Steve Hackett – Under A Mediterranean Sky (Album Review)

Review of Steve Hackett’s new acoustic album Under A Mediterranean Sky, out on January 22nd, 2021

by Nick Tate

Steve Hackett’s breathtaking new album definitively answers the question: Is there no end to the former Genesis guitarist’s talent and creativity?

Under A Mediterranean Sky is Hackett’s first classical guitar album in 12 years and the hands-down best of the four he has released since leaving Genesis in 1977 (Tribute, Metamorpheus, Momentum and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It also features some of the finest music he has produced over the last five decades – with or without Genesis.

Under A Mediterranean Sky marks a significant shift from the eclectic progressive rock that has defined most of Hackett’s solo career, as well the Genesis Revisited tours (and accompanying live releases) that have consumed him for nearly a decade. But it would be wrong to describe this sumptuous musical feast for the ears as a major departure. In fact, Under A Mediterranean Sky is the next logical extension of the steps Hackett has made into world-beat music, post-rock experimentation and neo-classical composition in recent years.

It follows closely on the heels of two strong albums he produced in 2019 – the sweeping studio release At the Edge of Light and Genesis Revisited Band & Orchestra: Live at the Royal Festival Hall — that neatly bookend the guitarist-composer’s growing interest in these new musical genres. Both albums embodied the progressive spirit that has always defined Hackett’s convention-shattering career. But they also reflected his growing interest in what he described as “films for the ear” in a recent interview – music that is symphonic, cinematic and deeply introspective.

Inspired by Hackett’s extensive travels around the Mediterranean with his wife, Jo – a talented author and composer in her own right – the all-instrumental album plays like a musical travelogue. On each of the 11 tracks here, Hackett’s nylon-string fretwork is front and center – showcasing why he’s in league with the classical-guitar masters who have clearly inspired him: Andres Segovia, Julian Bream and John Williams. But along the way, Hackett explores everything from pastoral European classical music to frenetic Middle Eastern folk, and everything in between. He even brings in the odd folk instrument to bring new textures to these compositions (duduk, charango or Iraqi oud, anyone?)

The album opens with “Mdina (The Walled City),” a mini guitar-and-orchestra concerto, inspired by the historic Maltese capital. The piece is a showstopper, featuring a dramatic symphonic introduction that echoes Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring.” From here, the piece gives way to romantic Spanish guitar breaks and pastoral string sections that come together in an uplifting final coda. Clocking in at just under nine minutes, “Mdina” is as daring, theatrical and gorgeous as anything in the Hackett catalog.

The rest of the album divides along two distinct lines – with solo classical guitar pieces alternating with more expansive orchestral works – both of which showcase Hackett’s considerable chops and compositional skills.

On the solo-acoustic side:
• “Adriatic Blue” and “The Lorato” are contemplative etudes that neatly fit beside Hackett’s Bach-inspired prelude “Horizons” from the 1972 Genesis classic Foxtrot and his spare guitar intro to “Blood on the Rooftops,” from 1977’s Wind and Wuthering.
• “Joi de Vivre” is a sprightly piece that calls to mind Mason Williams’s “Classical Gas.” It demonstrates Hackett’s arithmetically precise fretwork as well as his knack for melodic invention, resulting in a sweet-but-not-saccharine musical valentine to French culture.
• “Scarlatti Sonata,” the only non-original track here, pays tribute to the Italian Baroque composer. From start to finish, Hackett fingers his way through a gorgeous – and jaw-droppingly complex – variation on the original melody that sounds both timeless and fresh.

Hackett balances these quieter solo pieces with more expansive tracks, scored for orchestra. These larger works feature a handful of long-time Hackett collaborators, including Roger King (keyboards, orchestrating), Rob Townsend (sax), Christine Townsend (violin and viola) and John Hackett (flute).

