So, 1990. What happened in 1990? Um… I finished school, I suppose. Passed all my GCSEs and waved goodbye to Ratton. Errrr. Oh, I think I got my first decent guitar – a Fender HM Strat in Ice Blue. Nice.
Mr. Bean came to our televisions, the US invaded Panama, the Leaning Tower of Pisa was closed to the public, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, the "Pale Blue Dot" image was sent back from Voyager 1, Gorbachev became the first President of the Soviet Union, Poll Tax, Strangeways riot, Hubble, the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as a disease (really), Windows 3.0, an author had an idea for a book, the fucking Berlin Wall came down and East and West Germany were reunified, a stampede at the Hajj killed nearly 1500, Iraq annexed Kuwait and the first Gulf War kicked off, Home Alone, the Cold War formally came to an end and Margaret Thatcher resigned as British Prime Minister and was replaced by John Major.
Those heading downwards by approx 6ft included Terry-Thomas, Gordon Jackson, Greta Garbo, Dexter Gordon, David Rappaport, Sammy Davis Jr., Jim Henson, SRV, Leonard Bernstein, Art Blakey, Roald Dahl, and Conservative MP for Eastbourne, Ian Gow.
I mention Mr. Gow since I knew him personally – my Mum was a local Conservative, and worked as Ian's secretary for a number of years, and he came to our house on many occasions. When a friend and I did some work around my Mum's office – weeding and tidying the back yard, I think – we both received letters of thanks from Ian on House of Commons headed paper, which seemed incredibly fancy at the time. And I mention his death as he was assassinated by the IRA due to his stance on Northern Ireland and Irish independence. He was the last British MP to be killed until the murder of Jo Cox in 2016.
I recall wandering around the house playing my guitar, the aforementioned Fender, and idly flicking on Ceefax for something to do and seeing the headline "MP Gow killed in bomb blast", and thinking "Oh wow. There must be another MP with the surname Gow. I wonder if they're related…" before reading further and discovering the truth.
Oddly, a few years later I joined a local band called May 19. The singer was a photographer for the local newspaper and his assignment on the morning of July 30th 1990 was to take pictures of Mr. Gow at some local event. It was only when Ian failed to arrive that he contacted his office and they told him what had happened.
Musically things were awesome. Like really really awesome. While the field isn't as hotly contested as '91 or '92, there are still lots of players on the board. So here are the runners and riders…:
I'd missed Extreme's self-titled debut at the time, so this was my first exposure to Portugese shredmidget Nuno Bettencourt and his gang, and it blew my mind clean off. Thanks once again to Teutonic producer-in-chief Michael Wagener the sound of this record is gigantic, and this was Nuno at the absolute peak of his pinnacle. Gary Cherone managed to write some actual lyrics (seriously, going back to the first album, have you actually listened to "Smoke Signals" or "Play With Me"? Those aren't songs, they are largely just LISTS OF CONNECTED THINGS) and the whole album just kills. Well OK, not the whole album – you can bail on "When I First Kissed You" and "Song For Europe", but the rest of it is riffmungous magic. Top track: "Suzi (Wants Her All Day What?)"
Richie Kotzen was one of Mike Varney's original Shrapnel shredders and at the tender age of 19 he put out a face-melting eponymous album of wicked instrumentals. However, he followed that up the following year with Fever Dream and added vocals, giving space to the wailing and revealing that by cracky this boy can sing. He's put out about a billion and nine solo albums since then, not even considering his work with Poison, Mr. Big and lately The Winery Dogs, but for me this will always be the high water mark. The production has dated pretty badly, but the sense of fun hasn't, for me at least. Top track: "She"
This is one of those albums I cannot possibly be objective about, I love it far too much. The musicians aren't virtuosos, the lyrics are sometimes clichéd and occasionally downright problematic ("met a little girl / just thirteen / she's a knock-down blue-eyed slut psycho-virgin tease" from the track "Rock Queen" springs to mind), and the whole thing is just so 90s rock it hurts, but I cannot distance myself even now from hearing this when I was 17 or so and loving it SO much. The album has a harder-hitting slightly punkier edge than a lot of the stuff around at the time (Winger, Warrant, Poison, the rest of the spandex and hairspray brigade…) and it really feels like these guys mean it. Plus, this was the first real band I saw live in all of ever – they were opening for Skid Row at Docklands Arena and from the moment they came on stage I knew I would love this band. Happily in recent years, my own band have opened for Jizzy and a couple of recent incarnations of Love/Hate and I tell you this, that man can still fucking do it. Top track: "Mary Jane"
Well, now. Lynch Mob, eh? Yeah. See, George Lynch is utterly amazing, but I just never could get on board with Dokken. Just no. Cannot. Uh uh. Nope. But this… this is an amazing metal record. There is not one bad track on this, and it kicks every single variety of ass you could care to mention. In almost any other year, this would take the competition to the cleaners. Top track: "Wicked Sensation"
