"Beyond The Shrouded Horizon" - Steve Hackett’s latest album reviewed by Ian Waugh.
My first encounter with Steve’s music was hearing his Reading Festival performance on Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio One back in 1978 (1979 actually Ian - AH). I liked the whole performance and was blown away by the fact he could slow down live music (in the performance of the live-only track The Optigan!). Since then it has been a long and very rewarding journey, on which this album is the latest port of call.
Billed as a loose concept album around the idea of a travelogue, from the shores of Loch Lomond to the rings of Saturn, it has a lot to live up to if it is going to be as enjoyable as the previous stops on our journey. For the record (oops, accidental pun!) the copy reviewed here is the extended set with bonus disc, in a book style package. I must admit I have always preferred the old CD jewel case type of packaging which seems more likely to offer protection but maybe I am just being paranoid, my other dig pack style albums have all survived unscathed, as have my many books, but then I do look after them! As one forum poster has said recently “who is buying the single disc copy?” and I have to agree. Indeed, during the pre-order period for the album, I looked for it on Amazon and whilst this extended copy was in the top 400 rock albums, the single disc was only in the top 128000! Nuff said!
Writing credits for all the tracks include Steve, Roger King, and Jo Hackett with two tracks; Prairie Angel and Turn This Island Earth additionally listing Steve Howe and Jonathan Mover. Apparently these two tracks include ideas from Steve’s time working with them, and of course, together they wrote Imagining on the GTR album.
The cabin staff for our journey are; Steve of course, along with Nick Beggs on bass and Stick, Gary O’Toole on drums, Rob Townsend on woodwind and saxophones, Amanda Lehmann on vocals and guitar and co-pilot Roger King (is “Roger” an acceptable name for a co-pilot? Could lead to all sorts of confusion!) on keyboards, as well as co-producing the album with Steve and all the technical stuff. It has been over a decade since Roger became a regular member of the team, and there is little doubt that he ha brought a whole new level of technical quality to Steve’s albums. If he can make Out Of The Tunnel’s Mouth sound as good as it did recorded in Steve’s living room, then knocking this one out with the crew back in Steve’s MAP studio was never going to be a problem!
The album opens with the aforementioned Loch Lomond which starts with some whammy bar guitar and the nearest thing to Mellotron that appears on this album. Eventually moving into a fairly rocky number, the lyrics are bizarre; describing a scene most unlike the dark foreboding tranquillity that would befit arguably the most famous body of water in Scotland (it would not be arguable were it not for the potentially monster infested Loch some miles to the North!). Cicadas chatter? More like Midges Mutter! The lyrics and the sleeve note about the song ultimately lead to the conclusion that this is a song as much about the masking of the truth as it is about any Scottish landmark.
Ending with a short, dreamy acoustic guitar section, it moves seamlessly into The Phoenix Flown, a powerful electric guitar instrumental that showcases all of Steve’s trademark technique in a piece that could have come from Spectral Mornings or Defector. Its theme is picked up in the acoustic guitar track that follows, Wanderlust which morphs into a suitable introduction to Til These Eyes, a very clever love song given a fairly simple acoustic treatment and approaching its subject almost as obliquely as Loch Lomond. The simple song line of the refrain speaks volumes; “Til these eyes have seen enough”, this song will soon be entrenched in your head after two or three listens.
The next two tracks; Prairie Angel and A Place Called Freedom are really one, split like Fundamentals Of Brainwashing and Howl were on Wild Orchids, allowing you to play one on its own if you wish. And they do work as stand alone pieces, but together they are a love story from the Wild West. The first part is the instrumental this time around and has been much anticipated since its live debut on the Around The World In Eighty Trains tour in 2010. A very uplifting electric guitar section moves into some choppy chords and then a harmonica workout that takes us into the song that is A Place Called Freedom. Is that a Jew’s Harp I hear? Or Roger King mimicking one on a sampling keyboard? Either way, there is a very Western, as opposed to western feel to the song. There is even a banjo at the end, and was that the sound of saloon doors swinging open?
