7. Steve Vai: ‘The Riddle’ - on Passion and Warfare, Relativity 467109 2

In Steve Vai’s music, the guitar is placed centre-stage. The guitar is the central focus of the music: songs are composed for the purpose of supporting guitar improvisations, guitar pyrotechnics and guitar lyricism. Steve Vai himself is channelled through the guitar. The rhythm section and the words of the songs are secondary adjuncts to the guitar. Although his music is very popular, particularly amongst guitarists, it is not pop music in the usually accepted meaning. Any conclusion that might be drawn from one particular song cannot be localised in that one song: people who like Steve Vai like all of Steve Vai. Consequently, allusions, meaning and intentions that are sensed in one part of his work set up resonances elsewhere in his work. Across his output, his music is fairly consistent. You can buy it in confidence: you know what you’re getting. This chapter examines aspects of ‘The Riddle’ (Relativity 467109), but most of the discussion below applies, broadly, to other tracks of Vai’s. Most pop artists have good tracks and bad tracks, or tracks which their managers have designed to sell well as ‘one-offs’, but it’s more appropriate to view Steve Vai’s work as a homogenous whole, where some appreciation of context is likely to be useful in the understanding of any one recording.

Any study of his music and its contents, immediately encounters some of the tensions and inconsistencies of heavy metal as a genre. It’s hard to avoid the obvious conclusion that much heavy metal iconography is explicitly - and to some unacceptably - sexist. Much of this sexism is blatant in the lyrics and album sleeves, but some attempts have also be made to establish a semantic connection between the music itself, and in particular ‘dirty timbre’ - tone that is distorted, overdriven or fuzzed - and male sexuality. There’s plenty of it in Steve Vai’s music, and it is often supported by the usual heavy metal artwork. But unlike most unreconstructed artists, Vai, articulates a degree of self-awareness and makes claims for the project of ‘Passion and Warfare’ which could have been borrowed from the late 19th century.

Passion and Warfare is an adventure in melodic, symphonic heavy metal metaphysics ... It’s meant to ... inspire the expiation of the imagination and the compassion of the listener.

Steve Vai: introduction to "Passion and Warfare" music transcriptions, Hal Leonard, 1991. 

In statements like these, he claims an ambitious agenda for the music and distances it from the mindless and indulgent heavy metal stereotype. Elsewhere, he demonstrates an artist’s pursuit of understanding of self.

"I visualised it 15 years ago. When I was younger I studied sleeping and dreams. I’ve got dream journals from the time I was 12. ... I experimented with making tapes and listening to them while I slept. Events started happening in my dream states ... I used to take notes of everything that went on. This was around the time I started playing the guitar."

Steve Vai, quoted in Joe Gore: ‘Last Night I had the Strangest Dream’: Guitar Player, May 1990, p20.

As Will Straw and Dick Hebdige have pointed out, the fans for heavy metal music are drawn mainly from less empowered socio-economic groups. For heavy metal fans, the possibility of escape, the aspiration to the status of guitar-hero and the recognition of the guitar-hero as ‘somebody-like-us-made-good’ are important principles that underpin the appeal of the music. Reciprocally, Vai’s music encodes the preoccupations of working-class males: it is about ‘overcoming’ - transcending the limitations of self, time and space - in a musical language that doesn’t involve words. Heavy metal is a predictable response to a crisis of meaning in the lives of adolescents. It’s macho. A typical Steve Vai solo consists of a series of waves of tension and excitement, and each crisis point resolves to reveal a new musical order that replaces the old. And then, in turn, the new order becomes more and more critical, until the tensions within it form a new climax, which then collapses and is replaced ... and so on. It’s like musical Nietzsche, whose invocations to perpetual struggle and ‘overcoming’ have been consistently hijacked by the far right of reactionary politics - which similarly draws for its support on economically disadvantaged groupings. In making the comparison between Steve Vai and Nietzsche, the intention is not to make sensational capital out of a discredited world-outlook, but more to establish the extreme romanticism of heavy metal as part of a persistent theme in European thought. Nietzsche’s thought has direct bearing on (for instance) the grandiose visions of Richard Wagner, the Expressionist fantasies of Egon Schiele, the alienation of Kafka and the nihilism of Sartre. These are linked ideologies, in that they are all characteristic reactions to the central romantic idea of man (the artist) as hero coming to terms with what he confronts, and dominating it. In the music of Steve Vai this tradition remains very much alive.

