Album Spotlight: Broken Skies Outspread Wings By Steve Hackett

Steve Hackett’s  Broken Skies Outspread Wings (2018) box set is an extremely welcome trip down progressive rock memory lane.  For those unfamiliar with Hackett’s musical output from the mid  1980’s to  the earlier 2000’s this box set is a fantastic jumping on point. More specifically this  box set covers Hackett’s career from 1984 to 2006.  It is not a comprehensive collection of Hackett’s output from that time.  The focus is on six of  Hackett’s rock/progressive rock studio albums from that time frame.  In that same span of time he also recorded a blues album, two acoustic albums, two classical albums, his first Genesis Revisited album and several live albums.

SteveHackett_BrokenSkiesOutspreadWings

Overall the albums included in the box set are fantastic and I would add they are special to me.  Guitar Noir (1993) has long been, and continues to be my favorite Steve Hackett album.  Till We Have Faces (1984) and To Watch The Storms (2003) are among my top ten favorite Hackett albums.  Feedback 86 (2000) features Hackett and Brian May, two of my all time favorite guitar players.  Darktown (1999) and Wild Orchids (2006) are wildly diverse albums that feature Hackett stretching his musical muscles even further.  Both album contain some fantastic work from Hackett and an array of guests including: Jim Diamond, Ian McDonald, Julian Colbeck, John Hackett, Hugo Degenhardt and Nick Magnus.

Hackett boxset contentsThis series of albums showcase a truly progressive artist taking his art to the next level.  It is with this run of albums that Steve Hackett truly came into his own as a solo artist.  I am sure that  Hackett could have simply reproduced the sound and feel of his classic albums Spectral Mornings (1979) and Defector (1980).  That has never been his standard operating procedure.  After a brief foray into more commercial music on the albums Cured (1981) and Highly Strung (1982) Hackett changed gears, stepped on the gas and never looked back.  On the Till We Have Faces album Hackett came a step closer to finding his voice.  Musically he brought in a great deal of world music and  blues rock  to add to his already quirky progressive rock musical stylings.   Till We Have Faces was the start of one phase and the end of another.  The album was not the first to feature Hackett handling all of the lead vocals.  But it was the album where Hackett discovered a vocal style that he was truly comfortable with.  It is also the last Steve Hackett album in which keyboard player Nick Magnus was featured as a major contributor.  As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.  The two have continued to work together over the years appearing on one another’s solo albums.

It should be noted that this collection features the UK version of Guitar Noir.  This version has a few differences from the US version.  It features a drastically different track order.  Also included are a few demo recording.  The UK version omits the song Cassandra, featuring Brian May, and instead includes the jazz inspired Theater Of Sleep.  Cassandra is included elsewhere on the box set, but it is the original version featuring Chris Thomson, from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, on vocals.  The US version of Guitar Noir features Hackett on lead vocals and it is the superior version. Cassandra and Theater of Sleep are both excellent songs that showcase different facets of Hackett’s musical palette. Overall Guitar Noir is the musical culmination of Hackett’s solo career to that point.    Hackett takes the adventurous spirit of his 1970’s output. He combines that with his 1980’s explorations which include radio friendly songs, world music and blues rock. The result is an intimate, emotional album full of beautiful musical moods and textures.  Guitar Noir is an intensely moving musical experience for me.  It is one of the few perfect albums in my music collection.  I feel that way about both the UK and the US editions.  Not only is Guitar Noir my favorite Hackett album, it also features my favorite Hackett song, the wonderful instrumental Walking Away From Rainbows.  I have to mention keyboard players Julian Colbeck and Aron Freidman.  Their contributions help to make this album so incredibly special.

Darktown, To Watch The Storms and Wild Orchids may well be the most underrated and underappreciated albums in Hackett’s catalog. Hackett’s Genesis Revisited (1996) album was the start of his collaboration with keyboardist Roger King.  King’s contributions to the second half of Hackett’s solo career are immeasurable.  King is a tremendously talented keyboard player.  In most circles his contributions on the keys would be more than enough.  But King has also served as co-writer, engineer, producer and programmer on Hackett’s albums.  King has proven to be an invaluable member of Hackett’s band, as this series of albums proves.

Darktown sees Hackett’s music taking on a darker sound.  Musical contrasts have long been one of the strengths of Hackett’s albums. The album opens with the funky, eclectic instrumental  Omega Metallicus and closes with the subdued and moody  In Memoriam. Among the heaviness of the music and lyrics there is some light to be found. The love ballad  Days Of Long Ago features a delicate vocal from the late, great Jim Diamond. Darktown is a solid album that suffers slightly from inconsistent songwriting.  The album contains some of Hackett’s best recent work with songs like Darktown, Jane Austen’s Door and In Memoriam.  The box set edition of the album includes a few B-sides.

