It is amazing what a chance encounter with a fellow Hacketteer can produce. Here was I, blissfully merchandising away at Steve's Shepherds Bush gig when a familiar voice pierced the ether. It was my old compadre, Andrew who willingly became my beer provider whilst I manned the merch stall. During the course of our conversation Andrew reminded me of the original piece he had written on this subject and offered to provide an update, which with the imminent release of Steve's new album: Metamorpheus; could hardly have been better timed. Over to you, Andrew…
More years ago than I care to remember (oh, alright then, TWELVE!) I wrote an article for this august journal in the days when it was still paper based (!), reviewing Steve Hackett's solo albums using "Q" Magazine's time-honoured 5-star system.
Not that I knew it then, but Steve was emerging from a five-year period of (by his standards) relative inactivity, and in the ensuing twelve years, has released an ever-growing series of albums, with happily no sign of letting up. This is, therefore, as good a point as any to cast a critical glance over his more recent works.
The Unauthorised Biography (1992) ****
(Was it really 1990? Don't seem to recall getting my copy till 1992 but who am I to argue with Alan Hewitt! Anyway… Argue away Andrew… you are right and I am guilty of a typo - AH). Hard to go wrong when you are picking tracks from Steve's first series of classic albums (1975-83), although personally I would have had Every day over Icarus Ascending but anyway…The two new tracks (Don't Fall Away From Me being a re-working of a track from the aborted post GTR sessions, later released as Feedback 86) are a joy to behold. Don't Fall… in particular being in the running for his loveliest ballad. Whilst it features a suitably atmospheric Kim Poor painting, I've docked one star for the perfunctory packaging. Nonetheless, an essential item and a great toe in the water for the newcomer.
Timelapse (1992) ***
What used to be termed a Curate's Egg back in the days when people knew what that meant (!). This rather lopsided live album is made up of two concerts from very different (albeit far from definitive) live eras of Steve's career, New York in 1981 and Nottingham in 1990. Fine shows both, and it is particularly nice to finally have a version of Depth Charge see the light of day, but as I said earlier; it is the lack of commonality that makes this feel rather like a souped-up bootleg.
Ten years had passed since Steve's last truly great album; Highly Strung; which bookended an astonishing run of releases that had begun with Voyage Of The Acolyte. Sadly, the intervening years had not been nearly so fruitful; sales for both Bay Of Kings and Till We Have Faces were disappointing, the commercially successful but artistically moribund GTR fell apart in an unseemly manner and the subsequent star guest-studded "Rock" album that should have really broke Steve in America didn't see the light of day; "Basement Tapes" style, until years after the moment had passed. Momentum was an unnecessary re-tread of Bay Of Kings, and then the worrying five year silence was broken only by a compilation and a cut-and-shut live album. Fans could have been forgiven for thinking that Steve had succumbed to the same middle-aged mediocrity that had engulfed so many of his peers. Few, therefore, were prepared for what came next….
Guitar Noir (1993) *****
From the hypnotic opening notes of Take These Pearls to the shimmering La Tristesse some forty five minutes later; Guitar Noir was a bona fide Hackett classic that was unquestionably his best work since Spectral Mornings. Quite what led to Steve so spectacularly rediscovering his muse is open to speculation but the genuinely enthusiastic and supportive management in the form of Billy Budis must have ended up somewhere in the mix. Whatever, the results were there for all to hear.
The original mix of the album was roughly divided into acoustic and (largely) rock sides and featured standouts like There Are Many Sides To The Night; Steve's warm hearted (if somewhat rose-tinted) song about a bordello; Little America; a wry look at Britain's status as the USA's 51st state; and a blistering updated Blues in Lost In Your Eyes. Also worthy of a mention and well-regarded by many was Vampyre With A Healthy Appetite, although to these ears it was a largely unsuccessful attempt to access the same darkly humorous songwriting vein of Tigermoth. The album was later reissued with an additional track; the quirky Theatre Of Sleep but sadly the tracklisting was rearranged which undermined the structure of the original album. Essential nonetheless, although I would urge you to get the original if you can.
