Steve Hackett

Camino Records, 1999


REVIEW BY: Dan Smith


"Welcome to my nightmare," says ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett with Darktown, the most "autobiographical and revealing" of the virtuoso's seventeen solo albums. True to its title, Darktown is a stirring romp through Hackett's dreams and experiences - a carnival of memories ranging from the social minefields of school days to rain-drenched hypnotic car rides to young love to death.

All this, punctuated by some of the most stirring guitar instrumentals this side of King Crimson, clear and pristine production values, and an uncanny ability to mix the gorgeous timbres of '70s prog-rock with a more modern sensibility, adds up to Hackett's best record since 1975's Voyage Of The Acolyte and the best progressive album of the year. In a just world, Darktown sells four million copies and Hackett is given his rightful recognition as one of the most exciting and emotive guitarists in history. In this world, it sells fifty thousand (maybe) and everyone still thinks Eddie Van Halen invented tapping and Genesis began with "Follow You Follow Me."

Beautifully packaged and painstakingly produced, Darktown is the culmination of eight years of work for Hackett. It shows. In stark contrast to retro-prog abortions like Rick Wakeman's Return To The Centre Of The Earth, Genesis' Calling All Stations, and Yes' Open Your Eyes, Darktown is a well-produced, modern album that proves a fusion of the classic progressive musical vein with '90s technology is possible, and, more importantly, that the results can be both interesting and demanding on the ear and at the same time a pleasant listen.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

You want churning, speedfreak guitar-torture? You'll find it here, but more interestingly, just listen to some of the sounds Hackett coaxes from his six-string. He makes the guitar sound like a violin, a distorted organ, a synthesizer, and a drumkit. Hackett is willing to mix up his sounds as well, there's distortion, sustain, growling, purring, whirring--guitar as beautiful pastoral instrument or brutal industrial electric monster.

On his landmark 70s solo releases - Voyage Of The Acolyte and Spectral Mornings - Hackett was clearly more comfortable composing from an instrumental point of view. Although his gravelly, wavering voice was not wholly unpleasant, Hackett preferred to bring in guest singers (Phil Collins, Sally Oldfield, Richie Havens, etc.) to cover the vocals. On Darktown, Hackett eschews this approach and handles them all (with the exception of the ballad "Days Of Long Ago", sung by Jim Diamond). While personally I wouldn't mind if someone hid that damn vocal processor that Hackett uses for his voiceovers somewhere far far away, the effects are not nearly as jarring as they were on some of the cuts on earlier albums, notably Genesis Revisited. The instrumentals - notably "Twice Around the Sun" and "Darktown Riot" are fantastic and fascinating musical explorations.

Darktown is a mood album. Playing it at a party would be unwise, but alone on headphones on a rainy day brings out the record's sonic clarity and beautiful timbres. The range of musical styles encompassed here is breathtaking - "Omega Metallicus" opens up with a pounding drum/bass rhythm and rips into a guitar-driven dervish instrumental. Contrast this with the tender ballad "Days Of Long Ago", the gentle surrealism of "Jane Austen's Door", or the acoustic opening of "Rise Again." While musically it is definitely the oddest track on the album, "The Golden Age Of Steam" is an easy highlight, quite poignant and powerful. The title track, with its crashing heavy metal vamps under Ian McDonald's squealing, discordant saxophone, hits the mark as well, although the processed vocals can grate.

This album sounds nothing like Genesis, nothing like any of Hackett's earlier works, and certainly zip like the crap being churned out by "prog-rockers" old and new. Adventurous, by turns majestic and schizophrenic, Darktown truly is a triumph. For more information, please visit the artist's website. Although only available now as an import, Darktown is worth the inflated price - and stands as a reminder to jaded progressive rock fans that great, challenging new music is still being made (and occasionally by the fellas who brought you the first batch 25 years ago).

Rating: A

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© 1999 Dan Smith and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Camino Records, and is used for informational purposes only.