March 4, 2024

Now in his 70s, and at a career point when most contemporaries would be, if not at least semi-retired then at least relaxing on past laurels, Steve Hackett has challenged both himself and his audience in creating a work of some significant scope, depth and ambition.

It’s been a particularly fertile time over the past decade or two for Steve Hackett releases – in addition to his regular live albums showcasing his various Genesis-themed tours, there have been a regular stream of solo studio albums being released (as well as an acoustic record in there also), and all have been enjoyable and well-received. What he hasn’t done for quite some time, however – and arguably never if one discounts the purely instrumental Voyage Of The Acolyte – is to release a fully-formed, concept album. Well, now he has, albeit a fairly loose concept as opposed to a strictly linear ‘rock opera’ narrative, and to add the interest it is also semi-autobiographical in nature, chronicling in abstract terms the life and progress of a central character very clearly modelled on himself, going right back to his own post-war London childhood.

There’s another major point of note to reference here as well, in terms of the sheer breadth and depth of musical styles on offer on this record. Some people have criticised the recent Hackett output of being quite predictable, although I feel this is actually rather unfair given that all musicians of a certain calibre have a signature sound, which is what distinguishes them from the ‘herd’, as it were. Those naysayers can point no such fingers at this release, however, as it sees Steve shaking up the listeners’ preconceptions and leaving the ‘Genesis-cum-Spectral Mornings‘ expectations very much in the minority. Still present, of course – there’s only so much you can, or even should, do to change your musical DNA – but now only a single facet of a multi-layered musical journey. It’s also notable that he handles the lead vocals throughout, with only one real exception, and while some might point to this as a weakness, it adds to the personal nature of the recording in another way – and while Steve would be the first to admit his major strength is not as a lead vocalist, his is certainly a perfectly reasonable voice which gets the job done. Unlike one or two other non-singing musicians who have taken the reins on their own works with very mixed results – of which no names will be mentioned, naturally!

Photo: Tina Korhonen

The album opens with a nod directly to where it all began in terms of ‘our hero’, with the era left in no doubt as People Of The Smoke begins with a sound collage including Pathe newsreel clips, the 1950s radio ‘Listen With Mother’ (with a snatch of the Ovalteenies for real authenticity), along with the sound of a baby crying. Yep, this is post-war London all right, as the sound of a steam train leads into the song proper, paying tribute to those hard-working ‘people of the smoke’ who had so much to do to get the country back onto its feet amid post-War austerity and the devastation wrought by the Blitz. Into this, in 1950, the young Steve Hackett emerges, growing up literally next to Battersea Power Station incidentally, with the pollution and smoke that it provided; the song itself is an impressive mix of progressive metal riffs, nice fiddly guitar parts for the ‘guitar junkies’, and some good old fashioned ‘classic rock’ attitude. This is the first hint that we’re not going to be in for a comfortable set full of familiar and comforting Hackett tropes. and that he, and we also, are both going to head on a little bit of a voyage of discovery. This opener crams a lot into its relatively compact length – another common feature here as this is far more about the whole taken together rather than individual songs, and thus there is no need for lengthy pieces (the longest track here is still under seven minutes, and several are under three). From there the album moves to the first of several instrumentals, with the beautifully melodic – if brief at under two minutes – These Passing Clouds, which is one of the tracks certain to please the ‘we want the trademark guitar sound’ crowd, before heading in the other direction for the relatively simple rock plod of Taking You Down, the only track here on which Nad Sylvan takes the vocal. Written about an old schoolfriend, and apparent bad influence, it’s powerful enough, but is probably the one track which doesn’t quite convince me, with the sax solo a little long for my personal taste, and the song generally lacking a little melodically, but it does its job in conveying the atmosphere required.

I won’t go through the whole thing in too much detail on a track by track basis, because there are after all 13 of them, and we would be here for some while if we were to forensically examine each. Suffice it to say that the story goes on through the manic circus of Steve’s Genesis time, on to his subsequent solo career as his ‘own boss’ if you like, and with a nice nod to his wife Jo along the way. Lost And Found, for example, deals with youthful first love, while the other big love song on the album, Ghost Moon And Living Love was inspired by, and concerning, his wife Jo and their relationship and its issues along the way. The longest track on the album, it’s pleasingly multi-faceted, with light and shade and a good amount of nice guitar work, and is sure to figure on a lot of people’s ‘favourite’ lists. This is preceded by the opposite side of the coin, with Get Me Out conjuring up a time of more personal turmoil, and the two dovetail splendidly. Steve’s entry into the world of music as a career is dealt with in the particularly impressive Enter The Ring, which is laden with harmony vocals and, driven along by some joyous flute, bears more than a passing resemblance to an upbeat sort of early Jethro Tull or Focus. Of course, the ‘circus’ becomes oppressive after a while, and the two powerful instrumentals Circo Inferno and Breakout evoke this time very strongly.

Having broken free of the Genesis ‘circus’, or ‘merry-go-round’ to extend the metaphor into the realm of the fairground (another influence in the writing of the album, apparently), we get the third consecutive short instrumental in the experimental shape of All At Sea, before Into The Nightwhale conjures up scary new waters with its propulsive yet slightly menacing tone. This is resolved entirely by the penultimate track, Wherever You Are, which sees sunlight streaming in to banish the somewhat claustrophobic air created by those darker pieces, as it delivers the most celebratory and optimistic tone on the whole album, suggesting that all has indeed ‘worked out fine’, to borrow a key moment from the Genesis colossus Supper’s Ready. As if to reinforce this, the album closes on a peacefully blissful note with the acoustic guitar tenderness of White Dove, to create a real sense of that tired, if apt, old phrase ‘a musical journey’.

How well the individual listener receives this album will largely depend on what they want to get out of it, I believe. Anyone wanting the epic majesty of Voyage Of The Acolyte again will likely be disappointed. Anyone wanting sprawling epics will also find themselves frustrated. But such would be to miss the bigger picture. Now in his 70s, and at a career point when most contemporaries would be, if not at least semi-retired then at least relaxing on past laurels, Steve Hackett has challenged both himself and his audience in creating a work of some significant scope, depth and ambition. He is also managing to combine the much-praised role as ‘curator’ of the classic Genesis legacy at a time when others seem to drop it like the hottest of potatoes, with the regular live albums for posterity, with his own solo furrow which refuses to stray into that of his old band for too long. It’s a neat, and admirable trick to pull off – and to once again strain that circus metaphor to its extreme, he is yet to show any sign of falling off that particular tightrope. This is an album which will grow with further listening, and investigation into the significance of each piece to that over-reaching concept, that’s for sure. It may not, as yet, be my favourite of his more recent output (the superb Wolflight remains my personal pick), but it is certainly comparable in most ways with any of them, and in many ways of even greater significance.