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Steve Hackett – Beyond the Shrouded Horizon (2011) – an album review

December 31, 2011

I have no idea what to expect from this album, so it’s going to be an adventure for both of us.

tl;dr Version: It should come as no surprise that a fan of all things Genesis would be a fan of Mr. Steven Hackett, but will I enjoy this album? Let’s find out.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: What’s to ‘splain? Steve Hackett released his 21st solo studio album this year, and I aim to review it, because really, there are not enough reviews of this album out there. Damn you, internets! Look what you’ve made me do! GAHH!!

Boring Version: Steve Hackett has been recording solo albums since the year my sister was born, and in that time has recorded some of the most compelling—and on this continent largely overlooked—music by a post-Genesis alumnus. I hew a little closer to Anthony Phillips because he has written so much music in so many styles that have moved me, it’s hard not to favour him. However, Steve’s music has remained fascinating and challenging and fun; I’ve just been waiting for the right album.

You know how it is when you discover or are introduced to a band or musician that people really revere, but everything they play for you sort of doesn’t quite get all the way to the top floor for you? You can hear the greatness, and you know it’s you, not the music, that is falling short, but you know in your heart that this is not the album you were looking for.

And then one fine day, you stumble across one of their records that you hadn’t heard before, or, as often happens to me, they release a new album to little fanfare, and you’re floored from the first listen. Well, I experienced that with Watcher of the Skies, the Genesis Revisited album. However, despite it being a definite Steve Hackett solo album (no other Genesis members were present), it nevertheless felt like a Genesis album to me, and I’ve been a Genesis fan most of my life, so in some ways, I can’t count that album as a true Steve Hackett masterpiece. I’ve heard most of the rest of his catalogue, and I enjoy his work greatly. But I still haven’t found the right album. I haven’t found MY Hackett album. Yet.

However, in the name of Science, the search continues, so without any further ado, I give you his latest, Beyond the Shrouded Horizon.

THE REVIEW
Loch Lomond has a moody opener of single low notes and strings that gets brushed aside by a crunchy Zeppelinesque groove. Just as you get used to the pounding drums, he shifts to a pastoral section with acoustics and vocals. Trust Steve not to do anything too straightforward if he can avoid it. He switches to a bridge that involves a spinnet and a vocal round, and then returns to the acoustic, which leads to distant bag pipes (of course) and low bass strings and a return to the rock motif, playing a truly Hackettesque guitar solo, before bringing the vocals in, mixing the three separate strands together and wailing out with guitar heroics and gusto. Very. Nice. Opener. I’m smiling already. And he ends it with a little bit of classical guitar, leading into…

The Phoenix Flown is a lovely piece of electric guitar over paleolithic drums and a pulsing bass line and sweeping strings. It’s utterly gorgeous. If you like guitar music and can’t enjoy this brief interlude, you need to see your doctor.

Wanderlust is a brief classical interlude that reminds us (if we needed reminding) that Steve plays pretty, too. It leads directly into…

Til These Eyes, which is a rather lovely acoustic vocal song with strings. Some lovely orchestration and vocal harmonies echo off into the distance, almost before we’ve had a chance to get used to the song.

Prairie Angel opens with ambient sounds and keys escorting an elegiac guitar figure into the room, and then the band joins in, with some lovely sax, and then it breaks down to some very bluesy rock guitar riffing worthy of Jimmy Page, complete with a duel with Steve’s harmonica playing, which then goes to double time. Lots of fun here. It fades quickly into…

A Place Called Freedom, which is a lovely 12-string acoustic number with some hammond and choral effects, and then we’re back in very familiar but not unwelcome territory as Steve layers a classical motif and an electric lead together, bridging to a second verse with circling 12-strings and mouth harp. Back to the lead electric, this time dancing with the hammond and backing band, and it flies into anthem territory, followed by a return to the verse, a more smooth transition, and you get the impression that the two parts have finally become one song. The outro has flute and choir over the bass, and then the drums and lead guitar come back in to carry it off in a march. Truly anthemic as only Steve does it. Very nice.

Between the Sunset and the Cocoanut Palms opens like it could be a Don Felder-penned Eagles classic, until we get to a bridge that has enough echo on it to drown a horse. The harmonic verse figure returns, followed by another refrain, and then a dreamlike sequence of violin that fell off the back of an early ELO number leads up to a strings and piano section, and it leaves on a strange mix of world folk instruments, and falls directly into…

Walking to Life, which promises to be interesting, as electric guitar bluffs you until the tabla starts and electric sitar and female vocal takes over. A bridge of electric guitar sneaks in, but the tabla continues in the background, leading us back to a sitar figure and the female vocalist returns, not in Indian scales but in western vocal style. The instrumental section builds and builds, a very familiar Hackett-like guitar part bubbling up from the bottom. The layers get stripped back fora few seconds, but it goes out on a climax of elements, and then fades into…

Two Faces of Cairo, which opens as an echoing wash that gets broken up by a distant, compressed bit of drum business that gets closer and closer to the mic, until you’re in the same room with it and the strings return with a very exotic, middle eastern groove, Moroccan Roll at its finest. Then Steve sneaks in with a sinuous guitar line that sounds like it could be played on an electric violin. I do love when Steve indulges in these extended instrumental pieces. It feels like the companion piece to his Valley of the Kings, from the Genesis Revisited album, which I loved. I know I’ll be replaying this one a few times. The music goes out the way it came in, only with percussion and orchestration.

Looking For Fantasy opens with a string quartet in chamber mode, like early BBC Radio music, and then the vocals lead us slowly to a gorgeous chorus. The song is a sad little number about an unhappy woman romanticising the past. Steve breaks out his classical guitar for the middle eight, and then we’re back to the woman who apparently did a lot of soul searching and spiritual exploration, but to no avail. The chorus takes us out on a wave of echo deep enough to drown a team of horses and the cart they pulled.

Summer’s Breath is a very pretty classical guitar number that sneaks in an almost Russian scale here and there, but keeps bringing it back to a Segovia-type feel, and then without notice…

Catwalk rocks in on a sexy blues riff right out of a Jeff Beck album. It’s absolutely pitch perfect, but so unexpected I may have to give you a moment to recover from the whiplash.

Turn This Island Earth opens with deep, keening string pads like whale song, which puts us in this strange territory where a dash of classical guitar can sneak around the soundscape. Then a single note of guitar, and a moment later, a peculiar song creeps up on us, rapid fire lyrics and harmonies rich enough to break the backs of a team of horses, and the song is catchy enough for a Rabin-era Yes album, complete with funky time signature. As this is an extended piece, I expect lots of changes, and I get them, with slow builds of walls of sound and drums and guitars in heroic progressive metal mode. Another change, and we’re listening to Simmons drums and guitar, and then the pop riff is back with a revenge for a moment, followed by a pair of classical guitars, and then the orchestra sweeps in playing great soundtrack music from a movie I want to see right frelling now! But the music fades away, leaving you convinced the song is over, except the meter still reads half done. Then a quiet section of string and vocal leads to a curious bit with bass and harpsichord playing something that might have been an outtake from a Beatles album. The orchestration seeps in and washes up off on a wave of sound, which drifts over a soundscape of lullaby sounds falling down a rabbit hole of nightmarish orchestral snatches and building to a literal crash. Swelling sound and ambient noises slowly drag in a recapitulation of the song title, washing away on a river of sound, and almost before it started, it’s over. Shortest 11:50 I’ve ever heard.

Now, there’s a bonus disc to this album, for those with the deluxe edition, and I guess I should cover that, too, so here goes:

Four Winds: North comes flying in on a wave of guitar and piano, drums and bass giving the jam a nice band feel, but the piece is a short one, which leads into…

Four Winds: South, which opens with grand piano and classical guitar duetting. It’s very pretty and nicely unconventional. It also goes through a little bit of change, bringing in a more melodic figure for the two instruments to play over. This is the sort of thing I’d expect from an Anthony Phillips album, and it’s not unwelcome here, either.

Four Winds: East opens with electric organ, and then we’re in classic Santana territory. I’m serious. I love Santana, so this is good for me, but we’ve got organ, timbale, latin percussion and a loping samba bass line that could only come from a Santana album. Steve’s guitar part might as well have been played by Carlos Santana and Neal Schon, it’s so spot on. He does manage to sneak in a wee bit of his own thing before the piece echoes and fades away to…

Four Winds: West, which opens with more classical guitar, and if you’ve never heard Steve play classical guitar before now, you’ll definitely know what classical guitar is meant to sound like here, as the piece goes through several changes, covering just about every facet of Steve’s fascination with the instrument save Flamenco. It’s perhaps his sweetest, finest piece of classical guitar work I’ve yet heard. Lovely.

Pieds En L’Air sounds exactly like a lovely piece of library music from the Beeb, full string ensemble, gorgeous swelling sounds. If Steve ever gets tired of this rock n roll racket, he’ll have a brilliant future arranging film scores for British television. This is, according to Wikipedia, a piece composed by the late Peter Warlock. Interesting guy.

She Said Maybe, on the other hand, is a great piece of instrumental music, jazz rock fusion, I guess we’ll call it, with some lovely changes and really nice guitar and keyboard interplay. This might have found a home on a John McLaughlin album, maybe late Mahavishnu Orchestra. Very nice piece, and probably the one that will keep me listening to the second disc as much as the first.

Enter The Night is a ‘live’ (sounding) recording that comes in on a military march and a soaring guitar lead. It’s a proper Steve Hackett rock song with a good hook—no, make that great hook—and a lovely chorus feel. It’s frelling gorgeous, and would have sounded perfect on a GTR album.

Eruption: Tommy opens quietly, marimba-like electric piano (DX-7?) and crying guitar circling around one another until the main piece kicks in, and Steve’s guitar takes center stage. Slow groove, lovely arrangement, padded synth strings and rock ensemble vamping under a lovely piece of guitar, which makes room for something almost Howesque on what must be a Gibson semi-hollow. Lovely, and done before it wears out its welcome. Apparently this is a piece written by Thijs Van Leer of Focus, whose music I don’t know well enough to judge. I suspect it passes muster.

Reconditioned Nightmare is the final piece, but to get the feel for it, I put on the classic Air-Conditioned Nightmare first, just to contrast.

The original of course was on Cured, from 1981, and has the kind of synthetic sound recording of the time, complete with drum machine programming and walls of synth strings and bass holding down the fort while Steve sails around on his speedboat of love. There’s also a solo that sounds like it could be either synth or guitar, the sound is so heavily processed. But the main guitar sound is thick and rich and steamy. Let’s see what he does with the follow-up:

Bigger, brassy keyboard sounds, real drums and pulsing (real) bass, wall of sound so thick you could bury a team of horses under it (yes, I’m liking the horse analogies today, shut up). Basically, it’s a lovely live-sounding update, and I couldn’t love it more. I’ve always felt the original was a bit tweezy, so this works for me.

SUMMARY
This has proved to be a great album for me. It has a really nice, quasi-concept album feel, without bashing you over the head with its obvious prog pedigree. I will say that, if you’re not a fan of instrumental music (what are you doing here?), you may not care for everything you hear on this album, but for those who don’t mind a talented and playful guitarist taking them on the occasional excursion to exotic climes, then you’re bound to enjoy this album.

Remember what I said earlier about looking for MY Steve Hackett album?

Found it.

Lee.

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