"The Wild Orchids finally blossom" - Steve Hackett's new album reviewed by Alan Hewitt.
I suppose I could have reviewed this album back in April when Steve very kindly allowed me a listen to it when we spoke to him about it for TWR. Two things mitigated against that however. First; the final running order of the album hadn't been decided on at the time, and second; I thought it best to wait until the actual album was here at TWR HQ before giving it the definitive TWR treatment. Now that the album is here, in both standard AND special editions, the wait is finally over and here it is; Steve's tenth solo Rock album and what do we have in store this time? We shall see…
The special edition of the album gets off to a cracking start with the effects laden travelling nightmare that is Transylvanian Express. The forests are dark and the wolves are howling their little hearts out chasing the runaway carriage that careers down the Borgo Pass on Walpurgis Nacht - ah yes, Count Dracula can’t be far away here - a marvellous tongue in cheek homage to those old horror films we know and love so well!
Waters Of The Wild takes us into a very different part of the world; the Indian sub continent with tablas, sitar and an infectious rhythm that reminds me of the gait of an elephant replete with Mahout and Steve as the visiting tourist. Owing a lot to those earlier tunesmiths; The Beatles, the track is also brilliantly observant as the lyric "Singing in the acid rain" brings reality home in this aural travelogue.
Set Your Compass, was the track which reverberated around my head long after I heard it for the first time in Steve's studio. It has lost none of its impact here, for me this is a latter day Blood On The Rooftops and I can't praise it higher than that! A truly glorious moment replete with echoes of previous moments but wonderfully alive. Steve does not indulge us with too much twelve string work these days but rationing it only makes songs like this all the more superb - a song I that I am sure will be the soundtrack to my own dreams for many years to come!
From dreams to nightmares again as our "friendly" psychotic Larry Olivier character from Darktown makes a return appearance in this homage to the underground London which isn't really in any tourist guide book. Another of Steve's "list" songs this one and a homage to a mixture of Dickens, Stephen King and the London Underground eerily brought to life in this epic tale of mania. Gary O'Toole beats the living daylights out of his drum kit and Steve wields his axe like a madman throughout while Roger King's keyboard is the voice of a thousand different characters all of whom populate this alternate London - another one of Steve's tales of the unexpected.
A Girl Called Linda definitely owes a lot to Peter Pan, and in many cases, Steve himself can be discerned as the child that never grew up. There is always an inherent sense of childhood and childlike fascination with people, things and above all; places in many of Steve's songs, the references are not always easy to spot nor are they necessarily pleasant and the nostalgia here is tinged with a hint of bitterness especially in the lyric; "All overtime in play group" a wonderfully wry observation of how little time children these days actually have to be exactly that: CHILDREN!
Steve lets his Blues roots show again with Blue Child a marvellous souped up instrumental epic worthy of the likes of Paul Butterfield and Peter Green - the spirit of Eel Pie Island is alive and well and resident in Twickenham!
To A Close is an extremely deceptive song. Written in an old fashioned waltz tempo, the song's lyrics tell an entirely different story. This is a moral tale of a high class prostitute who cannot deal with the fact that her looks have faded and she dies alone, as the lyric states…. "Surrounded by photos of all her old loves…". Even though the story has a sad ending , the music is anything other than despairing; indeed, there is an indefinable sense of hope underlying the somewhat gloomy lyric.
Ego And Id will be familiar to anyone who purchased John Hackett's Checking Out Of London album last year. Already a hard rocking track; this re-working features a typically demented vocal from Steve himself although musically not radically different to the original an interesting choice of track for Steve to cover.
Perhaps more surprising still is Man In The Long Black Coat, a Delta Blues style track from Bob Dylan no less! Not a track that I am familiar with in the first place nonetheless, Steve 's treatment of it is intriguing. Vocally he gives it a wonderfully "Country" rendering owing a lot to the late great Johnny Cash - "The Man In Black" imitating "The Man In Black" no less - excellent stuff!
The inclusion of Cedars Of Lebanon was quite a surprise. Steve had mentioned this track as one he was considering for Richie Havens. Nonetheless, here it is, opening with some wonderful slap bass from an un-credited Terry Gregory (I assume?) . The song's theme is timely with the current problems in the region and if you listen carefully you can even hear an air raid siren. The track is not simply a statement on the political situation in this region; there are references to other civilisations and their beauty long since lost to the stupidity of the human race.
Steve's music has always had a very visual element to it and this is brilliantly showcased on both Wolfwork and Why. The former is an opportunity for Steve to ladder his tights again with a breathtaking searing guitar solo which threatens to break the sound barrier and all speed limits for axemen! Why is a delightful successor to Sentimental Institution, incredibly short but a fully formed pastiche of the Big Band end of the pier era.
She Moves In Memories recapitulates the beautiful theme so eloquently expressed in To A Close. As an orchestrator and composer of modern orchestral music, Steve has already proven his worth and this is another wonderful example of that side of his work.
The Fundamentals Of Brainwashing reminds me of Pink Floyd's Momentary Lapse Of Reason album and the lyrics certainly contain the same acid wit and wry observation so characteristic of that band, especially the marvellous opening couplets. This track segues into Howl, an extended Jazz-tinged instrumental in which Roger King tickles the ivories in fine style while Steve and Gary O'Toole vent their anger on their respective instruments in their very own Primal Scream therapy session - not for the faint hearted!
A Dark Night In Toytown makes a welcome appearance here in its final studio form. Well, Steve threw the toys out of the pram and into the studio with this one. Every effect and instrument is played with hands firmly round their throats - no mercy is shown and the track rattles along as the nightmare rollercoaster takes its unsuspecting passengers on a journey they will never forget - if they live long enough to survive it, that is!
From the dramatic to the sublime; the album closes with another priceless example of Steve's acoustic playing: Until The Last Butterfly, another change of track; the original closer St Brandon's Isle is replaced by this wonderfully evocative piece which owes its inspiration I have no doubt to J S Bach again. Although there is no direct reference that I can attribute directly to the master, the overall spirit of the piece has "Bach" written all over it. Steve also reprises several themes from previous work here making this track a wonderful resume and a fantastically restrained ending to the album - the final curtain call for yet another marvellous theatrical performance.
I think that is the key to this album and so many of Steve's projects. Instead of relying on visual "props", Steve's albums are theatre for the ears and this album is certainly another epic drama in seventeen "acts" if you like. An orchid is a rare and delicate bloom, this album is delicate in places; manic in others but like its name sake, it is something to be admired and cherished - another classic from one of the truly great artists of this or any other century!
Steve Hackett - Wild Orchids Camino Records CAMCD38 (Standard Edition) Track Listing: A Dark Night In Toytown/Waters Of The Wild/Set Your Compass/ Down Street/A Girl Called Linda/To A Close/Ego And Id/The Man In The Long Black Coat/Wolfwork/Why/She Moves In Memories/The Fundamentals Of Brainwashing/Howl.
Steve Hackett - Wild Orchids Camino Records CAMCD38SE (Special Edition in limited edition slipcase). Track Listing: Transylvanian Express/Waters Of The Wild/Set Your Compass/ Down Street/A Girl Called Linda/Blue Child/To A Close/Ego And Id/The Man In The Long Black Coat/Cedars Of Lebanon/ Wolfwork/Why/She Moves In Memories/ The Fundamentals Of Brainwashing/Howl/A Dark Night In Toytown/ Until The Last Butterfly.