Beyond The Sunset And The Coconut Palms ( the second use of the word “coconut” on the album, they are mentioned in Loch Lomond of all places!) will appeal to anyone who likes Man Overboard on Darktown. Waking To Life deals with seeing the world anew when love hits you , and is sung by Steve’s now sister-in-law Amanda Lehmann. She sang on the last album on choruses like Still Waters and she does so on this album too, but here she gets centre stage. To those of us who have her EP, Shadow, the voice will come as no surprise and a nice voice it is too. Despite the “rock chick” image on stage, her EP is more Medieval in feel, and wouldn’t sound out of place in say a Robin Hood movie soundtrack. Her voice here too, is more genteel and if I had to draw comparison with anyone else it would be maybe on the Steve Nicks side of Jem (who had hits with They, Wish I and Just A Ride). That she tackled Shadow Of The Hierophant on the last tour, and won the rapturous applause of the audience is surely endorsement enough.
Two Faces of Cairo an instrumental that revisits the Valley of The Kings arena definitely has the Middle Eastern feel (as far removed as can be from the Western feel of earlier) to it, and a very odd rhythm pattern includes a sound so odd I can’t find words or comparison to describe it. The Fernandes receives another work out and that can only be favourable!
Looking For Fantasy is a song full of whimsy, it wouldn’t be a Steve Hackett album without one, yet this one reminds me of To A Close, hardly a light hearted song (but one of Steve’s best nonetheless!). This time, instead of a woman whose life has taken a route as far off the desired path as possible, we have a woman who maybe has never found the route but knows what it should look like, and, in her head at least, is firmly ensconced there! Name checks for Jimmy Page, JFK, Karl Marx, Reverend Sun Myung Moon and several classic novels all appear. Steve’s singing here is fairly ambitious, and is somewhere in Leonard Cohen/Johnny Cash territory.
The tide, children’s laughter and birdsong all form the backdrop to the acoustic guitar of Summer’s Breath and it really does capture the mood of summer. This track is going to be played a lot in January! Just over a minute later, we slam into possibly the best Blues number Steve has ever done! I will be honest, I am not a Blues fan really but I have always liked such numbers as Let Me Count The Ways off Till We Have Faces, and several of Steve’s own numbers from Blues With A Feeling such as Way Down South and Big Dallas Sky. This one however, really does deliver, and is called Catwalk. It features Chris Squire on bass and Simon Phillips on drums plus Roger on keyboards and if this is a clue as to what their collective forthcoming album will be like, I can’t wait! (Said album widely referred to as “Squackett” now apparently has a record deal with Cherry Red Records and so should be out in the not too distant future. I don’t know if the name is set in stone. If not, may I suggest Squackips to reflect the on board personnel; SQUire, hACKett, King and philliPS?) Anyway, back to Catwalk. The song is tight and focussed, with excellent airy drumming, powerhouse bass and lead guitar ably ripped to shreds by Steve, who also turns in probably his best vocal performance of the album. I just wonder which supermodel inspired this biting lyric? Indeed, is it even a model he is thinking of? Surely one for the live show?
The main disc closes with probably its most controversial track, for the forums are full of “love it” or “hate it” comments. At eleven minutes fifty seconds, there is a lot to form an opinion on (it was even longer when I first heard it - AH) and I feel it unfair to hate the whole track. Conversely there are one or two bits that maybe don’t work so well, but on the whole it is superb. It opens with woofer destroying bass courtesy of the Underworld Orchestra plus probably Roger’s keyboards and Chris Squire and Nick Beggs too. It is more than just a song! It is almost a cinematic experience, and wouldn’t sound out of place in parts of a movie. The first minute or so sounds like the sort of thing they would play as you watch the camera pan along the new Klingon ship before it gets to close in on the Enterprise! The song is a lyrical journey into the solar system and as such sort of follows on conceptually from Twice Around The Sun. The first lyric section uses a technique not unlike the post instrumental chorus on Brand New and throughout the song, change is the order of the day. Power, subtlety, sensibility and drama all make their stage entrance at some point or another. If they tackle this live it will be interesting!
Greensleeves appears at about the eight and a half minute mark, played in simple keyboard sound over to the left. I guess there is a reason for this, but it has escaped me so far, as has the name-check for Lampwick and Slats from Pinocchio (Slats is Lampwick’s nickname for Pinocchio). This is going to be one of Steve’s tracks that needs some research! More cinematics appear around the ten minute mark, culminating in a killer moment at around ten twenty seven, before the gentle wind down, like decay of a dying sun brings us to a close.
At close to an hour long, the album is full of Steve’s trademark diversity, yet somehow it has a sort of cohesion missing from Wild Orchids or To Watch The Storms. Catwalk may stick out a bit in this regard but otherwise it seems to flow without being unchanging. His best album? One of the best? I believe it is too early to say. I am always wary of “best album of all time” charts that include recent releases which have not had a chance to endure, to stand the test of time. So ask me in five years! But as a guess, one of his best: certainly!
