Issue 2019-005: Steve Hackett InterReview
It's always an exciting time when people like Steve Hackett anounce a new album. The past few weeks three of our reviewers have had the forthcoming At The Edge Of Light under review and you will read our Round Table Review below. But first, the interview our team member Patrick McAfee conducted with the man himself.
Hi Steve, I really appreciate the opportunity to speak to you.
Sure. It's nice to talk to you.
Nice to talk to you as well. I received the new album, At the Edge of Light yesterday. I will tell you, I listened to it five times straight.
Really? Well, thank you very much.
Yeah, it's one of those albums that just... you just absorb it over repeated listens. You keep hearing new things with each listen, and it was just wonderful. I really, really enjoyed it. It is absolutely impressive how you just keep recording albums of such high quality.
Well, thank you very much. Thanks for the compliment. I must say we had a great time making the album. A lot of great performances from people. Sometimes one just sits back and marvels at what other people can bring to it. It's not all about me. I often think that the word "solo album" is a bit of a misnomer really. Sometimes it's about listening to others.
As I was listening to the album something struck me. As strong as you are as a guitarist and as amazing as the work is, I don't hear your albums as guitar albums. The guitar is just a piece of a very big musical puzzle. I enjoy the fact that you approach things from the overall musical perspective, rather than saying "how big of a guitar solo can I put here, there or there".
Yeah, I tend to dip in and out with guitar. I guess it would be easy to do a literal guitar album, but I get impressed by other instruments. There is a whole kind of orchestra plus in this big wide world. We've gotta find the greatest players out there and get them on a record and make it a celebration of this global comprehensive collision of possibilities.
The album is very orchestral as well as musically vast and diverse, but at it's core it is very much a rock album. There are a number of musicians involved bringing diverse musical elements, including people such as Simon Phillips, Nick D'Virgilio, and Jonas Reingold. To me, the album has a strong band feel to it. I was curious how you decided on the talent that helped you this time.
Well, it is a band, so it does have a band feel, but it's an extended band. It's a case of casting a very wide net over all points of the compass. There's a kind of a house band, or perhaps it's a house style, but I had to keep tweaking it and opening doors, gateways to other places that are less familiar. I hope to do more of that. I think of it as an orchestra, really, but the things that I include in the orchestra might be less familiar and not have so much to do with orchestras as we know them. I think groups do some things that orchestras don't, but then of course, there's all the ethnic instruments and the ancient instruments that have got a thread back in time.
For instance, the tar and the guitar, and the sitar (all utilized on the album), all have the name 'tar' in them. The Greek kithara seems to be the earliest idea of the use of that name, or of these other things which are derived from it, early stringed instruments. I guess no one really knows exactly what the kithara would've sounded like or indeed, what scale they would've used. I like to think though that I'm reaching back and having a kind of respect or an imagination of what that sort of stuff would have sounded like. Perhaps those scales would have had more of a harmonic flavour or pentatonic five-note, a harmonic minor flavour. I don't know, I'm just kind of guessing what would that have sounded like?
I read the promotional material before I listened to At The Edge Of Light and your enthusiasm about the album is apparent. For me, one element that separates it out a bit from some of your other recordings is the use of choir and other types of vocals. Songs such as 'Underground Railroad' which utilizes a gospel chorus and 'These Golden Wings' with the choir, are all really effective. At times, this along with the overall orchestration creates somewhat of a movie score feel. It was very expansive in that sense. Is that something that you had in mind from the beginning, or did it kind of blossom organically out of the creative process?
Well, all of those things apply. There are times when I get temped to move more into soundtrack. I could certainly take longer over building certain atmospheres but, at the same time I was mindful, for instance, of when it starts up. The tar from Azerbaijan starts with Malik Mansurov (who performs on the album), but then very quickly it becomes tar and cimbalom. Then we kind of destroy that immediately with drums that are put through a Marshall cabinet. It's mixing some things that are familiar and some things that are less familiar, but to contrast them sharply before we get into anything that could be regarded as even remotely thematic.