Blues With A Feeling (1994) **
You either love the Blues or you don't… and I don't. It's famously Steve's earliest musical love, and to be fair; his affection for the form does come across. Big Dallas Sky even manages to go to some interesting places, but I have to say this is probably the album of his I play the least. For completists (or Blues fans!) only.
There Are Many Sides To The Night (1994) ***
Strange to think that Steve was nearly twenty years into his solo career before releasing his first "proper" live album (Timelapse hardly counts, effectively being a compilation). In typically diverse (or even perverse?) Hackett fashion, it was an acoustic live album featuring pleasant renditions of some of Steve's gentler pieces over the years. You can have too much of a good thing though, and to these ears, a whole album of Steve's acoustic works is like having a diet of only caviar - after a while you are longing for fish and chips. Nice enough, though.
King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents: GTR (1997) ***
Ah, the mid '80's;mullets, horrible shiny jackets with rolled up sleeves; moonboots… truly the decade that taste forgot. That goes for the music too; previously great bands tearing up everything that made people love them in the first place and replacing it with bland AOR stadium rock-driven by shrill synths and crappy syndrums (and yes I DO include Genesis in that indictment - Invisible Touch, anyone?). GTR were a symptom of that bloated decade, a record company accountants' wet dream that had little to do with art and everything to do with economics; everyone remembered the enormous success of the first Asia album and were desperate to repeat the trick. That said; Hackett and Howe were consummate professionals, the GTR songs were made to be dragged around the sheds of the Mid West and together with the welcome addition of nuggets from their respective individual back catalogues, whilst far from essential, this isn't actually half bad.
Genesis Revisited (1997) *****
The more time has gone on, it is increasingly clear that Steve is the true standard bearer of the original Genesis' eclecticism. Who better then to produce this enormously enjoyable romp through their back pages? No lazy retread this, though; assembling a stellar cast of musicians, Steve brilliantly re-imagines a choice selection of his former bands' more interesting moments, together with a previously unheard track from 1973 and a couple of solo pieces that perfectly complemented the proceedings. Like any great Genesis gig it opens with the inevitable Watcher Of The Skies, closes with the equally inevitable Los Endos and is an absolute joy throughout. Standout moments? Colin Blunstone's vocal floating beautifully over a string laden For Absent Friends; Paul Carrack's mid Atlantic tones transforming the ethereal Your Own Special Way into a slick FM ballad that the likes of Lionel Ritchie could serve up (sounds ghastly I know; but amazingly it works!); The Waiting Room (Evil Jam) lives up to its subtitle; a claustrophobic sonic descent into madness that recalls nothing so much as The Beatles' aural masterpiece Revolution #9; and finally a wonderfully silly take on I Know What I Like complete with Steve's surreal commentary of instruments used a-la Viv Stanshall on Tubular Bells.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1998) ***
Having upset Alan once already during the course of this article, I'm now going to go for the double! On Steve's more mainstream rock albums many of his finest moments have undoubtedly been pieces with neo-classical leanings (the Satie influenced: The Virgin & The Gypsy, The Toast, the doomy minimalism of Hammer In The Sand and indeed almost all his guitar instrumentals owe a debt to Bach for example). So, surely a whole album of classical music with a full orchestra would be wonderful, yes? Well actually, no. Good throughout, great in places but not wonderful. At the risk of repeating myself, you can have too much of a good thing and after twenty minutes or so of admittedly gorgeous music, I find myself longing for a blast of cranked up electric guitar and crashing drums! In contrast to Alan, what I love best about Steve's music is its sheer diversity; you never know what he is going to do next. To these ears, that is best showcased on his rock albums rather than his genre record because if there's ever a track you're not particularly fond of you can take comfort in the knowledge that there will be a different one shortly after!
The Tokyo Tapes (1998) ****
If you didn't know the chronology better, you might be forgiven for thinking that Steve had thought "well guys we've had so much fun making the Genesis Revisited album, why don't we put on a show?" In actuality though, the gig came first, which in turn led to Genesis Revisited. On paper this could have been another GTR-style ego war, with former members of Genesis, King Crimson and Asia et al coming together to perform some shows in Japan but wisely they avoided the temptation to make a cheesy FM album and stuck instead to spanking versions of their collective greatest moments. Enjoyable thought this album is, however, some of its thunder has undeniably been stolen by Genesis Revisited (how many versions of Los Endos do you need, after all?) and ironically it is a shame that they didn’t instead concentrate on new studio material, particularly when you consider the quality of the two studio cuts included as bonus tracks.
Darktown (1999) *****
The years since Steve's last "straight" (insofar as any Steve Hackett album can be described as "Straight"!) rock album; Guitar Noir had seen Steve indulge every facet of his myriad musical directions (the Blues, acoustic, classical, progressive rock) in a series of "genre" albums to varying degrees of success. By Darktown he felt able to weld them all together to brilliant effect in a Grand Guignol masterpiece that stands right up there with the very best of his work. Steve's music was always punctuated by moments of darkness; this album takes that particular muse to its logical conclusion (and indeed the overall tone is funereal), best summed up by the ubergothic In Memoriam. Other highlights include the chilling tale of wartime betrayal; The Golden Age Of Steam, the yearning vocal of Jim Diamond on Days Of Long Ago (happily rescued from an aborted collaborative project), the onomatopoeic Dreaming With Open Eyes and the awesome rock dynamics of Rise Again. A triumph.
Sketches Of Satie (2000) ****
With the rock album safely out of the way, it was back to genre work! This album is something different again, though. As previously mentioned, some of Steve's music owes a great deal to the minimalist French composer, whose wistful, dreamy themes are primarily known in this country as 1970's shampoo commercials! Having said all the way through this article that you can have too much of a good thing, I am going to completely contradict myself on this one; the combination of Steve's acoustic guitar and Brother John's (!) flute is an inspired one and this is easily the most thematically unified and enjoyable of all of Steve's acoustic releases.
Feedback 86 (2000) ****
Whilst GTR's When The Heart Rules The Mind wasn't the mega hit that many will have you believe (a respectable but hardly earth-shattering US no 12) the exposure created by its success could have provided Steve with a springboard for a lucrative solo career; had he got a rock-orientated follow-up album out in time. Instead, however, the band's implosion led to an undignified scramble for the legal right to the name in an episode that did no one's reputation no good. The moment passed, the album was shelved and over the years; the legend grew of the great "Lost" Hackett album.
Tantalising hints of what might have been were contained on the Camino reissues of Bay Of Kings and Till We Have Faces but in the event it was a full fourteen years before the complete album finally escaped from the archive hell. After all that time, was it actually any good? On balance; yes. Unquestionably a product of its time (you can almost hear the padded shoulders on some of the songs!) and the occasional half-finished feel (Cassandra is little more than the title line repeated endlessly over an admittedly killer riff; Steve plainly loved it so much that he went on to reprise it in Darktown's Omega Metallicus), the album is full of little joys like the chugging Slot Machine and the GTR offcut: Prizefighters. In retrospect, it is probably a good thing that Steve didn’t become a mainstream solo star in the States; his music has undoubtedly been much more interesting as a result.
Live Archive (2001) ****
Typical! You wait twenty five years for a Hackett live album, then FOUR of them turn up at once! A series of more or less complete concerts, two from the 1970's and one each from the '80's and '90's reflecting both the diversity of his songwriting and playing abilities, and the excellent quality of musicians he has always had playing with him from his great late '70's Dik Cadbury/Pete Hicks-era touring band to future Marillion sticksman Iam Moseley. It is difficult to pick a favourite; on the face of it the Spectral Monrings/Defector stuff should walk away with the honours but speaking personally I have got a sneaking preference for the often overlooked Cured era, showcased on the '80's album. Beautifully packaged and a must for any serious enthusiast.