If you are a cheapskate who plans to buy the single disc copy, you can leave now. To the real fans, there is of course Disc Two to consider. Made up of some new items and some bits and pieces that have appeared elsewhere in the past. It could easily warrant status as an album in its own right.
It opens with a four piece suite called Four Winds and subtitled North, South, East and West. North is an electric guitar piece of about one and a half minutes’ length followed by South, two minutes of acoustic based music and then East, familiar to many by it’s odd title: The Well At World’s End from the Japanese edition of Darktown, and then West is three minutes of acoustic guitar. In all it is a nice little set of compositions which works well together.
Next up is Pieds En L’Air a Peter Warlock composition which is played by the Underworld Orchestra and sounds strangely familiar - and lovely!
She Said Maybe is, ac cording to the sleeve note, mostly Roger’s inspiration and is another electric Odyssey.
Enter the Night is a song which is based on an old instrumental by Steve, known as Depthcharge in its live form and Riding The Colossus in its studio form. It has been completely re-recorded here but is still identifiable and makes for a very good song inspired by the tale of Peter Pan.
Eruption: Tommy and Reconditioned Nightmare are both direct lifts from the Japanese edition of Wild Orchids, the former is an old Focus number given the Steve touch, and Nightmare is a more solid sounding version of the Cured track, though it was air conditioned!
So there you have it. ANOTHER Steve Hackett album! It seems that just at a time of life when many musicians start to lose their way and lack any real inspiration, Steve just keeps upping the game! And with the new live DVD, Fire & Ice due out soon (I have the soundtrack and it’s a cracker!) and the biographical documentary due out soon, it is a thoroughly rewarding time to be a Steve Hackett fan,
Before I close, a couple of other things which need mentioning…
Firstly for those who don’t follow Steve’s blog, one of the members of the Underworld Orchestra, Richard Stewart, died on 16th September 2011, mere days before the album came out. He was forty eight and succumbed to cancer. It is worth mentioning that the Underworld Orchestra are quite special in that it is a virtual orchestra, existing only in the studio, too small to play live. With only a handful of members, they made the full sound by multi tracking, so each member plays their instrument several times to achieve the full desired orchestral effect. It follows therefore that each member must be really good for any bad players would have their weaknesses compounded by appearing several times. Thus Richard will be missed much more than would most players. It is a testament to his talent that he was a regular member of the orchestra. We send our condolences to his friends and family and assure you that his contributions to Steve’s music are not going to be forgotten.
Finally, it will soon be twenty five years since The Waiting Room first appeared (Don’t remind me - AH). I don’t go that far back! In 1993 back when the Internet almost didn’t exist it was easy to miss news of gigs and such like. Thus it was that I heard of Steve’s Guitar Noir tour after the event (I sympathise Ian, I did the same with the Bay Of Kings tour… grrr! AH). Wishing to avoid such a catastrophe again, I wrote to Kudos and in reply they sent me to The Waiting Room and I’m still there! So it is lucky that it is so well appointed and the magazines much newer and interesting than is usually the case in such places. I exchanged a couple of letters with Alan and one or two telephone calls as well. We did try and set up an appearance for Alan on my show at Radio Lion, the now defunct hospital radio station in Chester, but sadly a throat infection on the day put paid to that and so we never got round to it.
According to Alan he never wanted to be the editor of The Waiting Room (true
- AH). He claims that he was press-ganged into it. I am not convinced! It sounds
too much like having to press-gang a fish into living underwater (well, I am
a Pisces - AH). Whatever the truth though, we should be grateful for the turn
of events which led him to occupy that space for a quarter of a century (when
you put it like that I am depressed - AH). Those of you who, like me have met
Alan will know that he is a larger than life character (trying to say I am fat,
Ian? AH) who always seems jolly and always busy, yet finds time to share a few
words with others who want to talk about the music and its makers. Seems to
me it needs a larger than life character to do the job properly and along the
way he has met a few heroes and even made friends with some of them. Seems like
he is living the dream, and not many of us can say that I guess. Here’s
to the next twenty five years! (Excuse me while I go and pick our webmaster
Mr Barnes up - he’s fainted at the prospect - AH).
Thanks for the excellent review Ian and for the kind words about TWR and myself - does this mean I can have a holiday next year? AH