Beyond The Shrouded Horizon - Steve Hackett’s new album reviewed by Shaun McHugh.

I think it is important to remember what exactly people are buying into when they purchase this album. The people who buy his music generally understand the man, his musical transgressions and excursions which feed the need to express himself. He is not afraid to mutate from one genre to another, to say it can’t be done is like holding a red rag to a bull for Steve.

It always appears to me that Steve has unfinished business with many other ventures and styles which he needs to get out of his system. Steve is not looking for ther hit or hits, he is not selling out, he produces what he wants to produce. His music is almost theapeutic to him and we can connect to that just as we would a favourite author. Anyway, enough of my rambling, here are my thoughts about the album.

CD 1

Loch Lomond/The Phoenix Flown: A deceptive orchestrated beginning resonates into a pulsing rhythm reminiscent of Cell 151 which hauntingly morphs into an acoustic Scottish ballad that would encourage any Loch Lomond resident to lead an uprising and stake a claim for independence. The ballad soon shape shifts into a Mike Oldfield manner ijto a rock aria and reclaims the rhythmic pulses generated at the start of the song. An acoustic break leads into quite a euphoric and beautiful guitar lead of The Phoenix Flown. This euphoria is known all too well to his fans who have heard the calling before in the likes of Spectral Mornings and The Valley of The Kings and left me wanting more. A great start to the album.

Wanderlust: A beautiful short piece. I don’t know if I am getting hung up on rudimentary issues here but forty four seconds?! I appreciate the dictum “less is more” but forty four seconds?! I am going to have to send this one back to the chef and ask him to cook it a bit more! I am in two minds as to what to think; this piece seemed out of place and may e have been best suited in the Four Winds allotment. But then again, it did compliment the Till These Eyes as an intro but I wonder if Til These Eyes could be charitable without the suffix of Wanderlust if you get my meaning?

Til These Eyes: Adventurous vocals from Steve demonstrating that he has attained the confidence and stature he previously searched for in his vocals. The bouncing notes of the plucked acoustic guitar strings give a happy jog to the beat. The river of time runs through this song in poetic fashion and the cello and string section give it a beautiful atmosphere. Has Steve seen enough of something here?

Prairie Angel: You feel like you are in an uplifting hot air balloon in the early morning wilderness for the start of this three minute instrumental journey. Mick Ralphs and other peers of Steve’s would be proud of this work. I felt that it could and should have extended out its euphoria a bit longer, my word that’s two pieces so far I have asked for extension on, either Steve is leaving us deliberately hungry or CD time is holding him hostage. Belting out a Bluesy rock beat that Bad Co would be proud of with Steve’s accomplished and under acknowledged harmonica skills come to the fore. The tune is craftily stitched and woven into the next track.

A Place Called Freedom: Ha, at Last! Is that the old twelve string Zemaitis I hear in the background? At last I love it! How can you keep such a beautiful thing locked up for so long? It is back in the master’s hands albeit sparingly. It is a true rising Steve Hackett sound and it would fit into a Please Don’t Touch II album without hesitation. I like the lyrics and vocal on this track with hints of Bob Seger’s Hollywood Nights (or is it my imagination?). The guitar solo has freedom written all over it. And with uprisings spreading all over the Middle East and North African countries the cry becomes more relevant. Steve loves using the military drum beat of freedom to signify it has been earned at a cost which should never be forgotten. C’mon Steve, we miss the Zemaitis sound, get it out more, the fans love it, this is really good stuff, don’t spare it! Excellent vocals and I can see the fans clapping along to this one towards the end of the night if Steve can handle all the guitar changes.

Between The Sunset And The Coconuts: Harmonies so reminiscent of the Defector days, Steve brings us to a different warmer and safer place to rest our musical ears. A really nice pyramid of vocals spiralling softly down to earth which numbs our senses. I wonder if he press ganged David Gilmour into that ending? I have heard this identity on a few of his albums and it defines him and his music which is why so many people are attracted to him. When Steve says he is taking us on a journey, he means it!

Waking To Life: Is a beatier reincarnation of Waters Of The Wild heard on the Wild Orchids album. I loved the female vocals, akin to Sally Oldfield and this makes for a refreshing change. I would easily enjoy a Moroccan (holiday, that is!) to this one. At first I thought it was a load of Dholaks but maybe Tablasets may be more accurate. Steve could easily break into the Bollywood market if he were so inclined. A good musician cannot deny the existence of a good meaty Indian drum beat and Steve has captured it to perfection with his fine set of musicians. Horizons wouldn’t be distant if it wasn’t for these far away land themes. Steve borrows tit bits from Transylvanian Express to the discerning listener. The guitar sound is most palatable to the Please Don’t Touch aficionados. I would love to hear this live. The song sublimely phases in by the hip to the next track.

