Steve Vai's "Sex & Religion" is not your typical Guitar Hero album.
Instead of taking his listeners into the same sort of aural wonderland as his last effort, "Passion and Warfare," "Sex & Religion" puts its emphasis on spiritual concerns. And while that doesn't take away from the quality of the playing -- indeed, the instrumental chemistry between Vai, bassist T. M. Stevens and drummer Terry Bozzio is often astonishing -- the fact is that Vai is more interested in getting his point across than in showing off.
It's pretty heady stuff, too, mixing conventional Christian iconography with talk about how sex and spirituality are intertwined. One number, "The Road to Mt. Calvary," takes its inspiration of the crucifixion, while the title tune includes lines like "Jesus Christ is in your bed tonight/To bring you back from the dead."
Party music it ain't.
So how has all this gone over with the fans expecting fretboard flash? Surprisingly well, says the guitarist.
"It's really wild," he says over the phone from "somewhere in the Midwest." "When I play songs from 'Sex & Religion,' I see them singing 'Survive' or 'Still My Bleeding Heart' or 'In My Dreams With You.' It's beautiful to see that.
"And then when we play a song like 'Down Deep Into the Pain,' people start moshing, and getting on the stage and jumping off and stuff. Matter of fact, I fell into the audience yesterday. They just carried me around for a while, and put me back."
Even better is the response he gets after the shows, when fans come up to talk about what the songs mean. "There's a certain percentage of people out there that get it, and they get it big time," he says. "It helps them. And people who are looking for this type of stimulation aren't going to get it in most other places."
Besides, he adds, the issues and emotions he addresses on the album really aren't that hard to relate to. "I believe it's in everybody's thoughts," he says. "At the forefront of their thoughts, actually. But it is just a matter of identifying with it, formulating your own image and then expressing that in the music."
Of course, the kind of musical expression most people associate with Steve Vai is hard rock. In fact, his work with acts like David Lee Roth or Whitesnake left a lot of listeners thinking of him as some sort of guitar-slinging hired gun.
"But that's OK, because that image of those party-type bands was good for me at the time," he says. "I was into that thing. But what I write about and what Devin [Townsend, Vai's vocalist on "Sex & Religion"] cares to sing about is completely different."
Beyond that, Vai feels that what he does with his own band should reflect the full range of his musical abilities -- that is, his writing as well as his playing.
"I don't perform as a guitar star," he says. "I perform as a performer who plays guitar. I really like to be animated onstage. I like letting the guitar dictate my facial expressions and my body shapes. That's a little art project every night.
"We'll get people who are very technically oriented at the show, and they stand on the side and wait to be blown away. But I try to pull those people into the more theatrical, melodic aspect of the show, rather than have them just sitting there listening to the guitar tone and hanging on every note."
When: Sunday at 8 p.m.
Where: Hammerjacks, 1101 S. Howard St.
Tickets: $14.50 in advance, 16.50 at door
PD Call: (410) 659-7625 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets