has a certain stamp to it, and I don't just mean the raw guitar pyrotechnics. The compositional style is consistent across the David Lee Roth stuff, the solo stuff, the Whitesnake stuff. When it's Vai, you know it's Vai.
Still, some albums are "more Vai" than others, and as far as it goes, Alien Love Secrets, his 1995 EP, is among his "Vai-est." For me this is a bit of a Vai litmus test: If you can get through this EP, with its blue body paint, laser-equipped guitars, cringe-worthy VHS video companion piece, singing toddler, and uh... "The God-Eaters," then you're ready to pretty much swallow anything Vai serves to you. And I mean anything.
For me, this is a polarizing EP. I don't just mean that some will love it and others will hate it, although that is certainly true. I mean, more specifically, that I tend to love and hate this record at the same time.
There is no denying that it is a self-indulgent record. In the 90s, "self-indulgent" meant "featuring extended guitar solos," so there's that. But think about it: Vai wrote the song "Ya-Yo Gakk" around the nonsensical babbling of his young son. It's the kind of song only a father could love, more specifically, only the father of Julian Vai, i.e. Steve Vai. He didn't publish that song for his fans, he did it for himself.
But for all its self-indulgence, one simply cannot deny the passion on the album. "Tender Surrender" has always been a fan favorite and an aspiration for every guitar player to replicate. It's the kind of song that, at the time, was rivaled only by "For the Love of God" in terms of fan appeal, and is one of his very best. But it's not just that one song. "Juice," "Die to Live," "The Boy from Seattle" are great. I mean, they're really great. You'd be hard-pressed to find any songs that rival the unbridled passion contained on the mere handful of songs on this EP.
So that's just a case in point: Do I love it for its passion or hate it for its ultra licitum self-absorption? Do I hate it for the over-bearing noisiness of "Bad Horsie" and "Kill the Guy with the Ball," or do I love it for the almost shocking creativity present in "The God-Eaters" or "The Boy from Seattle?" Do I hate Vai for releasing the truly awful VHS video of this album, which contains nothing more than Vai pantomiming his own songs in a California TV studio in shirtless blazers and blue paint, or do I hate myself for having watched it so many times?
This is my relationship with Steve Vai. Some days, I hate his music but love listening to it anyway. Other days, I love listening to his music but hate how his phrasing starts to infect my own playing. Other days, I refuse to admit that I own so many of his albums, all while explaining to anyone who will listen about my in-depth analysis of his approach to playing. Other days, I'm a gushing fan who is somehow entitled to rant against this song or that album.
Here's the deal: Alien Love Secrets, like so much of Vai's music, a mixed bag. It's a complex web of visceral reactions, taste aversions, love affairs, triumphs, failures... It is, in a word, art. It makes me happy and angry at the same time, and only a very few albums have this impact on me.
Alien Love Secrets is one of those albums. I love Vai for releasing it and making me so angry. I love him for the long afternoons I've lost over the course of my life, learning "Juice" by ear. I love him for forcing me to have to understand jazz. I love him for being so over-bearing and over-the-top that any stupid face I make on stage in a dark and sparsely occupied club seems palatable.
But you don't need to know that. If you're reading this review, you bought the album already. You know exactly what I mean.