"A Rollercoaster Ride On The Hackett Express" - Steve Hackett's new album, Wild Orchids reviewed by Kevin Fearn.
It’s been about 5 months since I was fortunate to visit Steve at his studio to hear the recordings that have now become Wild Orchids, Steve Hackett’s latest album, which is released on September 11th. Now having had the chance to listen to both the special and standard editions of Wild Orchids here’s my review.
The opening track to the special edition and the first of four bonus tracks. The track takes the central theme of A Dark Night In Toy Town (aka If You Can’t Find Heaven on Archive 04) and adds a wonderfully powerful orchestration which will hopefully not restrict it from live performance as it will be a very effective gig opener. One of the many tracks to receive the “Underworld Orchestra” feel. The listener can sense that this track may have been written with this in mind.
Waters Of The Wild
A total change in direction for this one. A sitar based number with a ‘trippy’ sixties feel which would not sound out of place on the Beatles Revolver / Sgt Pepper albums. The multi-track vocals and prominent drum pattern drives the song and allows Hackett to experiment with many different instruments and sound effects. Again the orchestration brings the song to a much greater level.
Set Your Compass
Such a beautiful song. With an opening guitar part reminiscent of Genesis’ ‘Entangled’ and some later hints to Hackett’s ‘Ace Of Wands’. Steve’s shared harmony vocals with Gary O’Toole, who during the 2004 tour performed the vocals for Blood On The Rooftops, show that although we know that his vocal style can at times be somewhat restricted it can, and has been, used to great effect.
Talking of vocal performances Down Street is once again time for Steve to have some fun. Steve’s ‘Hammer House of Horror’ voice first utilised on To Watch The Storms’ ‘The Devil Is An Englishman’ is brought back for an encore performance which surprising is only used for a small part of the song. A song named after a disused London Underground station Down Street takes us through a journey into life underneath his home town coupled with some fantastic Hackett bluesy guitar and a creepy piano melody from Roger. Hard to imagine that the track is seven and a half minutes long as it’s an experimental musical journey which flies by.
A Girl Called Linda
A song of times gone by perhaps? A sweet song with a wonderful jazz movement which showcases some fine Rob Townsend flute playing and understated guitar parts from Steve. It is at this point you start to realise that your five songs in and there has been no repetition in styles but something fresh and familiar each time.
The second bonus track which does exactly what is says on the tin! It is now time for Steve to give it some blues. It is a very powerful number but strangely seems out of place on an album that up to this point has surprised me at every track. Perhaps that is the idea, I do not know.
To A Close
A very sombre piece played simply with an acoustic guitar and church organ type accompaniment. The song has Steve singing in French in parts and has the potential to build into a strong orchestral piece, with a hint of the Underground Orchestra creeping in near the very end.
Ego & Id
Those in the know will remember this track from John Hackett’s Checking Out of London album and will not be disappointed to hear that this version gives a much rockier, live feel, with a real drum kit and an aggressive Steve vocal. The guitar is much more prominent which, when it is Hackett, is no bad thing at all. This version brings Nick Magnus back onto a Steve Hackett Album (presumably because he was the keyboardist on the original) and presents us a unique odd fact… The only time a former Genesis member has covered a song first performed by a Genesis tribute artist!
Man In The Long Black Coat
Steve manages to perform a Bob Dylan track in the style of the late great Johnny
Cash, the original ‘man in black’. The swirling wind effects coupled
with Steve unwinding some great guitar licks at the end of the verses and chorus
creates a dark atmosphere, listen out for the guitar effect which Steve uses
for a horse’s cry.
Hackett does country!
Cedars Of Lebanon
The third of the bonus tracks and probably the most experimental. Steve has stated that Richie Havens was to perform the vocal on this piece but to me it would seem so out of place. Maybe this is a track that has been re-written to accommodate Steve’s vocal. Not my favourite Hackett track and another that feels out of place to me.
From my least to my most favourite track, Wolfwork. The Orchestral arrangement at the start does trick the listener as what follows is an example of ELO inspired pop then onto a definite Hackett rocker. The amount of changes within this piece is what grabs the listener. I do hope that the orchestration does not restrict a live performance of this track as it is one of the strongest on the album, and the guitar solo at the end … wow Hackett heaven!
A curiously short number which brings some light hearted optigan inspired fun to the proceedings and a kind of George Formby ‘end of the pier’ performance. Marvellous.
She Moves In Memories
This piece is an orchestral version of “To A Close” and is a piece full of emotion with a stunning melody brought to life by the Underground Orchestra. Such a piece reaffirms what we learned from Metamorpheus that Steve is much more than a guitar player.
The Fundamentals Of Brainwashing
“History is a vinyl record stuck in a groove” is the stand out lyric in what is an observation of where our world leaders have got it wrong and the disastrous effects their actions have had. The piece moves straight into the next track…
Steve reprises the piano part of the previous track of the previous and does make his guitar Howl on a track which could close the album, it is so strong. The piano parts on this track, coupled with the pounding rithym are powerful yet haunting.
A Dark Night In Toytown
At last we get the studio version of a track first performed live in 2004 and entitled ‘If You Can’t Find Heaven’ on Live Archive 04. This is merely a studio version with the addition of sound interesting sampling and percussion. A great song and the reference to a gorilla tranquilliser being used to slow you down would indicate that the song delves into the dark effects of heavy drug abuse.
Until The Last Butterfly
We all love acoustic Hackett don’t we? His acoustic playing is always mesmerising and this track is no different. This song is the final bonus track and is seen by me as the calm after the storm. Beautiful yet out of place on this album in my opinion.
So Steve Hackett produces yet another rollercoaster of a ride within an album. So many differing styles presented in just over 70 minutes.
I admit that I am very new to Hackett’s solo work and I am still discovering the many aspects of it. I cannot seem to put my finger on what type of genre he should be in as the work he presents constantly changes and always surprises. But, on listening to this album it is clear to me that he is an artist who is both aware what music he likes to produce and is not afraid to go for it and constantly change direction. I usually find albums produced by guitarists to be one dimensional and repetitively boring. Such albums are expected to off shoots of the band from which the guitarist came. I have yet to find a Hackett album that does this (even his earlier efforts offer a similar variety very different to his days in Genesis). He should be applauded for not playing it safe like so many other guitarists do.
The recording carries Steve’s name but the talents of Roger King are more evident than ever. The use of programmed rhythms and sampling, which I would normally frown upon, has made this album very different and special to me.
Overall I do feel that the use of bonus tracks has spoilt the flow of the album. I find that if you remove all of the bonus tracks (I am not saying they aren’t good enough, they just don’t fit), with the exception of ‘The Transylvanian Express’ the album flows much better. In my opinion less is definitely more. Try it and see what you think.
I just hope Roger’s keyboard can recreate some of this album's finest moments live on the next tour, here’s hoping!