When writing for popular periodicals such as Sonic Perspectives, I make an effort to write in a detached third-person narrative, attempting to blend academic objectivity with the energy of gonzo journalism. However, when the subject at hand is Jason Becker and his music, it is simply impossible to detach oneself. Jason, personally is an amazing example of the human spirit, and he is surrounded by the very best support system of friends and family anyone could ever desire. While his playing set a benchmark only approached by the very best and brightest, it is his composition in his later years which will truly stand the test of time as a beacon of the strength and power of the human spirit. So yes, Jason and his music have a deep and profound meaning to me, and if you want clinical objectivity, I will be the first to admit I might not be the best source. However, if you love Jason’s music, or just have a pulse, I hope you will accept this review for what it is: a love letter to music itself.
It is an unfortunate reality that one cannot generally read an article or review pertaining to Jason’s music without getting a condensed-milk rendering of his unfortunate circumstances. If Jason, the man, the human being, is an iceberg, his condition and his chair make up the smallest tip. However, Sonic Perspectives enjoys a diverse and informed readership, and so a brief summary is not out of line. Jason Becker hit the now-infamous Shrapnel shredder scene in the late 80s (no insult intended in the shredder title, I wear it gladly). He and friend Marty Friedman both did solo albums, and worked together on Cacophony. However, Jason did not get international stardom until he was tapped by one David Lee Roth to fill the freshly vacated shoes of Steve Vai. He did a studio album with Roth, but in the earliest stages of touring, was struck down with a diagnosis of ALS, otherwise known as the disease of Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig. Jason was about twenty years old when he found out he would lose his ability to play, his ability to speak, and in just a few short years, his ability to be alive.
However, almost thirty years later, not only is Jason alive (or as he would put it, Not Dead Yet), but he is active in the music community and even composing music. I still remember his 1996 wheelchair release “Perspective,” an album which was miraculous, a tender rendering of a silenced soul, expressed painstakingly with the eyes and thumb of a musical genius. Jason ostensibly assumed that to be his last hurrah, since he was already working in “sudden death” overtime against the conservative assumptions of the medical field. Although the album was indeed brilliant, it suffered from Jason being ahead of the technology at the time, often limited to 1990s MIDI sounds.
2018 is another matter altogether. Today not only is PC music production light years beyond its 1990s state, but we have high speed internet, video calling, the ability to collaborate with musicians and other professionals around the globe, sending high quality sound files. Arguably, with social media, and the documentary movie “Not Dead Yet,” Jason is enjoying a new level of celebrity, and it shows in the world-class roster of gifted musicians he has just dying to help in any way they can. With this conjunction of heavenly elements, Jason Becker decided the time was ripe to finish his real magnum opus, this time entitled Triumphant Hearts. The album is made up mostly or entirely of real live breathing musicians and instruments, with very high production quality. It feels like the album that 1996 Jason wishes he could have done, and we are all fortunate that the tenacious Jason Becker (Tenacious B?) has persevered to deliver this work.
For those of us living in the late 80s shred world of Vinnie Moore, Paul Gilbert, Tony MacAlpine and countless others, it is difficult to think of Jason Becker or Marty Friedman without thinking of the other. They were truly the Wondertwins, complete with fully activated Wonder Powers. Therefore, I was pleased Jason did the only natural thing: letting Marty go to work on the very first track of the new album. The first track, the title track, is actually a stately strings and woodwinds piece, and by the time the beautiful solo violin comes back for a second time, the listener is immediately at gentle peace. One can picture a young Frodo Baggins reading a book on a warm summer day, waiting for a wizardly visit to the village. The violin playing is truly first-chair material, with amazing execution and tons of feeling. Of course, it is followed by Marty Friedman, who audibly puts all his love for his friend into every note.
The stage is set perfectly for the second track, “Hold On To Love,” which is arguably the crown jewel of this album. It is Jason’s first attempt at lyric writing, and he knocked the ball right out of the park. Local vocal talent Codany Holiday delivers what is absolutely Jason’s autobiography in song. The song is a soulful fusion of blues, R&B, smooth jazz, and rock elements into a creamy milkshake of good feels. The core of the song’s message is Jason addressing the question of how he stays positive in spite of everything, and the answer is that love sustains him spiritually, emotionally, and perhaps even physically. Perhaps if love is Jason’s manna, there is no reason it cannot work the same miracles for us all. The guitar jams (which to my ear actually sound like they are coming from a Jason Becker Carvin guitar, or something awfully close) are amazing without being overdone, and the gospel choir vocals just hammer the whole thing home. If Jason was to hang a hat on one song on the album, this is the one.
The song is followed by a real treat, which feels like harp music, and yet was transcribed by Jason specifically for the ukulele magic of Jake Shimabukuro. The song, entitled “Fantasy Weaver,” is a sweeping journey of strings and woodwinds, almost in the vein of the title track, but made very unique by the incredible ukulele playing, which toward the end manages to invoke the beautiful Asian melodies one finds on Marty Friedman albums such as Introduction and Scenes.
The fourth song, “Once Upon a Melody,” is a lovely arrangement which actually manages a special trick: it incorporates original recordings of Jason’s incendiary guitar leads from back in the day. Naturally, the guitar parts suffer from the same unpolished audio quality found on the Raspberry Jams collection. However, for what it is, it remains a rare treasure. Three-year old yammering Jason even makes an appearance in the audio, which makes the track a poignant merging of innocent pre-school Jason with 19-year old guitar virtuoso Jason, and nearly 50 year-old composer Jason.