What else to say about Pantera? Not much that wasn't covered previously, really. This was the breakout album for the Texan four-piece, and pretty much invented and established the subgenre of groove metal. Fun fact: breakout album? Yes. Debut album? Nope. They released four albums before this one, three of which were glam. Yes, glam. Go look it up if you don't believe me. (I've never listened to any of them, they might be awesome. I somehow doubt it though…) In almost any other year, this would floor all comers. Top track: "Cemetery Gates"
Oh my god, this album. I'd seen Guitar World and GFTPM banging on about Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton all over the shop, and finally one day heard "Jet City Woman" somewhere, at which point I simply had to have this album. I've heard faithful 'Rÿche fans say this is where they went commercial, and nothing can ever top Operation: Mindcrime or even Rage for Order, and that's their opinion to which they are welcome. For me Empire is unsurpassable, and in almost any other year it would have thrashed the competition with the stoutest of ibstocks. Top track: "Jet City Woman"
Awwww, Thunder! You have to love them. Not only did they keep on slogging all the way through The Dark Times, they genuinely seem to still be having a great time doing it. Even now! This album was their debut, and it's really great fun. Top track: "She's So Fine"
OK, yes. Po-faced poodle-y hair metal that took itself too seriously could perhaps be epitomised by Winger, but this is still a great album if you're into that sort of thing. And I am. Guitarist Reb Beach was absolutely on fire when this album was recorded, and every solo is a melodic joy. You just need to skip the mawkishly terrible piano ballad "Miles Away" and then somehow use strong magnets or drugs or both to wipe the bit of your brain that knows about even the existence of the shockingly ill-advised rap bit in "Baptized By Fire", and this is a cracker. Fun fact: "Rainbow in the Rose" features my favourite ever recorded note, at 4:05. Top track: "Easy Come, Easy Go"
And the winner is…
To set the scene, it was (obv) 1990. Melodic instrumental rock guitar was an established thing, thanks largely to Joe Satriani, and to a lesser extent the Shrapnel crowd, though they were in many cases trick cyclists going for notes-per-song rather than melody and songwriting. But Joe really had set the bar pretty high with 1987's Grammy-nommed Surfing With the Alien (and to a lesser extent his mixed bag 1989 follow-up Flying in a Blue Dream, to which we will come in due course). Vai had firmly made his name playing with Frank Zappa then Alcatrazz before carving his name deep in the fabric of rock with stellar performances on the two classic David Lee Roth albums, Eat 'Em and Smile and Skyscraper. He'd even put out a quirky self-produced solo album Flex-Able in 1984.
So, were we ready for his first full proper major solo release?
Hell, no. There's no possible way anyone could have been ready for this thing. This didn't just change the playing field, it tore the whole playing field up into little pieces, ate them, vomited them out of the window, and then somehow morphed the idea of there even having ever been a playing field into a magical astral unicorn of music upon which you were suddenly riding through fifteen new dimensions you'd never heard of before while simultaneously experiencing the sonic equivalent of LSD, a really nice glass of Chianti, an orgasm, a birthday, the feeling of sun on your face on the first warm day in Spring after spending the Winter in the Outer Hebrides, MDMA, some incredibly strong cheddar (like, really strong, like not just "Strength: 5" on the packet, but like, really strong…), and a back massage ALL AT ONCE.
Oh, and while he was writing this album, Vai also invented the 7-string guitar, so you know – you're welcome.
I bought this album pretty much as soon as it came out, and still to this day, 27 years later, I am still hearing new things in it. For me it is like Beethoven intertwined with Brahms, wrapped in Bach and dipped in a thick gooey coating of Mozart.
Hyperbole? No. I honestly could listen to this forever. I'd have a hard time separating this from the other candidate for favourite album of all time, and if it was a burning house scenario I'm pretty sure I could get two CDs in my pockets, so I'm just not going to pick between them, and you can't make me. (More on the other in due course.)
In terms of instrumental guitar rock albums this has to be one of the most important records ever made, and it could have been made at no other time, and by no-one else.
Regardless of what I do or don't think about Vai's more recent output, Passion and Warfare remains a perfect star in the rock music heavens, shining light (without heat) through time and space onto every musical stave to contain instrumental rock music since that day.
I haven't been as moved by a guitar album since. That is… not until 2016. (More on that, of course, in due course.)
Top tracks: "I Would Love To", "Sisters", "Blue Powder"
Turkey of the Year