Like Peter Gabriel before him, Steve Hackett has become a World Music Ambassador. While the guitar maestro has confidently released an unabashedly strong rock album with At the Edge of Light, he continues his penchant for incorporating musicians and instruments from around the world. This direction is not meant to merely bring additional colors to his musical palette, but to demonstrate the breaking down of walls between borders, portraying a sense that we are stronger when we bring the best of our diversity together in collaboration. With rewarding songwriting and musicianship, the overall vibe is not that of political discussion but rather of global celebration.
Picking up where previous release The Night Siren left off, Hackett continues to hone his muse, aiming to create an album that dances the edge between light and dark and thereby illustrating the situation in which humanity finds itself. For fans of his signature lead electric playing, he wastes no time in delivering the goods on the short opening track “Fallen Walls and Pedestals”. A bombastic and dramatic opening to the album, this instrumental piece segues right into “Beasts In Our Time”. Playing on the phrase “peace in our time”, this song is representative of the album’s theme, as we alternate between pastoral acoustic guitar and Rob Townsend’s yearning saxophone; between angelic harp and darker symphonic hues; ultimately with Hackett’s electric guitar taking over until a cacophony of instruments descends in the gluttonous finale.
“Under the Eye of the Sun” has several Yes-like qualities to it, including an opening guitar line which may remind one of Trevor Rabin’s intro to “Make it Easy/Owner of a Lonely Heart live”. And then there’s the thunderous bass line offered by Jonas Reingold which conjures up memories of Squackett co-collaborator Chris Squire. This fast-paced journey takes pause only briefly with the haunting sounds of didgeridoo, duduk and flute in its mid-section. The Youtube video to this song features glorious natural rock-scapes from around the globe, from Sedona, AZ to Petra, Jordan to Uluru, Australia.
One of Hackett’s favorite techniques is to take on a particular idiom from around the globe…and then to “Hackett to bits”, in the best possible of ways. On this album, he approaches gospel in the opening of “Underground Railroad”, thanks to the moving vocals of Durga and Lorelei McBroom. Likely having met the McBroom sisters in his work with Dave Kerzner, or on board the Cruise to the Edge where they all have performed, Hackett fashions a tale of the famed escape network for slaves to travel towards their freedom. After the McBroom sisters’ passionate opening, the song moves to the blues, supported by Hackett’s dobro, harmonica and slide guitar playing. The second half of the song follows along more familiar Hackett lines which has its own rewards, but the real charm is in the first half of the piece.
As of late, Hackett hasn’t written many longer pieces of music. So it’s refreshing to get two mini-epics of about 12 minutes in length this time around. “Those Golden Wings” in a sumptuous offering, with lush orchestration, choir and 12-string guitar supporting his lead vocals. It also features some of the only classical guitar we find on the album. The rhythm section of Nick D’Virgilio on drums and Reingold’s bass is particularly rewarding while Hackett offers the closing solo. It’s hard to imagine these final moments not being loved by all fans of his career, certainly a highlight of the album.
And now we travel to India. Although he plays a sitar guitar occasionally, for “Shadow and Flame” Hackett brings in the real deal with Sheema Mukherjee on sitar, also accompanied by tabla. These wonderful, traditional instruments meet Hackett’s and co-writer/arranger Roger King’s standard approach to orchestration and percussion, but they may have benefitted from a different direction on this particular song. Still, it is a welcome vignette that continues to play out the theme of the album
Many Steve Hackett albums have at least one good, concise “hit song” with a strong chorus, and here we have “Hungry Years”. While it probably won’t be heard on a radio station near you, it certainly has all the requisite pieces in place including a cracking guitar solo supported by Reingold’s prominent bass lines. Lovely support vocals from Amanda Lehmann and a bright arrangement make this an uplifting moment on the album, certainly focusing on the “light” end of the spectrum.
