Steve Hackett studio album by album - a beginner's guide
By: Alan Hewitt
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin... Steve's solo career has been more than that of your average musician. Not the easy option, formula laden recipe of many musicians; oh no. Steve's career has taken him and us, the listeners down so many different paths it is sometimes hard to believe that any two albums are by the same person! Who else can you think of that has given us the Classical austerity of Metamorpheus, the Progressive Rock of Voyage Of The Acolyte and the nightmare ride through a theme park for the damned that is Darktown? Not many I would think! Don't expect an entirely unbiased opinion though - I have no qualms about declaring my admiration for Steve's work. What follows though are honest opinions on the work in question and ones which I hope might persuade the uninitiated among you to give his work a serious listen - you won't regret it!
Steve's solo career began in earnest while he was still a member of Genesis and at the time when the remaining members of the band were unsure of their future after the departure of front man; Peter Gabriel. Taking the bull by the horns, Steve decided to explore some of the increasingly varied ideas he had been coming up with during the previous two years.
The end result was A Voyage Of The Acolyte, an apt title for such an adventurous album and one which, at its time of release in October 1975 was very well received by fans and critics alike. Strangely enough though, I didn't hear Voyage... for the first time until 1978 by which time I had not only seen Steve in concert for the first time but had been entranced by its follow-up: Please Don't Touch but that is definitely another story!
The initial impression that the album made on me has stuck however. Who else could open an album with a rampaging run through mellotron, acoustic guitar and God alone knows how many other instruments. The opener, Ace Of Wands was a bold statement of intent from Steve. Here was a musician who was going to explore the broadest of musical canvasses possible and this is exactly what we got! Hands Of The Priestess calms things down for a while, with a stately, even serene performance at once descriptive of the Tarot card which it is portraying and much more besides. This one owes itself very much to the courtly music of the royal houses of 18th century Europe and would not be out of place in a period piece film. This is the fascinating thing about Steve's music; he allows his inspirations to colour and inform the creative process and if on occasions he has been "possessed" by the spirit of music, then the end results Have always been fascinating and enjoyable.
From a stately royal progress, we then have the awesome power of A Tower Struck Down. In the Tarot this card not only symbolises destruction but also rebirth and here you have it all. The stabbing almost frenetic guitar and bass rampage like some fairy tale giant running amok across a fairytale landscape and we are gradually joined by a host of other "voices" merging into the hellish chorus culminating in the "Sieg Heils" of some other worldly Nazi rally and a plethora of other effects before the tower collapses in suitably dramatic style. Whether the juxtaposition of the voices and the destruction of the tower has any deeper symbolic meaning is really down to your own interpretation but the tolling bell that ushers in Hands Of The Priestess Pt 2 is certainly an effective metaphor for fate and its influence ("Ask not for whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee"). This track is another example of the glorious way in which Steve manages to amalgamate a wide range of musical ideas into a coherent whole and the contrast between the quietude of the latter with the mayhem of the former is quite simply stunning.
We then get the first song of Steve's committed to album: The Hermit. Is this a metaphor for Steve's own career? Maybe, maybe not, I don't pretend to know the inner workings of Steve and his muse. What is not in doubt is that the music and lyric evoke a particularly strong portrait of this particular character from the Tarot. The Hermit is a symbol of inner strength and wisdom and the musical structure of this piece has the same qualities and is the musical equivalent of the card it depicts.
Star Of Sirius once again, harks back to an earlier bygone age. The music is almost waltz-like in quality and brilliantly evocative whilst the lyrics hark back to an even earlier age. I don't know if Steve had read his Homer (the Greek poet and not Mr Simpson, folks) when he wrote this track but the line Above the colour of amber stained evening definitely harks back to the Wine dark sea of The Iliad. Brilliantly sung by one Philip Collins esquire this is one of the most haunting songs that Steve has ever penned.
The Lovers is a suitably brief musical interlude aptly depicting the all too brief tryst before the appearance of the Shadow Of The Hierophant ushers in doom. The Lovers is a beautiful acoustic moment one of those which you wish Steve had extended into a fuller composition but here it suits its purpose admirably ushering in the appearance of Shadow Of The Hierophant, a mythical creature, the sight of which presages doom. Another glorious lyric too, poetic in style and epic in nature and given a marvellous performance by Sally Oldfield. The musical accompaniment hovers on the orchestral at times and indeed, this is a symphony in miniature and a brilliant precursor of so much of what has since followed in Steve's career.
As a debut album, Voyage Of The Acolyte is an impeccably executed effort. With it, Steve laid his musical "cards" on the table and dealt himself, and us a musical ace! An essential album to any collection of Steve's work.
Star Rating: *****
Steve on Voyage Of The Acolyte... "The first track we did was Hands Of The Priestess and I thought that if we can first get one track down that sounds good then there is a chance that we will come away with an album rather than a bunch of out-takes . So, by the end of the first night we had recorded the twelve string, the flute part and the Mellotron and I thought it sounded so glorious from the word go..."
A further two years were to elapse before Steve finally decided to leave "Nanny and her charges" as he fondly refers to Genesis and set out on his own journey of discovery. The first album to appear after his departure was 1978's Please Don't Touch, a very much different offering to its predecessor.
This is the first Hackett solo album I heard, and also the first one I ever saw performed in concert and so, my opinions of it are still coloured somewhat by those facts. With this album, Steve re-iterated his decision to work with other musicians outside of the confines of his former band mates in Genesis and the cast for this outing are mainly American musicians but inspired choices one and all!
Steve, like me is a big fan of the work of C S Lewis, especially the Narnia stories and so opening the album with Narnia was always going to endear it to me. The track itself is a pocket re-telling of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe but with Steve Walsh on vocals the contrast between the UK and USA is brilliantly emphasised. For anyone who says that Progressive Rock musicians have no sense of humour, may I point you in the direction of Carry On Up The Vicarage; a homage to the detective yarns of Agatha Christie and featuring a host of characters in a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek tribute to the great writer and if you listen carefully you can hear Steve himself on vocals - another indication of what was to come later.
Racing In A, a pun on the chord sequence on which it is based and also a wry look at the demands on a rock star who increasingly feels the need to Get out in the country my friend. Another brilliantly observed number and one which features some great playing the musicians involved. Steve pays tribute to his girlfriend and later wife; Kim Poor next with the aptly titled; Kim. Once again, Steve wears his influences firmly on his sleeve here and this beautiful track not only brilliantly portrays the lady involved but also evokes shades of another of Steve's musical heroes; Erik Satie.
Taking the plunge and using musicians and singers who may not have been that well known here in the UK paid off handsomely for Steve and none more so than in his inspired choice of Woodstock veteran Richie Havens to sing How Can I? This one takes the form of an almost informal "jam" between Steve and Richie ably accompanied by Dave Lebolt on keyboards and its informality is surprising and refreshing. Steve's choices were equally inspired when it came to using the then relatively unknown Randy Crawford as singer on Hoping Love Will Last. This is without doubt one of the finest love songs that Steve or indeed anyone else has ever penned and that is due in no small measure to the presence of Randy Crawford's awesome vocal talents - a peach of a song!
The "Progressive" side of Steve's music had up until this point taken a bit of a backseat on this album but the final quartet of tracks firmly redress the balance in fine style. Land Of A Thousand Autumns is a large title for such a short track but the proof of the pudding is in the playing and here Steve lets rip with some of those unmistakable chords while the sounds of crows in the background somehow sends me thinking back to the cover of his last album with Genesis; Wind & Wuthering - a deliberate reference or not, who knows?
The album's title track takes off at a galloping pace and really shows that Hackett can rock out with the best of them - a riot in a toyshop perhaps? A riot on stage certainly, this one was an immediate live favourite and remains in Steve's live show to this day. The Voice Of Necam is a glorious synth romp on what was one of the earliest guitar synthesisers, yet another example of Steve being ahead of the game when it comes to the use of technology. This in turn, segues nicely into the album's closing track; the truly glorious Icarus Ascending. Ascending indeed, for this is a triumphant manner in which to close the album. Richie Havens' vocals lend the track a real sense of majesty and it soars to the heavens closing the album in a truly uplifting fashion.
This album is very much the blueprint for so much that Steve has done since its release. His use of singers and musicians from widely differing backgrounds to his own has continued ever since and the variety of styles of music that can be found on it have continued to be very much the trademark of Steve's musical career. As such, Please Don't Touch is indispensable to any fan of Steve's career.
Star Rating: ****
Steve on Please Don't Touch... "A very large proportion of it h ad been written before I left Genesis . Because of the importance I placed upon the material I really wanted it to be recorded. With the band in the past I found that certain things found favour and certain things didn't. The result being that I ended up scrapping a huge percentage of my material. But I felt that all of the songs on this album really deserved an airing. So, my impatience, combined with the desire to work with some other people brought me to the necessary turning point..."
