Album Reviews: Steve Hackett, Anthony Phillips, I’d Love to Turn You On

This month’s Spin Cycle centers its reviews around Genesis-related product: Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited: Band and Orchestra, Live at the Royal Festival Hall (Inside Out/Sony Music) and Anthony Phillips’ new solo album, Strings of Light.
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Hackett

Steve Hackett

Genesis Revisited: Band and Orchestra, Live at the Royal Festival Hall

(Inside Out/Sony Music)

We live in interesting times. A time, at least in musical terms, in which time has effectively stood still. A time in which the scaly dinosaurs of the mystic past (the seventies, for the most part, but the eighties as well) share the stage with the hip little mammals of today, and even when you know a name – hey, didn’t I see them in Oshkosh in 1973? – who’s to say what you will get?

When did original members of any given band become an optional feature? When did the bad-tempered roadie become keeper of the flame? And how did tribute bands escape from the clubland novelty circuit to headline theaters in their own right? Aren’t they meant to be a joke?

We will refrain from giving the breath of publicity to such a sordid little enterprise, but my social media feed has recently been clogged with references to A Certain Classic Album being performed live on stage by… well, not by the Certain Classic Artist who recorded it. And we know this for sure, because he’s dead. As are three quarters of the band that accompanied him, and the fourth has nothing to do with it, either.

Yet comments that follow the post all exclaim a wealth of whoops and hollers and excited “hurrah”s, penned by persons who seem to genuinely believe that what they are getting is somehow the Real Thing.”Oh, I’m so excited. I never got to see Adored Object when this record came out…” and you’re not going to now. No matter how convincing the advertisement, or how expensive the tickets.

Why do people feel this way? Cover bands are ten a penny in the youth clubs and garages of this land (or, at least, they used to be), and musicians who moved on from such things now look back and shudder at the memory.

But that was then. Now cover artists are stars in their own misbegotten right, and please don’t justify their existence by trying to compare their sallow mimicry with the world of classical music… for some people do! Beethoven wrote music specifically for other people to perform. One doubts whether that was the first thing on (say) David Bowie’s mind as he sat stringing Ziggy Stardust together.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying… of course, we don’t include Steve Hackett in this ill-tempered rant. Like the even-longer-running Yardbirds, helmed today by Jim McCarty alone, Hackett eschews simple, single-minded revisionism, to maintain a high performance career in new music, too.

But still it’s been close to a decade since the one time Genesis guitarist first began tuning his Genesis Revisited concept, since when it has become so mean and lean that every tour seems to spawn another live CD, and every CD lines up on the shelf because… well, because he does it so well.

The focus is on the seven or so years during which Hackett was a member of the band… that is, from Nursery Cryme through to Wind and Wuthering, and 2018 saw that latter album reprised in its near-entirety for the Wuthering Nights: Live in Birmingham album. It’s generally an improvement on the original album.

Now he has started orchestrating things, a two CD/DVD/blu-ray box that serves up fourteen songs… nine Genesis, five solo… and the Revisited tag makes it very plain that he’s not trying to flog off new tat as old silver.

True, none of his arrangements stray far from the originals, but who would want them to? The world might never be ready for the speed metal take on “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” and even if it was, too bad. Vocalist Nad Sylvan does a great job in capturing the vocal mannerisms that the material deserves, without ever stepping into pastiche territory.

And then, of course, there’s the Hackett guitar, which still remembers every moment of the songs he co-invented, and can recapture each of them perfectly. Always the band’s most distinctive instrumentalist, no matter who was singing the songs, Hackett’s interpretations of Genesis sometimes sound more like the real thing than Genesis themselves did… especially in concert, where the paucity of officially available live recordings is possibly to the old band’s advantage. You can blame the quality for the clunky bits.

There are flaws. Gary O’Toole’s an excellent drummer but he’s no Phil Collins, particularly when he takes the mic for “Blood on the Rooftops.” Or during that part of “Supper’s Ready” when the percussion ought to develop a mind of its own, but here is just a tad too well-mannered. Roger King is not quite Tony Banks, and try as you might, you will never be able to justify a tootler tootling through “Supper’s Ready.”

There’s also the matter of not every song really utilizing the orchestra to its full potential. “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” comes immediately to mind; “Afterglow,” despite a fantastic Nadler performance, likewise. “Blood on the Rooftops” (again) has never been a favorite, and you could throw all the orchestras in the world at it, and it would still lie their flaccid and uncomplaining.

But still Live at the Royal Festival Hall is breathtaking. “Firth of Fifth” is the moment when you see the purpose of the orchestra, merging into the regular band to elevate the familiar lines and flows to a whole new level. There are other highlights too, but if you only watch one track on the blu-ray (or DVD), make it “Shadow of the Hierophant”… not a Genesis song, to be sure, but the coda builds to such utterly breathtaking proportions that you wish it could go on all night. As it is, Hackett has never figured out how to end the piece satisfactorily, and the ending here is as harsh as on any other live version. The rest, though, has to be heard to be believed.

And that’s it. Whether you sit through the audio or video, Live at the Royal Festival Hall lines up alongside its Revisited predecessors as essential listening for anyone who’s interested, just as the upcoming Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets album is the most effective live rendering of pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd that we’re ever likely to hear. And why?

Because somebody in the band still cares enough not to want to trample our memories and crush our spirits with their out of focus xeroxes of the music that we grew up with. Because every band should have its musical archivist, the one who loves the past the most, and if you entrust their spirit to them, you won’t ever go wrong.

