Steve Hackett – The Circus and the Nightwhale (Album Review)

Review of the Steve Hackett Album ‘The Circus and the Nightwhale’

By Nick Tate

Midway through Steve Hackett’s dazzling new album, “The Circus and the Nightwhale,” the legendary ex-Genesis guitarist delivers a three-part musical suite that perfectly demonstrates that, at 74, he is still at the top of his game, challenging himself and his fans by breaking new ground.

The trilogy opens with, “Found and Lost,” a spare classical-guitar piece that evolves into a cabaret-style jazz ballad about fleeting first love. The track would have fit nicely on any 1950s-era Blue Note standards album, replete with muffled trumpet strains and a smoldering vocal from Hackett that would give Mel “The Velvet Fog” Torme a run for his money. This shotgun marriage of nylon-string guitar and smoky film noir ambience leads directly to a shimmering 12-string/piano-driven piece, “Enter the Ring,” overlaid with lush vocal harmonies that call to mind the Genesis classic, “Entangled” (co-written by Hackett and Tony Banks in the mid-1970s). From here, the track builds in intensity to become a prog-rock workout, featuring shifting time signatures and dirty hummed-through flute lines that echo Ian Anderson. And if that isn’t sufficiently wide ranging, this rocky break gives way to a lysergic mashup of quirky circus themes and Brahmsian orchestral-rock that sets up the heaviest tune on the album, “Get Me Out,” helmed by Hackett’s scorching sustain-on-steroids electric fretwork.

The result is an astonishing tour-de-force that takes your breath away. What is most remarkable, however, is not just how well Hackett merges these disparate genres, but the way each piece leads seamlessly to the next, without sounding forced or contrived.
This quality of Hackett’s music — the musical derring-do and ease with which he stitches together contrasting musical styles — is what sets him apart. It’s also what makes his new album as strong as anything Hackett has produced over the past 55 years, inside and outside of his former main musical squeeze, Genesis.

Lyrically, “The Circus and the Nightwhale” is a rite-of-passage concept album built around the surrealistic adventures of a young character named Travla (get it?) that Hackett acknowledges is semi-autobiographical. On the surface, the premise might sound familiar; the record comes 50 years after the release of the mother of all prog-rock concept albums, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” the 1974 Genesis double album that many fans consider the band’s finest studio effort (with Hackett launching a “Genesis Revisited” tour later this year that will feature highlights from the landmark record, as well as selections from his solo career).

But musically, the 13 tracks on the “The Circus and the Nightwhale” are more eclectic than anything Hackett and his Genesis mates ever produced back in the day. The album combines quiet ballads, acoustic etudes, jazz fusion, blues, high-energy prog, symphonic and theatrical rock, and even world-beat music in a mix that is cinematic in sweep and scope (exemplifying what Hackett calls “films for the ear”).

The album, which arrives nearly more than two years after Hackett’s last release, “Surrender of Silence,” features what has become his main touring band: Roger King (keyboards, programming and orchestral arrangements), Rob Townsend (sax), Jonas Reingold (bass), Nad Sylvan (vocals), Craig Blundell (drums), Amanda Lehmann on vocals and John Hackett (Steve’s brother) on flute. A few guesting musicians also lend a hand (or two): Nick D’Virgilio and Hugo Degenhardt on drums, engineer Benedict Fenner on keyboards and Malik Mansurov on Middle Eastern tar, a long-necked sitar-like lute native to the Middle East. But the engine that drives this train, as ever, is Hackett, whose compositional vision is matched by his stellar work on electric and acoustic guitars, 12-string, mandolin, harmonica, percussion, bass and lead vocals.

The album opens with the propulsive “People of The Smoke,” a sweeping cinematic mini epic that conjures up the post-war London of Hackett’s childhood. Vintage 1950s-era radio station cut-ins, a baby’s cries, a woman’s voice (asking: “Are you sitting comfortably?”) and the sounds of a steam-train engine gaining speed introduce the listener to the musical journey that follows. Hackett’s vocals here and elsewhere are strong and more confident than ever. While more limited in range than, say, Sylvan’s (who can go from a velvety baritone to sky-scaping falsetto in a flash), Hackett’s vocal style is theatrical, affecting and well-suited to the music and narrative throughout the album.

