January 13, 2023

[Gash] clearly could have had a career in the rock industry…

Most rock fans will be aware of Steve Vai as a top-flight guitarist, but maybe not quite as many will be aware of him as a committed member of the biker community. He loves to get together with similarly-minded rock and roll outlaws, plug in some driving rock music and ride his Harley far and wide, and it’s that passion that informs this new release – for there is, I imagine, a certain type of rock that just lends itself to flying free with the wind in your face. The songs were written and recorded in demo form way back in 1991, (when he was also starting to work on the set that would become Sex & Religion), and Vai describes it as, “reminiscent of a certain type of rock music I enjoyed as a teenager in the 1970s.” In a short period in 1991, he recorded a number of riffy metal monsters that captured the sound he would have liked to have been available when he got into bikes as a kid. He also wrote a ton of lyrics concerning living life on the edge, turning up the volume and keeping one step ahead of the law, that kind of thing.

Steve Vai (left) and Johnny ‘Gash’ Sombrotto hitting the heights

About the same time, he also became acquainted with a charismatic, fellow two-wheeled rebel named Johnny ‘Gash’ Sombrotto, whose body carried the burns and scars of a previous bike crash that would have killed most men, but whose “engaging personality”, “intoxicating charm” and “bold and fearlessly warm heart” shone through at all times. Vai asked Gash to sing on the recordings, despite not knowing if the guy even had a voice. As it turns out, he had a superb set of rocking pipes, and Vai hoped to work with him some more, but it never came to pass. Gash was killed in a bike accident in 1998, and Vai shelved the demos, bringing them out occasionally for his own listening pleasure, but never for public consumption – until now, when he has decided it’s time everybody met his late friend Gash. It’s a heart-warming story, and the result is an eight-song set simply named Vai / Gash.

At just 29 minutes, it can’t really be called an album in the full sense, although it’s more than an EP – a mini-album perhaps. I don’t know what music Vai was into as a teenager, but on the basis of this set, I imagine it included Kiss, Van Halen, Dave Lee Roth’s solo material, Blizzard Of Ozz and the like. The opening song, In The Wind, begins with some Gillan-style screaming into the air before launching into a cool bit of Randy Rhoads riffage, pure 1980s hard rock. One artist it doesn’t particularly sound like is Steve Vai – it’s lacking his usual layers of effects and harmonics, and even the short solo is conventional, without the imaginative touches that usually identify his playing. In fact, it’s all pretty much like that; there are solos, but they don’t take precedence; the emphasis is much more on the driving riffage, which will transport any metal fan of the same era back to those days of yore. In other words, this is what rock music sounded like before Steve Vai got hold of it.

Second song Busted is pure, rocking Van Halen metal in the style of I’m The One or Bottoms Up, even down to the background vocals. Woman Fever is more of a mid-tempo bluesy rocker, and She Saved My Life Tonight drifts into melodic hair-metal territory. The only number to cool the tempo a little is the final number, Flowers Of Fire, which features an acoustic guitar under the layers of light rock; Vai treats us to a harmony guitar solo on this one, although again, lacking any overt flashy bits.

The biggest surprise though, both to me and, apparently, to Steve Vai, is Gash’s voice. It was superb, gruff-edged and powerful, and he clearly could have had a career in the rock industry, although for some reason it’s a little low in the mix throughout, perhaps due to the demo nature of the recordings. Vai honours the man by putting his portrait on the front cover, bare-chested, complete with scars and skin grafts.

In all honesty, the set seems to have accomplished what it set out to do, which is to provide a rocking soundtrack to life on the road, eating up the miles as the scenery flies by. The drawback is that it will only last for a relatively short journey, unless you’re prepared to play it over and over again. But then, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Vai / Gash by Steve Vai will be available through Favored Nations / Mascot digitally and on CD from 27 January 2023, and on vinyl from 24 February