The album closes with the second mini-epic, although they have chosen to give it three separate track titles. Like ELP’s “Mars, Bringer of War”, “Descent” deliciously revolves around its incessant staccato drum line, orchestration and lead electric guitar swirling around the edges as we deepen into the darkness that results in next piece “Conflict”. Again, lead guitar lines and symphonic grandeur are at the fore during this short instrumental piece, which then resolves into “Peace” with rhythmic chords played on the piano and Hackett’s lone voice leading the way. The song builds, adding much more in the production and vocal departments, but at its core there is a very sweet melodic line as Hackett sings, “You know, you know, you know, you know, the sun that shines through broken skies are mirrored dreams within your eyes.” It’s not quite the peace-anthem of “West to East” that appeared towards the end of the last album The Night Siren, but it is more hopeful as we ride the edge of the light to our conclusion. The piece arrives at its finale with a tasty lead guitar line, the orchestra still battling to the end on whether to close on a foreboding note or not.
Around the world in 54 minutes, we reach the end of the album likely feeling complete and grateful to the ensemble for the journey. Songwriters Hackett, his wife Jo and keyboardist Roger King offer a diverse and compelling flow of melodies and themes. Hackett’s wish was to deliver an album that sustains high quality from track to track and to these ears, he has succeeded. Indeed, the main drawback is that only a fraction of the album will likely get aired in concert, given that this year he plans on delivering the full Selling England by the Pound album along with a focus on the anniversary of Spectral Mornings. An embarrassment of riches indeed!
Vocally, Hackett is in fine form. His recent re-recording of “When the Heart Rules the Mind” showed that he could hold his own on a well-known favorite. On At the Edge of Light some of his best moments are when he sings solo, without the many vocal arrangements and backup singers who often accompany him. The production is slick and tidy as always, Roger King leaving no detail amiss, almost to a fault. Indeed, the “sameness” of recent Hackett albums that many fans comment on is likely attributed to the production choices. It might be rewarding to hear what a Steve Hackett album would sound like in the hands of a different producer, just for a change. Roger King’s able hands could still be in the songwriting, arranging and keyboard playing, but where else might the material go if mixed and produced in a new manner?
The musicianship is stellar as always. Although he has always been surrounded by notable bass players, having Jonas Reingold (Flower Kings, Karmakanic, The Sea Within, etc…) in the core band is a fantastic addition. The drumming features a wide cast, including Nick D’Virgilio, Simon Phillips, Gary O’Toole and Gulli Briem. Other guests play a diverse range of world instruments, including many that have been mentioned above. Which brings us back to the world-music approach of Hackett. Again, it’s not just a musical device, it’s a mindset which reflects his devotion to bringing people together from all corners of the globe. Along with regularly being hailed as one of the nicest musicians around, his care to the well-being of our world family is what makes Hackett special, and one more reason that he has achieved legendary status and respect from fans and peers alike. As we dance at the edge of the light, we are in good company with guides such as Steve Hackett.
Released By: InsideOut Music
Release Date: January 25th, 2018
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Steve Hackett / guitars
- Durga McBroom / vocals
- Lorelei McBroom / vocals
- Nick D’Virgilio / drums
- Simon Phillips / drums
- Sheema Mukherjee / sitar
- Gulli Briem / drums, percussion
- Malik Mansurov / tar
- Jonas Reingold / bass guitar
- Paul Stillwell / didgeridoo
- Rob Townsend / saxophone, bass clarinet, duduk
- Amanda Lehmann / vocals
- John Hackett / flute
- Gary O’Toole / drums
- Roger King / keyboards
- Ben Fenner / keyboards
- Dick Driver / double bass
- Christine Townsend / violin, viola
“At the Edge of Light” track-list:
- Fallen Walls and Pedestals
- Beasts In Our Time
- Under The Eye of the Sun
- Underground Railroad
- Those Golden Wings
- Shadow and Flame
- Hungry Years
Steve Hackett and company continue to broaden their world music influences, while delivering a rock album of consistently high quality and diversity. Filled with a wide cast of excellent musicians, “At the Edge of Light” offers skilled songwriting and even a return to longer-form material