Barely twelve months separated the previous album from 1979's Spectral Mornings in fact, a great deal of this album had been "road tested" in front of crowds during the debut solo tour by Steve in the autumn of 1978. Acknowledged as a classic by the fans from the very start, Spectral Mornings remains the most popular album he has released. It is difficult to describe the impression this album had on me the first time I heard it. Suffice to say that it completed the "Holy Trinity" of Genesis and Genesis-related albums which began with The Geese & The Ghost and Wind & Wuthering and there it remains to this day!
Every Day opens the album, a dramatic and emotional anti-drug song which reflects Steve's own experiences of the drug culture when his first girlfriend fell victim to "Cleopatra's Needle" This is a marvellous plea to people to wake up and see the damage that drugs do not only to the individual involved but to those around them - a superb opener!
The Virgin & The Gypsy really owes very little to the D H Lawrence novel of the same name and instead is a marvellous play on words using English countryside flower names to construct a haunting lyric accompanied by some wonderful acoustic playing and harmony vocals to die for! An underrated classic and one which deserves to be revisited in the live set - hint, hint, Steve!
The Red Flower Of Taichi Blooms Everywhere - phew, what a long title for such a short piece of music! East meets West here in a marvellous fusion of musical styles which is very much Steve's forte.
Clocks - The Angel Of Mons began life as an attempt to almost create a Hammer House Of Horrors style piece but soon took on a life of its own. The second part of the title refers to the "vision" seen by troops on the first day of the Battle Of Mons which was variously reported as an angel on a white horse, or St George leading the English troops across No Man's Land. There is certainly nothing angelic about this track which rampages like a herd of startled elephants - perfect live show material though!
Steve's sense of humour comes to the fore on the next track. The Ballad Of The Decomposing Man. Mistaken by many (me included) as being a reflection on the state of labour/management relations at the time of the album; nothing could be further from the truth and it is instead a delightfully tongue in cheek parody of 1940's film star; George Formby!
Lost Time In Cordoba quietens things down for a while and is almost elegiac in style. Acoustic guitar accompanied by flute; a format which Steve has revisited so many times since. The galloping figure which he executes conjures up images of a ride through the Spanish countryside before the synthesiser enters the picture; a portent of the ghostly events which are to follow in the next track....
Tigermoth, quite simply put is a ghost story but one with a particularly poignant resonance. The characters are all victims of war and the references to the last global conflict abound in the lyrics. Brilliantly evoked and played with the right mix of menace and pathos - another film script in miniature!
The album closes with the title track and without doubt, my all-time favourite composition by Steve. Spectral Mornings really defies description but for me, this is an elegy for the fallen. The entire album has the feel of a requiem for life's victims of one kind or another: drugs (Every Day), the Vietnamese Boat People (Red Flower...) and the victims of war (Clocks, Tigermoth) and this track for me vividly describes the aftermath of battle as the smoke and fog of war clears and the sun shines through - as the ghosts of the fallen make their way to their final resting place. Without doubt the most evocative track Steve has ever penned and a superb way to end an album.
Well, if you haven't guessed by now, this album is, in my own humble opinion, of course, one without which any collection of Steve's music is incomplete and indeed, one which fans of good music anywhere should be proud to have in their collections!
Star Rating: *****
Steve on Spectral Mornings.... "Spectral Mornings was recorded at the beginning of 1979. It was very, very cold; sixteen below zero and very little sleep! I used to come in at 3AM and the maids used to start making the rooms at 4pm! I swear they used to start at four! (laughs)."
The irrepressible Hackett was at it again with Defector, his fourth album and his third within less than three years. An unlikely "concept" album when the very idea of such things was being frowned upon by the music critics and many fans alike. Hardly the dense and deliberately obscure "concept" of Genesis' The Lamb... Defector has as its premise, the theme of a refugee from the Eastern Bloc's first impressions on his/her arrival in the West. Following the success of its predecessor was not difficult for Steve who was having something of a purple patch at the time and Defector is an album that surprises and amuses by turns.
The album opens with The Steppes, a blistering evocation of the windswept landscape that occupies so much of the Eastern Bloc. The imagery is brilliantly evoked by the combination of flute, bass and the guitar which shrieks like a banshee across the frozen landscape and this track should really have found a home in a film - it is visual music at its very best!
Time To Get Out is a superb examination of Cold War paranoia and I love the contrast between the drug-fuelled West and the vodka-fuelled East in the lyrics - place your bets which side lives longer, indeed!
Slogans too, is another wonderful evocation of the madness of political ideologies both wonderfully depicted in this musical nightmare - a political rally for the ears and a nightmare for the senses.
Leaving is another truly visual track. It brings the experiences of the "Defector" character vividly to life as he/she arrives in the West and experiences what must be truly confusing sensations that such a culture shock must bring.
Two Vamps As Guests, is the final nod to the East and is a marvellous classically inspired homage to the great musical masters of Russia and echoes of Tchaikovsky in particular abound in this wonderful track - perhaps a passing nod to the child who introduced Steve to his work, perhaps? Either way another wonderfully emotional track.
Jacuzzi heralds our arrival in the West, all sound and fury really signifying nothing (sorry Mr Shakespeare!), The garishness of Western society is starkly portrayed as a babble of musical "voices" all clamour for your attention - and by extension your time and/or money - Capital is king here, after all!
Hammer In The Sand is another wonderfully romantic track featuring a marvellous performance from Steve and Nick Magnus. Perhaps our defector has found some love interest in his/her sojourn in the West? Either way, this classic once again shows just how good a composer in the "classical" tradition Steve really is.
The Toast, well a drunken night wallowing in self pity is something we have all experienced at one point or another (I certainly have!) and the slightly tipsy rhythm evokes that feeling to perfection!
The Show, has always been a favourite of mine and once again, Steve manages to combine both lyrical and musical imagery in a way which few other musicians have ever done. The trials and pleasures of life in the "Rock ‘n' Roll Circus" are brilliantly portrayed here and in particular the lyric "Money's worth less and less" certainly has a resonance in today's world, that's for sure!
The album ends on a surreal note, as Steve takes us back on a trip to the days of silk stockings and big bands. Sentimental Institution is another of those tracks from Steve that works on more than one level. Ostensibly, a story about a confidence trickster worming his way into women's affections. On top of that, of course, the very style in which the song is written is a marvellously tongue-in-cheek homage to the Big Band era music which Steve grew up with. The lyrics are wonderfully funny and delivered in fine style by Mr Hicks!
Trying to follow up the success of Spectral Mornings was always going to be difficult but with Defector, Steve pulled another magnificent effort out of the hat. An album that provokes and amuses in equal measures, this is an other essential part of your Hackett collection.
Star Rating: *****
Steve on Defector.... "I think that at the time there was a feeling that everything was going to explode. I know that I felt very depressed about the way the world was at that time. I suppose this was a much more cynical version. I just felt that everyone should get the hell out of there. It wasn't a particularly political solution or anything ... I think it was very apolitical; I hadn't formed any opinions. I just felt that in the face of corruption a mass walk-out seemed the best way..."
1981 saw a strange example of synchronicity take place. Genesis themselves stripped back their sound for their new album; Abacab, without doubt the most contentious album by the band since 1974's The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Steve also took the opportunity to pare things down to the bare minimum with Cured which is Hackett at his most blatantly "commercial". Relying on the services of Nick Magnus, and, shock horror; a drum machine, Cured is very much a transitional album not the least because Steve finally decided to take centre stage and sing the vocals himself for the first time.
The contrast between Cured and its predecessors could not be any more marked. Concepts give way to Commercialism as Steve bravely attempted to broaden his appeal. Nowhere more so than in the album's opener; Hope I Don't Wake is a bright and catchy number in the musical sense but once again, the lyrics tell a different story - I wonder if this is another song about Steve's first girlfriend and her drug problems, the lyrics are certainly in sharp contrast to the brightness of the music.
Picture Postcard too is ostensibly upbeat with a funky bass line and some fine percussive parts but once again, the lyrics have a darker edge to them as indeed so many of Steve's lyrics do.
Can't Let Go opens with a hark back to the more melodramatic days of your, a haunting synthesiser refrain and bass line pick out a marcato rhythm before the song itself comes in which once again the story of love gone wrong, contrasts sharply with the breezy nature of the music.
For anyone (myself included) still reeling from the shock of Steve's decision to sing himself, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is a welcome nod to Steve's Progressive efforts. A rampaging beast, fuelled on some of Steve's finest riffs, this was and remains a live favourite and deservedly so!