Jason continues to keep the listener guessing with the next track, “We Are One,” which is a ferociously funky fusion of Roth and Peter Gabriel elements. The Steve Knight vocals are a perfect fit, but what impressed me was how Jason’s old fizzy 4-track guitar jams from 30 years ago could be made to work so seamlessly into a big popping fresh production like this. Strangely, the fizzy Boss Metal Zone sound of the old recording actually feels like it could have been an intentional production gimmick on a newer recording, like pushing vocals past -0 to get just a bit of clipping and distortion. The single-coil funk guitar playing, the slap bass, the brass, and the exceptional vocals just come together to make this the most fun track on the album by far.
Amazing player and family friend Uli Jon Roth provides leads on “Magic Woman,” and left to his own creative devices, does a hell of a job. The song consists of Megadeth University graduate Chris Broderick laying down lovely nylon classic guitars, with Uli just soaring high above with picture-perfect distortion and sustain. It is a nice transition track on the album, offering both sweet and spicy.
Although I am certainly no hippie nor any huge Dylan fan, even I must admit that Jason’s arrangement of “Blowin’ in the Wind” for steel string acoustic and vocals really elevates the song to a new level. The sound is fresh and modern while remaining something that could have been done with the instruments of 1962. For an introspective soul like Jason, one can see the solace he gets from the lyrics of the song, and if his goal was to do the song justice, he most certainly did.
The next two tracks are where Jason clearly opened up the Rockstar rolodex and called in the favors of friends. “River of Longing” is a blues rock jam featuring Joe Satriani, Aleks Sever, Guthrie Govan, and Steve Morse. I doubt the question of whether these men delivered even needs to be asked, nor answered. Continuing with the “Merry Axemas” roster of dreams, the goliath of the album is “Valley of Fire,” featuring what Jason is calling the Magnificent Thirteen. Imagine a down and dirty modern Spaghetti Western rock and roll score featuring the best lead players alive, taking turns paying homage to their friend Jason. Vai, Firkins, Bonamassa, Gilbert, Schon, Mattias, Marty, Greg Howe, Kotzen, Jeff Loomis, Steven Hunter, Ben Woods, and Gus freaking G. It is absolutely ridiculous and I love it. Each and every solo delivers, and my “more is more” personality loves this track for what it is. And yet, you know what? To me, personally, the prior amazing compositions still overshadow this monument to shred. While the track is cool, and a blast, it does not compare to the genius and feeling poured by Jason into the rest of the album.
For most purposes, this is the end of the album. The rest is sort of like B-side bonus tracks; a little love for the fans. We get two unreleased Roth tracks which without vocals have the potential to be better than just about anything that actually made it onto the “Little Ain’t Enough” album. We get a new alternative arrangement of “River of Longing” this time with Trevor Rabin, and his playing is just so incredible, I can see why Jason insisted this version stay, even once he had another version with Satch, Guthrie, and Morse. We get a stripped-down smooth remix of “Hold on to Love,” which is nice, although not in the same league as the full version. Finally, we get that audio of little tiny Jason messing around, and his final message to us: “You Do It.” Wise words, kid.
All in all, the album really has 9 original tracks. However, we prize quality over quantity. See also our recent glowing review of Haken’s 45-minute album “Vector.” To me, it seems like Jason made the right decision here. He has an army of amazing guitar players available for use. Yet, rather than just write a dozen jams, featuring the “who’s who” of guitar, he largely condensed the lead guitar talent into a couple tracks, leaving the rest of the album to be a showcase of who Jason Becker is today. Jason, if you are reading this, thank you. This album was brilliant, well thought-out, well-produced, and most importantly, it is an undying avatar of Jason Becker to all of us who love him and his music. It is not a showcase of guitar gods; it is an expression of Jason’s musicality and his message. It is truly one of the most important albums of the year. Please, support Jason and his family and preorder your copy HERE for release December 7. Most importantly, you are giving yourself the gift of this amazing musical work.
Released By: Music Theories / Mascot Label Records
Release Date: December 7th, 2018
“Triumphant Hearts” Track-Listing:
- Triumphant Heart (feat. Marty Friedman, Glauco Bertagnin & Hiyori Okuda)
- Hold On To Love (feat. Codany Holiday)
- Fantasy Weaver (feat. Jake Shimabukuro)
- Once Upon A Melody
- We Are One (feat. Steve Knight)
- Magic Woman (feat. Uli Jon Roth & Chris Broderick)
- Blowin’ in the Wind (Gary Rosenberg & Jason Becker)
- River of Longing (feat. Joe Satriani, Aleks Sever, Guthrie Govan, Steve Morse)
- Valley of Fire (feat. Michael Lee Firkins, Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa, Paul Gilbert, Neal Schon, Mattias IA Eklundh, Marty Friedman, Greg Howe, Jeff Loomis, Richie Kotzen, Gus G., Steve Hunter, Ben Woods)
- River of Longing (feat. Trevor Rabin)
- Taking Me Back
- Tell Me No Lies
- Hold On To Love (feat. Codany Holiday) [Chuck Zwicky Remix]
- You Do It
As time passes by, it becomes harder to give things high marks for originality. After all, it has all been done before, right? Well, if there is one thing that gets high marks for originality, it is a musical genius, a prisoner of his own body, writing a love letter to the world using only his eyes, and the love and support of his family, fans, and friends. The album really has something for everyone, with exceptionally beautiful composition, heart, soul, and even some good old burning it up on the fingerboard. We hope this is not Jason’s last work. We hope he lives another 50 years and gives us five more of these. But if this should be where Jason decides to rest, he can rest well knowing he has given the world a masterpiece and a message of love and triumph. Message received, friend. Loud and clear.