To have slow stuff and fast stuff happening at the same time, a slow rhythm with fast phrases so that both extremities can be worked upon simultaneously. It's a case of trying to create an unlikely structure of a song that comes in with a swagger and a kind of arrogance about it. As you said, in terms of the vocal approach yes, there indeed is, solo vocal, harmony vocal, gospel, various types of choir, Hollywood Choir, children's choir, all of that mixed up. Yeah, I like to interact with that. I really like to do real. I like to do sample. I like to mix them. I mix and match. I think, where could I go next?
There's absolutely a diversity to everything that you do. I've said in my reviews for your albums on the Dutch Progressive Rock Page, that I love the fact that you're still so out there being creative and you're not resting on your laurels.
No, there's no rest for the wicked. I've got 160 shows next year, and already many of those are selling out and they're putting in extra shows. We're going to be doing... Well, conversely, the Beacon Theater in New York, which has been many years since I've played there. I'm really looking forward to that. Three shows in Zoetermeer. It started off with one show that sold out and they put in another one at the Boerderij and now a third show there, so it seems to be growing.
I don't know whether that's a case of interest in what I do currently and the fact that the albums I've done in recent years have been selling more and more or if it's also the fact that I take a show on the road that's at least 50% Genesis, to try and honour the early stuff, but to keep coming up with new stuff as well.
You could say I'm backing the horse each way with that, and that's fine. I don't have any problem with doing classic Genesis material. We go out and do the whole of Selling England By The Pound next year, because that album, I think, was the best that we did with Peter Gabriel. It was at a very crucial, formative time for us. We were just about to leave New York and try and do what we love and we called an American tour. We had gone right over to the west coast because we couldn't get any gigs in between. And then John Lennon had just given an interview and said that we were one of the bands that he was currently listening to. So that was a big thrill for me, and still is. Any time that I might be thinking, "You know, maybe it's all peaked," you have got to think of the amount of time one spent thrilling at listening to Beatles songs. The whole band, Genesis, at that time, we were all huge Beatles fans and that doesn't go away.
I know that many fans, especially with other members of Genesis not really focusing on Genesis, they see you as the ambassador of sorts to carry that mantle on. Do you feel that obligation at this point or is it just something that you enjoy?
I'm proud to do it, and I find it very interesting. Perhaps the parallels are that Nick Mason, who I know, is currently going out and doing the early Floyd stuff and, by all accounts, although I haven't seen any shows, is having a ball doing so and audiences love it. If Roger Waters is keeping the flame alive for classic Floyd than I'm all for it. I think that if you've got one, perhaps one band member who created the music from the ground up, then it's got a degree of credibility. You would nail your colours to the mast doing that and it will have authenticity. It will have conviction, it will have all of those things and it becomes a time machine once again.
I think the important thing for all of us who are addressing our glorious pasts, shall we say, I think the important thing is to keep new stuff coming or else one is in danger of keeping the museum doors open at the expense of whatever you might come up with the in the future. I would think the best is yet to come. If you liked it then, you'll like it now. That's my feeling.
Yeah, I agree. As a fan I tire a bit of the bands that just continually do the retro tours. If there's not new material there, to me that adds a spark that's important.
I think so, or else it can be sort of a somnambulant experience if that's all you do. As I say, when I've done the Genesis things recently, we just did a tour with orchestra. We did eight sold out shows in the UK with two London shows at different venues with an orchestra. We did it with the Heart of England Philharmonic and I was just working on that today, a live show that will be out in the later part of next year. But, it's great to be able to reinterpret the music, enlarge it and take it to the next stage. I think with recent re-recordings that I've done, I've included as much orchestra and guests as I can possibly or credibly do, shall we say.
I saw your Los Angeles show the last time you were in the States and I was excited to hear the Genesis track Inside And Out in the set list. Is there a chance of other deep cut songs such as Happy The Man or It's Yourself making their way into future tours?
Well, it's funny that sometimes these early songs get a reappraisal. Many of these things became either singles that didn't set the world alight, or became a B-side, and then they end up on collections. There was one from the early days called Twilight Alehouse that had a nod towards jazz, but didn't make it onto an album. One or two people mentioned that song to me and so I hope at some point, if I do, and I'm not saying I'm doing it tomorrow, but if I ever do the third Genesis Revisited album, then I would probably look at that and at other songs that maybe don't get a mention and try and take them a stage further.
I've been known to flesh these things out further by sometimes having an orchestra or an orchestra's worth of players and overdubs and what have you. When I did the first Revisited album, we had the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing along, so Mellotron plus orchestra, haha! Orchestra plus band or band plus orchestra - orchestra plus, basically. These are the kind of terms that we often bandy around, Roger King and I. Much like a kind of film, but the film is invisible. Film scores use orchestras and you get the idea that they often include pretty much every kind of instrumentation. Film is where you get these great adventures, not to mention great budgets to be able to go out and having a huge cast. Both the visible and the invisible create these things. Soundtrack, I think, does play a big part in that.
Of course, soundtrack has accompanied a lot of classical work and program music that told a story, that might have been part of a ballet, or opera, or whatever. That's a storytelling tradition that's not just from progressive stuff, but where music meets classical, meets all the available media genres that they had back then. I guess, being part historian, there's always going to be that. Someone's got to be old school.
I have just a couple more questions about the new album. In looking at some of your comments in the publicity material, as well as some of the lyrical content, there is a political edge to some of At The Edge Of Light. You mentioned in the notes that though we are in living in concerning times, you are hopeful and chose to end the album with the optimistic song, Peace. With hope and even protest in mind, do you think that, like it did perhaps most prominently in the 60s and 70s, music can still play a big part in helping our world to work these challenges?
There is no doubt in my mind that music changed the world at one time. It brought the world together. That's what the 60s did, and it wasn't just the Beatles. It was also people who don't often get a mention, like Paul Butterfield with his mixed-race band. When they were still having race riots in Alabama, he had the rhythm section of Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay as well as Mike Bloomfield, Alvin Bishop, and Mark Naftalin. Paul Butterfield had a tremendous show that I saw in the mid-60s. I think that was world changing. Just to demonstrate that could be done.
And of course, the moment that the Beatles invited in half of India. Suddenly it became cool to be marginalized, foreign, decried, the opposite of imperialism. In a way it regressed the balance. Culture is able to do that. So, hopefully the rise of the protest song is becoming more prevalent because yes, we are in trying and dangerous times. For anyone who thinks the protest song has come and gone, we are very close to the Armistice of the First World War and various things to celebrate that.
I was in two separate shops on our local High Street, one having a cup of coffee, the other buying a pair of shoes and I couldn't help noticing that in both places they were playing Dylan songs. Blowing In The Wind was high on the agenda and not just that, it hasn't gone away, and neither should it. I think we have to perhaps set commercialism to one side if music is gonna revalidate itself and grow up to do something truly world-changing, as I believe that it once did. The civil rights movement, which was fought hard for. We can't afford to have any backsliding here.
Yes, we need those songs. I don't care if it's a heavy metal band or a man standing on a street corner with his guitar, we need that stuff. Some of the people that I worked with came out of that background. I worked with Richie Havens on Please Don't Touch and a project of his. It was wonderful to work with him, a street musician, a message of peace, all of that was wonderful - the Woodstock spirit. I think we have to be very careful, but I remain cautiously optimistic that man's intelligence will win out over his prejudice. There was a great Mel Brooks joke when he played, I think it was The 2000 Year Old Man, have you ever heard that?
Oh yes, I am familiar with it.
"Can you remember what was the first national anthem?" and he says, "Yeah, I can remember that. It was, God bless all those in cave 13 and to hell with all the rest." (Laughs) So yeah, humour can do it, the songs can do it, you just have to look under the covers sometimes for this sort of stuff.
I agree. I am in the USA and in my lifetime, it has never seemed as chaotic as it is now.
That's right. We're undergoing the same thing with Brexit here, where, if it goes ahead, it will be the financial collapse of the United Kingdom, but we have a government that are hell-bent on doing that. Meanwhile, we're hoping it's going to go back to a people's vote, because business is appalled at the idea of crashing out without a deal. It doesn't look like the current deal is going to be sanctioned, so we don't know if we're looking at elections.
I'm supposed to be touring in a month, literally the month Brexit comes into effect, and I don't know whether it means that I can fulfill that obligation, fulfill my contract to show up, because we don't know if we need visas, we don't need to know if we have to pay withholding tax, nobody really knows. All I remember is before we were part of the European Union, trucks would get stopped and if they wanted to take apart every last fuzzbox down to every last screw, they would because they were armies of customs guys. We thought we'd passed on all that to get the world moving, or at least Europe. Anyway, a favourite hobby horse of mine is down with Brexit.
I appreciate your answer because I certainly hope for better days ahead and I think it's important that people speak out during these times.
On a different note, you mentioned people that you've worked with. Aside from your own work, you also work as a guest on others albums. It's always great to see your name on the personnel list of any album. With that said, are there musical idols of yours that you've wanted to work with and just haven't had the chance to and/or hope in the future?
I think the one that I always had on my back burner that I wanted to do something with was Buffy Sainte-Marie, who I was listening to every since I was 15-years-old. I met her a few times over the years. I don't know if she remembers me, but she was quite funny. She was the nearest thing to a female Dylan in a way and we talked about the protest song. With her, it was the rights of indigenous Americans, North American, with the Indian cause and all of that. Of course it's all tied up with ecology and big business versus health and safety and all the rest. I know that I really should get a move on with doing this and I hope to work with her one day. I also hope to have more than just a backstage chat and tell her what I thought was great about so many of her songs.
That would be fantastic. On a similar note, I know that folks like Steven Wilson stay very close to the current music scene and listen to many other artists. Then there are artists like Tony Banks, who essentially say, "I don't really know anything about anything new, I just listen to my old favourites." Where do you stand on this? Are you connected with the current music scene and are there specific people or bands that impress you at this point?
Well, funny enough I do listen but I am very selective. I mean, I put on the radio and most of the time I'm appalled at what I hear. But, I don't want to be too reactionary. I think there are people out there who are pretty extraordinary like Muse and Joe Bonamassa. I think that with Muse, in a sense, there's a connection to the sort of stuff that I used to listen to. To have a band that are as broad based as perhaps The Nice and ELP were, but will take on board the influence of Prince, perhaps, at the same time.
Then you get something like Joe Bonamassa who is basically a really great blues man and he's going for a genre that... Well, it's very difficult to do new stuff in blues, so I think what you've got to do is you have to do it with extraordinary conviction and panache, which he does. Very, very interesting. I met him a couple of times and there's a connection. There's a version of Los Endos that he does, using the riff on the end and so there's a nod to that. I heard him doing a version of a Yes thing, he was doing a version of Starship Trooper, and it was Chris Squire, the late, great Chris, who introduced me to Joe when he was playing at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. So I do listen to people. Other than that, I have to say that I think that those are the outstanding examples right now. I know there's more out there, I know there's more.
I think the fans are really going to love At The Edge Of Light. They're going to find the elements of your music that they love in it. But I think there's a lot more to it that is going to surprise and captivate them. It's a magnificent album and I really wish you a ton of success with it.
Thank you very much. I was aiming to do my kind of Dark Side of the Pepper with it really, covering so many different bases. I think music should still be fun. That's the main thing.
It is certainly fun and very entertaining. It's a great work. I look forward to hearing songs from the album on the upcoming tour and I truly appreciate you taking the time to meet today.
Well, thank you very much. All the best to you Pat.
Round Table Review
Steve Hackett - At The Edge Of Light
Geoff Feakes's Review
In a solo recording career spanning 43 years, this is studio album number 26 from Steve Hackett and although fast approaching his 69th birthday, it doesn’t look like he’s going to be consigning his Les Paul to the attic anytime soon. At this juncture I would normally provide a potted history of the artist in question but hey this is Steve Hackett, you know the man, you know his credentials.
A staple of Steve’s albums since his 1975 debut Voyage Of The Acolyte is the stellar array of musicians and singers involved. Although the names change as the years roll by, At The Edge of Light features Hackett regulars like Roger King (keyboards), John Hackett (flute), Rob Townsend (sax, flute, clarinet) and Gary O'Toole (drums). Notable amongst the newcomers is Jonas Reingold (The Flower Kings, The Tangent. Karmakanic etc), an exceptional bassist who follows in the (big) footsteps of Nick Beggs and Chris Squire.
If you are familiar with Steve’s recent albums from say Out Of The Tunnel's Mouth onwards, At The Edge Of Light will hold few surprises. With the possible exception of acoustic guitar, all his usual musical traits are in abundance here. Like so many of his albums it's a musical travelogue, watch the video for Under The Eye Of The Sun and you’ll see what I mean (listen also to Reingold’s stunning bass playing).
The opening instrumental Fallen Walls And Pedestals (a great title) and Shadow And Flame both feature a strident orchestral riff and pounding drums which inevitably bring Led Zep’s Kashmir to mind (is there a more influential song in rock?). The guitar work in the the former however is pure Hackett, veering from the hard and mean to the melodic without a pause. World music, and in particular Middle Eastern and Indian imagery reveal themselves in Under The Eye Of The Sun (featuring the eerie sound of Rob Townsend’s duduk if I’m not mistaken) and in the aforementioned Shadow And Flame. Sheema Mukherjee’s breathtaking sitar playing in the latter is just one of many highlights the guest musicians bring to this album.
Although I miss his lyrical guitar technique on earlier albums like Spectral Mornings and most everything he did with Genesis, I have to confess that Hackett’s playing here is some of his best ever. Most songs boasts a praiseworthy solo or two, witness the dexterity of his playing in Under The Eye Of The Sun and the expressive coda to Peace. Although there are no acoustic pieces as such, dobro (and harmonica) add a country feel to Underground Railroad whilst the albums centerpiece Those Golden Wings features some beautiful classical guitar underscoring.
Although Steve isn’t a naturally gifted singer, the elegiac Peace that closes the album benefits from one of his more sensitive vocals. His customary layered vocals are prominent during Under The Eye Of The Sun and Hungry Years. The former could very easily be a Yes-West song whilst the latter has a Fleetwood Mac vibe with its breezy melody and Amanda Lehmann’s heavenly counterpoint vocal. Underground Railroad benefits from a soulful vocal intro courtesy of sisters Durga and Lorelei McBroom, known for their stage work with Pink Floyd.
And speaking of Underground Railroad, as I mentioned in my review of Out Of The Tunnels Mouth, this song continues Steve’s preoccupation with trains right down to the steam locomotive rhythm. To my ears it sounds like the powerful drumming of Simon Phillips although I could be wrong as three other drummers are credited on the album including Nick D'Virgilio.
Roger King deserves a special mention as he's really excelled himself on this album. His masterfully rich orchestral arrangements add a classical pomp to songs like Beasts In Our Time and especially the 11 minute plus Those Golden Wings where the massed choral backing scales operatic heights with more than a hint of ELO’s Mr Blue Sky and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Rob Townsend comes into his own with superb sax and flute during Beasts In Our Time whilst Christine Townsend (violin, viola) and Dick Driver (double bass) also play their part throughout.
Despite boasting some of Steve’s strongest choral melodies to date, At The Edge Of Light manages to squeeze in three instrumentals (four if you include the mostly instrumental Shadow And Flame). Two of these, the back to back Descent and Conflict combine with Peace to form a three-part suite. In contrast to the elegiac Peace, Descent with its rising bolero drum pattern and brooding orchestrations brings to mind Holst's Mars, The Bringer Of War.
At The Edge Of Light could very easily be the quintessential Steve Hackett album. There is certainly no lack of variety, compare for example the back to back sunny pop of Hungry Years with the darkly atmospheric Descent. If I had to nitpick, although Hungry Years is a catchy tune it does sound a little out of place, in times gone by it would have made an ideal single. Otherwise the impeccable musicianship, inventive arrangements, solid melodies, anthemic choral hooks and pristine production are a winning formula. This may well turn out to be my album of 2019 and the year has barely started.
Patrick McAfee's Review
Upon listening to a new Steve Hackett album for the first time, I will admit to a certain amount of pre-determined enthusiasm. The man is a music legend who has played a hand in creating some of the greatest music of the last 47 years. Plus, his recent releases confirm that he is still driven to create new music of substance. That consistent goal is clearly on display throughout his newest release, At The Edge Of Light.
