Monday, February 11, 2019

Review of Steve Hackett's "At the Edge of Light"

I posted this review on Sunday afternoon on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: A disappointing prog-rock album that recycles various elements we've all heard used to better effect in the past.

Steve Hackett's career has been a long and storied one. He became the guitarist for Genesis in 1971, and played on most of their best-loved albums through the Peter Gabriel years. He formed the supergroup GTR with Yes's Steve Howe in 1986. And he has released twenty-five solo albums over the years, beginning with 1975's Voyage of the Acolyte. More recently, his 2017 LP The Night Siren was hailed by many as one of his best, mixing progressive rock with various elements of world music. So the announcement of a new Steve Hackett LP for 2019, At the Edge of Light, was the cause of some hopeful anticipation from prog-rock fans the world over.

Unfortunately, this one is a bit of a disappointment. It seems to be an attempt at a concept album, following the world from our current unsettled political climate through an upcoming battle that leads to hope and triumph. However, while Hackett's guitar work is excellent, as always, the songs themselves mostly misfire, and the album as a whole comes across as unfocused and generic.

It starts promisingly enough, with a decent instrumental intro entitled "Fallen Walls and Pedestals", which leads directly into a slow, creepy number named "Beasts in Our Time". This one sets a horror-film like tone early on, but then goes meandering off into something rockier but much less effective. 

What follows is a sprawling song that is meant to be a kind of triumphant anthem called "Under the Light of the Sun". This track encapsulates much of what is wrong with the album as a whole. It gets off to a good start, with an upbeat driving melody, which then peters out into a didgeridoo segment that sounds as if it was recorded in a cave, before moving back into the familiar theme from the first part of the song. It then wanders off again at the close. The track is supposed to represent the forces of nature, and the "twin extremities of Light and Dark" (according to the booklet that accompanies the CD version of the album). Unfortunately, it just comes across as musically indistinct and unclear in its direction. Incredibly, this 7-minute-long track was released as the LP's first single.

It gets worse. The next number, called "Underground Railroad", is intended as a mix between prog rock and an old spiritual, as it celebrates the freeing of slaves in pre-Civil War America, with railroad noises that make it seem as though the underground railroad was an actual, physical train. This one was also released as a single. I'm sure that Hackett meant well here. But the track is just a little cringe worthy, and reminded me uncomfortably of the Aldous Snow single "African Child" from the Russell Brand film Get Him to the Greek -- a parody of an overblown, excessive and ultimately tone-deaf rock song.

The rest of the album mixes good and bad elements. I've seen some criticize the sitar-based track "Shadow and Flame", but I actually liked that one. Ditto with the poppier "Hungry Years" (which sounds a bit in parts like a slower version of Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army".) However, the latter song actually highlights a couple of other problems with the album. The first of those is Hackett's vocals -- they're not terrible, but they're not great either. And the way that Amanda Lehmann's co-vocals brighten this track up really underscores the nondescript nature of Hackett's own voice. The second is that the album contains quite a few riffs that are "borrowed" or recycled from other, better songs. A quick listen brought to mind echoes of John Entwistle's "Doctor, Doctor" ("These Golden Wings"), Neil Young's "Southern Man" ("Peace"), Queen's "The Prophet's Song" ("Peace again), and even King Crimson's "Epitaph" ("Peace" yet again!). Also, Hackett's use of grand choruses throughout was very reminiscent of the way Rick Wakeman used the same element on albums such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur...LPs. I'm not saying that Hackett consciously stole music. At 68 years of age, I'm sure that he has a lot of song bits rattling around in that noggin of his. What I am saying is that the whole album sounds like something we've all heard before, and done better to boot.

Anyone can have an off album, and given that Hackett's last effort before this was fairly well acclaimed, I think we can all let him slide on this one. Sadly, though, I can't recommend At the Edge of Light, except perhaps to Hackett's biggest fans, and to Steve Hackett completists.

Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars