The Light Brigade

Steve Hackett tries to save humanity one album at a time. His latest "agent for transformation"? 'At The Edge Of Light.'
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“There are Malevolent forces at work right now, dragging the world again to the brink of disaster,” Steve Hackett states in the press release for his 26th studio album, At the Edge of Light (Inside Out Music). But Hackett isn’t about to go quietly into the planet’s long good night. He is raising a battle cry through the power of music. And although he experienced first-hand the social disruptions of the 1960s, the onetime Genesis guitarist isn’t deploying the rock and roll sloganeering of the flower-power generation to heal our current ills.

Instead, At the Edge of Light is a magnificent epic poem for a world bedeviled by war, social division and suffering — a time where the Youngbloods singing their 1967 hippie plea “Get Together” just won’t cut it. Conceptually speaking, the album is as deep as the Mariana Trench, drawing from scholarly lyrical themes, historical touchstones, collaborations with global musicians and instrumentation, and the comfort of friends and family (Hackett’s wife, Jo, his brother John and long-time keyboardist/orchestrator Roger King were essential partners on the project). But leading the charge is Hackett’s exquisitely impassioned guitar playing, soaring like a beacon of hope.

This is such a sprawling and amazing work. I found it’s almost a cliché that past articles about your albums usually say something like, “His most ambitious work yet,” but then you drop something like this and dumbfound the poor journalists all over again.

Well, that’s good, right? I’ve been making albums for years, but this one just seems to be sending people off on a whole different thing. It is an ambitious album. It’s definitely the first fully orchestrated rock album I’ve done. I mean, I’ve worked with orchestras on record and live, but the idea of having so many people on an album seemed to work in a particular way for At the Edge of Light. I keep coming back to the idea of the orchestra, you know. I go backwards and forwards from orchestra to bands, ping-ponging between different forces and different tag teams. However, I wanted to create an accessible rather than impenetrable album. I wanted to appeal to a wide audience and approach commerciality on my own terms.

But how do you even begin to construct something that’s so massively broad as this?

You have to start small. You have to start with a doodle and a glimmer of an idea. And once you work on that one thing, you work out from the edges. Many of the songs came out of conversations. I’d talk to my wife and Roger, and we’d get an idea of what we wanted to achieve. Sometimes, a lyric may come first, or a title. Other times, we may have a piece of music, but we don’t completely know what it is yet, and in order to give it a context within an album that has a certain amount of social comment, we’ll look for a title. It’s a bit like you have an idea of what picture you want to paint, and you start fitting things into the frame. But it’s a team that builds it.

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For instance, we’ve made friends with so many people all over the world, and many of them are on this record. Once you start collaborating with all these different musicians from different places, you realize that music can do things that politics appears unable to achieve. In direct contrast to populist politics, nationalism and all the rest, musicians work tirelessly, ignoring borders and differences. We celebrate opposites and try to fuse them together in order to have happy accidents and collisions of ideas. We want to see where people can get onboard, so to speak. For example, we might see if there are there certain scales we can work with.

As a World War II buff, I love the reference to Neville Chamberlain’s naïve “peace for our time” comment after the 1938 Munich Agreement in your song “Beasts in Our Time.” It’s such a compelling way to tie in history but still speak to today.

You know, I initially thought it would be a great way to start the album with “Beasts in Our Time.” But then we had the idea of putting a “taster” track before it. I didn’t want to do an overture, because I didn’t think that would be appropriate for a rock album. And yet, I felt we needed an instrumental that went through a number of changes — different tones and energies — just to “wrong foot” everybody. To, you know, set the mood for an ever-changing journey throughout the album. So that first song, “Fallen Walls and Pedestals,” is basically a guitar instrumental, but it starts with acoustic sounds and Malik Mansurov playing the tar [a long-necked stringed instrument frequently used in Persian classical music]. Then the drums kick in — with the signals sent through a Marshall cabinet — and by the time the electric guitars appear, they are at a rather extreme form. Sometimes, the guitars are operating outside of their natural octave via a DigiTech Whammy pedal, which I used quite a bit on this album.

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“Fallen Walls and Pedestals” actually seems to presage the unfolding layers of the album as a whole. You’re almost constantly surprised by melodic, dynamic and/or thematic shifts.

Yes. I thought, I don’t want any section to outstay its welcome; let’s have certain things in cameo. So brevity was part of it, to keep the ideas short and the solos in their lane. You know, that approach is kind of a throwback to an earlier era in rock music. In fact, I think there’s only one long solo on the entire album, which is the end of “Those Golden Wings.” But, in the main up until then, all of the guitar work appears in cameo, and that meant I didn’t have to run out of ideas. Once I said it, I could move on.

Also, much of the album is based on contrast — very quiet, very loud, very fast, very slow. Furthermore, we were always shifting scenes and changing personnel under the idea that people may get bored very quickly. We wanted the surprises to keep coming.

Was the concept of brevity in force during the early compositional stages, or did it develop as the idea of contrasts progressed?