Funny Feeling is without doubt, the only genuinely "commercial" track on Cured. This one has "single" written all over it and yet it wasn't released as one! Such was ( and still is) the perverse nature of the music business, that this marvellously catchy number slipped through the nets entirely. With its disco beat and catchy rhythm this could have been a dance floor hit. Oh well, better luck next time, eh Steve!
A Cradle Of Swans really doesn't fit into the framework of this album at all. Another wonderful example of Steve's acoustic, classically influenced composing, it sticks out like a beautifully sore thumb here but no album of Steve's is complete without at least one acoustic track and this one is a beauty!
Overnight Sleeper rampages through the air like it's subject. Another one of Steve's travelogues, this one brilliantly evokes the sense of rhythm, grace and danger of a locomotive whilst lyrically this another of Steve's dreams brought vividly to life - the sheer terror of the situation is portrayed in Steve's slightly breathless vocals.
The album closes on a more sedate note with Turn Back Time which is an apt title. This is a slow Blues shuffle really another nod to the formative influences in his career, a dreamy little number which brings a sense of quiet resolution to the proceedings.
Cured is a difficult album to assess even after 28 years! The initial shock of hearing Steve performing his own vocals has long since worn off and without doubt it is a critical album in Steve's development as a musician. Without it, albums such as Guitar Noir and Darktown may never have been written and as such, it is one album that will continue to challenge the listener as time goes by. Star rating: ***
Steve on Cured.... "It was good, Nick (Magnus) used the drum machine and played keyboards and I played bass and guitar and sang and it still sounded like a band really. You wouldn't know it was just two people. I think from here on I do all the singing. With singing you can't get everyone to agree if someone has a good singing voice or not. It's a very personal thing about singers and I enjoy singing enough to say I will do all the singing. It's far easier doing all the singing myself than working with other singers really...."
Highly Strung, Steve's next album returned to the more acceptable rock format although there are some highly catchy tunes on it too, not least, the single; Cell 151 which even gave Steve an unlikely chart hit here in the UK.
The album opens with Camino Royale, which at first I took for a piss-take on the James Bond franchise but which is actually a street name in New Orleans! This is another of Steve's all too vivid dreams brought to life. Cram packed with imagery and musically as varied as anything Steve has committed to record, this is a marvellous opener.
Cell 151 was to prove to be the unlikely hit of 1983 for Steve. Based on the musings of a prisoner from within his cell this has been interpreted as Steve's view of his then current relationship with his record company; Charisma, or more broadly on relationships that have become stifling for one reason or another. Driven along by an incessant cello refrain and some damn fine percussion this is another firm favourite.
With the emphasis being more firmly placed on songs at this time in Steve's career, Highly Strung had no less than three instrumentals on it. The first pf these; Always Somewhere Else is a Jazz tinged romp which develops into an extended work out for the entire band really a studio jam captured for posterity.
Walking Through Walls is perhaps one of Steve's first protest songs. The lyrics are packed full of startling images and reflections on the madness of humanity all accompanied by a jogging rhythm reflecting the song's origins during one of Steve's jogging sessions - unlikely but true!
Give It Away is another brilliant portrayal of love's dream gone wrong although once again, many people have interpreted the lyric as another reflection of the state of affairs with Steve and his record company. Musically, this is AOR rock at its best with a marvellous "big" guitar tune accompanied by some superb rhythm playing and impeccable percussion from Mr Mosley!
Weightless is ostensibly a simple song about hang gliding. However, nothing should be taken at quite face value where Steve's work is concerned and I suspect that there are many more forces at play in this one than we give credit for! Musically the feeling of weightlessness is perfectly described and it is an irresistible toe-tapper!
Group Therapy, certainly lives up to its name. This is the album's second instrumental and once again, a chance for the entire ensemble to ladder their musical tights and from the end result, they obviously had great fun doing so!
India Rubber Man takes the pace down a bit. A marvellous reflective song; with a lyric that once again, works on so many different levels. Predominantly keyboard based, this shows off Nick Magnus' skills to perfection while the harmonica is a passing nod to Steve's early influence: Paul Butterfield.
The album closes with the third instrumental; Hackett To Pieces, a glorious recapitulation of many of the themes from earlier in the album especially that of Camino Royale giving the band a chance to send us all off in fine style.
By the time this album was released, the shock of Steve's disbandment of the original touring band and his decision to song his lyrics himself had worn off. The Cured tour had shown that his decision was the right one and Highly Strung continued to build on that decision. The vocals are much more confident while the music mixes practically everything you could wish for from Steve into one package - an excellent album.
Star Rating: ****
Steve on Highly Strung.... "I've dreamed some marvellous melodies over the years but they always used to go out of my mind by the time I woke up in the morning. One track; the third one; Always Somewhere Else I already had written but I wasn't going to use it until I dreamed I heard it playing on a car stereo and it sounded fantastic. But there are other things like Camino Royale which is an attempt to remember a tune I heard in a dream about New Orleans; and Walking Through Walls which is based on a dream I had after reading a book by Carlos Castaneda. Both of those songs were conceived entirely out of dream experience..."
Steve gave his fans another unexpected treat in the autumn of 1983 with the release of Bay Of Kings, an entirely acoustic album featuring Steve and his brother John on flute. An album that had been in the making since 1980, it was well worth the wait.
Bay Of Kings opens the album, a magnificent wide vista depicted by the small orchestra that is the acoustic guitar. The track floats very much like a galleon moored within the Bay Of Kings - superb stuff!
The Journey has a slightly misleading title, motion is implied rather than stated - perhaps an inner journey of the mind either way, another dramatic track.
Kim was Steve's musical love letter to his then wife.
Marigold, a shimmering bright track, no doubt due to the performance being on steel strung guitar. Simple and beautiful; like the flower it describes.
St Elmo's Fire, a dramatic spectacle in itself and brilliantly portrayed here. Dramatic and dissonant, this one really does bring the awesome spectacle to vivid life.
Petropolis, to my ears has a distinctly oriental feel to it. Although at the same time, I cannot help but be reminded of some Elizabethan music I heard many years ago - stately and refined, if the place is anything like the music then I must visit it one day!
Second Chance is a truly glorious piece, the likes of which only Steve can write in my opinion. A marvellous marriage of the guitar and flute from Steve's brother John make this another firm favourite of mine.
Cast Adrift certainly conjures up an image of being at sea, the rhythm floats and meanders at times while the tune once again owes a lot to the music of the English Renaissance.
Horizons, well what do I really need to say about this classic - nothing that hasn't already been said so I will leave it at that, folks!
Black Light shimmers like sunshine through a pane of frosted glass, another little gem The Barren Land, a magnificent title and a superb musical sounds cape, the land is anything but barren here!
The album closes with Calmaria, the quiet after the storm is certainly that. Understated but with a quiet elegance redolent of the courtly music of eighteenth century Spain, this is a magnificent way to finish an album.
Bay of Kings took many fans by surprise on its initial release. Many were not prepared to indulge the acoustic guitar for an entire album. For those not prepared to do so, I really feel pity because this is a classic in the real sense of the word. As a blueprint for so much of what has followed, Bay Of Kings has to be in any real music fan's collection.
Star Rating: *****
Steve on Bay Of Kings... "I started writing things that were as complex as my technique would allow but melodies were the things which seemed to be the most important. I viewed it as music without props and that pre-dates New Age and unplugged so the derivations from the Classical and the Flamenco and Folk and all these kind of areas are all there. I think it was a reaction against the dependency; the pyrotechnics of rock; the smoke and the lasers and the dancing girls in the wings!"
Never one to take the easy option, Steve's next album; 1984's Till We Have Faces, can possibly be viewed as one of the first (if not the first) "World Music" albums. Recorded initially in Brazil, Steve incorporated the rhythmic talents to produce an album which radically mixes musical styles. I admit that when I first heard this album, I hated it, and it has taken an incredibly long time for my feelings to change towards it.
By 1984 Steve's fans were probably feeling almost as much of an identity crisis as their hero evidently was. Pop, rock, classical,; what next? Well, Till We Have Faces certainly didn't make things easier for us. Opening with Duel, a relatively straight forward re-telling of the Steven Spielberg film of the same name we were on relatively safe ground here - or so we thought.
Matilda Smith-Williams Home For The Aged is certainly the kind of title that would cause panic during a game of charades, that's for sure. However, what we have here is a marvellous out and out rock song with a wickedly tongue-in-cheek lyric which always makes me smile and it has to be said that the Brazilian rhythm section on the latter part of the track are simply breathtaking!
