Review – Steve Hackett – The Night Siren

The Difference between The Slug and The God

We interviewed Steve last year on the 21st February 2016. During that interview we discussed a variety of subjects including the work towards the new album where we were treated to two embryonic snippets by Steve. These we can now reveal include the opening section of Anything But Love with the flamenco feel and percussive hand slaps on the acoustic guitar body, as well as an extremely early version of the end section of Anything But Love, it’s mostly the electric lead guitar that has survived. We remain in wonderment about the fate of the rest of that demo.

At first it would be all too easy to suggest this had a similar theme and tapestry to the previous album Wolflight, but this album seems less related to its predecessor with its tapestry of tales with a notable textural difference.  Although by introducing even newer musicians than those that featured on Wolflight, could be the catalyst to a new forge or path into Steve’s work. The cast of these additional players is becoming far more eclectic along with the instruments they are proficient in or that they are transferring skills gained in one instrument, into having a go with another instrument that they might never have picked up before. Despite Steve and Roger King creating the majority of the album at home, there is a far smaller reliance on sampled instruments, which is great because the performances shine through and feel more realistic accounting for room reverb and other acoustic anomalies you get from miking up an instrument or voice.

Steve and Jo are avid travellers and it is known that Steve is a voracious reader. Therefore the themes connected to his songwriting tend to move away from the fantasy, they are more connected to history, historical wrongs in his recent creative works allied by the gracious input from his long time muse Jo. Sometimes he reminds us all of the element he took with him when he left Genesis, the romanticism of people, places, times, lands, history; as he does with The Other Side Of The Wall, where both Jo and Steve write of a tragic love story connected to a walled up gateway into a walled garden.

Steve noodling with his Gibson – 21st February 2016 © The Evil Jam 2016

Behind The Smoke

This song starts off with what sounds very much like a harp being played with a shimmer of reverb that makes it sound gentle and akin to a dream. This ploy to lulls you into what becomes a rather emotive song as the volume increases greatly. The lyrics decry about the plight of genuine refugees being forced from their homes, due to a potential scorched earth policy and the hardships they face whilst they take a worrying gamble by embarking on a journey to a safer place where they can take refuge. The Tar playing by Malik Mansurov adds tension to providing an Eastern European element to the story. Steve’s roaming lead takes us into the throng of refugees and their salvation at the end, the orchestra supporting this by sounding like a relieving sigh, a moment of success in the arduous life of a refugee. Steve has covered the refugees’ plight previously in The Golden Age Of Steam covering in fantastic detail the horrible story of the holocaust, along with his work on the Outwitting Hitler soundtrack (for the documentary produced by Chris Ward).

Martian Sea

Steve returns to a sitar, providing an Indian theme as a foundation to a fast paced song about a failed relationship between two persons. Whilst it seems that one of the protagonists is hell-bent on destruction whilst the other person in this toxic relationship is trying to work out why. The frisson passes and the wronged lover takes a mystical journey of self discovery whilst they are freed. Aside from the size and space given to the drums it’s the sitar playing which steals the attention, perhaps the use of a harmonium would have given this a more South Asian tinge, although maybe that would have been to on the nose, so we’ll worry no more about that. Technical brilliance strides here, more intrigue surrounds the inspiration for this story of love gone wrong.

Fifty Miles From The North Pole

How infectious this song is, with a Joe Bonamassa style guitar sound employed at the beginning which is very similar to the sound on Living in a Dust Bowl or perhaps even more so a John Barry lick.  From opening lyric, “Bird’s fly backwards, beyond your dreams” to the almost eerie chant of , “We are one with the light at the edge of the sun” provided by a number of female voices causes a spine tingle each time. Accompanied by marching drums it creates a postcard from the North Pole without relying heavily on certain tropes associated with such an image. Get your sleigh dogs ready, is not what immediately springs to mind. The ending sequence from the James Bond film Die Another Day could have been made for the arrangement of this song.

