I’ve got to admit to being a trace ambivalent when it comes to reviewing Rhino’s new retrospective Steve Howe collection, Anthology. I’ve never been a big progressive rock booster, though I do have a soft spot for two of Yes’ early LPs. Yet before the group’s guitarist was plucking out the intro to “Roundabout,” he served as axe man on one of my favorite psychedelic nuggets from 1967, Tomorrow’s “My White Bicycle.” Perhaps the man in solo mode re-channeled some of that ’60s craziness?
No such luck for my psychedelicized soul. As Anthology makes clear, Howe’s solo work–away from Yes or Asia–is primarily characterized by pristine guitar-centered instrumentals that at times recall Yes and other times the English folkies. The focus on instrumental prowess is wise. As the few tracks featuring Howe’s vocals make clear (most particularly on two misbegotten Dylan covers from 1999), his is a pleasant, not particularly memorable voice.
The acoustic and slow electric instrumentals are Anthology’s meat: moody and melodic, if occasionally a trace too sedate (e.g., “Look Over Your Shoulder”). A few out-and-out rockers agreeably spice your listening experience, though: “Surface Tension,” “Rising Sun,” “Sharp on Attack,” and a remake of The Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run,” most particularly. I’m also fond of the earliest cut, “So Bad,” which along with the bluesy slide guitar track, “Luck of the Draw,” shows Howe breaking away from his more familiar sound.
And speaking of familiar, Rhino cannily chose the artist, Roger Dean, responsible for the artwork and logo on Dean’s solo albums along with a ton of other ’70s prog rock landmarks for its CD packaging. Just looking at the cover brought me back to the days when I was hanging out in a Normal, Illinois, used record store, gazing at rows of neat album covers as whatever the store worker thought was cool at the time rattled the walls. Music nerd heaven.
Prog rock junkies will consider this set a must-have as much for its artwork as its irrefutably impeccable guitar work. Rhino definitely knows its audience.
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