Next up is “These Passing Clouds,” a rocky 90-second instrumental propelled by Hackett’s emotive electric guitar lines. It sets up “Taking You Down,” a darkly sardonic story-song about an unscrupulous childhood friend that showcases a haunting vocal from Sylvan and a wild wailing sax solo from Townsend.

The three-song triptych — “Found and Lost/Enter the Ring/Get Me Out” — follows, before we’re treated to the most Genesis-like track on the album, “Ghost Moon and Living Love,” a lovely ballad featuring a celestial-choir intro delivered by Amanda Lehman. The opening melody, which Hackett says came to him in a fever dream, is a heavenly mini-oratorio that would fit neatly alongside Handel’s “Messiah.” It’s a heady introduction the mid-tempo rocker to come.

It’s followed by “Circo Inferno,” a fiery prog-metal rocker that opens with a frenzied melody from Mansurov plucked on Middle Eastern tar that builds steadily into a wild wall of sound that blows in like a musical scirocco. Two brief but intense instrumentals are next — “Breakout,” carried along by a relentlessly propulsive drum line from — and “All at Sea,” featuring a Hackett solo guitar line that approximates whale calls.

These short interludes set up another three-song cycle that closes out the album. The first in the series, “Into the Nightwhale,” explores the challenges of confronting personal demons and the transformational power of love. The song, which is the proggiest on the album, builds to a noisy climax that ultimately gives way to a lush Yes-like ambient-nature soundscape that echoes the opening strains of “Close to the Edge,” as Hackett intones: “Visions of love beyond word…I’ll be there when the darkness surrounds you.”

It’s followed by “Wherever You Are,” an unabashedly romantic love song that ranks among Hackett’s finest works. But it also features lyrics that read like a declaration of musical purpose for the legendary guitarist: “What are we living for, why do we strive? Can a song travel to the ends of the Earth?” Finally, Hackett ends the album with the gorgeous “White Dove,” another solo classical guitar piece that plays like a musical sequel to his Bach-like etude, “Horizons,” from the 1972 Genesis classic “Foxtrot.”

In interviews, Hackett has made no secret of the autobiographical nature of album — his 30th as a solo artist and easily one of his top five (in this writer’s opinion). Consequently, it seems only fitting to give him the final word here:
“I love this album. It says the things I’ve been wanting to say for a very long time,” he says, adding: “It’s a lovely journey that starts dirty, scratchy and smoky and becomes heavenly and divine. How can you resist it?”

Recorded between Hackett’s “Genesis Revisited” tours in 2022 and 2023 at Siren studio in the U.K. – with guest parts coming in from Sweden, Austria, the U.S., Azerbaijan and Denmark — the new album is available in several different formats. Among them: A limited-edition CD/Blu-ray media book (including 5.1 surround sound and 24-bit high resolution stereo mixes), standard CD jewel case, gatefold 180g vinyl LP and as digital album.

Released on February 16th 2024, via InsideOut Music.

1. People of the Smoke (4:51)
2. These Passing Clouds (1:34)
3. Taking You Down (4:17)
4. Found and Lost (1:50)
5. Enter the Ring (3:52)
6. Get Me Out (4:15)
7. Ghost Moon and Living Love (6:43)
8. Circo Inferno (2:30)
9. Breakout (1:37)
10. All at Sea (1:46)
11. Into the Nightwhale (4:06)
12. Wherever You Are (4:18)
13. White Dove (3:13)

Total Time 44:52

Line-up / Musicians
– Steve Hackett / electric and acoustic guitars, 12-string, mandolin, harmonica, percussion, bass, vocals

Roger King / keyboards, programming, orchestral arrangements
Rob Townsend / saxophone
Jonas Reingold / bass
Nad Sylvan (Agents of Mercy, Unifaun) / vocals
Amanda Lehmann / vocals
Benedict Fenner / keyboards
John Hackett / flute
Malik Mansurov / tar
Craig Blundell / drums
Hugo Degenhardt / drums
Nick D’Virgilio / drums



  • Thanks for the great review!! A good way to understand this excellent work even more. Outstanding album!!

  • I bought this recently on a whim as I have followed Genesis from the early days. I know nothing about Hacketts’ previous work. I always reserve judgement until I’ve listened 3 times and this one I give a thumbs up. My fave is White Dove.

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