It certainly feels as though it’s taking the listener on a tour of Iceland, the most plausible basis. Aside from Steve and Jo’s trip to Iceland as part of Steve’s performance with Todmobile is that Steve and Jo potentially looked into some Norse mythology, some of which originated in Iceland (perhaps even Prose Edda). Throughout Steve’s double tracked vocal is passed through swamps of carefully controlled feedbacking phasers, which enrich the depth the song.

One minor criticism has to be the snare drum sound or snare sound patch at the beginning, this could easily have been replaced with a better snare sample or mixed lower. On the surround sound mix it’s more prominent, maybe it’s just my ears.

Although in the surround sound version, Amanda’s voice is more clearer. Comparing this to the stereo version where the pronunciation of a “We’ll Dance, Dannnnccceee THIS” with “This” remaining in the surround mix but nowhere near as prominent in the stereo mix. The mandolin like sound is more spacious as well, the song gains a lot more aural size. It’s good to be able to flip between the stereo mix and the surround version so these additional details can be uncovered and thus rewards multiple listens.

Anything But Love

This starts with a percussive hand playing against the body of the acoustic guitar, whilst it incorporates flamenco playing, before transcending into a ballad then morphing into a guitar driven rock song. In the surround there is a lot more room reverb added to the percussive hand playing and flamenco playing, along with panning to keep the listener immersed in the song. The song certainly took a direction that neither of us could have anticipated when we first heard the two demo’s, that said the “Oooo’s” of Amanda which are multi-tracked to sound like a larger group of musicians in harmony, most certainly they sound far more rapturous in surround sound.

Inca Terra

If Fleet Foxes were to ever go out and write a prog song, it might be a bit like Inca Terra’s first half. The scattered vocalising jolts layered over the blanket of folk conjures an at odds sense of traditional meets modern, especially with the 6/8 timing. It’s a beautiful section and one I only wish lasted longer. A percussion piece carries the song into a heavy rock section, although towards the end half throat singing and Tar combine to act as the walls towards the songs final act. The choice of overtone or throat singing really does add to the song, this form of singing is widespread in cultures ranging from Balochi Nur Sur is one of the ancient forms of overtone singing and is still popular in parts of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan to the Russian name for this technique being özläü.

In Another Life

Commencing with a slightly folk (celtic & ceilidh) inspired acoustic guitar. It’s the most organic sounding track from the onset and probably one of the few Steve tracks in a while that holds onto a particular style for an elongated period. This is most certainly rooted in the Scottish Highlands and perhaps is one man’s tale of the Highland Clearances a tragic smear on Scotland’s history, Although halfway through it bursts into a Rainbow-esque rock track. Towards the end what sounds like Tubular Bells signify the segue back into its folk leaning. It anchors the themes of the album well, although it might make more sense live. The Uilleann pipes underpin the subject matter adding, finally adding a serene closure to this tale.

In The Skelton Gallery

Released as a teaser video on the 3rd February by the record company Inside Out, In The Skeleton Gallery uses a lethargic steady 8/8 rhythm evoking row song, combined with Egyptian Harmonic scales. With supernatural ghostly elements, it is a song that the lyrics define more night terrors. The orchestra marks a change in the moods as the victim falls asleep. A haunting soprano saxophone starts a change in the increasing the menace, with marching feet, are alarming as is the lyric warning “Wake up, jump up before the songs ends, get up, hear the shout, the puppet is not your friend” – another trip into the nightmares that Steve has transported us to from Dark Town, Down Street, A Dark Night In Toy Town and now In The Skelton Gallery. Electric Guitar and bass lead the way as does a continuous riding bell of a ride cymbal.

West To East

The song features a huge cast of people with the message of choose peace and not war. Settle our differences now is the message that is sometimes obscured by the arrangement of the song. Alas I just feel the song goes on a bit longer than is necessary, the magic with The Scorpion song “Winds Of Change” was that it conveyed the message in a far more simpler way without losing the focus of the message, as did David Bowie’s Heroes. Both examples get the message across without over complicating the meaning and without a laden palette of instruments and textures. The most catchy part of West to East is the chorus, I find myself singing it over and over so another ear worm, perhaps this will grow on me. Although its a good song with a great message, just perhaps suffocated by the surrounding layers. Finally no one can detract from the validity and genuine sentiment here.

The Gift

A lovely opportunity for Steve’s guitar work, which is able to soar whilst strings underneath sympathetically support the lead guitar work, this is a surprising gem not written by Steve!. Although to be fully appreciated it should have been placed before West To East. This would allow Behind The Smoke and West To East to bookend the album.

In Deepest Darkest Teddington – Bonus Documentary

At 23 minutes in length, this documentary highlights the work that has taken place in connection to the writing and recording of the album, featuring mainly Steve and Roger. Although Rob Townsend makes a good appearance with a variety of instruments, there are also appearances from Gary O’Toole, Amanda Lehmann laying down a variety of vocals amongst others and a special mention to the very brief appearance of Jo Hackett. The documentary is full of insights and it gives the followers of Steve’s work a greater idea of how this album was born and came together before it was delivered. Parts of the documentary where filmed at Charlie Dodd’s studios where the album was mastered, that and a few B – rolls of railways or Teddington train station keep the rail theme that Steve has had since he first started out on his journey in music.

A snapshot of the documentary showing Roger King and Steve Hackett hard at work in Teddington.

A snapshot of the documentary showing Roger King and Steve Hackett hard at work in Teddington. (From the dvd)

This album plays heavily with British Pastoral folk more than any previous Hackett album. It sounds a little lost in reverberation at times however, there’s a lack of clarity and urgency in some songs that would have been appreciated. Throughout the album, songs contain incredibly well written and composed sections, and a lot of variety to boot. Perhaps that is the only true criticism that the album feels overwhelmed by a group of instruments. The balance on Beyond The Shrouded Horizon of instruments, themes, sounds etc felt like a winning formula. Our most favourite track is “Fifty Miles From The South Pole”.

As always the best version in terms of feeling as though you’re in the middle of the album has to be the surround sound version which appear on the Blu Ray with DTS being my preferred playback audio option of choice. The Surround mix has a lot more rear channel action than previous forays into the Surround Sound format, this is the ultimate way to listen to the music providing a welcoming separation of the wealth and diversity of sounds into a soundstage that provides a better clarity of the action. finally the documentary is also a nice touch, I would have preferred a longer version to be honest.

UK release date 24th March 2017

Track Listing

  1. Behind The Smoke
  2. Martian Sea
  3. Fifty Miles From The North Pole
  4. El Nino
  5. Other Side Of The Wall
  6. Anything But Love
  7. Inca Terra
  8. In Another Life
  9. In The Skelton Gallery
  10. West To East
  11. The Gift

There have been three music video’s filmed, the one that was release first was for Behind The Smoke.

Photo by Tina Korhonen © 2016, all rights reserved.

Performers and Credits

Steve Hackett – electric & acoustic guitars, oud, charango, sitar guitar, harmonica, vocals (1 – 11)
Roger King – keyboards and programming (1 – 10)
Amanda Lehmann – vocals (1,2,3,6,7,8,9,10)
Christine Townsend – violin, viola (3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10)
Rob Townsend – baritone & soprano sax, flute, flageolet, quena, duduk, bass clarinet (1, 4, 7, 9)
Gary O’Toole – drums (3, 4, 10)
Nick D’Virgilio – drums (2)
Gulli Briem – drums, cajon, percussion (7,9)
Mira Awad – vocals (10)
Leslie-Miriam Bennett – keyboards (11)
Troy Donockley – Uilleann pipes (8)
Dick Driver – Double bass (3,4,5,7)
Nad Sylvan – vocals (7)
Kobi Farhi – vocals (10)
Benedict Fenner – keyboards and programming (11)
Jo Hackett – vocals (10)
John Hackett – flute (2,10)
Ferenc Kovács – trumpet (3)
Sara Kovács – didgeridoo (3)
Malik Mansurov – tar (1)

Formats: 

Special Edition CD/Blu-Ray Media book featuring 5.1-surround sound mix & making of documentary: 88985410452   (Our preferred choice)

Standard Jewel case CD: 88985410462

Gatefold black 2LP vinyl + CD: 88985410471

hackettsongs.com

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