What does it sound like?:
The music on Steve Hackett’s latest album ‘Surrender of Silence’ follows in the footsteps of his recent rock albums like ‘The Night Siren (2017)’ and ‘At the Edge of Light’ (2019), the sound an appealing blend of heavy rock and world music flavours, all bathed in Roger King’s sumptuous orchestral arrangements. But there seems to be an added edge and urgency here. In pre-release interviews Hackett has confessed to a growing sense of existential gloom, worried – like many of us – about where the world is heading, and the swirling political and cultural forces at play. These concerns translate into a new album brimming with anger and energy, Hackett serving up one of his more muscular and brooding collections.
Coming only nine months after the acoustic sojourn of ‘Under a Mediterrranean Sky’, ‘Surrender of Silence’ hits like a North Atlantic storm. Album opener ‘The Obliterati’ sets the tone, Hackett’s trademark finger tapping hammering out wild and electrifying arpeggios. The music is often dense and complex, but there’s an elegance and intricacy about Hackett’s brand of rock, a sense of firm control in the face of unruly forces.
His guitar playing is superb throughout, so effortlessly poised and nimble, allowing astonishing changes of pace. The guitar’s the star, but never ostentatiously so, and his music always allows space for others to shine. On the cinematic centrepiece ‘Shanghai to Samarakind’, all kinds of exotic instruments are thrown into the mix, befitting a song inspired by the Silk Road. At one point Christine Townsend’s viola picks out a resonant melody, full of portent, before the music coalesces to an ominous drone, Hackett’s sustained guitar a lingering siren that seems to carry the weight of the world’s sorrow. The entire song is an appealing collage of disparate elements held together by sinuous musicianship from his band.
Hackett is never afraid to overstate his influences and occasionally seems to revel in them. A bombastic blast of Prokofiev introduces second track ‘Natalia’, a paean to a Russian everywoman, while the African flavoured ‘Wingbeats’, with its breezy, airborne melody, brought reminders of the 70s hit musical ‘Ipi-Tombi’, and flies perilously close to pastiche. But these are minor distractions from music that is rich and layered, and always on the move. Hackett’s vocals bed in easily to the music to reveal some of his most affecting melodies yet. The chorus to ‘Natalia’ has an understated majesty that could easily animate some Swedish holograms, while the wistful eco-lament of ‘Scorched Earth’, with its great vocal weaving around a soaring guitar solo, should have David Gilmour looking on in envy.
Of course, Hackett’s prog. credentials remain firmly intact. On some songs vocals disappear for minutes at a time, or don’t show up at all. Hackett’s lyrics – which tend towards a magic realism that is well suited to the music – have always seemed subordinate to the overall mood. On those early Genesis records, vocal lines often served as simple scaffolds, launch pads for wild instrumental adventures, and it’s something that remains a key feature of Hackett’s music. On ‘The Devil’s Cathedral’, Nad Sylvan – lead vocalist in Hackett’s Genesis live band – briefly enters the fray before things head off on a thrill ride of frantic soloing. The song is bookended by a doomy organ that carries echoes of Watcher of the Skies, while on the purely instrumental ‘Relaxation Music for Sharks’, a blistering guitar solo that seems to bear some kinship to his playing on The Musical Box fifty years ago, emerges at high velocity out of some heavy riffage.
But these comparisons feel incidental. This isn’t an album built on nostalgia, and the more straightforward rockers like ‘Fox’s Tango’, ‘Day of the Dead’ and the superb ‘Held in the Shadows’ – which seems tailor-made for the raw vocal power of someone like Paul Rodgers – are very much rooted in the here and now. It’s on ‘Fox’s Tango’ that Hackett offers his most overt political commentary, railing against the corrosive effects of fake news, and painting a doomy vision of the future. “Half of the world living in clover – the other half famished – looks like it’s over”, is his bleak refrain, as massive Bonham-esque drums corral his seething double-tracked guitar lines.
It comes as a bit of a surprise to find the album ending on a hopeful note with ‘Esperanza’, a delicate acoustic vignette that sounds like a left-over from ‘Under a Mediterranean’ Sky. Perhaps Hackett’s an optimist after all? The song’s mood stands in complete contrast to the turbulence of the previous hour, but it works well as a brief restorative before going round again on this addictive musical adventure.
What does it all *mean*?
Steve Hackett’s guitar is his mouthpiece and rarely has he sounded so acerbic. ‘Surrender of Silence’ is Hackett’s second album of new material this year, and the latest in a string of superb rock albums. He is, perhaps, more popular now than at any other stage in his career and it’s a great testament to his skill and endeavour, and to the many wonderful musicians and influences he has gathered around him. The more I hear of this 71 year old’s recent and prolific output, the more fascinated I become about where he’s going next.
Goes well with…
Tasteful licks on air guitar, Collins World Atlas, melting ice caps.
Might suit people who like…
Great musicians having a ball.