Review – Virgil & Steve Howe – Nexus – by James R. Turner

Nexus: noun 1) a connection or series of connections linking two or more things, 2) a central or focal point.

Now I don’t normally start reviews with quotes from the dictionary, but it seemed apt here to draw the music to the title, thoughts which I shall return to.

I have always been a great believer that those musicians who are flesh and blood, kith and kin have a unique bond that no musician in band can ever emulate.

Siblings like the Everley Brothers, the Wilson brothers from the Beach Boys, and then familial musical units like the mercurial Waterson:Carthy (father Martin Carthy, mother Norma Waterson and daughter Eliza Carthy) or the majestic Thompson family, Richard and former wife Linda at the top with son Teddy, daughters Muna and Kami and grandson Jack Hobbs, not necessarily proof that the families who play together stay together, but proof of an intrinsic knowledge and interplay that is based far more on the gene than the group.

Again heading closer to home, having seen Rick and Adam Wakeman together in action, familial musicians can second guess the other, there’s a shared bond, a shared connection and a lot of soul going into collaborating together, and it reflects in the tightness of the music played, and the enjoyment the listener gets from hearing it.

Sadly on this album, the joy of the playing, and the magic contained within is bittersweet, as most of you will be aware that multi-instrumentalist Virgil Howe sadly passed away on 11th September, so this album stands as full stop instead of a new chapter, a story ending.

This fact does colour the perception of the record sadly, and the overall feeling throughout is one of loss, not from the music, which I’ll come onto later, but the loss of one hell of a talented individual with so much more to contribute. (he was 41 years old, just short of 2 years older than me when he passed away, brings your own mortality into sharp contrast). The Howe family could, in their grief over such a massive loss, sat on this album, and it’s to their credit that they are letting this album out as planned, as a perfect musical tribute to a beloved son, brother and it goes without saying that all of our thoughts are with them during their time of grief.

Virgil Howe first came to my attention back in 2003 when he gave some of the Yes back catalogue an inspired overhaul on the ‘Yes Remixes’ album, which, after ‘Open Your Eyes’ is probably the most divisive Yes release. I thought it was bloody marvellous how he’d taken older songs and put a fresh spin on them with style and without losing any of the original charm.

As a drummer, which is how he plied his trade, he was ever present in Little Barrie and also for the FSOL Amourphous Androgynous tour, working with artists as diverse as his father and the Pet Shop Boys as well as forging as big a reputation as his father, but in a completely different musical sphere.

Here, ‘Nexus’ is the meeting of two musical minds, where Steve Howe lets his guitar doing all the talking (performing on acoustic/electric and steel guitars) and Virgil does everything else (keyboard,piano, synth, bass and drums) in the press release for this record Steve states that “We started to work together in 2016 by selecting about nine tunes from his ‘stockpile’ of piano based music that he’d periodically sent Jan & I each time he’d written and recorded a new idea. I began adding guitars to them, then I’d play them to Virgil. He’d then surprise me by bringing up other channels of instrumentation which I’d never heard. The tunes went from straightforward ‘duets’ to something bigger & better, more of a complete picture than a mere shape.”

This inventive playfulness is at the heart of this record, and being a canny musician and producer Virgil is well aware that when you have Steve Howe playing guitars you don’t mess about.

The opener and title track eases us straight in with some of that instantly recognizable guitar work, before Virgil cleverly builds the song around it, his piano work providing a brilliant counterpoint to the guitar as both soar until all that is stripped away leaving a sublime Howe guitar solo and drum beat, that builds into a shimmering climax.

Hidden Planet flips it on it’s head being all skittering beats, descending piano chords and elements of drum and bass sneaking in, showing Virgil’s background, as amidst the funk he weaves through some astonishing guitar work, that just fits perfectly.

There are examples of both of their musical abilities that shine throughout this album, the haunting piano and guitar duet on Leaving Aurora for instance or the heartbreaking musical poignancy in Nick’s Star (a tribute from Virgil to his best friend Nick Hirsh who had passed away). Astral Plane comes closest to the most traditionally progressive sound on here, an instrumental of the sort that would fit on any Yes album of the last 20 years, whilst Infinite Space is an absolute belter of a song, encapsulating the album into one 2 minute piece.

There isn’t a bad track on this all instrumental album, and what Virgil ever so carefully, and cleverly does, is take the best of his Steves guitar work (which is exemplary here, he is sounding relaxed, sounding powerful and above all, sounding like he is having an absolute blast) whilst doing something ever so slightly different with what you would expect.

This twist moves this away from the traditional prog sound that you would expect from Steve, and into new, and exciting territory.

As a complete record it brings both generations together, pulling Steve’s experience as one of prog’s finest guitarists, and Virgil’s experience as a contemporary rock drummer and skilled DJ into one coherent whole, where the contradictory styles create a well produced and performed musical concept. It’s spans generations, genres and disciplines to create an album that is as timeless as it is genre-less, and that is Virgil’s skill on here, he coaxes the best out of Steve, and then sympathetically and cleverly works round the riffs to create musical duets, taking the guitar lines as living breathing things to be shaped and moulded. Which is why it works so well on so many levels, he’s not taking Steve’s work as sacrosant and not playing with it, however there’s also that familial intuition at work, where he knows instinctively what will work well where, and it shows both of them, world class musicians at the top of their game.

This album could have worked as the start of fruitful and exciting familial collaboration (would have been really interesting to see Virgil, Steve and Dylan Howe working together) but sadly it isn’t to be. Instead this diamond of a release is one to be celebrated and enjoyed as a living breathing record, performed by a Father and Son who sound like they are taking great delight in doing what both of them do best, and that is how we should enjoy it, as a celebration of life, of art and of the power of music to unite us in both sorrow and joy.

Released 17th November 2017

Order ‘Nexus’ from InsideOut Music



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