"Spectral Mornings, Premonitions and other tales of madness" - Steve Hackett - The Charisma Recordings 1975 - 1983 Box Set reviewed by Alan Hewitt.
Just when you think you have heard just about every possible incarnation of this music along comes a set like this one to make you re-assess it all over again! And that is no bad thing when it comes to Steve’s Charisma recordings as many of them are definitely due a re-assessment. Where to begin on such a mammoth task though….
Well, let’s start with looking at what are undoubtedly the jewels in the crown in this set as far as collectors are concerned - the live recordings. Undoubtedly the first of these, the complete recording of Steve’s show from Oxford in July 1979 was the most unexpected as far as I was concerned. Having been collecting Hackett live recordings for the better part of thirty years myself, the announcement of the existence of this recording managed to take me by surprise. And so, here at last we have what fans will, I am sure, come to regard as the definitive live recording from this classic period in Steve’s solo career. Anyone who saw Steve during this period will know exactly what I am saying when I state that these shows simply had it all. From the opening ethereal if not to say sepulchral chords of Please Don’t Touch and Tigermoth replete with plenty of banshee like wailing from Steve’s guitar, here you have every facet of Steve Hackett the live performer brought vividly to life again. Music like this simply defies categorisation and the band that created it still rank among fans as probably the finest that Steve ever had. I can’t often say that I experience goosebumps listening to a live recording of any vintage these days but I certainly did whilst listening to this one!
The other live recordings in this set, culled from the surviving tapes of a set from the second leg of the 1979 Spectral Mornings tour from London’s prestigious Drury Lane Theatre and the equally well known recording from the band’s performance at the 1981 Reading Festival and have been in circulation for a long time now but nevertheless, serve to reinforce the growth and development of Steve and the band in the live context. And as someone who has very fond memories of both Steve’s performances at Reading, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the memories that hearing these recordings brought back to me - thanks for making me fell so bloody old again, Steve… happy but old!
However, it is Steve’s studio work which forms the bulk of this set and indeed, the studio albums contained within are the ones which not only set Steve’s feet on the path of solo work but also consolidated his reputation for studio excellence and reinforced exactly what it was that Genesis lost when he left. Sadly the originally promised 5.1 remastering treatment of all of the studio albums has not materialised due to the absence of the original tapes for several of them from EMI/Universal’s archives and so, out of the six albums represented here only two have received the full 5.1 surround sound treatment and the rest have been the beneficiaries of new stereo mixes and “pseudo” 5.1 surround sound mixes. Now, I admit here and now that I am not in possession of a 5.1 system but when I heard the name Steven Wilson mentioned in connection with these I knew the end result would be superb as his restoration work with the likes of King Crimson and Jethro Tull’s vintage back catalogue is a lesson in excellence for one and all.
So, what do these new mixes bring to the table that the already excellent remasters from 2005 don’t? Well, quite a lot actually. You would have to be a technophile to be able to explain the minutiae of how these versions were put together and we hope to be able to have Mr Wilson and Mr Hackett do exactly that in a future edition of TWR but in the meantime you will, I hope, excuse my technical ignorance if I instead outline what they sound like to a layman such as I?
So, we shall start at the beginning…. I have already written more than my fair share about Steve’s debut, Voyage Of The Acolyte. A bold statement of intent back in 1975 and an album which has fared a lot better than some of its compatriots. Right from the outset, the sound is astonishingly clean and sharp bringing even more detail to the fore. It is probably as close to being there with the musicians as you are ever likely to get which is astonishing. What is just as astonishing is how inventive Steve was for a twenty five year old! The sheer scale and breadth of the music on this album takes your breath away and here we really get to hear the magnificent rhythm section provided by Messrs Collins and Rutherford especially when they cut loose on album opener, Ace Of Wands it seems a pity that the track had to fade out as all concerned had evidently found their groove here!
However, making way for the serene elegance of Hands Of The Priestess is no disgrace is it? This has always been a favourite of mine and indeed most Hackett fans and here we have a version which shines with an even deeper lustre than ones which have gone before and that is saying a great deal! The calm is shattered by the staccato rhythms of A Tower Struck Down without a doubt one of Steve’s most formidable tour de force instrumental workouts and here there is even more instrumentation in evidence than previously. Odd sounds make you prick up your ears and listen more closely - no bad thing when you think you actually KNOW music.
The rest of the album too, is full of nuances and unsuspected details and if I have said this before it is nonetheless still true, a project like this is very much akin to restoring an oil painting. Once the final oil bath has been applied there are usually details which for one reason or another have been obscured now there for all to see or in this case, HEAR and it is that unexpected detail that makes the listening experience all the more enjoyable.