Vai’s music is music of the body: it is to be felt as much as listened to. From the player’s perspective, it is to be felt as much as played. The string bends which are the very essence of the metal guitar solo can be appreciated in a tactile way. The listener senses the tension and release of the string whilst hearing the rise and fall in pitch. Unlike a violin or trombone glissando, which is achieved by the progressive alteration of the length of the vibrating column, the portamento - or slide - is achieved on the electric guitar by dramatic increases in string tension. The upper limit of the glissando is the physical limit of the string or the performer - the string snaps or the finger is ruptured. For Vai, this is part and parcel of an almost Bhuddist path to perfection.

" ... My fingers were totally out of shape, and got trashed - they had blood clots under the skin. [...] You learn a lot about yourself because you’re inflicting a second-hand discipline on your body. I needed to be in this state of mind to record this song, and in absolute pain because of my fingers ... It was all for this special reason ... ."

(Joe Gore, ibid. Vai is talking about the process of recording Passion and Warfare. )

The guitar as a masturbatory simulacrum is an obvious masculine signifier. From the perspective of performer and audience it is pure physical theatre. This aspect of heavy metal performance, often played up extravagantly by artists like Prince, has been somewhat negatively criticised by John Shepherd and by Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie. Arguably, the somewhat censorious tone of such criticism is a result of the politically correct climate in which it was written. Liberal sciences in the eighties and early nineties were at pains to align themselves with emergent feminist voices, and as a consequence were left with nothing positive to say about the more stridently masculine forms of popular music. If Vai’s guitar playing - or Prince’s or Hendrix’s or whoever’s - suggests masturbation, then it successfully ritualises an important dimension of our psychic lives and in so doing propels into the popular media a dazzling display of universal sexual significance.

Vai sings through the guitar. Not singing in the traditional sense, but as a metaphor for all those human utterances that are not words. Grunts, growls, sobs and sighs are stylised into his virtuoso performances. These non-verbal exclamations represent a powerfully expressive reservoir of human feeling - we make such utterances when our defences are down, when we confront situations for which we cannot find an appropriate vocabulary. It is the vocabulary of humankind in extremis, of ecstasy and despair. Electronic effects have brought the guitar steadily nearer to the human voice. (The names of the devices attest to it : ‘Cry Baby’, ‘Vocoder’ and ‘chorus’.) In its purest form, this approximation of human cries and utterances forms the central theme of Vai’s track ‘Ya Yo Gakk’ (Alien Love Secrets : Relativity 478586), where touchingly, beautifully and very skilfully, he manages a duet with the sampled voice of his son who was not yet talking. At times it is hard to tell the difference between the human voice and the guitar. This is not mere trickery - it is an extremely potent tool in his expressive palette - because by this means he is able to crystallise the deception at the heart of metal-guitar music, that the guitar itself has a soul, a spirit, and by means of this anthropomorphism to enable the listener to identify with the guitar as much as the guitarist.

Steve Vai, then, although concerned with aspects of introspective psychology, is essentially limited by the potential of the body. His music is visceral music aided and abetted by electronic modifications. It is either physically tactile, masturbatory or vocal, or all of these simultaneously. It is a metaphor for struggle, and for overcoming. This, then, is a fertile starting point for a musicological study of meaning. Heavy metal represents a contemporary and vulgarised form of late romantic thinking where gender relations are not threatened, where artists are heroes and where godhead and wisdom are the rewards of struggle. As Terry Eagleton says:

"It is the body, for Nietzsche, which produces whatever truth we can achieve ... We think the way we do because of the sorts of bodies we have, and the complex relations with reality that this entails." 

‘The Riddle’ comprises a series of nine episodes, here marked A to I, identified by clear differences of material. Each of the episodes A to G incorporates some element of climax toward the end of the episode, resulting in a ‘new order’ at the beginning of the next episode.







In Episode A, the sense of yearning that Steve Vai’s solo lines seem to encapsulate is here expressed by a series of implied goals. This is achieved by a series of musical devices, like suspensions, leading notes and prolonged V - I cadences, all of which require resolution.


In the example above, the top stave represents what Vai actually plays, and the second stave represents a ‘reduction’ of the top stave, showing only, what in terms of this analysis, are the most important notes. In other words, when you strip away the ornamentation and filigree, this is what is left. Reductive analyses permit easier understanding of the essential voice-leading and harmonic movement of a piece. Notes with stems are considered more important than those without, and the slurs imply a dependency of one note on another. Thus, the first note, A# on the 7th degree of the scale leads towards the G# on the sixth. In the second line of the example, there is a highly ornamented descent from the fifth to the second degree of the scale.

