Review: Controlled Chaos by Nita Strauss

There are few things better than being right about something. A great debut album is one of them. 

I remember the first time I heard - and saw - Nita Strauss play live. I remember telling everyone who would listen to me that this was someone that would rise to the top of the guitar world.

Every note was cleanly picked, her tone was a warm and delightful, precisely EQ’ed crunch of distortion, and her stage presence was one that made it clear to the audience that this was an Amazon ready for battle.  It is only fitting then, that the opening track on the Hurricane’s hotly anticipated debut album, Controlled Chaos, is titled “Prepare For War”. The hell that is unleashed afterward can only be described as a sublime ode to all that is magnificent about music. 

The pace continues when Strauss lures you into “Alegria”, an up-tempo melody that draws the listener in with the blazingly quick series of arpeggio-type passages that are matched in beauty only by the sustained notes that are played in a cut time style. “Alegria” happily (Editor’s note: Alegria translates to “happy” in Italian) leads into the debut single of the album, “Our Most Desperate Hour” which I envision as the theme to a battle or struggle for the life of a protagonist in some parallel universe. I felt as though I was fighting for my life listening to the track, and part of me re-lives that emotion every time I hit “repeat”. It has been quite some time since an instrumental track has elicited the type of emotion in me that only some of the classical masters such as, well, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, and Mozart have been able to do. The Hurricane does it over and over again on this record, the same way a boxer hits her target over and over again, relentlessly, until the fight is done. 

“Mariana Trench” made its debut on national television as the backdrop to WWE NXT Takeover a few weeks ago, and to be able to hear the entire crushing chorus is a real treat. Once again, with no fancy effects and very little distractions, Strauss lays down a mean rhythm and treats the listener to a euphoric infusion of melody over the chord progression. The ending of “Mariana Trench” leads smoothly (and beautifully I might add) into the ballad “Here With You” which can best be described as pure emotion. The passion that Nita Strauss has for her craft clearly comes out here, and she repeats her ability to make the listener shed a tear on the other ballad “Hope Grows”, which grows out of a minor key but allows for the emotional release in passages that are reminiscent of a Metallica-esque “Nothing Else Matters” played on an acoustic guitar. If you’ve read/heard any interviews with Strauss, she has stated several times that she does not even own an acoustic guitar. Having a listen to “Hope Grows”, you’d never know that is the case! Perhaps Martin or Taylor can ship her one because lord knows the world needs to hear more of this! I was brought to tears in rush hour traffic while listening to “Hope Grows”, but they were happy tears - not an easy feat while stuck on Toronto’s 401 highway, known for worse gridlock than the 405 in LA. 

The shred-fests “The Stillness At The End”, “The Quest”, and “Lion Among Wolves”, together with a re-mastering of “Pandemonium”, renamed to “Pandemonium 2.0” are all fantastic guitar aerobics, but not at the expense of musicality, melody, and emotion. This is true of the entire album, and that is the highest possible compliment anyone can give an instrumental guitar album: All the songs sound unique and the melody/song is what is served first, not the ego of the guitarist. Let’s not leave drummer Josh Villalta out of the praise here: his hard-hitting stick work, lightning fast feet and overall beastly contribution to the percussion on this record is astounding. It matches perfectly with Strauss’ guitar playing and it will truly be a treat to see them play live together on their upcoming tour with fellow masters of shred Angel Vivaldi and Jacky Vincent. (Check out the dates and get your tickets and VIP upgrades here!)

One of the most beautiful arrangements on the record is a cover of the iconic Queen song “The Show Must Go On”. Strauss does a beautiful job of using her guitar - and her heart and soul it seems - to allow herself to “sing” a vocal line together with cellist Tina Guo. The rendition is both haunting and sonically triumphant. A classical duo for the modern era, Guo and Strauss connect in a way that can only be described as magic. 

I can't wait to see (and try to learn from!) the play-through videos that Strauss has already started to share with fans and guitar players. Even a quick glimpse into how any of this album was played is a real treat for gear and music nerds like myself. You can check out one of the first "lesson" videos below.

Nita Strauss has played guitar for so many in her career: Critical Hit, Femme Fatale, The Iron Maidens, Jermaine Jackson, and Alice Cooper, among many others. She has worked toward a dream that started when she saw Steve Vai play in the cult classic “Crossroads”. Nita pays homage to those roots but also to her early influences of classical music all over this record, and for the listeners, that is a reward they will continue to reap with each and every listen of Controlled Chaos. There is no doubt that this debut album is just the beginning for this hard-working, humble, and dedicated guitarist. A “beginning” that began almost 20 years ago and that has come as a result of many sacrifices and much dedication. The time has finally come for the Queen of guitar to ascend to her throne, and it has come at the cost of using every drop of blood, sweat, and tears to get to the album that was released today. Congratulations on your masterpiece, Nita Strauss. Here’s to many more.