To Watch The Storms is a highlight for me.  It is hands down the best album that Steve Hackett  released in the twenty-first century.  It is not a perfect album.  I would have left two of the songs off of the album. They are not bad songs, but their omission would strengthen and streamline the album.  To Watch The Storms contains many fantastic songs.  The highlights include the quirky Circus Of Becoming, the thunderous Mechanical Bride and the album’s high point Brand New. Eleven of the album’s thirteen songs are truly high points for Hackett in the latter half of his career. It should be noted that the version featured on the box set is augmented by a few B-sides

The majority of Hackett’s albums are musically diverse.  Wild Orchids takes it to a new level. The album explores folk, blues, world music, hard rock, classical, progressive rock and Beatles inspired pop.  Hackett even throws in an incredible swampy blues cover of a Bob Dylan song, Man In The Long Black Coat.  I will say that Wild Orchids is the one Hackett album that would benefit from some editing and a new song order.  Most of Hackett’s albums have a cohesive feel and a logical flow from start to finish.  Wild Orchids, at times, feels like a collection of diverse songs, instead of a symbiotic musical entity.  The album is worthwhile listening, however it is in need of some expert tweaking.

Feedback 86 is the belated release of music that Steve Hackett recorded in the mid 1980’s. Overall Feedback 86 is a time capsule to a different time and musical styling for Hackett.  Feedback 86 is not a true Steve Hackett solo album.   Most of the songs feature Hackett collaborating with a variety of artists exploring guitar heavy, radio friendly music.  The album features two songs with Queen’s Brian May on guitar.  One of those tracks showcases a lineup that could have been an impressive super group.  The track Cassandra features Steve Hackett, Brian May, Ian Mosley (Marillion), Nick Magnus, Pete Trewavas (Marillion) and Chris Thompson.  The two songs Cassandra and Slot Machine  give a brief glimpse of what GTR 2 with May  on board, instead of Steve Howe, could have been. The songs Stadium Of The Damned and The Gulf    are clearly songs recorded by Hackett for a solo project.  The latter two songs were eventually included on later editions of the Till We Have Faces album.

The box set also contains several B-sides and singles from Hackett. One of the songs included is his recent re-recording of GTR’s When The Heart Rules The Mind.  Hackett handles the lead vocals, with Marillion’s Steve Rothery lending a hand on guitar.  Hackett sticks close to the original version, yet he imprints his unique musical stamp on the classic song. Hackett and Rothery add a few extra notes and sounds throughout, especially during the solo section.

I will say that a few  of the included B-sides are serviceable bluesy rock songs.  I love Hackett’s one album exploration of the blues,  Blues With A Feeling (1994). (https://shadesofnoirsite.wordpress.com/2018/11/02/album-spotlight-blues-with-a-feeling-by-steve-hackett/)  However some of the songs included on the box set are not on the same level.   Some of the B-sides are not essential, but die-hard fans will enjoy them.  Of note is Hackett’s re-recording of his own song The Air-Conditioned Nightmare from the Cured album.  The new version does not deviate from the original.  It is a more organic recording titled Reconditioned Nightmare that features real drums and a livelier bass track.  Another highlight is a wonderful classical guitar piece entitled If You Only Knew.  Hackett truly excels at producing these wonderfully gentle yet complex pieces.

Hackett boxst booklet

Also included in the box set is a DVD of a 2002 concert that features Steve Hackett’s greatest touring band.  The band consisted of Hackett on guitar and vocals, Roger King on keyboards, Rob Townsend on saxophone and flute, Terry Gregory on bass and vocals and Gary O’Toole on drums and vocals.  Hackett has a history of assembling exceptionally talented touring bands.  This particular group had personality, they  were extremely talented and they had great chemistry together.  The 2002 concert showcases a fantastic pre-Genesis Revisited set list.  Hackett does sprinkle in some Genesis music: the guitar solo from Firth Of Fifth, Hairless Heart, an instrumental take on Watcher Of The Skies, Horizons and Los Endos.  But the bulk of the set consists of selections from Hackett’s prolific and exceptional solo career.  With a career as long as Hackett’s it would be impossible to assemble a set list pleasing to every fan.  The set list for this tour, which leans heavily on his 1990’s output, is a satisfying one. The concert showcases Hackett, and his then brand new band, bringing a jazzy edge to his already deliciously quirky music.

Hackett signing boxset

Overall Broken Skies Outspread Wings is a beautiful collection.  I briefly touched on each album.  There is so much wonderful music to explore on each release.  It is a fantastic time capsule of one of Steve Hackett’s most creative periods. As a long time fan it is one of my favorite periods of his career. I would have loved more insight from Hackett about each album and some more live material from the early 1990’s.  These are minor quibbles from a die hard and greedy Hackett fan.  When it comes to live material Hackett is one of the most generous artists around.  Over the years he has released quite a few live CDs and DVDs.  As a fan one can never have enough.     I am already looking forward to the next box set.  This is Hackett’s second box set, his first one was entitled Premonitions: The Charisma Recordings 1975-1983 (2015).  So far he has opted not to include his exceptional acoustic and classical albums on the box sets.  Momentum (1988) and Metamorpheus (2005) are among Hackett’s best work.  I hope that he is saving them all to be collected for his next box set.  Just a thought.

Troy T.

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