Despite his reputation as a rock guitar virtuoso, Steve Vai has been writing orchestral scores since the age of 14 (that would be circa 1974) by his estimation and "[amassing] hefty heaps" of them ever since, "but with few performances." So he notes in his annotations to the ambitious double-CD live set Sound Theories, Vols. 1-2. Vai's compositional bent finally was given an outlet by Co de Kloet of Dutch Public Radio & Television, which commissioned him to write an hour's worth of music to be performed by the Metropole Orkest. Going through his amassed materials, Vai came up with two hours' worth, which he and the orchestra performed in a series of concerts in May 2004 and July 2005. Then, he took the recordings home and began working on them, resulting, two years later, in this album, the first two volumes of what he hopes to be a continuing series. The pieces date back to 1978 ("Answers"), with many from the 1980s ("Salamanders in the Sun," "Attitude Song," "For the Love of God," and "Liberty" from the first disc and the entire second disc). Several of these earlier works, notably "Salamanders in the Sun" and "Frangelica, Pt. 2," reveal the influence of Vai's former employer Frank Zappa. Zappa was never fortunate enough in his lifetime to work with a sympathetic symphony orchestra like the Metropole, however. (He did work well with some smaller ensembles toward the end of his life.) Like Zappa, Vai is interested in pushing the limits of composition and playing ability, and he has gone even further by manipulating the live recordings with what he acknowledges are thousands of edits and note substitutions. The first disc, subtitled The Aching Hunger, is a guitar-plus-orchestra album with his usual playing pyrotechnics. But he leaves the entire second disc (Shadows & Sparks) to the Metropole, which makes this music sound like the highly dramatic soundtrack for an adventure film that hasn't been made yet. Sound Theories, Vols. 1-2 seems to be the beginning of a post-guitar-hero career for Vai, and it makes a good start in that direction.
© William Ruhlmann /TiVo