“Out Of The Tunnel’s Mouth” - Steve Hackett’s new album reviewed by Alan Hewitt.
Having been fortunate enough to have heard the album several months ago, I thought it best to save the full TWR treatment until the album was commercially available, and here it is. What do I make of it? Well, we shall see….
Ever since Guitar Noir back in 1993, Steve has taken to writing very much from the inside out. Not necessarily wearing his heart on his sleeve, but nonetheless, writing about real subjects and emotions. 1999’s Darktown and 2003’s To Watch The Storms continued this trend, as did 2006’s Wild Orchids, Steve’s last rock album prior to this one. Each one different in its way from the one that preceded it and yet all unmistakably Steve’s work.
Out Of The Tunnel’s Mouth, if ever there was an album title which accurately reflects a time and place then this one does, and if ever Steve was entitled to wear his heart on his sleeve, it is now. The last couple of years have been incredibly trying for him. The divorce from Kim was certainly not the parting as friends that we have been led to believe on certain forums. Indeed, the protracted legal battles that have resulted from that separation have continued to put obstacles in Steve’s way and it is against that background that he has struggled to put together a new album. In fact, this is his THIRD attempt to put together a new recording believe it or not!
Adversity is often the mother of invention though, and if anything, the problems that have attended the birth of Steve’s latest baby have made the end result so much the stronger. The album’s opening cut; Fire On The Moon, is already a live favourite and deservedly so. From the anguished guitar howl opening and strains of a badly out of tune musical box - an extended metaphor for the unravelling of Steve’s relationship with Kim, and of course, a wonderful reference back to the early days of Genesis (Musical Box anyone…?) I have seldom heard Steve laid so bare as he is here. Both lyrically and musically, this is an incredibly honest examination of a relationship which has gone wrong. I suppose comparisons with Phil Collins’s first solo album are inevitable but they also stop there. Neither Phil or Steve express themselves in the same musical language but there is no doubt that Steve has a LOT to say on this song.
The agony and the angst is replaced by the exquisite passion of Flamenco guitar in Nomads, a pointed reference to the peripatetic lifestyle of the gypsy practitioners of the Flamenco art and a people who have experienced their own share of persecution over the centuries. I doubt if I have ever heard Steve perform with such outright passion and verve on the acoustic guitar before and he evokes the sheer joy which is the very essence of Flamenco music - “the glorious apotheosis of the dance” * as someone once said. When that is married to the attack of Steve’s electric guitar, there’s simply no one to touch him. Not one for the fainthearted this one. I suspect that Steve must have been on oxygen to perform this track!
Emerald And Ash, is the first of two tracks which feature Anthony Phillips and another in which Steve lays bare his feelings on the failure of his marriage. Lyrically, this is one of the most poignant and bitter lyrics that I have ever heard from Steve. Once again, the subject matter is drawn from the failure of Steve’s relationship with Kim, and there are some incredibly acerbic observations contained within the lyrics. The laid back atmosphere of the music belies the innate anger and despair which the lyric outlines. Without doubt one of the most emotional performances I have ever heard from Steve.
With Tubehead, you might be fooled into thinking that Steve is paying homage to the Underground rail system of his beloved London town. Far from it! Instead, what you have is a tribute to the world of Marshall cabinets and valve amplifiers without which no rock musician can hope to perform their art. Steve’s guitar is unleashed here and Hackett the axeman is on the prowl so you have been warned - a worthy successor to both The Air - Conditioned Nightmare and Twice Around The Sun, in the use of Satan’s stomp boxes - you HAVE been warned!
Sleepers, has its origins in a text message he received early one morning from his brother John’s lyricist, Nick Clabburn which said; “All the sleepers send you their dreams” out of which Steve has managed to conjure a wonderful “symphony of dreams” from those lovely almost-waking moments to your deepest nightmares, all are here in the “theatre of sleep” which Steve so vividly depicts. The track opens with yet another reference to Genesis (unintended I am sure), the opening twelve string introduction has, for me at least, echoes of the classic White Mountain, all is not quiet for the sleepers (pun intended!) here either as light turns to dark in a way which only Steve can achieve in musical terms bringing the sonic landscape almost to visual life.
Ghost In The Glass is another gem. A brittle jazz tinged beauty which really should be at home in some smoke-filled downtown night club (if you can find one in these health conscious days!). Steve meets Al Di Meola and ne’er the join shall be seen. Steve and Roger are at their collaborative best here.
Still Waters. Well, for a start this one is anything but still! Steve got bitten by the blues a long time ago and the infection keeps on rearing its head in ravening beasts like this! Rampaging and not at all politically correct , and all the better for it in my opinion. Perhaps the biggest surprise though is that the lyric was written by Steve’s partner; Joanna Lehmann and a brilliantly observed chauvinistic viewpoint it is, too! Now, if Steve can only get access to the G clamp and the oxygen cylinder, then this should be included in the new live show!
The album closes with another stunning example of Steve’s ability to describe in almost pictorial detail, landscapes and images from all over the world. For those of you who may think that “World Music” begins and ends with the likes of Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, may I respectfully draw your attention to Mr Stephen Hackett Esquire! Last Train To Istanbul has it all; a vivid description of the rhythms and almost the sights and smells as Europe meets the Levant across the Bosporus - Turkish tobacco and the scent of jasmine hang in the air. Lyrically too, this is a stunning piece of work - Steve’s poetic muse was incredibly kind to him on this one with stunningly vivid lyrics such as… “The incandescent fires of spring/vibrant against the vault of night” Of course, as some observers have already mentioned too, perhaps Steve is inadvertently paying homage to dear old Agatha Christie again - Murder On The Orient Express, anyone…? For someone like me with a historic frame of mind, the incessant percussive rhythms and plaintive flute and violin playing by Steve’s brother John and Ferenc Kovacs on this one conjure up an image of the Janissary troops arrayed before the walls of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) as that city waits for the final assault that will end the thousand years of the Eastern Roman Empire - a suitable description of the clash and interplay of cultures whatever prophet you follow - evocative and thoroughly absorbing, a masterly ending to yet another superb effort from Steve.
There you have it. Once again, Steve has taken us around the world and back again to his Twickenham living room all within the space of forty five minutes. There is simply no one else within the world of rock music who can put together as varied and exciting an album as this one is. Always the painter of pictures with sound, Steve has progressed from merely filling in the corners as he did so well while in Genesis. Here he carries that attention to detail to the full canvas and if there is a Louvre for musical masterpieces, then Out Of The Tunnel’s Mouth will surely find a place of honour there!
What makes this album even more surprising than many of Steve’s previous efforts is that it was quite literally recorded in Steve’s living room. Nowhere would you know this from the quality of the finished product however, which is a credit not only to Steve but especially to Roger King, whose production work here is immaculate. Mind you, it helps when you have such a stellar cast of musicians helping you and on this one how could Steve go wrong when he had the likes of Chris Squire, Nick Beggs, Simon Phillips, the vocal talents of Jo and Amanda Lehmann as well as Roger King’s daughter; Lauren and of course, “Mr Twelve String” himself: Anthony Phillips, all prepared to help him realise his musical vision - and as musical visions go, this one is a real panoramic gem for the ears - well done to all involved!
Trivia Moment: * Actually that was Richard Wagner’s comment on hearing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony but there you go!