Moving on to Steve’s second album, 1978’s Please Don’t Touch, which continued his musical adventures opening with Steve’s homage to the CS Lewis stories of Narnia and here Steve Walsh’s vocals simply shine through and there is an over all warmth to the mix here which has been lacking before - almost as if the frozen landscape of Narnia has started to thaw after all! This is another album that spawned several classics both in the live context and in the slightly eccentric field such as the wonderfully camp Carry On Up The Vicarage, a uniquely Hackettesque take on both the Carry On films and the Agatha Christie detective yarns and here Steve takes the starring role vocally with a fine performance presaging his future development and having a great deal of fun too by the sound of it!
Racing In A and the ubiquitous acoustic set (which Steve usually refers to as a moment of “agnostic guitar”) give us two different facets of Hackett with the former being an infectiously catchy romp in which Steve turns in another confident vocal performance before cutting loose with some equally confident acoustic guitar work while the latter is an excuse for Steve to romp through some snippets from several tracks which have changed over the years as his acoustic repertoire has expanded and this segment of the show has remained a constant favourite to this day.
For the collectors among us, a bonus on this album is the inclusion of a previously unreleased track: Seven Of Cups, a piano driven delight which to my ears definitely sounds as if it should have had lyrics. There are echoes of another classic Hackett track within it, see if you can spot which one when you listen to it!
The rest of this album is pure vintage Hackett and it makes for an interesting exercise in comparison between the original version of Icarus Ascending performed with style and panache by the late great Richie Havens and the current live incarnation of the song in which Nad Sylvan takes on the vocal role. Both are equally impressive to my ears as indeed is the truly magnificent Hoping Love Will Last which still sends shivers up and down my spine. As indeed do the albums’ final two instrumentals: Please Don’t Touch and The Voice of Necam, which show Steve at his instrumental best and always prepared to push the boundaries of technology challenging himself and us, the listener at every turn.
What can I say about Spectral Mornings that either I or the fans and critics haven’t said before? Nothing, so I shall move swiftly on to Defector. Just kidding folks, I could NEVER not mention this magisterial album as in any assessment of Steve’s career this is most often cited as the benchmark by which all of his other work is judged.
Every Day opens the album and is every bit as exciting and exhilarating today as it was back in 1979 when I first heard it and deserves its place in the current live set that Steve is performing. Musically, and vocally this one is sharper and brighter here and definitely more vibrant than previous versions. The same can also be said for the sublime The Virgin & The Gypsy which is presented here in a truly breathtaking mix in which the keyboard work of Nick Magnus underpins the rest of the band and where John Hackett’s flute soars like a lark in a field full of the flowers which the song’s lyrics are drawn from.
Equally as impressive is the oriental inspired The Red Flower of Taichi Blooms Everywhere - what a mouthful of a title but what a peach of a track! Mojo? Koto? Whatever it is, it is that Steve got working on this one it has more than stood the test of time and this current mix shimmers like burnished gold. From the glories of the orient to the Hammer Horror films next with Clocks. Not a track for the fainthearted then or now this one races out of the traps and takes no prisoners - stunning, simply stunning!
This time round though the highlight of the album is the criminally underrated Los Time In Cordoba, a brittle gem of track featuring some delicate and understated playing from the entire band and here you can hear the sound of guitar strings as Steve plucks them almost giving you the feeling of being there in the room with him - worth the admission price alone!
Steve’s next album, 1980’s Defector was to give him a top ten hit when it was released and deservedly so but who else other than Steve could have released a concept album in 1980 and got away with it? From the distinctly unpromising material of a defector’s impressions upon arriving in the West (or East depending on which viewpoint you take), Steve created one of the mist vivid albums of his entire career.
The Steppes gets things off to a suitably haunting start, and here it is the bass that threatens to blow your speakers as it is LOUD! A superlative evocation of is subject, The Steppes is hard to beat and here we have it in all its glory a magnificent start! The stark majesty of the landscape is replaced by the garish vibrancy of Time to Get Out and Slogans both of which have benefited enormously from the mix this time round.
Other highlights include the stately and serene Hammer In The Sand where Nick Magnus’ piano is a joy to behold, a rare moment of tranquillity in a sea of confused voices. Spare a thought for the musician eh Guv? At least that is the sentiment behind one of Steve’s best anthems: The Show, a plea for tolerance in general and for music in particular this has always been a firm favourite of mine and here once again it is a delight to hear now if only Steve would reinstate it in the live set I would be very happy!
On this album we also have two examples of Steve’s more left field musical endeavours. Sentimental Institution, a homage to the Big band days of Artie Shaw and Louis Armstrong but done in a manner that once again, only Steve could pull off! We also get Hercules Unchained, the gloriously camp send up of what was back in 1980 the relatively new phenomenon of British Heavy Metal bands.