Let Me Count The Ways showcases Steve's Blues roots in a straight rendering which once again, points the way both backwards and forwards. It's not rock 'n' roll but you might like it!
A Doll That's Made In Japan takes the then relatively new "World Music" off on a trip to the Orient. Sharp as a Samurai blade and imbued with a particularly acerbic lyric, this is an underrated track.
Myopia, well only Steve could write a song taking the piss out of his own medical condition and here it is, a track which later became a marvellous set opener in its instrumental form, the lyric is particularly insightful. What's My Name is another trip to the Orient, in which Steve combines Western rock rhythms with traditional Japanese haiku verses and the marriage works remarkable well.
The Rio Connection is a humorous effects-laden Jazzy jam which in turn lead to Taking The Easy Way Out, a dreamy end of day sort of tune which has several themes contained in it which Steve was to return to and expand upon in the years to come and the album closes with a passing nod to childhood once again with the homage to Disney that is When You Wish Upon A Star - that's all folks, indeed!
I think that with the benefit of hindsight, the major problem with this album is that Steve was trying far too hard to please everyone; fans and record company instead of doing what he has done since: please himself! There is an awful lot of ground covered in one album, too much really to enable the fans a chance to get adjusted to it and the end result really falls between two stools. Having said that, there are some enjoyable moments here but they are sandwiched between some very mediocre stuff and that is something I can't say about any other album by Steve!
Star Rating: **
Steve on Till We Have Faces... "I think with hindsight I would probably have gone even further with it and made it even more of a World Music album, if that's the term and abandoned all western civilisation whatsoever...."
Steve took everyone by surprise in 1985 by joining forces with Steve Howe to form GTR, the latest in a long line of guitar orientated bands. The resulting album, also titled GTR was a massive hit in the USA when it was released in the spring of 1986 and did fair business here in the UK and elsewhere too.
The album opens with the debut single; When The Heart Rules The Mind, which is for my money at least, a bona fide AOR classic. An arena filling anthem which is still a favourite on American rock radio.
This is followed by another strong track; The Hunter which is one of those songs which you find yourself inadvertently humming long after you've heard it and which features some fine acoustic playing by Mr Howe.
Sadly from here on in, the rest of the album rapidly descends into cliché ridden rock and roll. Here I Wait tries to emulate the formula which was so successful on the album's opening track but comes across as trite and contrived.
Sketches In The Sun redresses the balance slightly with a fine acoustic performance from Steve Howe, which really shows his talents as an acoustic player but which really doesn't fit within the pattern of a rock album which GTR so patently is.
Jekyll And Hyde, is a rock'n'roll re-telling of the classic story. Corny, overblown and with a particularly irritating vocal from Max bacon, this one really does nothing for me.
You Can Still Get Through continues the trend towards formulaic rock and roll. Musically though it has a fine main theme, another classic example of stadium rock at its most rousing. Sadly, the track is let down by another mediocre over the top performance in the vocal department and the whole leaves me reminded of a poor man's Asia - sad really.
Reach Out (Never Say No) is still more of the same, I'm afraid. A lumpen rocker with nothing to recommend it.
Toe The Line is an altogether better prospect, a slightly countrified song with a fine acoustic performance from the two main protagonists and one which for once, lends itself rather well to Max Bacon's vocals.
Hackett To Bits (or should that be Please Don't Touch revisited?). A drastic re-working of several themes from that earlier classic drive this one along nicely but really this one serves to show that perhaps Steve himself had run out of ideas for this project?
The album closes with Imagining, a marriage of two different tracks, the acoustic intro and the rest which forms the song itself. Not a likely marriage but one which works better than most of the rest of the album, a suitably up-beat closer.
Fans were taken by surprise by the appearance of this album, after all, Steve had done it all before with Genesis. Thankfully, this experiment was short-lived and Steve soon returned to what he was good at, leaving this aberration far behind, which is where it belongs as far as I am concerned!
Star Rating: *
Steve on GTR.... "It evolved out of the frustration of doing albums which weren't getting a look in in the American marketplace. I had done these things which were a labour of love but in America the usual response I got was; ‘We'll take it if Phil Collins is on it' I found that more and more people were interested in what I was doing only by association. I found the idea of doing GTR came out of the mutual frustration of two guitarists who felt the same way. So, we decided to combine forces and put together a band which certainly had the potential for longevity, as opposed to doing the usual couple of acoustic guitars type project..."
1988's Momentum album saw Steve return to the acoustic format of Bay Of Kings. This time, however, the emphasis was definitely on the Classical form and the resulting album is altogether more austere and refined than its predecessor.
If Steve had shown his talents on the acoustic guitar with 1983's Bay Of Kings, here he came of age. The album opens with Cavalcanti evoking the sensation of watching a galloping horse. Of course, Cavalcanti was also the family name of one of the directors of many of the Ealing comedy films which both Steve and I are fond of, so perhaps an unintentional homage was paid there? Either way, this is a delightful opener.
The Sleeping Sea, continues the maritime theme set by so much of Bay Of Kings, a darker and more sombre portrait this time, drawing us into the mysteries and depths of the ocean.
Portrait Of A Brazilian Lady, not Kim this time but her grandmother. A marvellous character study full of charm and wistful energy.
When The Bell Breaks and A Bed, A Chair And A Guitar both continue the emphasis on the traditional style of playing but manage to mix in healthy doses of folk and jazz too - Hackett in miniature perhaps?
Concert For Munich is a truly glorious almost choral track helped enormously by the presence of synthesiser and the wonderful flute playing of John. A marvellous homage to the victims of the Munich air disaster but equally a truly beautiful performance and one which always makes me cry when I hear it - tears of joy though!
Last Rites Of Innocence takes us back to Bach (pardon the pun). A stately, almost austere performance redolent of the halcyon days of the Kappelmeisters.
Troubled Spirit is an evocation and acknowledgement of the "Divine spark" which inhabits us all. A hymn of triumph, darkness vanquished by the light and a truly remarkable performance.
Variation On A Theme By Chopin evokes that classical master in a gentle, almost melancholy reverie in which Steve's playing mimics the piano to perfection.
Pierrot, is another delightful character portrait. The famous single-teared clown is delightfully brought to life in a wonderful impressionistic study.
The album's title track rounds it off. Momentum indeed, for me this one brings to mind, a child's mischievous game of hide and seek with a rather frazzled grown up or older brother or sister wistful and full of charm, this ends the album in fine style.
Momentum for me, saw Steve's coming of age as a composer for the acoustic guitar. The performing on this album is more informed and infinitely more rounded than its predecessor. Classical Jazz perhaps? A classic? Definitely!
Star Rating: *****
Steve on Momentum... "They are harder to play this time but they are... I tried to push my technique a lot more on this album. I wanted the pieces to be a bit more intricate . It's all nylon really, I have pared it down. There aren't any steel tracks on it but that is because I have got very dedicated to the nylon strung guitar. The nylon really is the... REAL guitar for me, that's what it is. I think the nylon is timeless...."
Steve effectively disappeared off the radar after the release of Momentum apart from his charitable efforts on behalf of the Vietnamese Boat People that resulted in a re-recording of the classic track "Sailing" in 1990 and his next album, 1992's The Unauthorised Biography was a compilation effectively a "best of" to tie up the loose-ends of his contract with Virgin Records.
The album is primarily of interest to fans for the inclusion of the two new tracks; Don't Fall Away From Me and Prayers And Dreams. The former was part of a fuller song developed by both Steve and Brian May which subsequently appeared on the Feedback 86 album while Prayers And Dreams, was to have been part of the sound track to "The Red Priest" a film on the life story of Antonio Vivaldi. However, as an introduction to Steve's music, this album showcases the many sides to Steve's music quite nicely.
Star Rating: ***
Steve on The Unauthorised Biography.... "We sat down and decided some tracks which hadn't received as much attention as other tracks. So, instead of doing an album of stage favourites, we decided to include stuff like the Randy Crawford track; Hoping Love Will Last..."
1993 brought fans what they had been waiting for for over ten years - a new rock album. However, Guitar Noir is not your average rock album, oh no! Just as Cured was a pivotal album for Steve, so too, Guitar Noir was a statement of intent from Steve. Finally finding the confidence to examine issues that he would have shied away from only a few years earlier, Guitar Noir challenges your preconceptions about Steve and his music at every turn.
Take These Pearls opens the album with Steve in fine form, at last he has found his voice, not only in terms of honing his singing to suit the material but also in terms of the lyrical content of his songs. This is a wonderful evocation of the lengths a man will go to for love and musically it is couched in the romanticism of both Spain and Russia - a magnificent start to the album.
