As amazing as Sound Theories (the album) is, the audio version of this DVD is even more incredible. I can appreciate what Steve Vai did with the painstaking editing process for the CD, making it as perfect-sounding a "show" as possible, but there is infinitely more magic in this DVD. Steve spliced together every perfect snippet and edited out every flaw to create the tracks heard on the album, but the album represents a fantasy show. Flawless does not necessarily equal perfect (if that makes sense). In my opinion, the DVD performance, unedited, is more perfect. I mean, this show actually happened! There was a moment in time when Steve Vai and The Holland Metropole Orkest and the music came together for an astounding performance. It contained spontaneous emotion that simply cannot be improved upon.
The first part of the DVD showcases Steve Vai's guitar, and could be titled "Fast Fingers, Funny Faces, and a Tongue." Those are definitely some of Steve's trademarks, but none of them are done for mere visual effect. The fast fingers play many notes, each note essential; the funny faces are a reflection of the emotion that Steve conveys through those notes (I'm sure he'd make the same faces if he were playing in the dark); the tongue is used to give his guitar unique sounds (okay, maybe there's a little showmanship involved in the tongue thing). It is great watching Steve perform some of his tricks. "Gentle Ways," for example, contains multi-string tapping and a point where Steve hits the body of the guitar to revive a sustained note that dies unexpectedly. "For the Love of God" contains his "whammy bar windmill" technique and that "grace note crawl" thing where he plays the same note on a single fret multiple times using all four fingers like four legs of a millipede.
As you know if you've heard the Sound Theories CD, the orchestra makes old Vai songs sound fresh. I've heard "Answers" a million times, but it has never sounded as lively as on this DVD. Performing with an orchestra seems to have had the effect of elevating Steve's playing a notch (as Nigel Tufnel might say, "Steve goes to eleven"). Is there any doubt that Steve Vai is the most inventive, creative musician to ever pick up the electric guitar?
Why the hauntingly beautiful "Lotus Feet" was left off the album is completely beyond me. Thankfully, it is included on this DVD. It is such a sparse song (especially following "Answers") and it really relies on Steve's magic touch to make it work. There's no doubt that this version does indeed work; it's beautiful. I love the different types of vibrato that Steve uses, too. The differences in sound are so subtle. It is so much easier to catch details like this by seeing, rather than by hearing. That is certainly one value of watching this DVD.
"I'm Becoming" contains a neat moment where conductor Dick Bakker enjoys listening to and watching Steve as much as anyone in the auditorium. Steve gives the conductor a hilarious glance as the conductor is staring, smiling, and then laughing in absolute amazement of what Steve is doing with the guitar. Steve plays with wonderful tone on this song, and the faces he makes are priceless!
"Salamanders in the Sun" contains a guitar solo that, as Steve reveals in the commentary, was completely impromptu. It was the first time he had ever soloed there and his decision to solo was made at the last second. The conductor must have been wondering what was going on, but kept perfect command of the orchestra before receiving a little head nod from Steve to continue with the piece. It sounds as if the entire thing was rehearsed a hundred times!
Obviously, to me one of the real values of this DVD is the commentary track. On it, Steve makes sense out of some of the more complex material on Sound Theories. On "Shadows and...," for example, I wasn't familiar enough with Steve's music to catch everything that was being played. Now that it's been mapped out for me, I'm looking forward to listening to the original album tracks that were the source for many of the melodies in "Shadows."
After a couple dozen listenings to Sound Theories, the crazy chaotic rhythms and melodies don't sound quite as chaotic (still crazy, just not as chaotic). For me, the details are what make this release shine. On "Sparks," it's the violin chords during the solo section, and the overpowering staccato notes from the orchestra that forcefully interrupt the delicate violin run. On "Frangelica Pt. I," I love how Steve has the flutes mimic the quick trilling sound that he often makes with his guitar by letting the floating bridge vibrate.
The percussion section is mesmerizing, and the conductor is a joy to watch, too; he dances as he conducts "Frangelica Pt. II." Judging by the smiles and the nodding heads, the musicians really enjoyed performing "Pt. II." It is a fun jazz-fusion song played mostly in 4/4. I especially like the piano solo and the song's ending section. (I had no idea harmonics could be played on wind instruments!) But it is the bass guitar, played by Bryan Beller (who has played on Vai albums before and is currently touring as a member of Steve Vai's band), and the drums that really make this track great.
A complete performance of "Bledsoe Bluvd" is included as a DVD bonus feature. Throughout this track, one really gets the sense of how an electric guitar can be used as an orchestral instrument. The guitar (which is not played by Steve, but by Peter Tiehuis) is played with fantastic tone and there's a neat moment at the end of a brief solo where a sustained guitar note seems to magically become the note of a clarinet. "Bledsoe," like "Frangelica Pt. II," contains a nice piano solo. It's interesting to compare the jazz piano of "Pt. II" to the more classical style heard on "Bledsoe."
There are a couple of times during "Bledsoe Bluvd" where the common-time beat is kept by foot hi-hat, and the orchestra is playing five awkwardly-timed notes. I've rewound it many times, but still can't figure out exactly what they are doing. They're certainly not playing eighth notes, and not quite triplets. I don't know, but ingenious details like that are what I love about Steve Vai's music. Honestly, this is only one example of many that I haven't been able to wrap my brain around.
I'm definitely beginning to totally understand what Steve has accomplished with the music that is on Sound Theories, especially Volume II. This DVD is a great addition to the album, and for those who haven't yet heard the album, I'd say the DVD is even a better alternative to it. A version of every track from the Sound Theories album is included on this DVD except for "Helios and Vesta," and the excerpt of "Bangkok" has been omitted from "Shadows and..." due to publishing difficulties. The DVD contains all of the songs that are on CD one (and adds the spectacular "Lotus Feet") and includes the strongest stuff from CD two (although you really would be missing something by not hearing CD two in its entirety).
I know this review is ridiculously long, but it goes to show how much there is to appreciate in Steve Vai's Sound Theories. I can't wait to hear what Steve does next!