1981’s Cured album saw Steve finally step front and centre in every way as he finally eschewed having another singer singing his lyrics and opted to do it himself. By Steve’s own admission in the accompanying book, Cured was also an attempt to try and gain radio play, especially in the USA and although fans might have mourned the passing of the classic Hackett line up there was much about the album to endear it to fans prepared to listen to it with open ears.
Indeed, listening to it again on this box set, it is hard to fault Steve’s decision. OK, the material on the album is of an altogether different cast than the epics which preceded it but everyone needs a change of diet once in a while, don’t we?
New fans may not realise exactly how much of a surprise it was when Steve came centre stage to “wiggle his bum” and do this singing lark, but to those of us around at the time, it took a while to get used to I can tell you! Once that was done though, the album proved that Steve’s pop sensibilities were very bit as strong as those of his Prog pedigree. It still seems strange to consider that in 1981 his former band mates in Genesis effectively did the same thing with their album Abacab!
What emerges from this new version of the album is a particularly strong set of pop songs with a rock edge to them. Hope I Don’t Wake and Picture Postcard are as effective now as they were in 1981 and although Steve had yet to find his definitive “voice” this was a strong start. Hard to believe that Steve also used the dreaded drum machine for the first time on this album and yet listened to now, the sound has not dated it too badly at all. In fact, to my ears this is the album which has benefited the most from Steve Wilson’s work and it sounds surprisingly crisp and fresh throughout.
1982/83 was to prove to be a pivotal year for Steve. He had toured extensively in support of the Cured album and although radio play had increased in the US and elsewhere, the album had not generated the “hit” which Charisma were looking for and so his next album for the label, 1983’s Highly Strung was make or break time for him. Ironically, the single from the album: Cell 151 DID give Steve his last minor chart single success here in the UK.
Once again, Steve is stretching himself here and the album is an altogether rockier one than its predecessor. Album opener, Camino Royale, is driven by a vintage organ sounding keyboard and some ferocious licks from Steve and augmented by the new rhythm section of Ian Mosley and Chas Cronk. Surprisingly it is here on Cell 151 that the new mix does not sound as crisp as its predecessor, there is some essential clarity missing here to my ears at least.
Interestingly enough, here we also have both the album version and the 12” single mix (remember them folks?) of Walking Through Walls and it isn’t often I say this, but I prefer the latter to the album version. It sounds as if Steve really cut loose on this one and the mix here more than does the track justice. The album’s two instrumentals: the ironically titled Group Therapy and album closer Hackett To Pieces are both marvellous workouts for the entire band and here the mix really brings out the detail especially on Ian Mosley’s impeccable drum work.
The inclusion here of one of a handful of sessions Steve did for the BBC also gives is the chance to compare and contrast and Cell 151 sounds radically different here to either the album version or the subsequent live one. And gives the listener another fascinating glimpse of how tracks can evolve over time. The same can be said of Walking Through Walls and Hackett To Pieces which features some incredibly vibey drumming from Mr Mosley especially in the latter while vintage track Please Don’t Touch sounds ever so slightly out pf place here but for a collector, items like these are among the joys of a set like this.
And there you have it. The entire collection is housed in a beautifully presented box with a separate 70 page hard back book beautifully illustrated by some of Armando Gallo’s inimitable images and an informative text even including a few s titbit’s a hoary old anorak like me did not know, as well as several items of memorabilia from TWR’s very own archive - nice to see. The end result is a marvellous tribute to Steve’s albums on the Charisma label.
There are some criticisms to be made, however. Perhaps the one which fans will pick up on straight away is the overlapping of several of the albums over two discs which can be frustrating when it interrupts the flow of particular album, although this might serve a s a reminder for those among you who don’t remember the days of vinyl albums when you had to physically change the record over - aaah nostalgia eh?
The placing of the previously unreleased track, Seven of Cups in the middle of Please Don’t Touch might also jar the sensibilities of many fans but at least we no longer have the awful “gap” between tracks that was present when this album was first mastered to CD back in the 1990’s so be grateful for small mercies folks!
Fans in possession of the excellent EMI remasters of these albums from 2005 will also notice the omission of handful of tracks from several of these albums and although some of these have appeared elsewhere, there are still a few such as the alternate takes of several of them which could have been included, especially the two different versions of Narnia and the alternative versions of tracks from Spectral Mornings. This does beg the question: will the EMI remasters remain available for fans to possibly pick up these missing tracks or are they now bona fide collector’s items?
Those quibbles aside, and I doubt if anyone can find anything else to fault on such an expansive collection, as this, the set can quite rightly be regarded as the definitive statement on Steve’s Charisma recordings. It is evident that a LOT of hard work has gone in to putting this set together and those involved are to be heartily commended for their efforts.