On February 16th Steve Hackett will release his thirtieth solo album ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’. This album is not a concept album as such, however, it does have thirteen tracks interlinked and inter-woven and which take an autobiographical angle into Steve’s life journey. In the official blurb that accompanies the release we are told that it’s a “lovely journey that starts dirty scratchy and smoky and becomes heavenly and divine”. So does it? And what does it tell us exactly? Well, here’s my thoughts on it, mostly based on a conversation I had with Steve himself earlier in the year.
The first track on the album, People Of The Smoke, opens interestingly with sound effects, a snippet of Listen With Mother, a baby’s cry, which is treated with reverb and echo, along with steam train noises and whistles. The song then moves into a busy section with Big Ben tolling and a guitar line that builds before drums come into force and a brisk pace is taken. Steve adds little flurries of notes and fills, this is all to represent the suffocating dark and smoke filled city of London when emerging from the post war years of rationing and entering the 1960’s and the opportunities that were becoming more available as a result. I guess it was possibly a case of you had to be there to experience it for yourself, but you get a good impression from the excellent video for this track:
The next track is the first of no less than five instrumental pieces, each of which are very different in sound and approach. These Passing Clouds symbolises the changing face of the capital as it moves from sinister to optimistic and this brief vignette captures that excellently. Taking You Down is about a friend of Steve’s at Senior school, they bonded over a love of music and had a close friendship. However, this friend was often involved in some jape or wheeze or scam and often roped Steve into these as well. This all ended badly when Steve got more involved in music and they drifted apart. The friend was manipulative and not always pleasant to be around, they had good times but it all came to an end. Steve often wonders about this chap and what he is doing these days, proposing that he is probably running a small country in Africa or somewhere similar, that is run with corruption and despotic greed. The next track, Found And Lost, is about Steve’s first love. A girl from a good family, intelligent and articulate however, she wanted something more than Steve offered so the relationship didn’t last. She got involved with a bad crowd, got involved with drugs and ultimately ended up in prison from which she would write letters to Steve. He was heartbroken by all this and it took a while for his confidence to rebuild and, while there were other girls, there were none like her.
Enter The Ring and Get Me Out! both refer to his time on the Genesis wheel of fame, all of this is being alluded to through the excitement of a fairground and the thrills it offered. This continues in Get Me Out! in which Steve realises that he is in danger of being stuck in a situation that he actually wants to be free of. This track has a lengthy and somewhat furious guitar solo in the middle, expressing his frustrations perhaps. Ghost Moon and Living Love is about moving on from his Genesis days and going it alone. Circo Inferno continues this theme of being stuck on a wheel going around and around. This track has a heavier tone with more fiery guitar flourishes ,it also features Amanda Lehmann on vocals and Rob Townsend on tenor saxophone. The next track Breakout is an impressive rock guitar showcase, as is All At Sea, both of which really impress as they both have a lot going on within them.
Into The Nightwhale is another interesting sounding track, opening with swirling keyboards and synths creating a moody soundscape with Steve providing long sustained guitar notes before a heavy drumbeat emerges from the mist, as it were. More sustained guitar notes follow and gradually build up to a peak at which point everything falls away and a delicate orchestral sound is played whilst Steve sings a delicate vocal. The song is about building resilience and how finding love give you strength once more. The penultimate song, Wherever You Are, is a love song for his wife Jo, who has had a major impact on Steve’s life in the last ten years or so. This song is a shameless celebration of the love that they have found in each other. That said, this one definitely rocks with extremely passionate guitar playing and sounds. The album closes with White Dove, a wistful and delicate acoustic conclusion to the album. Again, this song is very romantic sounding with its classical tone and playing. It will be great to hear this one live, as Horizons is possibly in need of being retired?Just a thought…
So there you have it, a most intriguing and different album from Steve with some great songs and excellent guitar work. There is lots to appreciate and enjoy, I certainly did and can highly recommend, another highlight in the career of this legendary guitarist.
Released 16th February, 2024.
Order from Steve’s website and other outlest here: