Although his career has had its fair share of ups and downs — from the highs of his work in the seventies with Genesis, to the relative low of his album with prog-rock "supergroup" GTR (which inspired the now-famous one-word review "SHT") — I've always admired Steve Hackett as a guitarist.
In particular, Hackett's albums with Genesis showed him to be a strikingly versatile and original guitarist with many different sides to offer that band, back when they were still more interested in experimenting with the boundaries of what rock music had to offer, than in simply cranking out the hits.
Several examples of this are given a reprise on the bonus six-song disc included as part of Steve Hackett's new album Out Of The Tunnel's Mouth.
The bonus E.P. features a sampling of Hackett's best songs from the Genesis days performed live with his current band, including the beautiful classical/flamenco inspired playing of "Blood On The Rooftops" and a slightly abbreviated, but nonetheless killer version of perhaps his most famous (and best) guitar solo ever on "Firth On Fifth."
On the latter, Hackett's signature use of sustain is simply breathtaking even now — the notes bending, crying and hanging in mid-air in a way where every second is made to count. It's one of those rare guitar solos whose economy leaves you wanting more, and a lesson more than a few modern rock guitarists could learn from.
While Hackett's catalog as a solo artist has been a bit more spotty — and has included everything from prog-rock to classical — his best albums like Voyage Of The Acolyte and especially the great Spectral Mornings have likewise focused on his economical, but textured style of playing.
With the new Out Of The Tunnel's Mouth, Hackett makes a welcome return to rock, on an album that nonetheless draws from numerous other musical influences which vary from classical to middle-eastern.
Backed mostly by a six-piece band, co-led by keyboardist and musical director Roger King, the scope here is sweeping and symphonic as evidenced from the get-go on lead-off track "Fire On The Moon." The track also wastes no time in getting to one of Hackett's trademark solos, and that wonderful use of sustain. There's nothing quite like hearing a guitar that seems to cry forever dancing around the deep, thick bass lines of Yes bassist Chris Squire either.
On "Nomads," Hackett switches back to the acoustic on a flamenco influenced track where the guitar recalls "Blood On The Rooftops" and the haunting vocal harmonies conjure images from something like a Spanish town in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Then halfway through, Hackett switches things up with more of that crying electric guitar sustain played out over a suddenly very busy backdrop of latin-flavored percussion.
From there, fellow Genesis alum Anthony Phillips adds some nice twelve-string guitar flourishes to "Emeralds And Ash." This leads right into the all-out assault of "Tubehead," an instrumental where Hackett makes an abrupt turn into the sort of fusion territory of fellow sustain-master Jeff Beck. On the album's liner notes, Hackett describes this track as "death by Marshall cabinet" and he's not that far off.
On another instrumental, "Ghosts In The Glass," Hackett's fluid guitar cuts in and out of the bottom provided by the fretless bass of Nick Beggs. The album closes with its most overtly middle-eastern sounding track, "Last Train To Istanbul." This one kind of left me scratching my head just a bit — the cinematic sweep here is such that for a minute I wasn't sure if I was stuck in Sarajevo or it was just last call at the belly-dance bar. This song does nothing if not strike a mood.
But for the most part, Hackett's amazing guitar work is the glue which binds Out Of The Tunnel's Mouth, and the sustain that sustains. You can call it the cowbell of the soul, as in more sustain Steve.
You can also call Out Of The Tunnel's Mouth Steve Hackett's best solo album since Spectral Mornings.