Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Steve Hackett: Prog Rock Greatness Resurfaces

Your first favorite music artist can be almost as important a factor in your life as your first crush or your first car. In fact, it might outweigh both. You likely haven't married your first crush and you probably had to push your first car into the dealership seventeen years ago in the hopes of getting $500 trade-in value.

But that first album you played until the vinyl disintegrated? It's still in its pristine sleeve hidden somewhere in your basement. You purchased the compact disc version fifteen years ago, the remastered compact disc eight years ago, and the 5.1 surround sound digitally remastered version off iTunes two years ago.

My first musical love was Genesis, right about the time they started hitting big in the early 1980s with "Abacab" and their self-titled 1983 release. From there I bought backward through the group's catalog, and then through the solo catalogs of the individual members of the group. While Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel were the popular favorites on radio and MTV at the time, I was won over by the eclectic sounds of their former lead guitarist, Steve Hackett.

The thing that drew me to Hackett's material, even as a teenager, was his mix of styles, sounds and arrangements. He worked this to great effect on his first solo albums from 1975 through 1980.

Then, when even classic rockers turned to techno-synth pop in the 1980s, Hackett unfortunately seemed to me to lose his way like the rest of them. Gone were the dramatic mood swings of the progressive era, the melodramatic wailing of the guitar, the unexpected shift to acoustics, the stately chords of the mellotron, the multi-layered vocals, the story-telling of the lyrics, and the complex bass work and drum sequences underlying it all.

However, having grown up a Mets fan, I understood the need to hang tough with my team. There were some rewards along the way. An entirely acoustic album of Nylon guitar in 1983 and then in 1986, when the Mets won the pennant, Hackett was back in the limelight teaming with Steve Howe of Yes fame for GTR. A few decent tracks, some rehashing of past glories, but more smoke and mirrors than substance. The group fell apart and Hackett was adrift yet again. The next decade saw him release several uneven albums, glimmers of greatness hidden in each, his most notable accomplishment being another acoustic album in 1988.

Then he did something unexpected that awoke the long-dormant, geeky, pimply teenage kid inside all of us prog rock fans... He went back in time 20 years to retool some of the classic Genesis songs. At first I hated it. The classic music is, well, classic. But it grew on me and I eventually learned to appreciate his take on the songs. After all, Phil Collins had reworked one of the songs off "Duke," so why shouldn't Hackett be allowed artistic freedom to put his spin on some of the songs he had helped create?

To my great delight, this project seemed to rekindle a fondness for the style of writing and playing that had brought him some measure of fame in the first place. Over the next decade he released a variety of albums that seemed to show his strengths being in the acoustic/orchestrated genre.

As enamored as I am with his abilities as a rock guitarist, his greatest accomplishment through 2005 was the acoustic/orchestrated "Metamorpheus." Anyone interested in understanding my fascination should listen to tracks 2-4 of this album. The combination of "To Earth Like Rain," "Song to Nature," and "One Real Flower" played uninterrupted and in order is breathtakingly beautiful.

Then, following up a rock release three years earlier that showed more hope than flaws, he released "Wild Orchids," his 2006 over-the-top masterpiece. The album raised the bar to record heights with its "everything-including-the-kitchen-sink" approach. Immaculately recorded and produced, in addition to featuring the strongest original music and lyrics of Hackett's career (which is saying something), "Wild Orchids" offers something for everyone. Bombast, delicacy, stylization, fiery orchestration, and the textures and intricate layering that had been missing on his electric albums since 1979. Most importantly, the story-telling had returned full force to kick out any remaining hint of formulaic lyrics.

For his latest album, "Out of the Tunnel's Mouth," my expectations were tempered, if only because I so enjoyed "Wild Orchids." I followed Hackett's personal strife over the past few years and rooted for him in his legal battles with his ex-wife and ex-partner. I've read his blog posts and listened to the sound bites offered up on his website as the album was being developed, just like a good geeky adoring fan should. As good as Hackett kept saying the album was, I had my reservations.

Well, I've owned the disc since Christmas and continue to play it over and over and over, much to my lovely wife's dismay.

You'd think I would have married a prog rock enthusiast, having lived off classic Genesis, Hackett, Yes, Peter Gabriel, Marrillion, and other similar artists since my teen years. But, no, my lovely wife is a fan of beat-driven modern disco. I'm not sure which of us thinks the other more loopy for our respective musical tastes. As a testament to our love for each other, she has learned over the years to tolerate and even enjoy some of my music -- in case she argues I would like to enter as evidence "Entangled" from the 1976 Genesis album "A Trick of the Tail" -- and I enjoy singing along to the Black Eyed Peas and Lady GaGa.

Anyway, while I still think "Wild Orchids" serves as a better showcase for Hackett's many talents, "Out of the Tunnel's Mouth" is a better album. For the first time since the late 1970s, Hackett presents a fully-conceived, tightly-knit album that focuses as much on the story-telling and composition as it does on performances and production values.

Whatever advancements come along in the ensuing decades, I can tell you now that this compact disc will be one that I keep, one that I own future re-masterings of, and one that I will never stop listening to. My apologies in advance to my lovely wife for the years of hardship this may cause her.

ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler


  1. are you sure you've thought this thing out ? don't do anything hasty now !

  2. What's the point in living if you don't develop a few irrational infatuations to help make you unique?