As I said before, Steve had found his "voice" on this album and he began to challenge not only our preconceptions but also bring subjects which he would previously have steered clear of to vivid life. None more so than Dark As The Grave, a suitably dark title for an examination of the seedier side of life. Wonderfully evoked in the lyric and music, this is Steve at his most challenging.
Paint Your Picture is a beautiful sound picture.
There Are Many Sides To The Night takes us into the dark underworld of any city; a moral tale of a street walker's motivation - there are many "sides" to any story and this track teaches us this lesson as only Steve can. Not easy listening but then, the best music never is!
Like An Arrow is an exhortation to us to overcome our doubts and fears and rise above them to better things. Inspired by a dream, this one is as emphatic a statement of the triumph of the human spirit as you could wish for.
Walking Away From Rainbows reflects Steve's thoughts on his departure from Genesis and indeed, the metaphor can be extended to the situation you find yourself in when any relationship isn't working out. A marvellous thought provoking piece which resonates in the head long after the music has finished.
Sierra Quemada (literally; The Scorched Earth) certainly lives up to its name. Steve's guitar sears its way across a vividly etched aural landscape. In spirit, this is the closest thing to Spectral Mornings that Steve has written and the comparison is not intended as anything other than a compliment!
Lost In Your Eyes and Little America are brilliant sound pictures of aspects of American life, with the latter in particular being a savage indictment of the celebrity "culture" that is so much a part and parcel of that country.
In The Heart Of The City, will touch a chord with anyone stick in the rat race and the desire to succeed at any cost. A regimented rhythm picks out the city's foot soldiers as they march to the beat of capital's drum!
Vampyre With A Healthy Appetite harks back in spirit to the likes of Sentimental Institution but this time with a bit more bite (pardon the pun). Ostensibly based around the story of the theft of several pints of blood from a New Orleans hospital, the story is indeed a vampire story but the vampire in question is society, sucking the lifeblood out of its unsuspecting victims - a chilling take on a familiar story!
Tristesse closes the album with a reflective, melancholy piece which to my ears has echoes of several TV series from the 1980's, a haunting refrain which I can't help thinking should have lyrics set to it - maybe one day, Steve?
If Cured was a pivotal album in Steve's development , then Guitar Noir is even more so. Here Steve threw off the shackles of doubt and took subjects that had been on his mind for ages head on. The result is an album that challenges at every turn, a minor masterpiece and certainly one that all Hackett fans should have.
Star Rating: *****
Steve on Guitar Noir.... "I continue to sing all my own vocals and in fact I have changed the style of material to suit that I think. I have been taking a far more poetic approach to lyrics. I mean I write them down and see if they work on the printed page before I turn them into a song. I don't see the lyrics as an appendage to the song any more. I am enjoying singing very much myself whether I sing flat all night or surprise myself and hit all the high notes. It doesn't matter to me in the same degree as it would say to a band who were concerned with creating radio friendly material. I am not doing that; what I am doing is increasingly private. I write from the inside out much more now. I write about things that concern me..."
1994 saw another unexpected turn in the career path of Mr Hackett as he returned to his roots for an album of Blues music. Blues With A Feeling mixes established material from that oeuvre with new compositions in the same vein and Steve manages to weave them together almost seamlessly.
I don't know enough about the various forms that Blues music takes but I like this! Opening with Born In Chicago, a rampaging stomp that gives Steve plenty of space to practice his harmonica licks.
The classic The Stumble is next, a real down and dirty performance, which to my mind definitely has its home in some packed out sweaty bar in one of the seedier parts of town - and we all know where they are, don't we?!
Love Of Another Kind, a Hackett composition in the style and a reflection on the demands placed on you by fans; family; friends or whatever you wish to read into the lyric. A moral tale told in a barnstorming blues fashion.
Way Down South is an altogether mellower performance; walking blues or strolling blues really, this is the soundtrack theme that so many Clint Eastwood films never had!
A Blue Part Of Town - last orders at the bar please, gentlemen! This is the kind of end of evening melancholy "I don't want to go home" kind of blues that everyone knows.
Footloose owes nothing to the film of the same name but an awful lot to the Blues Brothers! A magnificent full blooded romp that takes no prisoners - move over, Jake and Elwood - Hackett's in town!
Tombstone Roller rolls around like a tumbleweed blown from one place to another but this tumbleweed is blown by the force of a band intent on getting every last ounce of pleasure out of their performance.
Blues With A Feeling is another classic given the Hackett treatment. It's fun and mellow and one which should be enjoyed with a cold beer.
Big Dallas Sky is as broad musically as its subject matter. Steve's spoken-voiced vocal menacingly contrasts with the altogether lighter feel to the music, a perfect example of Steve's mastery of light and shade.
The 13th Floor has the sound and feel of an informal jam; an excuse for the band to flex their muscles and have some fun.
So Many Roads, another bona fide classic from the blues catalogue, a slow rambling blues which takes us back to the raw heart and soul of the blues.
The album closes with another group composition; Solid Ground. Which uses a theme which Steve had already committed to record on Don't Fall on the as yet (back in 1994) unreleased Feedback project. A dramatic and emotional performance which brings the album to a close in fine style.
Steve took no prisoners with this project. It is an indulgent album; as a fan of a particular form of music expresses that love through the medium of playing. An album that's all about the performance and not at all politically correct!
Star Rating: ***
Steve on Blues With A Feeling.... "I wanted to do an album where the solos are more important than the songs. Where the blowing was more important than the songs and the reason that I was attracted to the blues a long time ago was that the playing; from the viewpoint of an aspiring guitarist which I was in the Sixties, was where the innovations were happening in electric guitar playing and I always regard it with respect because there's nothing more exciting than hearing a good blues solo. We are doing it for fun. It's a flexible line up and I don't know how many people will be involved in the finished project. I think of it as a band because it's not a vehicle for songwriters; least of all me! It's more... I'm quite happy to do covers of existing things. It's really an excuse for more aggressive playing...."
By 1996 Steve had realised that he was never going to escape the "Ex Genesis" tag but rather than indulge in self-denial, Steve took exactly the opposite approach with his next album. Genesis Revisited does exactly what it says on the record sleeve, and takes an affectionate look back at some of the classic Genesis tracks which Steve was involved with as well as giving us a few new classic Hackett compositions into the bargain.
Watcher Of The Skies opens the album and immediately the use of the orchestra gives it an even broader sweep than it had originally - this is a reinterpretation at its very best and with John Wetton in charge of the vocals, this is a masterful opening.
Dance On A Volcano too features a drastic re-working of another classic. I know that many fans won't like the idea of tampering with the originals but if you give this a listen you might change your mind. Musically, this is closer in spirit to the rehearsal version than I would have imagined while Steve's demented "Lawrence Olivier on speed" type character now so familiar to us, gets his first outing here!
Never one to take the easy option, Steve bravely decided to incorporate some new material among the classics and the first of these is Valley Of The King. An awesome musical landscape, redolent of the big screen epics of yore - ramming speed, Hortator!
The next track; déjà vu took us all by surprise. A left over from the sessions for Selling England By The Pound, Steve had always had a soft spot for it and managed to give us another little gem with a superb vocal from Paul Carrack. Firth Of Fifth was one track which blew me away the first time I heard it way back in ....! Always a favourite, I would have been a little bit sceptical about any re-working of it had I not been given the chance of an advance hearing by Steve and his manager. Opening with a delightful send up of the piano introduction on tubular bells and orchestra, the essence of the original is retained and expanded upon by an inspired use of orchestra and percussive instrumentation which takes the song off in an entirely new direction.
For Absent Friends has always been an underrated song and here at last it gets the treatment it deserved. Served up in waltz time this is a delight for the ears and once again, the choice of Colin Blunstone on vocals is inspired.
Your Own Special Way too, has always been underrated. Well, on an album that contains 11th Earl of Mar, Blood On The Rooftops and Afterglow, its not surprising really! Anyway, if ever there was proof that on occasions you CAN improve on the original, then this track is it. Steve takes Mike's original blueprint and extends it beyond all recognition. The guitar playing is awesome and Paul Carrack delivers one of the finest vocal performances I have ever heard from him - this should have been a hit single!
Fountain Of Salmacis too is a delight. Not a slavish imitation but a dramatic re-working of the classic tale. Delivered with tongue very firmly in cheek, this is an amusing new version.
Waiting Room Only.... Well, I never did like The Waiting Room in the first place (even if it IS the title of our esteemed web site) and this version really doesn't do it for me, I'm afraid.
Same goes for I Know What I Like, a funky jazz arranged (or should that be deranged?) humorous take on the original which falls rather flat to these ears.
Los Endos restores the balance however right from the Brazilian styled percussive introduction this one races along at a pace which never lets up. This one even translated well into Steve's live repertoire where it still remains to this day.