The point addressed by the analysis is that, at the outset of the track, we are presented with a little picture of strife. How? The pitches selected by Vai require resolution. The tension of the 7ths aspire to the resolution of octaves, but in bars 1 & 2 fall to the sixth. In bar 3, the 7th again falls to the dominant (5th). The analysis shows that the most significant pitches in this opening fragment - the pitches around which the improvisation hangs - are the least resolved. He instinctively avoids coming to rest on roots, thirds or fifths of the scale. There are deeper levels of complication however. The music is in B major, but there is another tonal ‘pull’ toward E ... in which case the opening A# has a lydian effect, ( -the lydian mode being the one with the raised fourth.). This ‘tonal duality’ - the feature of having two distinct tonal ‘pulls’ - raises all sorts of enigmatic problems: does the pedal E suggest a tonic pedal, or does it require some kind of resolution? If there are two key centres, are the functions of 7th, 6ths and 2nds altered? One can endlessly speculate about this brilliantly enigmatic opening. Much more is added to the picture of struggle and confusion by the almost random inclusion of harmonics, which ‘squeal’ humanistically. Of course, because they are harmonics, they are framed in a different timbre and register, which, again, multiplies the impression of chaos. This opening section abounds in little undeveloped ideas, usually harmonically rooted in triads which are built on F# or C#m7 over the pedal E, suggestive, perhaps of an abundance of conflicting and contrasting statements all superimposed over something unyielding. Towards the end of the section, in bars 15 and 16, new accidentals occur which haven’t been heard before. There is a crisis. The appearance of these new pitches suggests the onset of a different order of events.


Episode B opens with a ‘nice’ G# major tune that effectively restores order after the climactic end to section A. This is a process that repeats itself at the end of most of the episodes. In each case, the function of the climax is the same although the means by which it is achieved is different: it is the suggestion of increasing abandon.. Perhaps, viewed more subjectively, it is increasing frustration. This may be brought about, as the climax of a section approaches, by the progressive inclusion of more and more accidentals which confuse the local tonality (as at the end of episodes A, B and F), the suggestion of increasing wildness and abandon in ever more extrovert solos ( F and G), or an increase in rhythmic complexity (C and G). But however the effect is achieved, it is the one of the central meanings of the piece: that a new order can be established after struggle, that, with each new tune and new tonal area, there lies the possibility of control - at least for a while. The ‘nice’ tune at B gives rise to two variations. These variations are characterised by an important Nietzschean preoccupation ... the Dionysian orgy.



Example 7.4 gives an overview of the episode. The ‘widdley-widdley’ solo - a neologism to suggest rapid hammer-ons that produce a characteristic ‘too-fast-to-even-contemplate’ kind of solo - comes in four distinct one-bar bursts. It’s the kind of solo that comes by the yard ... individual pitches are lost in the helter-skelter of notes. It’s too fast to register which pitches are being played; it somehow defies reason. And in its unformed, seeming abundance, it comes to signify boundless, overflowing energy, heedless of restrictions. The second variation is more focused, and typifies very clearly the kind of ‘dirty’ timbre that some critics have found sexually suggestive. At the end of the second variation more accidentals are introduced - just as before at the end of A - briefly to suggest C major. The orgiastic indulgence of episode B gives way to the measured tranquillity of episode C.

Episode C suggests a kind of hippie transcendentalism. But before the actual details of this transcendent state are examined, there is another underlying principle to acknowledge. Sometimes, Vai’s guitar speaks subjectively: it’s the ‘I-self’ talking. When speaking in this way we, the audience, either listen to his subjective monologue as we would to a hero recounting his deeds, or else we identify with the guitar so that we feel that it somehow speaks for us personally. The guitar is able to do this by the extreme closeness of the timbre, portamento and range to the human voice ... in effect it becomes a stylised human voice. At other times, he selects a timbre and an acoustic setting that in no way suggests the human voice ... in fact it suggests nothing so much as an unadorned guitar. Because these two facets of the guitar are frequently alluded to in heavy metal music, we as listeners are accustomed to the change and instantly recognise the ‘different voice’ with which the guitar is speaking to us.

