In order to provide a thorough overview of Steve Hackett’s new album – the all-acoustic “Under A Mediterranean Sky” – we spoke with Steve himself about several aspects of its development and his classical guitar playing. Enjoy this unique album review, interspersed with quotes from the man himself:
Everyone needs a hobby. For a renowned rock guitarist dedicated to his or her craft, branching out from their day job might just mean exchanging steel strings out for nylon and exploring a different style of playing. In Steve Hackett’s case, being the innovative guitarist for Genesis as they built their career meant that he could experiment a bit, both on the electric guitar and off of it.
“Way back in the day when I was working with Genesis, I started to work with the kalimba thumb piano, and very shortly after that working with Koto. I opened that door [to world music]just a couple of inches. When I was a kid I used to listen to electric guitars, surprisingly enough bands like The Shadows and then the people from the British blues boom. And then I heard classical guitar for the first time, Segovia playing Bach. One side of the album was classical guitar and the other side was harpsichord, all Bach material. It seemed to me that the guitar side of things was no less fully self orchestrated than the harpsichord stuff. There were wonderful adaptations of pieces that have been written originally for either the violin or cello. And suddenly you’ve got two extra strings on guitar. Anyway, Mr. Segovia was very impressive to a 15 year-old young brain who was just picking out stuff like “Wipeout”, you know, stuff on a couple of strings, and then suddenly you hear Bach played on guitar and you go, Wow! So my love of it started then and became more of a lifelong love affair, let’s put it that way.”
Fans of Genesis will be very familiar with Hackett’s acoustic explorations, whether on the intro of a song like “Blood On the Rooftops” or as a solo piece like “Horizons” (initially recorded on steel strings, and later re-recorded on nylon). But it wasn’t until his 1983 album “Bay of Kings” that Hackett fully jumped in with an all-instrumental album based around the classical guitar, even though he was still learning as he went.
“I’m self-taught, which is a kind of cop-out because although I never had a guitar teacher, it seems to me that every other guitarist on the planet that was any good that I got to see…they became my guitar teacher. I took something from everybody. So I took something from ragtime. I took something from classical. I took something from John Renbourn and I took something from Bert Jansch, I took masses of stuff. So love of the classical guitar happened very early on, but I decided to go my own route and come up with my own techniques and make my own mistakes and be pig-headed about it. But somehow it was important not to be graded by other people and not to be held back by their rules.”
Over his career, Hackett has interspersed an occasional classical or orchestral album alongside his more rock-oriented releases. But it’s been since 2008’s “Tribute” that he’s focused the spotlight on an all-acoustic outing. “Yeah, it’s been a long time. I first wanted to reestablish myself as a viable touring entity and to give people initially the kind of Genesis shows that they couldn’t get any more from Genesis because Genesis had moved on and they were doing a different kind of music.”
Which brings us to 2021’s “Under A Mediterranean Sky”, a pristine collection of solo and ensemble pieces which also heralds a world music influence more than ever before on one of his acoustic albums. “Particularly with rock albums recently, there’s been a tremendous amount of that world music, we had 20 people on each album from all over the world. Similarly with this “Under a Mediterranean Sky”, we have people from all over on this album as well. It’s not just Baroque music, it’s not just music for siestas. It’s also taking on board regional influences. There’s a Spanish track, there’s something that sounds more Turkish. There’ll be things that might use an Eastern scale more. Something which depicts Egypt and is based around the desert Morocco, and Jordan – I love doing that. My father was a painter and he often did wonderful, exotic landscapes of places. And this is my musical equivalent. So it’s painting pictures of these various places to take you there in a time when you can’t go. So I think of it as journeying…an inner journey to those places, with a flexible time signature! I’m not trying to sound modern. It is pan-genre.”
Roger King handles the arrangements which often lend a dramatic flair to the pieces, starting with “Mdina (The Walled City)” which opens the album with orchestrated bombast (personal disclosure: how could I not love a song with the origins of my surname in it?). For lovers of concertos featuring classical guitar, this is a full-course lead-off piece not to be missed. The desert winds of the “Sirocco” stir up King’s ensemble deliciously, adding tabla and dumbek percussion to Hackett’s plucked rest strokes in an Arabic scale. “Casa del Fauno” is perhaps the sweetest number in the collection, inspired by an otherworldly Faun statue in the middle of the atrium in ancient Pompeii.
