Before you do anything else with Flash, drop the needle on the last half of “Ambitious,” the album’s chug-a-funk leadoff track. Just as singer Jimmy Hall steps back from the song’s skeletal tune and jackhammer rhythm with a Tarzanlike “yeah!” Jeff Beck’s guitar suddenly shoots up into the mix like a runaway jet, cutting a reckless path through Nile Rodgers’ spit ‘n’ polish production with sawtooth distortion and heat-ray feedback. Then, in a daredevil display of rock-guitar heroics that recalls Jimi Hendrix on Electric Ladyland in his full pyrotechnic glory, Beck yanks his guitar up and down flights of freakish harmonic steps, executes breathtaking suicide dives with his vibrato bar, and claws away at the song’s core riff with angry trills and harsh, scraping leads. Flash is Jeff Beck’s first album since 1980, but that solo — a manic summation of his power and influence in rock guitar, from his Yardbirds days right up to Eddie Van Halen — makes it seem like he’s never been away.
Beck’s reunion here with his late-Sixties bandmate Rod Stewart, on Curtis Mayfield’s inspirational ballad “People Get Ready,” is also a welcome return to classic form, a replay of their soulful covers of “Ol’ Man River” and “Morning Dew” from Beck’s 1968 Truth LP. Stewart wraps his sandpaper croon around the song with tender, unaffected enthusiasm, while Beck gently unravels the melody in his poignant but forceful guitar breaks.
Flash, however, is not an album that dwells on the past. In the same way that he adapted jazz fusion to arena-rock dimensions on the mid-Seventies LPs Blow by Blow and Wired, Beck challenges the rigid discipline of Eighties dance music, with Arthur Baker producing two songs and Nile Rodgers writing and producing another four. In fact, these collaborations almost don’t work; Rodgers essentially gives Beck a series of static groove tunes to gallop around in, as on “Get Workin'” (with Beck on vocals!) and “Ambitious.” Baker, in turn, makes the guitarist fight for solo space, piling up keyboards and background vocals in a disco panorama on “Gets Us All in the End.”
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Fortunately, that just makes Beck hit back harder. On the stuttering “Stop, Look and Listen,” he rips into Rodgers’ grooves with violently distorted blues flourishes and air-raid-siren vibrato work. Beck clears the decks with a firestorm solo right at the start of “Gets Us All in the End,” then repeatedly butts into Baker’s dense arrangement with vengeful ingenuity. If there were a bit more Stewart-like grit in Jimmy Hall’s strong but anonymous lead vocals, the result could have been a real funk-metal Beck-Ola. Nevertheless, Flash ranks as one of Beck’s best ever, a record of awesome guitar prowess and startling commercial daring. It is also irrefutable proof that his kind of flash never goes out of fashion.