Thursday 21 March 2024

Steve Hackett - The Circus and the Nightwhale (2024)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Feb 2024
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All aboard! All aboard! Legendary guitarist Steve Hackett, fresh from his live album looking back at Genesis's Foxtrot album half a century on, is back with a new album. It's built around a concept but that doesn't really take hold until the second half when the whale shows up. There's certainly some circus material early on but I got so caught up in the music that I never grasped the reasons why and what they have to do with a whale. Every time the album reached Breakout nine tracks in, I was freshly reminded that there's a concept and every time it ended, I wondered what it was.

It seems like there ought to be a story to People of the Smoke, which opens up the album, but it's never a focus for me. There are all sorts of ambient accoutrements to take my mind away from the story and by the time I'm ready to pay attention to it, it goes entirely instrumental, as if the story is left hanging in the clouds. And talking of them, These Passing Clouds is up next as an interlude, completely instrumental. There are a few of those here and they're often delicious, so why would we focus on a story, especially as even Hackett himself would freely admit that he's far more of a guitarist than a vocalist.

There are songs too. Taking You Down is a more groove oriented vocal song with a prominent sax from Rob Townsend, as straightforward as People of the Smoke was wildly playful. Enter the Ring is quite the delicate prog song. When the flute of Hackett's brother John shows up, you know who is immediately going to spring out as a comparison and it's a fair one, given where the song goes from there, even if Hackett's guitar solo isn't particularly like anything that Martin Barre might play. Get Me Out is a real stalker of a song while Ghost Moon and Living Love is softer, technically counting as a ballad, I suppose, but one with choral voices and orchestration in addition to a more laid back Hackett.

There's a voice in Found and Lost too, even though it initially seems to be another interlude. It's a sub-two minute mood piece, drenched in film noir cigarette smoke, and it features some effective smooth singing from Hackett, even if it's far more honest than it is accomplished. It leads into the rain of Enter the Ring, which marks the first point at which I felt like I was on an old school Genesis album, though it veers over to Jethro Tull territory after the flute shows up and everything drifts into perky folk rock.

There are other instruments worthy of note here, beyond the expected Hackett guitarwork, both electric and acoustic and also on mandolin. Townsend on sax and John Hackett on flute are easily the most obvious across the album, as they both show up multiple times, but the most notable on one appearance is surely Malik Mansurov's tar, which is a lute mostly known from classical music in Azerbaijan. It introduces Circo Inferno, which is as unlike Ghost Moon and Living Love before it as can be comfortably imagined. It's a thoroughly alive song, driving through those ethnic sounds to some cool weird stuff early in the second half and a seriously angry sax emerging from it. This is a wicked song and it's an utter delight.

It's here that the concept leaps out to grab our attention, because, while Circo Inferno clearly has to do with a circus and Breakout is a lively ninety second intermission between that and All at Sea, it then starts to have to do with the whale. The guitar churn from Breakout is there too, but it's a lot less immediate, dwarfed instead by the creature's presence. I still have no idea why this album is all about a circus and a nightwhale, but it's clear when it moves from one to the other because Hackett's guitar sounds like an orca in All at Sea and the percussion starts to sound like waves. We would know that Into the Nightwhale is all about the whale, even if it didn't hawk it in its title.

Most of these later pieces are instrumental, but they're more like soundtrack material than what served so well as interludes earlier in the album. However, Into the Nightwhale is vocal, in an Alan Parsons Project vein, and Wherever You Are stays vocal in a more upbeat dynamic vein, which the guitar of Steve Hackett is more than happy for. He's entirely electric here and he goes for searing rather than introspective. The vibrant drumming at the end of this track backs up just how much life there is in it. And yet, White Dove calms us right back down again to wrap up the album in the most peaceful way possible, a soft acoustic instrumental piece with a Mediterranean vibe. What's a nightwhale doing there?

And so I have no idea what this concept album is doing, at least outside the cinematic section late on, from Circo Inferno to Into the Nightwhale. However, as individual songs and pieces of music, with any idea of concept ruthlessly ignored, there's some tasty stuff here. Found and Lost is a hugely evocative piece, with its delicate harp, keyboard swells and sultry saxophone. Circo Inferno is wild abandon, life as immediate as only a carny can pitch it. All at Sea is immersive, a piece of music as easy for us to see as hear. And Ghost Moon and Living Love, as soft as it is, is exquisite, surely the best song here, even if others are far more eager to have us vote for them.

Now, am I going to wake up three weeks from now with a cartoon light bulb glowing over my head because I've suddenly realised what it's about? I doubt it but I like it anyway.

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