Such a change of voice happens at C. The double octave solo has a 70s jazz feel to it - and is possibly evidence of the Wes Montgomery legacy that is acknowledged by Joe Satriani and Steve Vai - in fact it sounds distinctly like an Ovation 12 string guitar, the quintessential totem of West Coast karma. And in this context, the sitars do not signify anything to do with India: they sound too synthetic. It’s more appropriate to read this as a reference to the second-hand exoticism of the sitar as it was adopted by hippie culture. It’s important to link these observations with the central theme of this analysis, and not to forget that these readily recognised cultural totems are part of a theorem of struggle and transcendence, struggle and transcendence, perpetually recurring. As this episode closes, the rhythm becomes more insistent and the dynamic levels generally more intense ... again building up to the moment when a new order is established at D. This particular climactic moment is accompanied by a swirling harp. The usual connotations of the harp is ‘paradise’, an ultimate kind of bliss. This association has been well established by Brahms, Faure and many others and may well have its origins in old testament stories.

Episodes D and E are similar. What is simply dreamlike at D becomes explicitly sexual at E. The dreamlike quality is suggested by half-heard, half obscured voice samples. These confusing voices are treated electronically so that we are merely aware that human voices are in the mix. Either we are dreaming, and these are the voices of exterior reality that we cannot properly perceive, or else we are just spectators, onlookers of a Dionysian orgy. It’s an important moment because until now the guitar has had the stage to itself. It has dominated the discussion - and then suddenly we are aware of other human beings, albeit unreachable ones because we separated from them - either by the barrier that separates the sleepers from reality, or because of our assumed role as onlookers.

Episode E (2’58") is all about sex. It attempts to encode some of the physical and emotional dynamics of the sexual encounter. For the benefit of the listener, this is made obvious by the two voice overs "Let’s make love" (2’56") and "Let’s make love again" (3’23"). What are the musical devices used to paint this erotic picture? Eroticism and music are commonly linked - whether in the life and death struggles of Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’, or in the deliberately tawdry world of Madonna’s auto-erotic fantasies - the libido, the mysterious motor at the centre of our affective universe, presents problems for the composer. How has Steve Vai interpreted the challenge? The principal device that suggests sex is really very crude: it’s the superimposition of gasping female voices in an increasingly aroused or excited state. It leaves nothing to the imagination. However the musical accompaniment is very interesting, and has two main characteristics: backwards envelopes and, at the beginning of the episode, a kind of randomised reverb that makes the ‘clean’ guitar sound like a harp. As the excitement increases, the voices become more prominent, and the episode concludes with an orgasmic guitar harmonic ‘climax’.


Click diagram for a better image

By what processes do backward envelopes and ‘plinky-plonky’ reverb settings come to suggest sex? It is a huge question, with no obvious answers. Whatever reasons could be put forward to account for this association of meaning would probably involve cognitive psychology as much as musicology. To some extent, these signifying mechanisms operate only within defined cultures - so that one set of musical characteristics has an associated meaning which is understood only within the confines of a particular culture. But bigger questions are posed when an instrumental musician sets about describing a universal physical process which transcends cultural boundaries - trying to build up a composition to suggest one of the most fundamental human experiences in sound and music. Does our understanding of Steve Vai’s musical picture of sex depend on our received cultural notions about sex, or does it strike a resonance with our physical selves. Is there something about this music which resonates with some instinctual aspect of our unconscious minds?

And then an act of supreme political incorrectness: the moment of sexual ecstasy is seamlessly transformed into heavy metal horror. The abruptness of the switch shouldn’t be alarming. It’s an aspect of the inclusiveness of rock pantheism - instantly able to turn sexual energy into an orgy of anger. As Robert Pattison writes:
"It is the body, for Nietzsche, which produces whatever truth we can achieve ... We think the way we do because of the sorts of bodies we have, and the complex relations with reality that this entails."

‘In one of his illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Blake pictures Lucifer, “the Great Selfhood” of his Romantic mythology, upright amid the visible darkness of Hell, railing against repressive Jehovah. He is a blond, well-built Saxon, naked, defiant and tumescent - Satan with a hard-on. Rock has transformed this illustration ... into the vulgar stuff of everyday life. [...] Rock belongs in the Romantic tradition that rejoices in the sex drive as a leading ingredient in the energy that casts off self-limitation in its quest for the infinite. [...] As it translates spiritual intricacies of erotic art into crude demands of throbbing flesh, rock looks like a reduction of sublime Romantic energy to the status of popular pornography.’

