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Steve Vai: Flex-Able - Album Of The Week Club review

Fresh from working with Frank Zappa, a young Steve Vai took what he'd learned and made album no one was meant to hear

Steve Vai - Flex-Able
(Image: © Steve Vai)
Steve Vai - Flex-Able

(Image credit: Steve Vai )

Little Green Men
Viv Woman
Lovers Are Crazy
Salamanders in the Sun
The Boy/Girl Song
The Attitude Song
Call It Sleep
Junkie
Bill's Private Parts
Next Stop Earth
There's Something Dead in Here

Flex-Able was a complete DIY job and made, in part, with the money a young Steve Vai had made working for Frank Zappa. The young Vai bought his first house, converted the garden shed into a studio and created the first cornerstone of his solo career.

Understandably, it has the stamp of Frank all over it, some vocal melodies, arrangements, even musical asides, check out Little Green Men and There’s Something Dead In Here, but it’s an assured first step.

Flex-Able is also Vai at his purest. Featuring such gems as Salamanders In The Sun and the peak of ‘stunt guitar’ instrumentals The Attitude Song, it was no surprise that Vai was poached by David Lee Roth a couple of years later; DLR’s Eat ’Em And Smile is a shred album with vocals, after all.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

As a student at the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, the young Steve Vai was hired by Frank Zappa as a transcriptionist, before moving to the West Cast to join Zappa's touring band in 1980. 

The relationship last for three years before Vai cashed in and bought a house in Sylmar, Los Angeles, where he installed a home studio and recording a raft of material that was never really intended to see the light of day.

Many of the tracks were recorded as jokes. and Vai’s idea was to press the music on a limited run of flexidiscs and give them to friends. 

“I was completely scared to death of being famous,” Steve Vai told Guitar World. “And I just thought, There’s no way I could sell this music I’ve made. I don’t even want to try to sell it! It’s too personal.”

Other albums released in January 1984

  • Defenders of the Faith - Judas Priest
  • Learning to Crawl - The Pretenders
  • 1984 - Van Halen
  • Bon Jovi - Bon Jovi
  • Christine McVie - Christine McVie
  • Milk and Honey - John Lennon & Yoko Ono
  • Software - Grace Slick
  • Fistful of Metal - Anthrax
  • Flex-Able - Steve Vai
  • Penetrator - Ted Nugent
  • Roll On - Alabama
  • Slide It In - Whitesnake
  • Tour de Force - 38 Special

What they said...

"Make no mistake, there's still plenty of Joe Satriani-esque technical virtuosity on display, but since Vai has a few other tricks in his bag, Flex-able turns out to be much more enjoyable (and accessible to listeners other than guitar-technique fetishists) than the average '80s guitar shred-fest." (AllMusic)

"Now, to reassure the non-weirdos in the audience, there certainly are a couple first-rate "normal" guitar rockers on here, most notably the fantastic Attitude Song, a breathtaking slab of "metal-funk" which frankly sounds like nothing else - you don't often get guitarists who know everything about correct funk syncopation and use the gruffest, angriest power-metal guitar tones to play that syncopation at the same time, and then there are the breaks, where Vai's Hendrix and Satriani influences are showing up. (Only Solitaire)

"Indian classical music influences, weird sound bites, exotic quasi-prog-jazzy instrumental arrangements (long-time mentor Zappa loaned a lot of his gear for the sessions) and a silly sense of humour add to the record’s freak-experimental vibe." (TomyMostalas)

What you said...

Brian Carr: I believe I said some time ago that, while a few of this wonderful group’s album choices become surprise discoveries for some of the members, the most impassioned reviews tend to come from albums with which the members have a long history. I have such a history with Steve Vai’s Flex-able.

I don’t remember exactly when I (or one of my brothers) plunked down cash for Flex-able on vinyl, but I can guess it was during the magical year of 1986 when Steve Vai joined David Lee Roth’s band, released the magnificent Eat ‘Em And Smile album and stopped in Ft. Wayne to treat an impressionable fourteen year old to a concert the youngster would still rank in his personal top five more than thirty years afterward. That same year, there was a magazine called Guitar For The Practicing Musician that started the same teenager on his own musical journey. Vai’s frequent appearances in said magazine helped lead said youth to the guitar virtuoso.

I didn’t know who Frank Zappa was at the time, but loved the style and virtuosic playing of Steve Vai on Roth’s first solo outing. My musical taste was firmly set in the era of MTV hard rock and thus pretty narrow. I was buying vinyl from the wonderful Wooden Nickel record stores in Ft. Wayne, and Flex-able went home with me at some point. 

Looking back now, it’s a wonder I loved this album as much as I did. Flex-able was musical schizophrenia on vinyl. Tracks like Little Green Men, Junkie, Next Stop Earth and There’s Something Dead In Here were definitely unlike anything I’d ever heard to that point. But the blistering Attitude Song and slinky groove of Viv Woman were irresistible to me. Call It Sleep was one of the most blissfully beautiful tracks I’d ever heard. Listening now, it reminds me of Vangelis’s music from Blade Runner in mood, but the guitar work is undeniable to my ears. The melodies from Lovers Are Crazy moved me as well, enough to where I didn’t even mind the pretty clumsy vocal delivery. These tracks helped me accept the album as a whole, letting the ‘weird’ tracks grow on me and likely set me on a path to greatly expand my musical horizons.

Years later I became a Zappa fanatic, so listening to Flex-able decades later, I can absolutely hear the influence. The horn part from Lovers Are Crazy and the lovely Salamanders In The Sun sound just like Zappa tracks. Kind of makes me like the album even more.

Is Flex-able a perfect album? By no means. But one of the most glorious things about music is that there is truly something for everybody’s unique musical taste (and distaste). Steve Vai has been one of my musical heroes for a long time now, and though it started with his Roth excursion, his solo debut Flex-able is one of my most influential albums. (BTW, for all of you that disliked this, be glad the streaming version doesn’t include the Leftover So Happy. That one even annoys me!)

John Davidson: Well. It's perhaps no surprise that I didn't enjoy this album very much.

It is not however, a shredfest (which was what I feared) but is instead largely a Frank Zappa homage.

Ironically the few tracks that I did like were the guitar oriented instrumentals (Viv Woman, Salamanders In The Sun) but they would be filler tracks on anything approaching a truly classic rock album.

The Attitude Song, however, steps too far into guitar shred for my taste, and the final three tracks are fragments that don't make up a song between them.

The lyrics range from quirky to downright awful. Junkie for example is musically among the stronger tracks but the lyrics are so atrocious I couldn't listen to it more than twice.

Overall this one just wasn't for me. I found the song structures weak and didn't connect with the quirky art-house tone.

Not a classic in my estimation. He would produce better work collaborating with Dave Lee Roth and even David Coverdale.

2/10.

Jacob Tannehill: When you are a rock guitarist and come off the high of being Frank Zappa’s guitarist, you tend to make the best of both worlds. Attitude Song, Call It Sleep and Lovers Are Crazy are great rock tunes. Little Green Men and Salamanders In The Sun, have frank written all over them. 

The Boy Girl Song is one of my favourite tunes by him. He’s come a long long way since this album. If you haven’t heard it, and aren't sure, it's worth spinning a few times. It’s not Passion And Warfare, but it’s where his head was at the time. Good choice, for weekly album!

Tito Lesende Galán: Having discovered Vai through David Lee Roth's Eat 'Em And Smile, this album really got me backwards into Zappa. It was not easy to find in Spain, but I got myself an import from the USA. It wasn't easy to find somebody who liked or understood the album, neither. But, now, isn't it brilliant? Could you tell any other Vai album which stood the test of time like this? Anyone else inspired by Salamanders In The Sun?

Jonathan Novajosky: Yikes. I could barely get through the album. You know you're in for a rough time when instrumentals are the best songs on the album. Some of the tracks like Little Green Men and The Boy Girl Song are cringe-worthy. Junkie has some solid vocals but it is ruined by horrendous lyrics. This may be the lowest score I ever give an album. 2/10

Craig T Nelson: When I first heard this I was blown away by the hints of magic and heaps of weird. Shows real creative courage to put something so out of left field and non-commercial out with his own money. You could tell there was a genius lurking with those green men.

