STEVE HACKETT – The Circus And The Nightwhale (Album Review)

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Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s embark on a tale of smoke, big tops, and sea creatures. Steve Hackett’s been on an incredible roll over the past decade-plus, releasing a new studio album (or more) every two years, while relentlessly touring nearly all of Genesis’ 70s back catalog with accompanying live recordings to document his band’s prowess. Along with side projects like Djabe collaborations and other world travels, Hackett’s vitality seems to vastly exceed the rest of his old bandmates who recently completed their farewell tour. Don’t expect to see this guitarist packing it in any time soon, as his creativity, passion, and exuberance just don’t slow down. 

Still, it must be said, that this run of albums has fallen into a very similar glossy sonic terrain. During this time he’s been co-writing with his beloved partner Jo, but I suspect the real pivotal influence in the shadows is Roger King. For those who don’t know, King is Hackett’s master keyboardist, orchestrator, producer, and arranger, as well as the third member of their co-writing team. Increasingly, the recent catalog has carried a certain sameness to it, so much so that “Wolflight”, “The Night Siren”, “At the Edge of Light”, and “Surrender Of Silence” all sound pretty much like the same album. For many, this won’t be a problem, since the material, and especially musicianship has maintained a high level throughout. But for those who have grown weary of the current shiny, heavily-produced style, a more organic approach would be nice for a change. 

The new album “The Circus And The Nightwhale” doesn’t stray far from those that preceded it, sonically speaking. What does set it apart – and perhaps why some are calling it Hackett’s best album in a long while – is that it boasts a consistently strong run of songwriting without many tangents. The lush arrangements and production style are still there but there’s very little of the world music influence that Hackett has been exploring on recent past albums (for better and for worse). This is more of a classic rock/prog album, an approach that will appeal to many of his longtime fans. 

There’s also an autobiographical slant to this “concept album”, which is kind of fun. Listen to recent interviews with Hackett to get more into the specifics but, suffice to say, you can either trace his life through the metaphors of each song, or you can just enjoy it as good music. The circus goes round and around and around.  

Opener “People Of The Smoke” is an apt illustration of what’s been discussed above: it’s a good song that features Hackett’s flashy guitar runs, driving rhythm, and solid vocals. But the characteristic orchestration, vocal layering, and engineering of the drum kit (in this case, that of Nick D’Virgilio) makes it sound very similar to songs on the past four or five albums. 

Happily, as the album progresses, so does the engagement of the material. “These Passing Clouds” is a swooning neo-classical electric guitar instrumental, “Taking You Down” delights in a nasty vibe with Nad Sylvan cameoing on the mic and Rob Townsend on the sax, “Found And Lost” combines classical guitar with a smokey blues vamp, and “Enter The Ring” entrances the listener with its cascading piano, harpsichord and acoustic guitar runs as Amanda Lehmann sings and John Hackett’s flute chimes high above. This run of songs culminates in the impassioned “Get Me Out” which sees Jonas Reingold’s bass finally coming more to the fore. Throughout it all, Steve Hackett’s guitar solos land with precision and grace amidst their flurry of notes, with “Get Me Out” being a highlight of taste and abandon. 

“The Circus And The Nightwhale” Artwork

We take a pause (enough to turn the album over) before the beautiful “Ghost Moon and Living Love” comes swooping in, an upbeat love song that again features Hackett’s extended melodic soloing. Malik Mansurov’s tar (a long-necked stringed lute) introduces the Arabic-flavored stylings of “Circo Inferno”, the only piece on the album with a tinge of world flair, which appropriately rages. 

Eventually, we make our way across the seas and into the belly of the nightwhale, the chaos of the circus being transformed through the alchemical magic of this enigmatic creature. “Wherever You Are” then heralds the culmination of the journey, through seeking and inevitably finding love amidst the bombast of Craig Blundell’s drum kit. “White Dove” offers a final sendoff, a nylon string solo featuring the classical tremolo technique at which Hackett excels. 

Overall, “The Circus and the Nightwhale” offers plenty of exhilarating writing, performances, and, most of all, Hackett‘s six-string magic. That it also traces Hackett’s life story is an added bonus. Considering that Hackett’s band features some of prog’s finest drummers and bassists, it’s a little sad that these instruments aren’t mixed to maximize their impact: Reingold’s bass could definitely benefit from more presence, while the digital effects on the drums seem to overwhelm a sense of nuance that the players possess. But that’s the production approach that Hackett/King have taken for some time now and doesn’t seem to hold much chance of changing. Nonetheless, Hackett’s talents are undeniable as he continues to carry the flame of prog royalty into the future. 

Released By: Inside Out Music
Release Date: February 16th, 2024
Genre: Progressive Rock

Musicians:

  • Steve Hackett / Guitars
  • Roger King / Keyboards, programming, and orchestral arrangements
  • Rob Townsend / Sax
  • Jonas Reingold / Bass
  • Nad Sylvan / Vocals
  • Craig Blundell / Drums
  • Amanda Lehmann / Vocals
  • Nick D’Virgilio / Drums
  • Hugo Degenhardt / Drums
  • Benedict Fenner / Keyboards
  • Malik Mansurov / Tar
  • John Hackett / Flute

“The Circus and the Nightwhale” track-listing:

1. People Of The Smoke
2. These Passing Clouds
3. Taking You Down
4. Found And Lost
5. Enter The Ring
6. Get Me Out!
7. Ghost Moon and Living Love
8. Circo Inferno
9. Breakout
10. All At Sea
11. Into The Nightwhale
12. Wherever You Are
13. White Dove

Order “The Circus And The Nightwhale” HERE.

8.5 Excellent

Part autobiography, part metaphoric concept album, “The Circus and The Nightwhale” proves once again that Steve Hackett embodies the flame of classic prog like few others. His guitar playing, whether on the nylon or steel strings, is virtuosic and electrifying. His voice is steady and sincere. And his band are some of the best in the genre. It’s a prog rock victory, with the legend himself standing front and center

  • Songwriting 8.5
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 7.5
  • Production 8.5
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