It wasn’t always followed during the initial writing process. A certain amount of it is in the editing of the available raw material. You have to ask, “How do I edit these things down, keep the ideas relevant and make it rock, while keeping it broad enough to invite orchestral, global and vocal elements?”

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The cinematic aspect of the album is thrilling. Can you provide a couple of examples of how you personally bring thematic concepts to life with musical elements?

Luckily, I’m influenced by film music, and the idea of telling a story. So the penultimate track of the album is called “Conflict,” and we were trying to get across the idea of war to contrast sharply with “Peace,” which is at the end of the album. I thought I could do a really fast, short solo and end it with some sharp bends and repeat echoes so that it sounds like screams. That’s what was happening in the film in my head.

Then, after the sitar solo in “Shadow and Flame,” there was this very distant reverb and echo stuff , but by the end of the song, I wanted to convey the hustle and bustle of the streets in Mumbai: It’s terrifying when you’re there; you’re just happy you survived it. So I did three different solos — some fast stuff , some slow stuff and some reverse stuff — and I had them play back at the same time, taking over from one another like the weaving in and out of traffic.

Did you have the musicians stick strictly to predetermined themes when they recorded their parts, or did you let them find their way through some of the material?

In some cases, I would provide the appropriate guidance, and other times I would let the musicians lead me. You know, many of the moments that I like most of all are those where I’m not playing at all, or playing minimally in a supporting role.

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That’s interesting, because there is sure a heck of a lot of fireworks to your playing on the album.

Thank you. But I really didn’t want to play heroically the whole time. When I was a younger player, I wanted to show much more proficiency. But I tend to think that too much of a demonstration of chops becomes wearing for the average visitor to your album. I think people can get really tired of all those salvos by the fastest guitarists on earth. Primarily, I’m interested in music — in serving the best interest of the song, which serves the best interest of the album.

You see, I think of an album as a journey, and I love albums because I think they are, at best, agents for transformation. We are in a post–Sgt. Pepper’s world at the moment, but when the Beatles released that album in 1967, suddenly there was no such thing as the mainstream. Suddenly, India was as relevant to the commercial success of that very broad-based album as anything else. Most of the ideas on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were in cameo, and I keep coming back to that model. I was a humble guitar player when I heard that album — an aspiring one — but the celebration of details was not lost on me.

So did Sgt. Pepper’s change your entire approach to music making then?

Well, sometimes, I would still listen to whatever John Mayall was doing with his latest guitarist — and he had a whole parade of wonderful players — and I would practice those licks. But, of course, the blues boom died at the end of the 1960s, and it was obvious to everyone that music was on the turn. The Beatles had all the money and manpower to get anybody from anywhere. Who wouldn’t work with the Beatles? But, because of them, lesser mortals were incorporating smaller forces and making broad-based music through a pan-genre approach. These people were casting ears on jazz, blues, classical, pop, rock and all the rest, and it was a truly interesting time. I couldn’t help but be greatly influenced by all of that — the fact that musicians had assimilated the Beatles approach and were coming up with their own versions. Genesis, for example, was a spin-off or a footnote to what the Beatles had done. I guess we were all splinters off the big tree.

What guitars did you use for the album sessions?

I used two main electric guitars — my 1957 Les Paul with humbuckers and a custom Fernandes with a Floyd Rose tremolo and a Sustainer system. The Fernandes had actually belonged to Gary Moore. We shared the same guitar tech, so when Gary passed on, he asked if I was interested in the guitar. And, of course, I was, because it was a duplicate of the guitar Fernandes had made for me. There were three different 12-strings on the album — a Rickenbacker, a Godin and a Zemaitis acoustic that was absolutely wonderful. I borrowed an Ovation six-string acoustic for the strumming stuff, as well as a nylon-string.

Did you mic actual amps for tones, or use virtual amps in software?

It was mostly in the box — software models — although I tried little bits through my Peavey Classic 50 combo and a Mesa/Boogie I had just acquired. In the main, it was recording at domestic levels in order to be able to hold a conversation with the team. We were using Logic and trying different amps and cabinets. I’m quite fond of using a virtual Orange amp with a virtual Tube Screamer in front of it.

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You said you used a Whammy for “Fallen Walls and Pedestals.” Did any other pedals make the scene, or did you mostly rely on software for your effects?

Oh, no. I used stuff on the floor. I basically use everything. In addition to the DigiTech Whammy, I think I had my Tech 21 SansAmp GT2, a Line 6 DM4 Distortion Modeler and a DL4 Delay Modeler, an Electro-Harmonix POG, and an Eventide Harmonizer for three-part guitar harmonies and other effects.

It’s great that you still experiment with software and analog tools, rather than be strictly informed by, say, “I’m a Marshall player,” even if that sound is a model.

Well, that’s because I think guitar sound is notoriously difficult to pin down. I’ve discovered you can use an amp one day, and plug in the same amp the following day with exactly the same conditions, and there will be something different about it. It seems you’re always chasing sounds if you’re a guitarist. There’s always the quest for that extraordinary holy grail of guitar noises.

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