It takes mere seconds to recognize the architect of the mysterious guitar as it emerges from the stillness. The famed fingers of Steve Hackett tap and glide across the fretboard with familiar dramatic flair in The Obliterati, the dark overture to his 28th studio album Surrender Of Silence. Notes bend until they cry out, primal drumming shakes the walls, and ominous themes grip and captivate as Hackett pens the latest chapter in his lifelong musical essay – and it’s a heavy and impassioned one this time.
The 71 year-old has, to cop a cliché, never been busier. The nearly hour-long Surrender Of Silence is the prestigious axeman’s second album of 2021, a yang to the yin of January’s Under A Mediterranean Sky. Obviously a worldwide lockdown provides ample opportunity for housebound artists to tap into their muses, but one still shakes their head in amazement at the youthful energy Hackett harnesses to craft these original works with such regularity. If January’s album was a gentle, dreamier nod to some beloved locales, Surrender illuminates the artist’s perspective nine months on with a stormier and more electric vibe. New and familiar faces round out the cast this time too, including vital component Jonas Reingold, another tireless musician plucking strings on numerous releases this year.
After much furious fretwork, The Obliterati shifts to the orchestral world, swirling into the first proper song Natalia like some demented Prokofiev-soaked nightmare. The shadowy Russian tale expands to incorporate commanding choirs and a lengthy instrumental section that allows for one of the many trademark Hackett solos peppered throughout this album. Some of this is familiar territory, an aspect I’ve seen praised and criticized in equal measure over the last decade or so. In these condemnatory, hyper-opinionated times, I expect to read the same range of comments, from ‘He’s done this album five times before already’ to ‘This is what Hackett does best, why wouldn’t I want more of it?’ … and everything in between. While I can understand all of these, and even find myself glancing in the direction of the former on occasion, I tend to lean heavily towards the latter – and more so than ever with this album.
The curiously-titled Relaxation Music For Sharks (Featuring Feeding Frenzy) is an early highlight, showcasing the outstanding drumming of prog rock darling Nick D’Virgilio. Not to take anything away from the album’s other skin-bashers Craig Blundell and Phil Ehart – both excellent in their own right – but D’Virgilio truly elevates the two tracks he’s on (the other being pre-release single Fox’s Tango, which some will be familiar with via its accompanying video) and it would be fun to hear him guest again in the future if the opportunity arises. I’m intrigued at the thought of a dual setup between him and Blundell, but that’s getting carried away. Although the two tracks are quite different in style – Sharks a quirky instrumental and Fox’s Tango a sharp social commentary (with a riff channeling Tony Iommi) – they are both solid and inspired compositions.
Wingbeats was the first advance single and video, and listeners will already be aware of its thudding African rhythms and world music flavour. But it’s not quite Hackett-gone-Graceland, and these colours are used sensibly, accenting the music rather than dominating it. It’s a fine lyric too, co-written with Hackett’s wife Jo and based on their travels to Ethiopia. Hackett’s full touring band feature on the The Devil’s Cathedral, a frolicsome oddball of a piece bookended by Roger King doing his best Phantom Of The Opera. This type of arrangement (a short song followed by extended bouts of playing) is a common feature here, probably the most heavily instrumental rock album Hackett has done in recent memory.
Two more pieces loaded with brilliant playing (and which would translate into killer live tracks) are Held In The Shadows and Day Of The Dead. Again, both begin as somewhat conventional songs with catchy choruses which develop into spirited instrumentals with tricky arrangements. Shadows is packed with guitar licks, though some of the high vocals could be a challenge for Hackett in a live setting. I’d wager that Day Of The Dead, with its doomy riffs and killer time changes, would take a lot of rehearsal, but if they nailed it, it would bring the house down. I’m curious to see which of these new pieces make it to the stage.
The beautiful and exotic Shanghai To Samarkand is the centerpiece of the album, with Christine Townsend’s haunting violin one of its most stirring moments. Hackett, born to write pieces like this, takes us on an adventure through the eight minutes of this cinematic mini-epic, reflecting the sights and sounds one might experience on this journey in the flesh. Many of us will never see these places, but can envision them with the musical narration of this seasoned globetrotter. Again, this mystical vibe is one he’s frequented, but so alluring is this piece that it lands as one of the finest he’s produced in two decades – and as someone familiar with that whole period, I don’t say that heedlessly. This is up there with latter-day favourites such as Nomads and Inca Terra. Terrific stuff.
Crying guitar rings out in the mournful Scorched Earth, its aching beauty matched by the poignant and timely lyrics. The self-appointed Unoriginality Police will claim this heartfelt plea to mankind has all been said before. But what is an artist like Hackett to do when too many have not listened before, even as we inhabit a world literally on fire? This is a gorgeous piece, one of the best on the album, and still would be even without the lyrics. But I do hope people at least give the message here some consideration. At the very least, Hackett should be commended for penning something of substance amid the sea of vacuity that passes for modern pop and rock lyrics. Finally, the soothing, wordless Esperanza acts as a coda, casting an impression of hope and sparing the album from ending on too grim a note.
Surrender Of Silence stands comfortably alongside its siblings At The Edge Of Light, The Night Siren, and Wolflight… perhaps even an inch or two above them, considering its best tracks. It’s hard not to be impressed with Hackett’s continued commitment to his craft some fifty years on, and his boundless imagination and technical skills are undiminished. While he and longtime collaborator King may have found their niche and operate comfortably within its parameters, they remain an impressive team, designing elegant and sophisticated works with ample nuance and dynamics. Ultimately, if the worst criticism that’s leveled at Steve Hackett is that he sometimes borrows from himself, well… he’s in awfully good company.
Surrender Of Silence is released 10 September.
Photo credits: Tina Korhonen.