VHF is the brainchild of drummer T. Vinny Vinciguerra (the T is for Todd) - at first glance you could be thinking this to be just another bloated, instrumental shred-fest, but in reality you'd be dead wrong, very much off the mark, and maybe you'd miss one of the coolest little side trips of 2014.
I know what you probably thought, so let's get that 800 pound gorilla out of the corner and into the center of the room. You may have thought that an ambitious drummer went out and bought up some high level, high priced talent and indulged his rock 'n' roll fantasy - to a degree you'd be right, and beyond criticism for seeing what appears to be apparent, but then when you find out what's really happening, things are what they seem, but aren't at all what you'd expect.
In actuality this is like futuristic musical stem cell surgery of sorts - these aren't songs, they are strains. What's a strain? Well, that's when Mr. Vinciguerra would remember how much he admired Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue album - so, he takes that little piece of musical DNA, and he applies it to the here and now. He's the drummer so he lays down the foundation of his sonic imaginings. He then sends it to the best, most creative bassist he can find, who happens to be fretless wonder Tony Franklin. It's abundant upon Mr. Franklin to supply melodic groove, a tonal template, and some patented sliding silkiness. It is then sent to Joel Hoekstra, he of Trans-Siberian Orchestra/Rock Of Ages/ Night Ranger/and now Whitesnake fame to apply the guitars that finalize each strain. In lesser hands this could be the classic 'bad trip,' but everyone here showed up with their game face very much on, and we have ourselves a winner.
Vinciguerra played his cards just right, and his drumming is excellent - powerful, in the pocket, well played but not steeped in overindulgence. He obviously has put a tremendous amount of time in listening to classic song structure, and the works of the greats who came before him. His taste outshines any tendency to overplay, and his tone and chops, while substantial, never attempt to overshadow the arrangements.
Shattered Insomnia opens the set, and it sets out as a high concept, semi-fusionistic piece of progressive rock, but then Hoekstra takes of with one of his two handed flights of fancy, and the melodicism wakes us up and we're off into a heady, atmospheric place. Just when we're getting used to this strain, Tony Franklin kicks it down four to the floor, and into a very tasty bridge that Hoekstra meets with some soaring slide guitar and the concept becomes a very cool reality. It all sounds vaguely familiar, but it's more like being back in a very pleasant place of comfort than anything recycled. You could hum this after hearing it once, but you'll find yourself hitting the repeat button anyway.
Mid-Eastern trips are always welcome in the world of high octane rock, and Whispers Of The Soul is a most welcome addition to the canon. I haven't heard nearly enough from the bass of Tony Franklin over the last few years, and I am instantly reminded of why he has been one of my favorite musicians for decades. His bass line is actually somewhat reminiscent of a Nordic trip, it's hammer heavy, the tone is just sick (as in sick good), and then there are his choice of notes - he laid down a bedrock over which Hoekstra could do no less than shine, and he shines very brightly. His chops are sizzling, that almost goes without saying, but his musicality is just about perfect - he's effect heavy on this one, and every effect is the right one. His balalaika cop is incredible as these guys are taking this rocking trip around the globe. He does a lot of two hand tapping, but I'll be damned if it's not all just right for the strain. I almost said song there, didn't I?
One wonders what Mr. Vinciguerra must have wondered as this all came together? I'm hoping he had a big, big grin upon his face, because he's pulled this off. Suspended Animation features more massively melodic musings as Hoekstra seamlessly shifts between big rock, subtle slide, and wonderfully orchestrated acoustics - then comes the big Beatle-esque bridge, and you're liking this record more by the moment. I'd love to hear them try this again, and then throw a vocalist on top of it - but to be honest, I'm not sure of who would be up for the task. This strain grows into a somewhat Floydian meditation that brings it all back home very gently. Great work.
Conception To Death....from before the cradle to the grave, this is a great sonic trip that suggests the path of a soul through the ever changing trip called this life, and at the end of it all I'm more convinced than ever that we are eternal. Nothing stays the same, but it's always an interesting trip.
More strain building with Invisible Thread, and one wonders at what point these songs were named. This sounds to me like a twenty first century Yardbirds mixed with everything that was ever great about prog rock (Yeah, I'm talking about King Crimson). I keep going back one piece at a time a wondering just how in sync these guys were as they played down their parts in anticipation of what would come next - the chorus/refrain on this is a piece of classic guitar rock. Hoekstra uses a lot of effects, but he uses them so well that it's never an issue, except to notice how right they are for what he's writing around them. When the soloing comes down, it's his Gilmour moment and he stands tall next to the legends that have come before. It's so great to hear Franklin being Franklin at the end of this tune that it about brings a tear. Pure joy.
Backside Of Your Eyes has a spoken vocal hiding in its murky grooves, and it's a very dark trip through the psyche. the groove is huge and you could sail a battleship through it's awesome path. I'm still amazed that Vinciguerra resists the temptation to do what it's very easy to hear that he could do if he wanted, and that is to overplay - nope, he keeps it lean and powerful. Just right, I'd say. This one just keeps climbing and climbing and the chops do get broken out at the end, but it is time, after all....
All Is Within is for me, so much about the genius of Tony Franklin. Vinny provides some ground cover, but Joel stays home and lets the master roam, and this may be the most in-depth look we've yet had at Franklin's style, tone, chops, and taste. To my ears he's at the top of his class on top of Mount Bass alongside guys like Sheehan, Flea, Lee, and those who came before their generation. He's the toppermost of the low end, this beautiful meditation is a great way to end an album that quite frankly caught me off guard. I must say that this might be the most pleasant surprise of the year. I've heard a lot of great music, but this one kind of came out of left field for me. I'm very glad that it did.
Don't let them fool you - these strains turned into great songs.
Buy this record, and indulge your rocking intellect. Smart music for hard rockers, but there's something here for anyone who digs good music. Congratulations to the players - fellas, you did an amazing job. Rock Ain't Near Dead, and VHF proves it.