Review Summary: Steve Vai turns his attention away from showcasing his world-class playing ability and opts to focus on more conventional, mainstream songwriting.
The first thing one will notice is the addition of vocals, and a little-known fact about Sex & Religion
is that Vai selected a relatively unknown Canadian named Devin Townsend to handle the brunt of the vocal duties. Townsend would go on to accomplish more than a dozen acclaimed albums as the mastermind behind Strapping Young Lad and numerous other solo projects of his own; so, it’s interesting to see that Vai recognized rare talent when it came along. Unfortunately for Sex & Religion
, it’s clear Townsend was brought on as a hired gun and wasn’t involved in the writing process because the majority of the album is lackluster in that department.
From start to finish, the songs aren’t terrible but all hover in the realm of mediocrity, seldom making the listener jam hard (m/), weep, sit in stunned silence, or any other response great music should evoke. As we now know, Townsend’s vocals are best when saturated with anger and free flowing expression that he can meticulously place in his own pieces; here, Townsend isn’t given free range to produce and perform, which results in a talented vocalist operating at about 80%. This isn’t to say he’s awful, in fact the effort is there and he is overall pleasing, but other times Townsend sounds as if he’s trying to imitate Sebastian Bach’s signature high-pitched, full-of-attitude screaming style (Deep Down Into The Pain
, Dirty Black Hole
) which can present itself as lacking authenticity.
The title track, Sex & Religion
, is a moderately amusing track with lines like “Must you make a decision, between sex and religion" Why can't you love God in your bed"” and “Jesus Christ is in your bed tonight.” The only problem is I can’t decide if it’s a troll song intended to be a kneeslapper, or if it’s intended to actually be good. It lies somewhere in between which means Vai was ineffective at whatever he was aiming to accomplish. Townsend did contribute in the writing of Pig
which gave us a glimpse into the future of Townsend’s vocals (like we’d hear in Strapping Young Lad); but for Pig
, Townsend’s vocals and Vai’s playing never mesh soundly and form a sloppy, convoluted mess.
By now you’re thinking, “okay, it’s a Steve Vai album, what about the guitar playing though"” Relative to Passion and Warfare
(which many consider to be a landmark album), Sex & Religion
is a level below, lacking godly riffing and especially the endless orgasmic “feel” that turned Vai into a sensation in the guitar world. However, it’d be blasphemous for me to not point out a few Vai solos, so- Here And Now
and Touching Tongues
are solid in that regard. Also, another thing I’ll briefly mention is the album does have plenty of variety, and the songs do vary from each other and retain their own identity which is a positive.
Rescue Me, Or Bury Me
concludes Sex & Religion
on a strong note with a Neal Morse/Transatlantic-esque track that is the lone worthwhile piece on the album. I’ve pointed out far more negatives than reasons to rush out and pick up this album, but at the end of the day I feel compelled to do so given the prestige and the capacity of the musicians involved. Any kind of project associated with names like Vai, Bozzio, and Townsend is inherently not going to be bad, but Sex & Religion
never ascends beyond being slightly “good”, either.
As Vai himself sums it up-
”With players like Terry Bozzio, T.M. Stevens and Devin Townsend, in order to have a band there needs to be an unconditional acceptance of everybody else’s contribution. I was not ready for that kind of commitment on my part….those guys are really wonderful musicians, but they have their own personality. When I try to have a band together I'm too much of a control freak. I want things to be done too much of a certain way. I gave them some freedom, but the freedom musicians of this calibre need, I wasn't able to give. Therefore, blame it on me, this project will not come together again.”