Mauricio Telles: Not good. I love Zappa’s stuff from the 70s but after Tinseltown Rebellion his albums went really down and this Vai’s effort sounds the same. Childish many times. 3 of 10.

Timo Bergman: I love Steve Vai and many of his songs, but his only solid album is Real Illusions: Reflections from 2005. Flex-able is just horrible, although not as bad as The Story of Light (2012). Vai is a great example of a musician too interested in virtuosity and "cool" sounds.

Eddie Peuker: Having a very hard time with this unpleasant assortment of Zappa throwaway tunes. Yes, I do not value Zappa much either. Perhaps a 2 is too high.

Marco LG: I first came across Steve Vai as the guitarist of David Lee Roth back in 1987. I cannot say I followed his solo career with any attention, but I did like the two albums he put out shortly after that: Passion And Warfare (1990) and Sex & Religion (1993, with Devin Townsend). Growing up I discovered Frank Zappa, in particular the albums he published where Stevie played, and I can easily say I love those albums.

All of the above is to give context, because this was the first time I listened to Flex-able but in all honesty I fully expected to love it. And I didn’t. My real problem with this album is Steve Vai trying very hard to compose like Frank Zappa, and failing miserably. One example is the use of a brass section, that Frank used incredibly effectively to counterpoint instrumentals and vocal lines. In here I don’t get the same effect, and yet it sounds so familiar it could easily have been taken verbatim from any Zappa performance of the period.

In conclusion I think this is a forgettable album by an artist who luckily progressed into greater things. It shows a man trying to deal with the enormous legacy of having been onstage learning the trade from his hero, a great privilege which must have felt at times like a burden.

Bill Griffin: I listened to this shortly after it was posted and thought "meh". Didn't come back to it for several days. Listened again on my way to work yesterday and was significantly more impressed. Traffic was so bad that I got to listen to it again almost all the way through before I actually made it. As big a change there was in my opinion between the first and second listens, it was equal between the second and third. I will be adding this to my collection as well.

Julie Plumpton: My older brother was a massive Zappa fan in the early 70s. I was often encouraged to listen to, not always impressed. So the start of this album Little Green Men took me right back to then. I was surprised at how I enjoyed the album, albeit a bit of a roller coaster. I loved guitars on Viv Woman and Steve's voice is really melodic on The Boy Girl Song, which is verging on 'pop'. Junkie has some powerful lyrics, while Call It Sleep nearly sent me there. Overall I really enjoyed the ride and will keep it on my Spotify.

Carl Black: I'm really unsure of what I just heard, I think it was an album with songs on it. Not sure, difficult to tell. A lot of the songs are just strange collections of noises fused together. There are some exceptions. The Boy Girl Song and The Attitude Song are very decent. I can't believe this is the gentleman who played with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. Still it goes to show we all have to start somewhere. I'd much prefer Buckethead and his brand of strange guitar soloing. Not Mr Vai's greatest hour, but not a total waste of time.

Brian Anderson: I played this album to death in the late 80s but haven’t listened to it since. As a novice guitarist I spent many hours trying to play along to The Attitude Song and Call It Sleep

Listening now, has it stood the test of time? Nope, absolutely not. It sounds dated and immature. Clearly it was a group of very talented musicians having fun in a garage, but since my teenage years are long long gone I find much of the album cringe-worthy. Still, the guitar work remains outstanding and is still inspirational today.

Ian Babey: Got my hopes up when I saw Steve Vai on Album of the Week, but my hopes were quickly dashed. I wanted to like it, being from Vai, but besides a couple of tunes that remotely sounded like classic Vai (The Attitude Song, Call it Sleep) I couldn't get into it. Like someone earlier mentioned - Zappa throwaways. Sorry, not to my liking. 3 out of 10.

Roland Bearne: Steve Vai, musical savant, virtuoso guitar player, hippy spiritualist, oddball, family man! And one of the absolutely towering figures in instrumental Rock music. I hadn't heard this for a while but the humour, the modes and figures which have made him so recognisable over the years are already in place, I know I was listening to the re-master but that all of this was achieved in his garden shed signals all the extraordinary music to come. He is unique and wonderful and the musical world is such a better place for him being in it. What an opening statement this album is!

Final Score: 6.26 ⁄10 (141 votes cast, with a total score of 883)

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