Two Faces Of Cairo: For me the drums enter with the same menacing foreboding of the Robert de Niro film, Ronin, with a chilling Arabian accent. To me it has all the hallmarks of a blockbuster film. Now that it is written all we are waiting for is a Hollywood script. Conceived on the Cairo plains, the instrumental soundtrack is very cleverly constructed with an infectious synthetic counter beat which holds you to ransom while the rest of the music enters into negotiations.

Looking For Fantasy: A start reminiscent of the waltz-like She Moves In Memories with a similar lyric, the song soon free spirits away into its own right and realm. It is a nice pleasant rhythmic song. There is not an ounce of abrasive harshness in this one which means that Steve is asking the listener to be more attuned to the lyrics and melody rather than the musical prowess. I wonder who “she” is? Once again the Saville Row tailoring weaves the number into the next track.

Summer’s Breath: Steve hasa tendency to knit these short pieces into his work and in truth, this feels more like a bridge, from a soft piece of work spanned by a Classical guitar to a complete new land of belting Blues, passports at the ready to get to the other side. It is unorthodox behaviour but it works. But I mean, have you ever heard of any composer to do this on an album? Contemporary to Classical to heavy Blues? No, I haven’t either but don’t tell Steve it can’t be done because he will go ahead and do it anyway! There is little time to reminisce over this short acoustic excerpt as he plows straight into…

Catwalk: I am half expecting BB King to push Steve off mic and say “leave this one to me, son”. Time for Nick Beggs to pucker up that bottom lip and adopt a “twenty past eight” leg stride and beat the meanness out of it. I loved it. Warning; do not play this at your mother’s eightieth! Steve does a great job on the vocal. Wish I had the money to co-produce it and to see Paul Rodgers belt this one out, such is the quality. I would love to see that combo one night on stage. Do we share the same tastes? For me to mention both BB King and Paul Rodgers in the same breath is a thumbs up.

Turn This Island Earth: Be prepared, Hackett is about to take you on the kind of dream journey usually reserved for Salvador Dali. I love it when he goes into one. The indulgences carry no warning signs. He dug deep to get some of those sinister sounds. Dimensions change as we are carried away into outer space like some LSD trip with Roger (King’s) tangerine trees and marmalade sky keyboards. I have difficulty with the distorted vocals but since when do we have control over most of our dreams? We are carried along with a most pleasant rhythm patch. Then the transgressions begin. Steve reverberates and bounces off his strings with contempt. His Guantanamo guitar strings are stretched and tortured. And like an escaping prisoner fleeing in an open top car with 100% uncut pure rock chords racing through your hair, within seconds you are chased from place to place so much that you feel lost because you cannot find your bearings within the song. I am driven to some momentary Phil Collins-like drum arrangement. Like a dinner host who has everyone to please, Hackett moves about his business and like a good host he transports us half way through via a masquerading acoustic guitar which takes us into a foggy maelstrom of orchestrated madness (for a split second you hear the vaguely reminiscent echo of The Toast from Defector or am I walking through Epping Forest, I can’t tell). A Beatle-like foxtrot with well composed lyrics dances us into a scary fairground attraction like a nightmare you can’t wake up from. One would be forgiven for thnking that George Martin had collaborated with Steve on this track such is the quality of Roger’s production technique. The changes may be many and come thick and fast but that is how dreams are constructed. We are chased until we run out of vision and into oblivion only to suddenly wake in an upright position. With a prophetic warning to Turn This Island Earth around we are returned to an Acolyte era finale, where Steve started from and where this album ends.

This is a brave and extremely well thought outr piece of work. Intelligently constructed. I think it was T S Elliot who told us that the journey not the arrival is what matters, he probably stole it from the Chinese!

On offer above and beyond the standard CD is the deluxe CD for a further £6. It seemed too good an offer to ignore, so that’s what I have ordered anyway.