This being Steve's 26th (!) studio album, I can say without hesitation that it is amongst his finest. He seems particularly inspired and has gathered an excellent group of musicians to support him on this latest journey. Along with some of his usual collaborators, (Roger King, Gary O'Toole, John Hackett, Amanda Lehmann), he is also joined by Simon Philips, Nick D'Virgilio and Jonas Reingold, just to name a few. The musicians involved bring a dynamic to the music that is very intriguing.
Though clearly a rock album, it is also Hackett's most orchestral and lush recording. Those element, as well as the utilization of gospel singers and chiors, creates a cinematic feel at times. With this release. Hackett also continues to experiment with musical instrumentation and sounds from countries across the globe. This meshing of styles helps to make this one of the most diverse works of his career.
Ultimately, having world class musicians involved is great, but the true gauge of quality for any album comes down to the final results. Using that criteria, At The Edge Of Light is a complete success. From a lyrical and musical perspective, it is one of Hackett's most consistently strong albums. Even nudging ahead of last years excellent The Night Siren. In my opinion, there is no classic progressive rock artist currently releasing stronger material than Steve Hackett. It is wonderful that he continues to share his musical gifts and _At The Edge Of Light' is another fantastic reminder of his extraordinary talents. Bravo!
Bryan Morey's Review
While some former members of Genesis choose to rest on their laurels earned over forty years ago, Steve Hackett has chosen to continue creating musical masterpieces. Hackett clearly understands the prog-consuming public's desire to hear the "classic" Genesis songs performed live, and he has turned his Genesis Revisited shows into popular tours, shows, and live albums. He has also managed to use those shows as a way of highlighting his own solo career, featuring past and present music. When a well-known musician from decades past plays new music, concert-goers will often roll their eyes and question when the "good music" is going to start. Only a fool would ask that at a Hackett concert. Hackett's recent solo output is probably his greatest work as a solo artist, and it proves that Genesis was foolish to not give him a larger musical and lyrical voice in the band after Peter Gabriel left.
The world music aspects that have become common in Hackett's recent albums are prevalent throughout At The Edge Of Light. Most uses of world music elements in prog don't work to my ear, but Hackett is a master of it. I get the sense that these sounds have emerged naturally from his extensive travels. He is one of the few artists that makes it work. Throughout you will hear sounds from classical Europe, aboriginal Australia, southern United States, the Middle East, and of course the sounds of prog. Apart from the obvious rock elements, the classical overtones are perhaps the most prevalent.
The sounds also match lyrical themes. Underground Railroad is a strong example of that. The song is about the "underground railroad" in America when slavery was legal in the south. The "railroad" was a group of people that helped those who escaped slavery to travel to northern states where slavery was illegal or to Canada, where they couldn't be captured by American federal officers. The song features elements of southern gospel music in the early parts of the song before it morphs into a uniquely progressive rock sound. Harmonica appears throughout, and the sounds of a steam locomotive are even recreated through some mixture of instruments. The song is upbeat and hopeful. It features a driving beat that matches the lyric, "Keep on moving til the shackles are gone."
One of the strongest tracks on the album is Under The Eye Of The Sun. The thundering bassline sets the tone, but Hackett's guitar work steal the show (it is his show to steal, after all). Hackett dominates the vocal harmonies, but the presence of backing vocalists adds depth. The lyrics and music in the song are clearly influenced by the extensive travelling that he and his wife do all around the world. The flowing epic track, Those Golden Wings, is some of the greatest progressive rock you will hear this year. Hackett's guitar solo to close the song is excellent, as you might expect.
Hackett's solo albums have gotten progressively better over the past several years. I wasn't sure he would be able to top 2017's The Night Siren, but he has with At The Edge Of Light. This album is brilliant. His calls for peace are held up by his diverse selection of musical themes and sounds. He shows us what it means to reach through divides. He shows us the best of what humanity has to offer. I'm not exaggerating when I call Steve Hackett a genius. 2019 has only just begun, but I may already have my favorite album of the year locked in. This album is so lyrically and musically deep that I'm sure I will find more and more to enjoy as the year progresses.