Incidentally, I have not bothered reviewing any of Steve's subsequent live albums, not because they are not any good - in fact they are all fantastic, particularly NEARfest (why, oh why doesn't Steve play a full-length version of Spectral Mornings complete with its beautiful extended intro in the UK like he does here?) but because they are all pretty similar and are effectively "official bootlegs" for fans rather than genuine additions to Steve's canon of work.
Genesis Files (2001) ****
A strange release this; a compilation of tracks from Darktown, Genesis Revisited and The Tokio Tapes together with the only studio recording of Riding The Colossus and yet another(!) "new" version of Horizons. The title (and indeed the cover; Kim Poor's painting of For Absent Friends from her 1979 book Genesis Illustrated Lyrics - has anyone got a copy for sale by the way?) gives the impression that the album is supposedly themed on Steve's recent recyclings of his former band's back catalogue yet the "new" material and Darktown tracks belie it. That said; its all great stuff, so four stars!
To Watch The Storms (2003) *****
How many artists now into their fourth decade of recording can be said to be not just genuinely progressive but actually making the best work of their career? Peter Gabriel is the only other name to spring to mind, but with this release Steve even edges him
A couple of years previously I saw Steve visiting a William Blake exhibition in London. Whilst not wishing to overstretch a point; it is interesting to note that both Steve and William Blake are London born artists who are usually but misleadingly associated with well-known movements (Progressive Rock and Romanticism), that they do not fit easily into. Something of Blake's complex approach not to mention more than a little nod to literary London appears to have seeped into To Watch… making it arguably the most demanding of his releases if ultimately one of the most rewarding.
Strutton Ground sets the scene beautifully; taking a leisurely stroll around some of Steve's riverside London haunts of bygone days we are lulled into a reverie of imaginary London with a distinct late 18th early 19th century feel to it. Ghosts of the literary creations of Daphne Du Maurier, Shelley, Byron (the original version of The Devil Is An Englishman was taken from Thomas Dolby's soundtrack to Ken Russell's 1986 movie; Gothic which told the story of the night Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein) flit in and out of the songs like bit-part actors in a spectral theatre. Frozen Statues manages to both recreate and update the unearthly, dislocated atmosphere of Genesis' How Dare I Be So Beautiful; and with its mournful lone Jazz trumpet and ghostly vocal bizarrely wouldn't sound out of place on a David Sylvian album. Mechanical Bride is as extreme a piece of music as I have ever heard in the rock "idiom", as discordant as anything recorded by former Genesis labelmates and tour companions; Van der Graaf Generator, yet somehow still melodic.
Brand New rivals Darktown's Rise Again for the title of Best New Use Of Rock Dynamics In A Steve Hackett Song (!) and Rebecca is a lushly romantic evocation of Daphne Du Maurier's novel. About the only bum notes are the lacklustre blues of Fire Island and a completely out of place rock 'n' roll medley: Marijuana: Assassin Of Youth; a bit like editing some cartoons in the middle of War And Peace!
After all these strange and wonderful diversions the lovely Serpentine Song brings us back to something approaching normality before the acoustic If only You Knew draws proceedings to a stately conclusion.
What will he do next? Who knows, but whatever it is it will be guaranteed to be completely different to whatever he has just done. Here's to the next thirteen years!
And thanks very much Andrew for this feature. Of course, we all now KNOW what Steve's next project is… and if any of you acoustic fans want to take issue with Andrew's comments about the acoustic side of Hackett.. I am reliably informed that he will be at the Croydon gig… don’t damage him whilst he is acting as beer carrier for yours truly on the merch desk though!