CD 2

The four winds are four short appetisers and you should not be blamed for thinking they were from four different composers. But no, one composer, many talents! I sometimes wonder whether Steve should have kept these pieces in his locker and worked on them further. They seem like unfinished business to me. “The Winds”…

Four Winds North: This ninety five second piece initially feels like an ending rather than a beginning, is if it is a fragmented piece of work surgically removed from a track. I can’t believe that a man who is so clever at constructing a piece of work can leave it so detached. I am therefore led to believe it is a deliberate act. But since it is an instrumental I can only leave it to Steve to explain. It is like a piece of a jigsaw that needs to find itself a home somewhere else.

Four Winds South: This is one of the most beautiful pieces I have heard in along time. My young son felt like there is a lot going on in the composition in terms of musical freedom. It is a breezy acoustic guitar piece and raindrop filled piano notes combine beautifully. The piano arrangement is admirable. I am not left with the sense of the guitar battling with the keyboards like the wind and the rain, more like Steve is giving way just as the wind and therain give way to each other. Maybe that’s what we should all do to each other more often instead of holding our ground. It is a musical treat. I would like to hear more talented playing like this. I wish it had gone on for another four minutes. Done it again, asking for more, thinking it deserves more, maybe less IS more?

Four Winds East: This is an organ fuelled South American Samba that Carlos Santana would pay to hear with a blend of Mike Oldfield nicely accompanied by some Cuban conga drum beats. I have a feeling that Castro might just download this one from I-Tunes. A cultural retreat and I haven’t even left my computer!

Four Winds West: I feel like I have just travelled from Cuba to Versailles returning to a vintage acoustic flavour of Classical guitar that is always pleasant. I don’t know of any composer that does what Steve has done here. I hear him say “I didn’t do it, honest!” four pieces of contrasting movements. The continuity is respectful between this and the next piece and is well positioned.

Pieds En L’Air: Classic FM would have no problem fitting this beautiful light arrangement into their schedule and listeners would find it hard to identify which one of their masters scripted the work. The DJ will have to be quick though to stop it running into the next track which is my FAVOURITE on the album…

She Said Maybe: Yes, he has pulled it out of the bag and got me goos style with this one! It is tremendous, its wavering background pulse has already hypnotised you while Steve speaks over it with his quivering guitar solo. This is the essential Hackett at his best when he comes up with this type of work. Everything about it is right, the change in tempo, the returning patterns. Such a strong atmosphere produced in this number. Hope I might hear him play it live. I really liked this track.

Enter The Night: This track has seen more name changes than the Poll Tax! Riding The Colosssus on the Tokyo Tapes and Somewhere In South America, Depth Charge on Timelapse and now Enter the Night only this time with lyrics. If ever a tune had an identiy crisis then this is it! This will think be my fourth acquisition of this track with its new incarnation and it is not like it’s a classic to the fans. I think I can follow Steve without having the balls to tell him that this one is not deluxe. More bonus track. I think in fairness, Steve probably thinks the track deserved airing with lyrics to give it some closure.

Eruption - Tommy: OK, I had to Google the title because I have no idea what the significance of the song title means. The closests I got was Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption and tapping technique on You Tube, originated by Steve. But quite honestly this is as far away from that technique as you would find it. I am sure the meaning will come out in the wash. Where is Steve taking us with this one? I loved it. Like it is out of some sort of unreleased Bond theme that the Broccolis want to keep in their private collection. It’s a classic Steve Hackett guitar movement which he ingratiates us fans with and we enjoy it all the more. Steve’s fans love the soaring guitar ingrained on the likes of Spectral Mornings and Valley of The Kings. It has a ghostly feel which erupts into something with a more meaningful body of work. I really liked it and it reminded me of his early work. This was left off the vinyl due to running time.

Reconditioned Nightmare: OK, again I have this track on acouple of Steve’s CD/DVDs. It’s a cracker of course but I am not sure why he had to regurgitate (sorry, recondition it)and don’t know how he can improve upon it other than a few sound module changes or guitar slides. You can’t beat a good bass bombing but Steve, I’ve already bought this, you won me over the first time!

Conclusion - The regular CD album offers value for money; the songs on the album are diverse. You could cherry pick songs from this album and play them on Rock FM, Classic FM, Blues stations and BBC Radio with equal success. I would strongly recommend it to anyone. I must admit I was left to feel like Oliver Twist asking for more on some of the tracks but maybe that is the sign of a good artist. I also felt that there was potential CD space on the second CD for these tracks to be developed and that Reconditioned Nightmare and Enter The Night were more “bonus” tracks than new original pieces of work which deserve the deluxe identity.

Overall, well done Steve. Good piece of talented work and one which will sit nicely in my collection.