Knowing how devoted Genesis fans are to this music, the decision to make this album was an incredibly brave one and if you can get past the natural reservations you may have about "covers" of such classics, then you are in for a treat with this album.
Star Rating: ****
Steve on Genesis Revisited.... "I often thought 'I wonder what these numbers would sound like if they were re-recorded using the technology of now' putting my own studio to good use. There were numbers which I always loved and adored and mainly I remember those numbers sounding wonderful live but feeling that the studio versions of them were a bit disappointing. Things that were epically huge such as Watcher Of The Skies on both the recorded versions; Foxtrot and Genesis Live; it didn't have the size and majesty I remembered playing it live in front of 20,000 people in the Palasport in Rome and having it fill that hall..."
Having explored the "Small Orchestra" with Bay Of Kings and Momentum, it was high time that Steve worked with an orchestra proper and 1997's A Midsummer Night's Dream did exactly that. Rather than being a soundtrack for the play itself, Steve took some of the characters and quotations from the play and wove a marvellous aural tapestry which demonstrated that his talents in composition are every bit as good as his guitar playing.
The album opens with a vivid description of The Palace Of Theseus, a hive of activity in preparation for the impending nuptials all of which are brought to life in a superlative virtuoso display by Steve augmented by some tasteful underscoring from the orchestra.
A Form In Wax, is anything but. A stately and impressive evocation of the figure of Hermia's authoritarian father; gentle rather than forceful chastisement is depicted here.
By Paved Fountain is another wonderfully visual description of one of the settings from the play. Steve's playing easily conjures up the image of running water and the tranquillity of the setting which has been disturbed by Oberon's "brawls".
Titania, the Faerie Queen and one of the play's central characters is vividly portrayed here. Stately but with easily enough inner mischief to be a match for her husband Oberon.
Set Your Heart At Rest, a beautiful thought in itself and a beautiful reverie performed with real verve by Steve.
Oberon, the Faerie King like a pastoral Zeus, lord of all he surveys but seldom the match for Titania, his queen. Depicted in a stately form by the orchestra evoking the regal nature of his character, before Steve's playful guitar reveals the mischievous side of his nature in a delightful almost minuet style dance.
Within This Wood, an idyll within the proceedings with the guitar depicting the Faerie queen and her consorts frolicking within the wood. Wonderfully visual and with a wry sense of humour.
In The Beached Margent Of The Sea, an altogether more dramatic setting with the orchestra strings portraying the stormy waves upon the seashore and the stately dancing of the Faerie Queen there with her consorts. Her majesty and that of the sea all brilliantly rolled into one.
Between The Cold Moon & The Earth, once again, a wonderful phrase in its own right and brilliantly evoked by the contrast in forms between Steve's almost frosty guitar playing and the warmth of the orchestra.
Puck, without doubt the star of the show and one of Shakespeare's greatest creations is portrayed here in all his mischievous glory. Steve's playing has a playful and irreverent fell to it, totally in keeping with the character of this playful spirit.
Helena, is revealed in a beautiful romantic setting by the orchestra, lovelorn yet determined to win through.
Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth & Mustardseed, the four fairy attendants of Titania are wittily portrayed here with delightful character pen portraits combining guitar and elements of the orchestra to bring the characters to life.
Mountains Turned Into Clouds, is another beautifully descriptive phrase which Steve and the orchestra take to new heights. Stately and majestic and thoroughly engrossing, this is visual music of the highest order.
The Lunatic, The Lover & The Poet, another three pen portraits; all gathered together in a stately dance form which combines the essential elements of all three into one harmonious whole - after all, "the lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact" as the Bard said!
Starlight, doesn't really need an explanation does it? Beautifully and hauntingly picked out by the orchestra and guitar this one shimmers like its subject.
Lysander & Demetrius, the lovers at the heart of the play are given the Hackett treatment next. Contrasting characters are picked out by orchestra and guitar in two lovely portraits.
Celebration, does exactly what it describes. A glorious fanfare heralds the happy day for all of the protagonists. The guitar dances over the organ and trumpet symbolising both the happy and serious elements of the wedding day and weaving them both into a superb... celebration, that's the word!
All Is Mended, the last word belongs to Puck and it is delivered here in typical Hackett style. A superb guitar refrain which is understated and sublime ending the album on a suitably restrained note.
I said in my review of this album at the time of its release, that A Midsummer Night's Dream was Steve's coming of age as a composer. Well, listening to it again (and again!) has only reinforced that opinion. Here is an artist in total command of his art and creating a genuine masterpiece in the process!
Star Rating: *****
Steve on A Midsummer Night's Dream.... "I just thought it was such a lovely title and I never felt comfortable about calling one piece A Midsummer Night's Dream, I felt that was such a disservice to Shakespeare and people would have said; 'Oh, you nicked it from Shakespeare'. So, I thought why not try and embrace it long form and try to write a suite of pieces or variations if you like; with repeated themes some of which I had begun to take as character portraits...."
1999's Darktown however, was without doubt Steve's darkest album to date. Guitar Noir was the turning point from which Steve began to explore his thoughts and emotions and this album continues this trend in a much darker vein, an exorcism of much of the angst and anger which a lifetime can build up. Not for the fainthearted, Darktown is, an album that will certainly make you think.
From the light to the dark. Darktown is in total contrast to the album which proceeded it. In fact, it is in contrast to any album which has proceeded it! The opener; Omega Metallicus is a joyous romp through all things percussive. Doug Sinclair's bass work assaults the senses and threatens to blow out your speaker cabs - not for the fainthearted but perhaps the only element of humour in an otherwise incredibly dark album.
Steve's rehabilitation begun some six years before with Guitar Noir reaches its fruition here. Darktown, is a particularly damning indictment of school ground bullying and child abuse as I have ever heard. The anger in Steve's vocal delivery is frightening to behold.
Man Overboard reflects on love gone wrong - a romantic musical setting belies the underlying feeling of loss and frustration inherent within the lyric.
The Golden Age Of Steam is another interesting title. Owing nothing to travelogues really but an intriguing look at the idea of children being used as pawns by political ideologues. The references to trains running on time and oiling the machine; evoke the wartime days and the claim that for all its faults; Hitler's regime got the trains running on time - a wonderfully thought provoking song.
Days Of Long Ago is about as straight a love song as you are going to get on this album. An incongruous one too given the sombre nature of the subject material of much of the rest of the album.
Dreaming With Open Eyes is one of Steve's travel songs. The rhythm of windscreen wipers sets a hypnotic dreamy pace for a dreamscape set to music.
Twice Around The Sun sees Steve reclaiming his title as King Of Sustain. A marvellous instrumental in which Steve takes no prisoners - a worthy successor to Spectral Mornings itself!
Rise Again, a hymn of triumph to the life beyond corporeal existence. This one caresses and bludgeons the senses by turns.
Jane Austen's Door, once again a title which betrays so little. This is Steve's exorcism of the guilt he felt over his first girlfriend's descent into drug addiction. The references to the Sixties abound in the lyric which are full of bitterness and anger at the sense of futility Steve must have experienced at the time and ever since, one suspects.
Darktown Riot is exactly that, an aural rampage - an uncontrolled monster smashing all in its path.
The album ends on a down note with In Memoriam. Another elegy for the passage of time and regret for things said in haste. Another deeply personal reverie from Steve and one which leaves the listener silently pondering after the final bar has faded.
Darktown rates as the most deeply personal album Steve had committed to record. His very own Primal Scream therapy. An angry album, bitter and at times incredibly painful to listen to; but there are always flashes of light that pierce the otherwise unremitting darkness. An album that doesn't make for happy listening but one which shows Steve as a committed musician and above all - as a human being. An essential album to any collection.
Star Rating: *****
Steve on Darktown.... "There are some subjects which I have avoided in songs over the years because some of them were too painful to talk about but I got to the point where I felt ready to confront those demons in song."
Steve was united with his brother, John for 2000's Sketches Of Satie, a delightful interpretation of many of the classic tracks by this renowned Impressionist composer.
The album opens with a series of pieces called Gnossienne. Now I have no idea what a Gnossienne is but what I can say is that the series (six in all) has to contain some of the most beautifully haunting music I have ever heard. The combination of Steve's guitar and John's wonderful flute playing have never sounded better to my ears.
The surprising thing about this album more than anything else is how much of the music contained on it will be familiar to you - even if you are not an aficionado of Classical music. The third Gnossienne (confusingly actually No 1) is instantly recognisable from its use in numerous film and TV soundtracks.
