"Out Of The Tunnel's Mouth" - A review of the new Steve Hackett album by Stuart Barnes.
In all the time I've been working for TWR, I think this is the first time I've heard a promo copy of something before the release of the album it is promoting. Most of the time the promotional bits turn up on the day of release, preventing anything being let out of the bag before time. Not this time. The eagerly awaited new album from Steve Hackett, titled Out Of The Tunnels Mouth is due out on 5th October 2009. For the record, it's Sept 16th and here's my take on it, in track order...
Fire On The Moon
You never know what you're going to get on a Steve Hackett album, and the intro to the first song reinforces this. Starting with the winding up of a clockwork toy (a musical box, wouldn't you know?!) the song starts off with a pleasant vocal and acoustic guitar refrain before hitting you with a full on choir, bass and drums draped on masses of reverb before going back to the quiet acoustic refrain. This is a perfect album opener and on first hearing, I recognised it as the song that Steve and Roger King played me at Steve's studio back in March 2006 (see TWR issue #60). It was very much a work in progress back then, but it didn't sound all that different to the finished product. From memory, the elements of the song remained the same, but the actual sounds were different. Certainly the musical box opening sound on the finished product differs from what I heard, and there was no bass guitar part either. Steve has explained why these changes have been made in his interview elsewhere in this issue.
Sticking to the 'not knowing what you're going to get' ethos, this song is a stark contrast to the heavy sound of the album opener. This one opens with a wonderful acoustic guitar piece that instantly made me think of John Williams and some of the things he did with Sky (no, not the Star Wars guy, the one that did Cavatina, the theme from The Deer Hunter! I guess that shows my age!). Once the main body of the song starts it ambles along with a very minimalist arrangement of just vocals, guitar and very light percussion, until it develops into what I can only describe as a full-on Flamenco section, Hackett style. This is very quickly fused with a melodic electric guitar solo, complete with massively long sustained notes.
Emerald and Ash
This song, in my opinion, is the best on the album. Opening with an arrangement of instruments and tight, almost vocoder like vocals, very similar to Serpentine Song from To Watch The Storms, the one thing that sticks out here is the chorus. It hit me without warning. The beautiful sound that is the layered 12 string guitar and a great vocal melody is almost enough to put a lump in your throat! Think of Genesis' Inside and Out and you won't be too far away; well, you shouldn't be, it's was written by the same person (actual credits on the Genesis song acknowledged; once you hear this song, you'll know what I'm on about...)! This one short section of song is worth the price of admission alone, as it recreates the sound that, to me, made early Genesis so interesting and likeable. When you realise that it was Ant Phillips that played that bit, it makes it even more authentic. Not content with draping you in nostalgia, Steve moves this song along by introducing a heavy section. This bit is based around a simple riff, not unsimilar to In That Quiet Earth (see the writing credit comment above; self plaigarism isn't a crime!), and comes complete with guitar solo. Writing and arranging music that develops is a dying art, due to the marketing models used by the music industry (itself a dying beast). Sadly all they seem interested in are songs that are three minutes long featuring a TV talent contest winner or participant. Rant over, this particular song makes the album, in my opinion.
Possibly a reference to the London Undergroud, given the other references to trains and railways on this album, but on listening to the song, it's more likely a reference to tube driven amplifiers that give electric guitars their sound. This is a typical Hackett instumental, manic, yet melodic and replete with odd time signatures. Lovely.
Another rail reference, or something else? You decide. This is another song that develops. From it's nylon strung guitar intro that, to me, reminds me of Hairless Heart (see self paligarism above), this develops into a beautiful arrangment of strings and acoustic guitar before moving on to into the main song. There's lots of space in the sound here, with only a simple arrangement of vocals guitar and piano. The chorus is simple and only has a one line hook with vocal harmonies, yet it works. This being the work of Steve Hackett, the song eventually moves away from this into a heavy section which itself moves into a guitar solo section, complete with 'cartoon style' parts not unlike Mechanical Bride from To Watch The Storms. Listen out for the music box at the end...
Ghost In The Glass
This is pure Hackett. Starting with a light acoustic guitar and electric piano intro, lounge style (complete with birds!), this song develops into an electric guitar solo over strings and drums (hit with brushes, not sticks). If you liked Twice Around The Sun from Darktown, you'll like this.
Steve brings out his blues side with this heavy number. A heavy triplet blues riff (think 'Black Velvet' by Alannah Myles, but Hackett style) drives this song. There's still room for a few guitar solos and even some female backing vocals. My first reaction when hearing this was 'Oh yes!'. A rare occurence on this song is the fade out. To me it fades too soon. Another 10 minutes of the guitar solo would have suited me!
Last Train To Istanbul
A clear rail reference here. As before, the first 40 seconds of this song leave you wondering where the song is going. Even when the guitar starts, it still isn't clear. It's a reversed guitar! I like not knowing what's going to happen next. Steve doesn't dissapoint, as he creates an atmosphere of a Middle East marketplace with sitars, percussion, string and woodwind instruments. Although this being Hackett, he still manages to squeeze an electric guitar into the mix. More solos here, but not necessarily guitar. Also worthy of a mention are the drums. Excellent use of them to help with the build at the end. Rob Townsend manages to get the last word in with a fantastic alto sax solo in the style the rest of the accompaniment has taken.
All in all, this album is a worthy sequel to To Watch The Storms and Wild Orchids and even Darktown. In fact, there are rail type references in some of his previous albums (The Golden Age of Steam, Transylvanian Express, etc), suggesting an underlying theme to all of them (my guess is that theme is 'Steve Hackett'. Simple as that!). Given the production problems Steve has mentioned in his interview elsewhere in this issue, it's pretty much a miracle that this album is being released at all, and it also explains the relatively low track count compared to his previous releases. In places the lyrics seem autobiographical, but imagination and creativity can draw from experience, so that's not a bad thing. It follows the previous albums style and form by containing a variety of styles and forms, from simple acoustic guitar pieces to full on rock (and blues) numbers. Steve's use of sounds and textures bring the songs to life. There are even moments on this that wouldn't be out of place on a Peter Gabriel album. There are several nods to the music of Genesis, but not what I can see as being blatant ripping off. With it all coming from the same creative mind, it's all Steve Hackett material anyway. These songs represent a development and variation of the songs being nodded at. I suppose the biggest nod in the direction of Genesis was involving Ant Philips on one of the songs. Nothing wrong with that, although I wish there had been more of it. Bring back the 12 string guitar! Mind you, that's one of the rules of entertainment; always leave them wanting more. No rule broken there. I could certainly do with some more of this. This album has been a pleasure to listen to from start to finish, not a bad song on it. I'm very much looking forward to hearing these songs in a live environment when Steve takes to the stage this autumn.
Out Of The Tunnel's Mouth is out on October 5th and can only be purchased from www.hackettsongs.com.