Sound — 9
I've often felt it quite unfair to refer to Genesis' prog era as the "Peter Gabriel era", since the band still released two entirely excellent prog-rock albums without him, and that it was actually the departure of guitarist Steve Hackett that precipitated Genesis' ultimate transformation into a pop-rock band. To me, the band's prog years are actually the "Steve Hackett era". And while Hackett did not spend nearly as much time in the limelight as Gabriel, he brought the rock guitar world many innovations usually mentioned with other later guitarists, such as basing solos around techniques like tapping and sweep picking.
On his most recent solo album, "The Night Siren", the guitar takes center stage, of course, but there's also an impressive display of Hackett's songwriting and composition skills. There's a diversity on this album that keeps it very entertaining, from the Arabic vibe of the opening track "Behind the Smoke", a rumination on the historical plight of refugees fleeing warzones, to the almost Beatles-esque psychedelia of "Martian Sea", to the decidedly Pink Floyd-esque "Fifty Miles From the North Pole". Throughout these first three tracks, there's a definite sense that this is still the same artist, a sort of continuity. Even though the music often harks back to the 1970s prog-rock style of Genesis, with its swelling chords and sweeping symphonic synth backdrops, there's enough to distinguish this album from Hackett's former band. For instance, "Behind the Smoke" features some guitar playing that could almost push the album into progressive metal territory, with big orchestral arrangements outlining a riff reminiscent of bands like Orphaned Land. "Fifty Miles From the North Pole" also has a very cool groove to it, complete with tremolo-laden surf guitars, and a great sort of heavy riff just about five minutes into the piece. "El Niño" is a cinematic instrumental, with some of Hackett's best lead playing on display. After absolutely ripping through that piece, "Other Side of the Wall" lulls us with gentle classical guitar and orchestral swells complementing Steve's voice.
While "Anything But Love" opens with flamenco nylon-string playing, the tune quickly progresses into a rock number. Despite some absolutely blazing guitar work, I felt like this track was one of the album's few weak points at first. It does grow on you, though. The transition from flamenco to rock does seem a little misplaced, but each section of the song is effective at what it does. More gentle, pastoral prog-rock is on tap in "Inca Terra", with a faster acoustic section in the middle reminding the listener of Hackett's work on early '70s Genesis albums before taking the listener to a fast jazz fusion part, with plenty of Latin percussion. This piece almost feels a bit like a companion piece to "Los Endos", from Genesis' album "A Trick of the Tail".
"In Another Life" is a folk-tinged piece featuring Nightwish's Troy Donockley on uilleann pipes. "In the Skeleton Gallery" is another piece in the same vein as "Behind the Smoke", featuring a very dark atmosphere with Middle Eastern string arrangements and nearly metallic guitar riffs behind a wicked saxphone solo, capped off with a really excellent guitar solo. "West to East" is, in all actuality, a proper companion piece to "Behind the Smoke" continuing on the Middle Eastern war theme, this time focusing on the Israel-Palestine conflict. To drive the point of the song home, it features guest appearances from Israeli singer Kobi Farhi of prog-metal band Orphaned Land singing alongside Israeli-Arab singer Mira Awad, who identifies as Palestinian. Closing the album is "The Gift", a short orchestral track featuring some lead guitar work from Hackett.
Aside from Steve's performance on the album, there are many other noteworthy performers on this record as well: Nick D'Virgilio (Spock's Beard) performs drums on "Martian Sea", Gary O'Toole plays drums on "Fifty Miles from the North Pole", "El Niño", and "West to East", while Rob Townsend handles a wide range of wind instruments from saxophone to flute and even bass clarinet. There are multiple other session musicians performing a variety of different ethnic instruments such as the Iranian tar, the Brazilian berimbau (beating Rob Scallon to the punch on that one), as well as the cajon and other various Latin percussion. Despite this, the album isn't strictly a world music record, though the influence is particularly strong.
The production is mostly fairly exemplary on the record. For an album with so much going on, producers Roger King and Benedict Fenner, along with Hackett himself, have managed to keep things from getting too over-the-top. There are a few missteps like the decidedly early-'90s reverb and compression of "Anything But Love" that sounds incredibly dated, and perhaps some of the orchestral samples are a bit too cheesy on some tracks, and the album as a whole may have benefitted from using a real orchestra for those sections, but these
are rather minor compared to how awesome the actual music is.
Lyrics — 9
Lyrically speaking, "The Night Siren" is in some ways a loose concept album, taking inspiration from Hackett's travels around the world, with many of the songs evoking a particular part of the world. "Behind the Smoke" and "West to East" tackle conflicts in the Middle East, with the former focusing mainly on the plight of refugees fleeing the region, and how world governments show more self-interest than actually trying to help people, while the latter emphasizes the need for peace. "Fifty Miles from the North Pole" is a track inspired by a trip to Iceland, a land of "volcanoes and ice" where "it gets so cold it can freeze your soul". "The Other Side of the Wall" is about a centuries-old romance that could not be, inspired by a brick wall in London's Wimbledon garden. "Inca Terra" takes us to Peru's rainforests and mountains. "In Another Life" is another track about a relationship torn apart by war, seeming to take place during the American Revolution.
Steve's vocals are great throughout the album, as well, with a sound reminiscent of '70s prog vocalists such as King Crimson's John Wetton, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, and Camel's Andy Latimer. The album also features the vocal talents of Steve's wife Jo Hackett (who also shares a majority of the album's co-writing credits), along with her sister Amanda Lehmann. Guest appearances from Nad Sylvan ("Inca Terra"), Kobi Farhi of Orphaned Land and Eurovision competitor Mira Awad ("West to East") complete the lineup.
Overall Impression — 9
Steve Hackett's impressive musicianship and songwriting are on full display on "The Night Siren", and this record is sure to please any prog-rock fan. Even though some may consider the '70s prog-rock style a bit of a dinosaur, Hackett manages to keep much of this album sounding fresh. There are very few missteps on the album, perhaps only the production on "Anything But Love" being the only real blemish on what's otherwise an absolutely breathtaking album.
This is the kind of album that's really great to just wrap yourself in, and let wash over you. Much of this album is spot-on, including the guitar playing, which is a big part of the reason most of us will want to check out Steve Hackett's solo albums. But this is far more than just a guitar-oriented shred album, even though there are very many moments on this record where Hackett reminds us why he's one of the most criminally underrated guitarists out there. The album is also rich and full of warm, lush musical arrangements, diverse world music influences, and a very song-oriented compositional style that never entirely puts Steve solely in the limelight, and he really lets the other musicians on this album have their own moments in the spotlight as well. The album is also a worthy follow-up to 2015's equally brilliant "Wolflight" album, though perhaps a bit lighter in some regards, where "Wolflight" perhaps had some heavier emphasis on the guitar work.
Overall, this is an absolutely brilliant record. If you're into prog-rock from the 1970s, I strongly recommend you check this record out.