The winner of the orchestral pieces surely belongs to “The Dervish and the Djin” which adds the mournful wind instrument the Duduk along with Malik Mansurov on Tar and Rob Townsend playing soprano sax. Steve comments: “The Tar is a wonderful, very expressive, short-scale instrument. Working with Malik I felt that I was working with somebody who had the technique and musical philosophy of someone who combined something like John McLaughlin meets Ravi Shankar, who was just absolutely at the top of his game on this instrument. I recorded a number of performances that he did. So I sat down and let him teach me. And then I worked with those performances and I incorporated them into things, and I write things around what we had there. So it’s a way of working where you remain flexible in order to absorb this and try and find some kind of common ground. On “The Dervish and the Djin” there’s also an Armenian duduk player, and the duduk is a blown instrument, used on so many film soundtracks. When Peter Gabriel, my friend and collaborator in Genesis, when he did “The Last Temptation of Christ”, I said, Really interesting sounding stuff. And he was telling me about the duduk. It’s perfect for those bleak landscapes that you’re trying to convey. As soon as you hear it, you know you’re hearing history. Anyway, these two people from separate nations that have been at war recently, we have them together on one track. I like to think that music can heal some of the things that politics seems to tear apart.”
In addition to all of these influences and guest musicians, it’s Hackett’s technique and abilities which really impress. There are many rock guitarists who can make an acoustic sound good, but Hackett falls into the category of a truly mature and established classical guitar player. The solo piece “Adriatic Blue” contains breathtaking runs which are flawless in their execution. The technique displayed on “Joie de Vivre” is absolutely stunning. And the arrangement of Scarlatti’s “Sonata” is beyond reproach. “I had a very great friend who passed on a while back, Theo Chang. He showed me a technique called cross-string trilling using the thumb forefinger, middle and ring fingers, it’s very keyboardist-ic making the trills, they really jump out in the way that it does with keyboards. So I’ve used that particularly on this album because it is a very, very difficult technique to control. But it’s beautiful when you manage to pull it off. Took me forever! But some things take you forever, but they’re worth it. And they start to fall into place.”
Let us not forget that Hackett brought plenty of innovation to the electric as well, such as the two-hand tapping technique which he invented for himself in the early 70s and Eddie Van Halen later took to greater heights. “Yes, I believe he’s acknowledged the influence,” Steve remarked. “Guitarists get to inspire each other. I thought he was a marvelous player.”
For guitarists who may be interested, Hackett offers, “I’ve got a couple of tricks I can suggest. I do tend to use what I consider to be a G major tuning. In other words, it’s regular tuning, but the two bass strings go down a tone each, and then a variation, that is to have those two bass strings down a whole tone, but then the second string down a semitone and then it enables you to do some interesting stuff in G minor in D minor and also G major. So I’ve used that quite a bit on the latest album.”
In summary, it truly is astounding that a master of the electric guitar could be so good on classical, even though the latter is utilized so relatively infrequently in his career. Although he has been very busy bringing the live Genesis experience to rapturous audiences over the past decade, Hackett hasn’t slowed down at all in releasing fine albums of new, original rock and world music material. In fact, he is underway with another one right now. But on “Under A Mediterranean Sky” we get to pause for a moment and enjoy Hackett for the classical virtuoso that he is. A perfect way to begin the new year with a breath of fresh air. Cheers/Salud/Cin Cin/Serefe!
Released by: InsideOut Music
Released on: January 22nd, 2021
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Steve Hackett / Guitars, Vocals
- Roger King / Keyboards, Orchestrations
- Jo Hackett / Vocals
- Malik Mansurov / Tar
- Arsen Petrosyan / Duduk
“Under A Mediterranean Sky” Track-listing:
Taking a pause from his rock albums, Steve Hackett trades in his electric guitar for his classical on this inspired travelog around the Mediterranean, making the most of the inherent, abundant inspiration as he goes. For those not in the know, Hackett is a stunning classical player whose composition skills match his technique. This blend of solo works and orchestrated ensemble pieces is a welcome start to the new year, an all-instrumental affair which will whisk you away to exotic destinations even in this era of lockdown.