This series is followed by the equally well known Gymnopedies and for the uninitiated among you; a Gymnopedie refers to the frieze of dancing figures round vases from ancient Greece. There is certainly something dance-like about these beautiful miniatures and in the hands of Steve and John this music really reverberates in your mind long after it has finished playing.
Steve and John also decided to visit some of Satie's lesser known works and the Pieces Froides, Avant Dernieres Penseees and Nocturnes certainly deserve a wider audience. Challenging stuff but rewarding, too.
As an interpretation of someone else's work, this album is a true delight. Steve and John meld together in an incredibly organic way, there is nothing contrived or forced about this partnership and fans of Steve's acoustic work will find this a rewarding exercise. Fans of good music will do so, too. I love it!
Star Rating: ****
Steve on Sketches Of Satie.... "John and I had talked about doing something for a long time . We hadn't worked together for a long time and frankly I missed it and we had talked about some guitar/flute combinations and we were originally thinking about an album that would have a mixture of things; a mixture of composers..."
Even by Steve's standards his next album; Feedback ‘86 also issued in 2000, had an inordinately long gestation period. Initially recorded in the period following the acrimonious demise of GTR, this album sat on the shelves for many years until the many legal and contractual issues surrounding it were ironed out. Better late than never, however, because this is another belter of an album.
Opening with Cassandra, an out and out rock track telling the tale of the prophetess of ancient myth whom no-one believed. Brilliantly scored and with a searing vocal from Chris Thompson and the stellar playing of the likes of Brian May and Pete Trewavas.
Prizefighters, has an even longer history than some of the other material for this album. Originally intended for the follow-up to 1986's GTR debut, it was re-worked and given the Bonnie Tyler treatment in the vocal department. An intriguing look behind the eyes of an over the hill boxer, maybe a reflection on where Steve saw his own career at the time, who knows?
Slot Machine, well, whoever said that Hackett couldn't write a hit single has never heard this one! Had the album been released in 1987, this would have stormed the charts of that I have no doubt. A rocking soundtrack underpinned by the moral tale of the perils of gambling - great stuff!
Don't Fall, is the song from which Don't Fall Away From Me was extracted for 1992's The Unauthorised Biography album. Another delightfully romantic effort on which Steve is accompanied by old cohort Nick Magnus and another delightful vocal from Chris Thompson.
Oh How I Love You too, lets the inner romantic Hackett out.
Notre Dame Des Fleurs had been aired as far back as 1988 when it was performed as part of the set for Steve's Momentum tour. Not recorded for that album though, it is another delightful helping of acoustic Hackett. Much as I love it, it does not really fit within the framework of this album though.
The Gulf continues the trend of dealing with issues that Steve is concerned about. The Gulf in question could be the geographical location in the Middle East, the divide between Christianity and Islam or so many others - an extended metaphor for one or all of them and a plea for sanity in an increasingly fractious world.
A belated album and one which deserved a hearing at the time it was written. The 1980's' loss is our gain now in the Noughties though. With some great rock tunes and a stellar cast of musicians this is an enjoyable album.
Star Rating: ***
Live activities occupied Steve increasingly in the next few years and it wasn't until 2003 that his next studio album was issued. To Watch The Storms continued the trend of dark town in so far as it was an exploration of things that Steve is concerned about . This time, however, the emphasis is firmly on the lighter side of life and this album and Darktown are very much the two sides of the same coin.
The album opens with Strutton Ground, another one of Steve's "list" songs. This time a delightful homage to many of the familiar places in his own home town of London, all set at a brisk walking pace - a musical tourist's guide.
Circus Of Becoming continues the homage to London with several more references to the city especially St Paul's cathedral although this one is a lot more obscure in its references and there is more than a passing nod to historical figures such as Dylan Thomas and Percy Grainger if you know where to look!
The Devil Is An Englishman is, to my knowledge the first "cover" that Steve has committed to record. Originally written for Ken Russell's biopic of Byron here we have our first glimpse of the demoniac Lawrence Olivier character who has occupied several of Steve's more recent offerings. A wonderfully melodramatic piece worthy of modern Victoriana!
Frozen Statues, is the closest that Steve has come to Jazz and the brittle almost pungent playing brilliantly evokes the frozen state in which the victims of the medical condition the song is describing.
Mechanical Bride, a superb protest song aimed squarely at the perpetrators of such crimes as ethnic cleansing and urges us to think before embracing the ideologies which allow such things to happen - never trust your political leaders, folks!
Wind, Sand And Stars, a marvellous sonic landscape brilliantly evoking the windswept Saharan landscape which forms the background to the book of the same name by Sainte Exupery. Haunting and desolate and as vivid as its geographical predecessor; The Steppes, this is another superb soundcsape.
Brand New is a delightful up tempo rocking guitar where Steve lets his emotions go and the electric guitar is the beast let loose for a quick stomp.
This World, an emotional love song which will appeal to anyone of a romantic persuasion written in the unique Hackett style.
Rebecca, another homage to one of literature's great creations, this time Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca the book has had its film and now it has its song too, the trilogy is complete.
The Silk Road takes its inspiration from the ancient trade route of the same name. An inspired marriage between Eastern and Western influences here bringing the various regions through which the route passes vividly to life.
Come Away, owes a great deal to the Eastern European tradition of the mazurka. A delightfully drunken sounding romp of a tune, evocative of the after effects of one too many at the fair!
The Moon Under Water, to many of us may simply be a pub sign, but in the hands of a master like Steve, it is transformed into a beautiful creation, shimmering and palid just like the subject!
The album closes with Serpentine Song, without doubt one of the best songs Steve has ever penned. A worthy tribute to his father; Peter a man whose own artistic talents are not to be sneezed at. Affectionate without becoming maudlin, this is a marvellous way to close an album.
I said in my review of the album that this is a "street with thirteen bungalows, each with a different frontage" .That description is still true. What we have here is a microcosm of all the various styles and musical influences which Steve has explored. Steve continues to examine subjects which he is concerned about but this time, the emphasis is on those that make him smile - a superb album!
Star Rating: *****
Steve on To Watch The Storms... "I allowed myself to get lost in the world of sound and lyrics and the attempt to paint atmospheres with music. If you think it's almost a film for the ears rather than the eyes. I was trying to take people off on a journey to many different places and times...."
Having whetted his appetite for orchestral composition with 1997's A Midsummer Night's Dream, he returned to that format with 2005's Metamorpheus album. Initially written at the same time as the previous orchestral album, this one was left to rest upon the lees like fine wine until the true vintage could be brought out. Loosely based around the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, this album examines the fundamentals of life and death in a vast landscape of glorious sound confirming, if confirmation was needed, that Steve is one of this country's foremost composers for the orchestra.
Originally conceived at the same time as A Midsummer Night's Dream, Metamorpheus has had a far longer gestation period and it shows. The re-telling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been done many times but seldom if ever with such skill.
The album opens in a suitably dramatic manner with The Pool Of Memory & The Pool Of Forgetfulness, a tolling bell heralds Orpheus's start on his journey. This in turn is followed by To Earth Like Rain, a suitably descriptive piece in which the guitar flows like raindrops, while the orchestra conjures up a glorious image of the sun peeking through rain clouds. Song To Nature, is as organic as its title, the music grows from the ground upwards filling its surroundings with melody out of which emerges One Real Flower, a magnificent blossom and one of Steve's most wonderful acoustic compositions.
The Dancing Ground incorporates a stately waltz tune befitting its title. A wonderfully evocative performance bringing majesty and celebration to the proceedings, this could be one of Mr Strauss's finest creations but instead it is from the pen of Stephen Hackett esquire!
That Vast Life a truly magnificent effort, a lifetime of thoughts, emotions and experiences encapsulated within one wonderful symphony - yes, that's the right word! Either way, Steve has never sounded better to my ears and this rates as his finest individual composition.
Eurydice Taken, brings drama back to the proceedings, , its dramatic content easily evokes the sense of unease and sense of loss that Orpheus experiences.
Charon's call, chillingly depicts the summons by the boatman to ferry Eurydice across the river Styx to the land of the dead. Picked out in fine detail by the violin and cello, leaving Steve's guitar to portray Eurydice the contrast of the bleakness of Charon's call and her grace and beauty need no more words.
Cerberus At Peace is a delightfully humorous description of the guardian of the Underworld taking a doze. An almost cartoon-like tune belies the underlying menace of this fearsome beast.
Under The World - Orpheus Looks Back, the drama picks up a pace with this haunting depiction of Orpheus in the Underworld. You can almost imagine him tip-toeing along, whilst shades of the dead are all around him. His fateful decision to look back is searingly portrayed by dissonant strings and the feeling of anguish is almost tangible.