Among the highlights:
• “Casa del Fauno” plays like a film score in search of a movie – one that would give Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer a run for his money. Inspired by a visit to Pompeii, “Casa” is a beguiling waltz that weaves together lush violin and flute lines to create a delicate tapestry of sound that perfectly frames Hackett’s enchanting fretwork.
• “The Dervish And The Djin” is a wild gypsy dance that echoes some of Hackett’s darkest solo works, such as “The Steppes” and “Please Don’t Touch.” The piece features whirling Moroccan rhythms and a snake-charmed solo from Townsend that suggests the exotic vibe of Marrakesh or Kashmir.
• “The Memory of Myth” introduces a new flavor to the Hackett cookbook: Flamenco guitar. It’s a musical tear-jerker that opens with a weepy violin solo that sets Hackett up for a stirring guitar tour-de-force. It’s as achingly beautiful and melancholic as a Greek tragedy.
• “Andalusian Heart” is the most Genesis-like track on the album. With its intricate instrumentation, spare guitar lines and symphonic swells, the piece echoes the quieter passages on Wind and Wuthering and hints at the direction Genesis might have taken had Hackett stayed on.
• “Sirocco” is a lush miniature symphony, inspired by the savage winds of the Saharan and Arabian deserts, that would provide the perfect musical backdrop for a new staging of “Scheherazade.” The melodies Hackett pulls out of his guitar strings are, by turns, seductive and furious – buffeted by wild Moroccan rhythms and swirling strings.
• “The Call of the Sea” closes out the album in grand fashion. It’s another majestic guitar concerto that demonstrates Hackett’s ability to combine both feel and technique on the fretboard – and make it sound easy-peasy. It ranks among his finest works, with or without Genesis. This piece could become a fan favorite if he chooses to perform it live as a solo piece, beside “Horizons,” during the acoustic-guitar breaks that are a hallmark and highlight of Hackett’s concerts.

Hackett might have replaced at least one of the solo acoustic pieces here (“The Lorato” or “Scarlatti Sonata” perhaps) with a more conventional symphonic-rocker – perhaps as a bonus track – to satisfy long-time fans and vary the mix a bit. But with a package as rich as this one, this is a minor concern easily forgiven.

Taken together, the 11 tracks on Under A Mediterranean Sky deliver the kind of sophisticated music hinted at by Hackett’s early work with Genesis and on his genre-shattering solo outings since leaving the band. In short, the album finds one of progressive rock’s most innovative artists still challenging himself – and his audiences – with music that manages to break new ground while also keeping alive the flame of first-wave prog.

Worth noting: The album arrives just as Hackett’s former bandmates – Phil Collis, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford – are gearing up for another Genesis nostalgia tour (without him). That tour is sure to feature the post-prog pop songs the trio made after Hackett and Peter Gabriel left for solo careers in the 1970s.

But regardless of where you fall along the Genesis divide – whether you favor the band’s proggier 1970s roots or the entertainment factory it later became in the 1980s and 1990s – Under A Mediterranean Sky is essential listening for any prog fan on either side of the aisle.

Highly recommended.

Released on Jan 22, 2021 on InsideOutMusic

1. Mdina (The Walled City) (8:45)
2. Adriatic Blue (4:51)
3. Sirocco (5:13)
4. Joie de Vivre (3:42)
5. The Memory of Myth (3:29)
6. Scarlatti Sonata (3:40)
7. Casa del Fauno (3:51)
8. The Dervish and the Djin (4:57)
9. Lorato (2:29)
10. Andalusian Heart (5:34)
11. The Call of the Sea (4:44)

Steve Hackett / nylon, steel string & 12-string guitars, oud, charango, sitar, harmonica, vocals, co-producer
Roger King / keyboards & programming, orchestral arrangements, co-producer, mixing & mastering
Christine Townsend / violin (5)
John Hackett / flute
Rob Townsend / flute (7), saxophone (8)
Malik Mansurov / tar
Arsen Petrosyan / duduk

Pre-order here: https://stevehackett.lnk.to/UnderAMediterraneanSky

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