Pattison  (1987) p111-3.

At H (5’07"), there’s a moment of blinding truth. The anger and struggle of the E minor rock gives way to the ‘light’ of E major. It’s like one of the moments in a John Williams film score when, miraculously, the difficulties are transcended, and a way forward is perceived from an ostensibly hopeless situation. ( ... like the famous moment in E.T. when the bicycles suddenly fly. The music which accompanies these scenes encodes light, hope, and the possibility of salvation by the sudden switch to a major tonality. Perhaps one of the archetypes for this is Haydn’s Creation. The words "Let there be Light" are underpinned by a sudden, blinding C major chord which sweeps away the darkness of tonal indeterminacy.)This is where Steve Vai parts company with Friedrich Nietzsche. Where Nietzsche envisages a realisation of selfhood that transcends governments, human law and institutions, Vai channels all of this energy into the Constitution of the United States. Musically, this crucial moment is underpinned by a dissolution of the anxiety and struggle of the previous episode into the optimistic clarity of E major. The pedal E that has been the bass of all of the harmony up to this point - usually not functioning as the root of the harmony above it - at last forms the root of the triad at H. In terms of this piece, it is the ultimate resolution. What can be made of this recitation of the text of the US constitution? Steve Vai assists:

‘The song is built around my dream vision of people having had to fight in the past. I’ve never struck another human being, ever. So how would I approach the idea of having to go to war? I believe in peace, so would I die for that? Why would people fight for peace, or kill, as they would say, in the name of God? This song [...] takes you through the emotional viewpoint of a person in that situation, why they would actually fight and kill when it’s the last thing they’d ever want to do. That’s the riddle.’

Steve Vai, quoted in Joe Gore, ibid., p24.

There is a popular notion that rock music is politically rebellious, and at certain times and places this is undoubtedly true, however, as Lawrence Grossberg points out:

‘It seems rather obvious that rock [...] has been ‘colonised’ by the economic interests of capitalism. [...] The result, according to many critics and fans, is that rock is losing its cutting edge, its ability to encapsulate and articulate resistance, even its marginality. It has become ‘establishment culture’.

Grossberg, (1993) p194.

By focusing the whole piece of music on this patriotic moment, Vai will have disappointed all of those listeners who saw in this music some space for individualistic fulfilment. The quotation of the American Constitution limits the application of the music, and restricts the scope of its meaning. It cannot, now, be a universal philosophical tract. Instead, it becomes part of the rites of passage into American society. The pedal E, which throughout the piece had been the solid ground on which all the structures of desire had been built, came to signify something unchanging, universal, and true. When the moment came to reveal its identity, instead of being something cosmic, divine or supernatural, it turned out to be a pledge of political allegiance.


‘One’ - Metallica (Vertigo Metal 5 - 1989). Many of the themes discussed above are present here also. There is the alignment of love, war and Heavy metal in the service of King and Country. There is, again, a neat division of guitar timbres - the archetypal Heavy metal distortion and the softer, cleaner, tones - which have respective meanings associated with them.

The adoption of a mainstream political position by Heavy metal might be seen as primarily an American phenomenon. The film ‘Iron Eagle’(Sidney J. Furie - Dir, 1985) shows the youthful protagonist shooting up ‘bozos’ on a Libyan airstrip to the deafening accompaniment of Queen. This closely imitated real life when US drug enforcement agencies successfully flushed Panamanian Gen. Noriega out of a safe house by subjecting him to non-stop rock music from a powerful public address system that was wheeled in. British Metal bands, in contrast, have maintained an individualism and resistance to mainstream ideologies. In guitarist Robert Fripp’s early career with King Crimson he recorded many tracks which contain dazzling and original guitar solos with thoughtful and intelligent lyrics which are consistently outside conventional politics. ‘Ladies of the Road’  is a song about groupies. Fripp attempts the musical orgasm in a very different way to Steve Vai. The comparison is interesting.

‘Here I Go Again’ - Whitesnake (Liberty - BP 416 - 1982). In some senses, this is not the most remarkable of Whitesnake songs, but read in conjunction with Susan McClary’s criticism of it (1991, p157) provokes interesting discussion about the ability of music to encode gender politics. McClary writes: ‘"Here I Go Again" defines the sixth degree of the scale as the moment of desire and also of potential entrapment’. Such statements prompt examination.

Contact Patrick at info@patrickdailly.f9.co.uk
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