The Broken Lyre, is a entirely apposite description for the state Orpheus finds himself in after emerging from the Underworld. His inspiration and his soul mate have been cruelly ripped from him and the guitar picks out a melody rich in melancholy and sadness.
Severance, had previously appeared as part of the soundtrack to the TV documentary Outwitting Hitler and its frenetic pace is easily evocative of a train journey - to freedom perhaps or to the nightmare that was Auschwitz? In this setting, the discord and disharmony are a vivid reflection of the pain Orpheus feels at his loss.
Elegy, a funereal pace replaces the angst and anger as Orpheus finally is brought to rest.
Return To The Realm Of Eternal Renewal, Orpheus is reunited with Eurydice and their union is celebrated in this magnificent performance, full of joy, humour and tinged with a little sadness - glorious stuff!
Lyra, the album ends on a triumphant note as Orpheus takes his place amongst the stars in the firmament. Love conquers all and this is a glorious recapitulation of many of the themes of the album, weaving them into a truly magnificent finale which shines as brightly as the constellation it describes!
It is difficult for me to really describe how I feel about this album, especially as every time I listen to it I bawl my eyes out! Music for me is all about expressing emotion and if that is the case, then Metamorpheus runs the whole gamut of human emotions and then some. A truly marvellous composition from a man who is never afraid to let his own emotions influence his music, this is a masterpiece, pure and simple!
Star Rating: *****
Steve on Metamorpheus.... "I suspect that the Orpheus myth provides the sub-text to every musicians' life. The myth claims to do all sorts of things; it is claimed that Orpheus is a healer and he tries to save life with his music. It brings in ideas of rebirth; many things. As a religion Orpheus was as important to the ancients as Christ is to people today and so I am going back to an older; some would regard it as a pagan religion or philosophy in order to set this music in a context...."
Barely a year later and Steve was back in rock mode as only he can. Wild Orchids is a deceptively pastoral title for an album which mixes and matches so many different sides of Hackett's persona that this can effectively be described as "Hackett in a nutshell" really.
Opening with A Dark Night In Toytown, all the fun of the fairground is here but the song is also an extended metaphor for the perils of drugs once again. Set against the background of the glitz and glamour of the fair, Steve's lyrics are a visceral plea against today's drug culture.
Waters Of The Wild, Hackett meets The Beatles here with an oriental homage to the Sergeant Pepper period, replete with psychedelic imagery. I can't imagine Steve as a hippy some how but he does a pretty good impression of one here, musically at least!
Set Your Compass, was one of the handful of tracks I had heard from this album before it was properly recorded and it echoed in my mind long after that first hearing. Couched in deeply poetic terms, the lyric exhorts us to follow our hearts and our dreams the rising and falling rhythm of the music beautifully evokes a feeling of being at sea and musically there are one or two echoes of Steve's past here too, I'm sure you will recognise them!
Down Street, Steve meets Stephen King and Charles Dickens in this delightfully macabre description of the seedy underbelly of Olde London Towne. Once again, Steve's maniacal vocal performance brings a frisson of horror to the proceedings but really, this is more Ghost Train than Hammer Horror.
A Girl Called Linda, is another song chock full of references to childhood; Peter Pan, Toys R Us, Buckle My Shoe... a reverie for innocence lost.
To A Close, proves that when you have someone as talented as Steve the worlds of rock and the orchestra can work together. A wonderfully poignant story is depicted by a marvellously descriptive lyric against which the music sedately portrays the character at the height of her powers.
Ego And Id, is only the second cover that Steve has attempted and this time one of his brother's own from Checking Out Of London. A faithful rendering of a fine song.
Man In The Long Black Coat is yet another cover, this time one of Mr Dylan's lesser known tunes. Once again, the imagery is such that you can put your own slant on the story. Is the character the Devil? I don't know but the story is brilliantly told in words and music.
Wolfwork, a wry look at the demands placed on people by society and the false promises which are made. The lyrics are superbly descriptive and full of superbly cast images while the music varies from frenetic to wryly humorous.
Why, a worthy successor to The Ballad Of The Decomposing Man, another wistful look back at the 1940's with a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek lyric - cremation won't be long indeed!
She Moves In Memories recapitulates the glorious theme from To A Close, a grand theme which easily deserves its on moment in the sun - here it is.
The Fundamentals Of Brainwashing, another wry look at the folly of mankind. The lyric is crammed full of marvellous images which certainly make me think and on occasions, smile as I recognise someone or something within myself brought to life by Steve's masterful lyric.
The album ends with another instrumental romp, Howl, a latter day Primal Scream therapy perhaps but a suitably provocative end to the album.
Wild Orchids continues in very much the same vein as its two rock predecessors. The humour and menace are all there but this time the central theme is the thrills and spills of the fairground. That said, there is still a harder edge to some of the material and Steve continues to bring subjects to light which society tends to ignore or shut away. An album that combines both the light and shade of previous works, and something which Steve has always been a master of, another excellent effort.
Star Rating: ****
Steve on Wild Orchids.... "I think what we do here is make test tube babies really. We mix this tremendous amount of sound and sample ... basically we have conversations and then we try to put it into effect. It is the two of us (Steve and Roger King) sitting down and taking our time over what happens next. It is a very unhurried pace. We do whatever it takes to get the sound; if it is the performance; whether it is man, woman or... if it moves, we track it!"
2008's Tribute album takes the idea of paying tribute to one's heroes one stage beyond the norm. Initially conceived as a homage to the interpretations of J S Bach by the great Spanish guitarist, Andres Segovia, this album soon blossomed into something deeper and richer. Sonically, Steve and his cohort, Roger King, have managed to re-create the warmth of those old analogue recordings whilst managing to incorporate brand new material into the mix without the "join" being visible , so to speak.
Steve's past has always informed his present and perhaps none more so here where we have his homage to many of the great masters who have influenced his music and that of many others too, no doubt.
The opening trio of pieces demonstrate Steve's knowledge and love of the music of Bach and each piece lovingly captures the spirit of that age which was not for nothing known as "The Age Of Reason". Musically this recaptures the spirit of that age in truly warm performances.
The Fountain Suite, many of Steve's fans will know from its performance as part of the show during his acoustic trio tours in 2005 - 07. Here it is , polished and shining like a diamond, a worthy homage to Andres Segovia.
The Earle Of Salisbury pays a worthy tribute to another master of the Renaissance, John Byrd. Stately and refined, a worthy nod to this gallant gentleman.
La Catedral reiterates the debt that Steve owes to the music masters of Spain without whom the acoustic guitar would never sound so good. The guitar ripples like running water here, or perhaps the light shining through a stained glass window?
El Noy De La Mare continues the Spanish influence. A traditional Catalan song which is almost a lullaby, incredibly restrained and peaceful and beautifully performed by Steve.
Cascada, brings the Spanish almost to an end. This time, the genius of Joaquin Rodrigo, composer of the Concierto De Aranjuez among others is acknowledged. A rambling guitar figure conjures up images of children's games in a sunlit garden, all laughter and charm.
Sapphires, if the sleeve notes are to be believed was written back in the 1960's! Therefore it probably has the longest gestation period of any Hackett composition but the wait has been well worth it. Polished and refined just like the gem in question.
Back to Bach, if you will pardon the pun. Prelude In D is Bach at his most happy, a delightfully playful interlude which is followed by another extremely short piece; Prelude In C Minor but its not the length that matters but the quality and it is here in spades!
The heart of the album is next though. The Chaconne was originally written by Bach as a tribute to his deceased wife. As such, it goes through many emotions during the course of its twelve or so minutes. Incredibly difficult to perform, this one shows Steve's mastery not only of his instrument but also his command of the inner language of the music itself.
The album ends with another visit to the shores of Spain with La Maja De Goya, a beautifully observed character portrait of what is no doubt a beautiful young lady as she dances unaware of any observers - a wonderfully sprightly end to the album.
Steve's reputation as a performer for the Classical repertoire and as an interpreter of some of its most demanding music is sealed here with a masterful and insightful homage to some of orchestral music's greatest composers.
Star Rating: ****
Steve on Tribute.... "Playing the pieces that had haunted me for years and years; pieces that just wouldn't go away. So it was an exorcism but a nice one; laying old friends and ghosts to rest. I just felt that the quality of the music was so great that even if I did a halfway decent job THAT would still come through and because I am not trained, what I have brought to it is my feeling and my love for it. I haven't beaten myself over the head to do it and I haven't had any raps on the knuckles. I haven't had to LEARN this stuff and because I have gone my own sweet way I can tear up the rule book...."
Albums reviewed are original UK editions and not subsequent re-issues. All quotations taken from interviews conducted by the author with Steve and published in The Waiting Room Magazine/TWRonline.net. © Alan Hewitt 2009.