Guitarist and songwriter Steve Hackett doesn’t shirk from the term or his categorization as a “Prog Rock” artist. That’s perhaps not surprising, given his tenure with Genesis in the ‘70s, as well as the possessor of a discography inching toward 30 solo albums in addition to other collaborations of intricate and challenging rock and roll.
But he is out to break up what he calls some myths about it.
“I think, for me, Prog Rock is really music that tells a story. And it’s pan-genre and has to be full of surprise,” he offers. “Other than that, it doesn't have to be in impenetrable time signatures. A lot of people think if it’s Prog, it has to be difficult, and you can’t tap your foot to it, it can’t be a love song, and you can’t have blues! I want it to be accessible rock, but maybe just with more detail and deeply layered background.”
Steve Hackett puts that theory up front and center with his new solo record set for release next month At the Edge of Light (InsideOut Records). Its ten largely instrumental tracks play like a cohesive piece of work and a very interesting journey with sweeping force. And while one song addresses the rise of the far right around the world (“Beasts in Our Time”), the sonic and subject palette reaches much wider.
“Every album, I try to do something different. What happened on this one is that I wanted to keep the pace up. So to talk about what I didn’t do, I didn't have any of the solo nylon string, acoustic pieces, the sort of ‘siesta under the sombrero’ bits!” Hackett says. “I wanted more energy and more electric guitar that didn't make any long-winded statements.”
His wife Jo – who often co-writes lyrics with him, including on this record – inspired the 11+ minute “Those Golden Wings.” It was a collaboration with the other writer on the album, keyboardist/orchestral arranger Roger King. “It’s basically a love song. A progressive love song!” he laughs. “Something about Jo’s history and mine and combining the two. And I wanted to use different choirs and choral stuff and a hint of Tchaikovsky ballet. But it’s still rock and roll.”
“Shadows & Flame” features a lot of Indian instrumentation, and was inspired by the couple’s trips to Varanasi in that country. “My wife visited India long before I did and told me about Varanasi. Then I went and saw many extraordinary and wonderful things. We befriended a sitar player named Sheema Mukherjee, and she came in and blew this blinding solo in one go!”
That trip, Hackett says, changed him. He says it was not uncommon to see dead human bodies wrapped up, floating down the river. Or things being placed on gaps where pieces were eaten by birds. “That’s someone’s loved one,” he says. “In India, they have life and death together, and they don’t cover things up like we do. We even saw the occasional road accident with a body lying there. It’s magnificent and frightening at the same time.”
Today, it’s common for a rock or heavy metal band to play with a symphony orchestra – though often the program has those classical portions and instruments sort of inserted into a regular rock show. True Symphonic Rock strives to incorporate the genres together rather than, say, “Here’s some Metallica with a cello section.”
Hackett agrees, and just completed a short UK tour with a philharmonic orchestra which at time found nearly 50 musicians onstage. “It was an extraordinary experience. The rock albums I’ve been making have incorporated orchestral influence for a long time. But my ideas are pretty flexible. It’s orchestral in spirit, but it’s still rock and roll.”
As to the high pace of new work he puts out (At the Edge of Light is his 26th solo record), it’s not something that he thinks about a lot. “I think I am writing constantly!” he laughs. “But I tend to write more quickly than other people. But not like Bach where he had to come up with a new 20 minute piece every week or two weeks.”
And 2019 promises to be a big year for Steve Hackett. He’s planning a worldwide tour with 160 dates that he says will include a run in the United States. It will be something of a triple celebration with a set list that includes material off the new record, and his solo album Spectral Mornings which turns 40.
But the highlight for many will be his playing the entirety of Genesis’ 1973 record Selling England by the Pound that includes fan-favorite tracks “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight,” “Firth of Fifth,” and “The Battle of Epping Forest.”
Of the six full-length studios albums he recorded with the Peter Gabriel-fronted version of Genesis between 1971 and 1976, it’s by far the release he’s most fond of.
“It’s my favorite Genesis album for all sorts of reasons. I think I was able to contribute something over and above just songs. It’s a more guitar-reliant album than many of the others, and I really got to stretch out. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was more keyboard-driven,” he says.
“It was 1973 we were a young band in New York just heading toward the West Coast. We couldn't get a gig, even though John Lennon had said in an interview that we were one of the new bands he was listening to!” he continues. “These days, you could Tweet that information, but then the wheels of publicity worked very slow. And that was a big thing for us. We had all grown up listening to Beatles records and the orchestration that George Martin added. Then we got on the Mike Douglas Show on TV and started getting more bookings immediately. That was the power of television back then!”
And while Hackett says he would be interested in an often-discussed (and prayed for) Genesis reunion tour with the classic Prog lineup of Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford. and Tony Banks, he’s not waiting around for it. Especially given that Gabriel and Collins have run both hot and cold about the idea over recent years.
The five did reunite for a photo shoot and interviews some years back for the DVD documentary Genesis: Sum of the Parts, and all except Gabriel were present when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 alongside Abba, Jimmy Cliff, the Hollies, and the Stooges (though no combination of the band actually played – jam band Phish did those honors). Hackett has warm memories of the night.
“When the evening started, it seemed to be pretty stiff and formal. But the more artists got to rub shoulders with each other and got up on the stage to do stuff, it got looser. And the place started to transform,” he says. “It was hugely emotional and great to be inducted. I think it’s a great institution and that it recognizes so many people, even posthumously.”
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