Founded by Steve Vai in 2016, Generation Axe is a powder keg of virtuosic guitarist talent from the last 40 years. The band consists of Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme; Zakk Wylde of Black Label Society and Ozzy Osbourne; neoclassical metal heavyweight, Yngwie Malmsteen; and Tosin Abasi of Animals As Leaders.
Generation Axe has hitherto been an exclusively live proposition, having twice toured North America and once visited Asia. However, the band’s first album – Generation Axe – The Guitars That Destroyed the World: Live In China – is out now, comprising 11 tracks edited together from the April 2017 Asian tour.
Vai has been a frequent inclusion in Joe Satriani’s G3 tours, but he says Generation Axe offer something different. “The idea was to create one backing band and a seamless show where you get these five crazy guitar players that come on and off the stage in various groups and play together in an organised way.”
Vai’s jumped all over the genre map in his four decade career, working with Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake before shifting focus to a solo career in the early '90s. Despite gaining popularity as a solo artist, he’s continued to play with everyone from Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne to PiL, Meat Loaf, Joe Jackson, Spinal Tap and The Yardbirds. He still loves playing with other guitar players.
“I love the sound of screaming electric rock guitar in harmony,” Vai says. “Brian May was perhaps one of my biggest influences and he did it – he’s the master. But I knew that if I could get five guitar players on the stage and play organised parts it would be something really special. Frankly I didn’t think it could turn out as good as it did.”
Vai envisioned the Generation Axe shows as a celebration of the rock guitar. The live record is an amalgam of the seven-show Asian tour and the track listing is similarly paced to the average show. The set begins with all five members onstage together playing Boston’s ‘Foreplay’.
“It’s a recognisable song, but we do that beautiful melody and five part harmony,” Vai says. “It’s just fantastic. When you hear that wall of sound, any guitar player I think would just stand to attention because it’s just so saturated and it resonates with you.”
Each member then plays a couple of his own songs solo before another joins for a duet. “Tosin does some songs and then he’s joined by Nuno for [Animals as Leaders’] ‘Physical Education’. And then Nuno does his set and then Zakk and Nuno play that beautiful version of ‘Sideways’ [by Citizen Cope]. Then Yngwie and I play [Malmsteen’s] ‘Black Star’ which is just such a highlight for me. It’s rare to play with a guitar player that can listen so well.”
Vai, Abasi, Bettencourt and Wylde then unite to take on Edgar Winter’s ‘Frankestein’. “The idea was to play a classic song that people could recognise, but in a way that they’d never heard before,” Vai says. “We got all the horn lines and the way they bounce back and forth off of each other. It’s really special.”
The arrangements were meticulously crafted to make room for all of the essential ingredients and allow each player to shine. This is evidenced in the show’s concluding number, Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’.
“That’s a tour de force, especially when we take that beautiful historic solo that Ritchie Blackmore does and we do it in five part screaming guitar harmonies. It sounds so wild to me. It was exactly what I was hoping for.”
Playing in China is nothing new for Vai. He first went there for a solo tour in 2005 and returned for the Spring Festival Global Gala in 2013, which had a broadcast audience of over one billion people.
“When I was a kid, 12 or 13, and I was listening to music and absolutely enamoured with it, I created this picture in my mind of this guy that was travelling the world and playing music for people,” Vai says.
“I’m told I was the first American rock artist to play in Communist China. From there I was able to go back and perform in some other unique capacities. The Spring Gala aired for two billion people and it was actually the first time they’ve ever had rock music on Chinese television, let alone an American rock artist.”
Generation Axe - The Guitars That Destroyed The World: Live In China is out now via earMUSIC.