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Steve Hackett - Wild Orchids CD (album) cover


Steve Hackett


Eclectic Prog

3.75 | 296 ratings

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4 stars Even by Hackett's standards, this a weird album with a weird flow. Part of the reason for this is that a good chunk of the album feels like Hackett imitating others, whether deliberate or not. "A Dark Night in Toytown" sounds like it should be a David Bowie song; "Down Street" has guitar work that sounds like it belongs to Wall-era Gilmour, and much of "The Fundamentals of Brainwashing" sounds like an alternate version of "High Hopes" from The Division Bell; "Ego & Id" often sounds like mid-90s King Crimson crossed with a smidge of mid-90s Flaming Lips and post-Blackmore Deep Purple; and of course there's a Bob Dylan cover, where Steve either sounds like Mark Knopfler or Leonard Cohen. There are plenty of elements that bear a clear Hackett stamp, of course, and all of the songs I listed are just fine, but while Hackett has had plenty of diversity in his career, I can't think of another Hackett album that sounds so at war with itself. The charming randomness of the To Watch the Storms track ordering is amped up here to a point that the album actually ends up feeling a little uncomfortable, even for somebody like me who generally likes this aspect of Steve's albums.

The best aspect of the album is that it has some really top-notch ballads. "Set Your Compass" may be more atmosphere than melody, but it's a gorgeous atmosphere, somewhat reminiscent of Voyage, and the periodic "set your compass by your dreams" line could stay in my head forever if it wanted to. "To a Close" is more traditional and conventional, but no less impressive, centering around a set of gently swaying acoustic guitar lines and featuring lovely flute lines, subtle orchestration and fantastic vocal harmonies. A small step behind them, but still a delight, is "A Girl Called Linda," a jazzy French-tinged number that just drips whimsy but never becomes too cutesy for its own good. Oddly, these three songs are grouped close together in the middle of the album, and I somewhat feel that lessens their overall effect, but that's just a small gripe.

The rest of the album is downright nutty, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. "The Fundamentals of Brainwashing" is a solid downbeat ballad in its own right, featuring some nice lyrics ("History is a vinyl record stuck in a groove" strikes me as a really inspired opening lyric) and a great vibe (and a great brief pedal steel solo) once you get beyond the way it sounds like a Division Bell outtake, but rather than moving into a gentle conclusion, the song dissolves into a monstrous instrumental, "Howl," which maintains the same main underpinning set of piano chords but covers it in noisy jazzy anger (manifesting in, well, howling and screeching guitar sounds of pure passion that give way to a nice extended jazz piano solo). The combination of the two tracks makes for a great conclusion to the album (I ripped the two as one track and can't imagine listening to them separately), but it's an extra strange experience to listen to this immediately after "Why" (a minute-long 30s jazz send-up, or basically a more condensed "Sentimental Institution") and "She Moves in Memories" (basically a five-minute orchestral rearrangement of "To a Close"). Maybe the sequencing would make more sense on the 17-track special edition (which I haven't heard yet), but here I'm just kinda baffled.

Coming immediately before the final stretch of the album, and right after the "ballad" stretch, is the "rocker" stretch, and the results are mixed. "Wolfwork" has a couple of nice ideas in the quieter moments, but on the whole it's a bit of a tuneless pounding mess without much to compensate, and it doesn't add much to the album. "Ego and Id" is pretty fun, if only for the novelty of Steve clearly trying to make his sound harder and noisier, and he manages to squeeze some great sounds and passages out of his guitar in the process. And finally, the Dylan cover is rather pleasant and moody, but the choice of song to cover ("The Man in the Long Black Coat") ends up being startling for a reason outside the context of the album; this track had been covered by Emerson Lake and Palmer a dozen years earlier on their In the Hot Seat album. Who would have ever thought that this decent-but-not-especially- notable track from a decent-but-not-especially-notable late-80s Bob Dylan album would become the Dylan cover of choice for aging progsters? To be honest, I actually kinda prefer the ELP version; this one is just fine, but it's pretty conventional, whereas the ELP version had a little more variety in the sound (for better or worse) and a growling repeated riff that made it stand out.

Finally (or initially, I suppose, since these tracks are all near the beginning of the album), there's the "eccentric Hackett music" stretch. The opening "A Dark Night in Toyland" has some great guitar parts tucked underneath that betray it as Hackett, but as I said earlier, I feel like this should have been a Bowie song, maybe on Heathen; there's just something about the combination of the music box in the beginning, the up-tempo orchestration, the deep vocals and the slightly dark lyrics (with the great repeated line, "If you can't find heaven I'll show you a ghost train to hell") that instinctively makes me want to file it as a Bowie song. "Waters of the Wild" is another nice example of Steve's occasional fascination with Eastern-tinged music, featuring a fun set of sitar lines (or maybe an imitation, whatever) over a decidedly non-Western beat, and maintaining a solid intensity that keeps it interesting for its full five-and-a-half minutes.

And finally, there's "Down Street," yet another one of Steve's ventures into a track that features a spoken downward-pitched vocal. Fortunately, this is much closer to "The Devil is an Englishman" than the two Dark Town instances of this, and the music is a lot of fun, moving from something vaguely Tom Waits-ish into (as mentioned) something driven by Gilmour-ish "Another Brick in the Wall 2" lines, eventually bringing in some great harmonica lines to make the whole thing seem about 20% less dorky than it is, and then going in various directions that could be expected on a Hackett album. The vocals are hard to shake, but truth be told they do disappear for a large chunk of the song, so I can listen to the track without feeling like they really ruin much.

For me, the bottom line is that this is another very good late-period Hackett album, but it's also one that I think would be a pretty bad introduction to this period of his career, and I definitely don't think somebody should hear it before hearing at least one of the "regular" albums that bookend it (To Watch the Storms and Out of the Tunnel's Mouth). There's some tremendous material that every Hackett fan should eventually, hear, though, so don't put off getting it indefinitely. And hey, if you're somehow the kind of person who thinks of Please Don't Touch as one of Steve's career peaks, then maybe this kind of messiness will appeal to you more than it does to me.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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