Classic Rock Review

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Steve Hackett Spectral Mornings (1979)


Some consider this Steve’s masterpiece, and others even believe that he’s never made a decent album since; while I can’t embrace the latter statement, the former seems quite close to the truth for me. After the somewhat out-of-place-and-out-of-time experimentation with ‘alien’ musical genres on Please Don’t Touch, he goes back to the tried and true: the Genesis formula. Of course, there are multiple changes and additions to it; actually, there’s so many of them that Spectral Mornings hardly sounds like Genesis at all.

But the core of the sound, whatever one might say, still stems from Steve’s Genesis functions: the ‘mystically flowing’ guitar noodlings, so characteristic of Steve’s sound on tracks like ‘Musical Box’ and ‘Firth Of Fifth’, are back, and they’re back firmly and with a flare. This doesn’t stop him from further experimenting – this time, with Japanese and Spanish musical elements; but for the most part, everything works. There’s hardly anything on here as incredibly powerful as ‘Shadow Of The Hierophant’, but, on a song-for-song basis, the album is considerably stronger than Voyage Of The Acolyte.

In fact, there ain’t a single bad or half-dull song anywhere on the album: some have slightly boring passages incorporated in them, and a couple of melodies are sorta average, but there’s nothing on here that would make you want to sleep or at least say, ‘eh, this guy thinks he’s such a cool experimentator, but instead he’s just a pretentious jerk.’ Everything works.

Although, of course, it takes skill to appreciate the ‘everything’. For instance, I’d read some excited remarks about the opening ballad, ‘Every Day’, and expected a truly moving album opener – and then they play this dull, Tony Banks-ish synth opening and the bland vocal harmonies come in (this time, the main vocal functions are handed over to one Pete Hicks; probably unrelated to Tony Hicks of the Hollies), and it’s just your average bop-pop ditty with little true excitement about it.

And then, abracadabra, it suddenly transforms into a magnificent guitar fiesta with Steve at his very best! In a twinkle of an eye, mind you. He just springs out, as if of nowhere, and first plays a flurry of notes along with the cheesy synth, but then the song really takes off and it becomes a fast rocking track with an amazing guitar part. Believe me, I don’t spill epithets like that: an amazing Steve Hackett guitar part is well worth hearing. Imagine something like the solo on ‘Firth Of Fifth’, only faster, more energetic and pulsating, but not less cleverly constructed. On ‘Every Day’, Steve plays as fluent as ever, and faster than ever before – displaying his talents for all their worth.

After the storm, the calm – a gentle ballad, ‘The Virgin And The Gypsy’, with a nice enough vocal melody and an inspiring duet between Steve on the acoustic and brother John Hackett on the flute. Similar in style to ‘Entangled’ off Trick Of The Tail, only shorter and more concentrated. Then it’s time for the Weird: a song with a title like ‘The Red Flower Of Tachai Blooms Everywhere’ can’t help but contain elements of Japanese music, and it’s indeed a very convincing and heart-lifting Japanese stylization.

Maybe other people will have problems with that, but not me – I adore Chinese and Japanese motives, and I’m glad to see Steve is able to adapt them to his music without butchering the essence. Fading out, it passes the baton on to ‘Clocks – The Angel Of Mons’; the ticking of clocks at the beginning certainly draws on associations with Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’, but apart from that, the compositions don’t have anything in common: Steve’s is a Gargantuan instrumental prog epic, with ferocious drumming, gruff synth patterns, and more outstanding guitar textures.

The second side, likewise, continues the practice of interspersing little simplistic ditties with ‘serious’ compositions – the jazzy ‘Ballad Of The Decomposing Man’, telling a story of a blue-collar worker, is nice and pretty, with strong harmonica parts from Steve, but feels somewhat at odds with the ensuing Spanish guitar of ‘Lost Time In Cordoba’. However, both pale when compared to the last two mighty tracks. ‘Tigermoth’ might sound a bit too similar to ‘Clocks’, with the same use of Powerhouse Everything – bombastic drumming, overwhelming synths and spacey guitar, but it’s just as effective.
And then, of course, there’s the title track. How could I bypass it? How could I?

And what a clever idea – to bookmark the record with two great guitar workouts, the first one on ‘Every Day’, the second one here? The main theme to ‘Spectral Mornings’ is simply blistering, a guitar-cry of love and hope and everything that’s beautiful; and so what if it gets repeated over and over? By repeating the same ‘moment of pure beauty’ over and over again Steve pretty much achieves the same as Eno with his ‘ambient’ stylistics: emphasizing the eternal beauty of the static over the passing beauty of the dynamic. Hell, this one solo is more precious and treasurable to me than an entire album of, say, Steve Howe exercises in finger-flashing (not that I really dislike Steve Howe, mind you – I’m a big fan of his guitar style, it’s just a totally different matter).

A pretty solid 13 for this album, even if it doesn’t really make as much sense to me as Selling England By The Pound does; and as good as the songs are, ‘Clocks’ and ‘Tigermoth’ more or less double each other, which is hardly necessary. But overall, this album does one thing for me: showcases an artist who wasn’t afraid to seek new, creative ways of using his guitar as late as 1979 and – surprise surprise – who succeeded in his quest.

June 6, 2013 Posted by | Steve Hackett Spectral Mornings | | Leave a comment