Or you could just go see a bunch of snot-nosed upstarts who tour a Led Zep tribute band. The singer even performs bare-chested just like Robert Plant, and if you close your eyes and block your ears, it’s exactly like the real thing.

Genesis Revisited is not the real thing. The crucial element is, it doesn’t pretend to be.

strings of light

Strings of Light

(Esoteric Antenna)

But talking of Genesis alumni…. Anthony Phillips preceded Steve Hackett in the band, selflessly sacrificing the opportunity to spend the next x years grinding around the minor clubs in the back of a beaten-up van, in order to make music in more comfortable surroundings.

This is his umpteenth solo album since then, two CDs and a fine 5.1 mix, and the quickest point of entry, as always, is Anthony is what Anthony does. There have been missteps along the way, and his apparent insistence on releasing every note of music that he has ever consigned to tape (or whatever it is that people record on these days) does leave newcomers wondering precisely where to start.

The great thing is, he’s consistent enough that it doesn’t really matter. Pick up Private Parts and Pieces IV and you’ll be assembling the rest soon enough. And dig into Strings of Light and the catalog is your oyster. These ears found themselves capturing reflections of his goosey, ghosty debut, all those years ago, but that’s always been the Phillips style, guitar as voice and every other instrument, conveying more in a single chord than some bands do across an entire concept album.

His Genesis roots are long gone, but his style still shimmers with the mood of (most of) Trespass, updated of course and infinitely improved. But if an old Gabriel lyric dropped into, say, “Caprice in Three,” it wouldn’t seem out of place. Disruptive, yes. But not out of place.

All twenty-four tracks here are guitar instrumentals – pretty little tunes, brief but expansive, with a slight hint of melancholy trapped inside the soundbox… but the titles have already whispered that. “Castle Ruins” is ivy, sunset and stone; “Winter Lights” – at six minutes, the album’s second lengthiest number – flickers on the snow with pinpricks in the dark; “Mermaids and Wine Maidens”… well, you get the picture.

And then there’s “Life Story,” ten minutes of reflection through which, it seems, the ghosts of countless past glories parade, without ever hanging around long enough for you to actually play “name that tune.”

Apparently, Phillips’ entire (and sizeable) collection of guitars was brought out for this album, with some twenty different instruments ranged across the two discs. “Life Story,” recorded in a single take without any overdubs, employs his 1931 Francisco Simplico Classical, and even without having heard of the instrument before, its character and characteristics shine through. Others on display include a guitarina, a Blueridge 6 string, a Michael Cameron 16 string and a Martin D12-35.

So, a showcase for one of the finest guitarists we have today, playing some of the finest guitars around. And yes, the 5.1 sounds stupendous.

ID-LOVE-TO-TURN-YOU-ON-Box-scaled

various

I’d Love toTurn You On: Classical and Avant-Garde Music that Inspired the Sixties Counter Culture

(él/Cherry Red)

It’s been a while… forty-some years… but there was a time when the bridge between the classics and rock was sometimes scarcely noticeable. Between the sundry “group and orchestra” type confections that intrigued the likes of Deep Purple and ELP; the mass reinventions of Mussorgsky, Holst, Mozart and so forth that were almost de rigeur for a few years back then; and onto the bold “new” concertos that sundry rock musicians unveiled, a good “rock” album collection was almost compelled to allow a few classical favorites into its arms.

Then there were the interviews, the unlikeliest of souls spouting intellectual on the virtues of Sun Ra, Stravinsky, and more. There was the sudden elevation of Ravi Shankar from classical halls to rock’n’roll festivals; there was Eno forming a record label to release John Cage and Gavin Bryars, Can emerging from Stockhausen’s teachings (and John Cale from LaMonte Young), Bowie learning mime at the feet of Lindsay Kemp.

We can look back cynically and say that rock was simply trying to find its feet, brashly “competing” with more serious-minded disciplines, showing off its expanding knowledge, undergoing the growing pains of every healthy teenager.

But we can also sit back and take stock of everything that was taking place within those garish displays, and this is the box that will take you there.

Three discs range across the spectrum – a lot of classical, a fair amount of avant garde, soundtracks, jazz and even French chanson are all included, and if the attached booklet may appear a little too obsessed with the Beatles, still its thirty-six pages offer a magical tour of the titular counter-culture, to poke at the possibilities that its aspirations laid bare.

True, attempts to tie certain pop songs to their classical antecedents are not always successful. Yes, Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto” may have influenced “Penny Lane,” but the Nice tackled it far more memorably; Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata 14” might have laid behind “Because,” but so might the Shagri-Las’ “Past, Present, Future.”

George Martin’s name is invoked in liege to Gustav Holst, but what about King Crimson, whose “Devil’s Triangle” was “Mars, Bringer of War” in everything but a note or two? What about the Third Ear Band’s multitudinous meanderings? And if you want to dig into Pink Floyd’s avant leanings, wherefore AMM?

But those are flaws (or not) in notation. As a listening experience, across three discs, I’d Love to Turn You On really does create a certain mood, evoke a certain nostalgia… a lost age of adventure and exploration, when the definition of “popular music” seemed to have no boundaries, and if you wanted to set Khachaturian to a theme of screaming guitars, no-one would tell you no. And while that particular gem is absent, there’s a lot here that you can get your teeth into.

Including the absolute dislocation of slipping from the aforementioned Beethoven sonata into the elephantine dissonance of Xenakis’s “Metastasis.” And you thought Floyd’s alarm clocks were startling!

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