|1. When The Heart Rules The Mind|
|2. The Hunter|
|3. Here I Wait|
|4. Sketches In The Sun|
|5. Jekyll And Hyde|
|6. You Can Still Get Through|
|7. Reach Out (Never Say No)|
|8. Toe The Line|
|9. Hackett To Bits|
This album has become such a punching bag over the years that any further condemnation would almost seem superfluous. But I won't let that stop me.
The GTR project was formed in 1985, supervised by dastardly former Yes manager Brian Lane. As per Asia, the band's most obvious progenitor, it featured a "superstar" merger of leading figures from the 1970s progressive scene -- in this case, Steve Howe and Steve Hackett, former guitarists for Yes and Genesis. And, as per Asia, it still stands as a blight on the careers of those concerned.
Part of the reason for the band's failure is that the Howe/Hackett partnership was a false one from the beginning. Although Steve Howe was still in a relatively comfortable position after his time in Asia, and was apparently willing to continue making music of that sort for the time being, his partner-in-mediocrity had rather less choice in the matter.
Since bolting from the band after the tour's conclusion, Steve Hackett has never had anything even remarkably favourable to say about his time spent in GTR. The Bowler & Dray Genesis biography, which refers to the entire project as Steve's "dance with the devil [of AOR]", notes that his financial situation had become rather precarious after Bay Of Kings and Till We Have Faces, thereby necessitating his participating in this exercise in musical profiteering. The same source sees Hackett observing that GTR wasn't the most "subtle" thing that he'd ever done, but that it paid the bills for his next acoustic project. Hackett made similar comments in an interview with Anil Prasad a few years later, only restraining himself from more transparent insults for reasons of "diplomacy". Add to this the fact that, when asked to describe Steve Howe's personality on a recent on-line interview, Hackett simply typed "VEGETARIAN" in block capitals, and we have fairly clear evidence that this Steve, at least, doesn't long back on this era with fondness.
Perceptions will obviously vary among the different participants, and Steve Howe, for his part, has never made disparaging remarks towards either the band or Hackett in public. In fact, at a 1993 show in Toronto, he even suggested that GTR might have been a stronger unit if his partnership with Hackett had managed to last a bit longer than the 18 months that the first album required(!). One suspects that Howe was either deluding himself in making his comment, or was genuinely unaware that his compatriot was unhappy with the music that they were producing. Then again, perhaps he was just being polite.
One way or another, Howe was able to convince himself that the GTR project was of some merit, at some level. Which might say more about the impact of the 1980s on prog's best talents than the combined force of "Illegal Alien" and "City Of Love" could ever hope to.
GTR was theoretically a band, of course, and there were three other individuals involved in the project. Of these, Max Bacon has deservedly been the target of the most contempt. A sub-mediocre singer who somehow managed to get the spot as the band's frontman, Bacon makes the album even worse than it would have been otherwise with his strained caterwauling vocals. Some reports suggest that he had so little confidence in the band's future that he refused to quit his job as a milkman while recording the work -- if so, he deserves a bit of credit for basic common sense. But nothing more.
With ex-Marillion drummer Jonathan Mover being neither a "plus" nor a "minus" to any great degree, this leaves bassist Phil Spalding (ex-Toyah Willcox) as the only member of the band who somehow managed to keep his dignity throughout the sordid affair. A lousy backing vocalist, he was nevertheless a competent placeholder in the bassist's chair -- whatever the problems of this album, it seems that Spalding, at least, is relatively free of any blame. (Unfortunately, none of this would prevent him for further artistic abasement -- he later became the featured bass player on the Right Said Fred album, featuring "I'm Too Sexy").
No castigation of this album would be complete without some mention of Geoff Downes's production habits. While a more experienced producer might have concealed the flaws to some degree, Downes somehow manages to bring out even more of a godawful '80s prog-metal ethos to this music than the basic tracks would seem to allow for. The mere fact of his being there (and getting a cut in the writing credits) might suggest that the hand of Brian Lane was orchestrating his career after the dissolution of Asia. Which would only give fans of musical integrity another reason to shun this album.
But what of the music? Well ... eight of the ten tracks on this release are ill-conceived attempts at making Howe and Hackett palatable to the tastes of an audience saturated on hair-metal and MTV. It isn't quite as bad as, say, Journey or Bon Jovi (even gliding on inertia, Howe and Hackett are a bit too talented to fall that low). But neither is it the sort of thing which artists of proven ability should be wallowing in.
Of the "lower eight", three tracks stand out as having some redeeming qualities. The best of these, curiously enough, are "Toe The Line" and "Imagining", both of which are buried towards the end of the release (by which point many older Howe and Hackett fans will probably have lost patience with the entire thing). "Toe The Line", primarily written by Howe, features a decent acoustic opening and development, marred somewhat by (i) a cheesy electric guitar part near the end of the track, and (ii) Bacon's REO-esque vocals. It's not a masterwork, but it at least has something going for it, however minor. [Games proggers play #1: listeners will note that Hackett plays something akin to the "da-da, da-da" line from "Broadway Melody Of 1974" at one point in this track. Note also that part of Howe's line would later be reused to better effect in "Brother Of Mine".]
"Imagining" (apparently written mostly by Hackett, as he's actually included it in a few live medleys) has something of a Marillion-ish intro, leading to a half-decent model of arranging and playing. As it happens, this particular version of the track is a bit of a mess -- the production is as bad as ever, as is Bacon ... besides which, the "Live And Let Die" rip-off towards the end of the trick can't help but bring down its overall value. Still, this one has a bit of potential to it.
The only other track in the lower-eight which comes anywhere close to tolerable is "When The Heart Rules The Mind", which ended up becoming a #12 hit single in America for the band (still Hackett's only Top 40 hit in the States, sad as that sounds). The band obviously put a fair degree of effort into polishing the rough spots of this one, and it shows -- Max Bacon is generally on-key throughout the track, and the guitar lead-off is listenable, if vacuous. Howe and Hackett are both clearly recognizeable in this number, playing streamlined versions of the sounds which made them famous. To progressive fans, this track will perhaps be most notable for the instrumental bridge section -- after Howe finishes a second-rate solo (by his standards), Hackett suddenly responds with an epic-sounding part similar to "The Steppes" (could the undercurrents of the band politics be more cleverly summarized). This leds to an acoustic duet (partly ruined by Bacon), which amusingly resolves itself just as the band section is being faded up again; some reports suggest that this section was Hackett's idea, which wouldn't be too surprising. There's a bit of real music here, and even the bogus elements of the song are merely mediocre (rather than out-and-out terrible). Call it par for the course, I suppose. [Games proggers play #2: Hackett plays a few seconds of "Duel" during the second verse. Also, has anyone ever noticed how much the sudden "burst" which follows by Howe sounds oddly akin to the beginning of "Make It Easy", as played by Trevor Rabin prior to "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" at Yes shows].
The other five-of-eight range from regrettable to terrible. "The Hunter" is a hollow paean to the warrior-hero motif, marked by a bogus "Other Side Of Life"-esque opening section. Spalding isn't too bad here, and the track probably could have been worse (ie. Kansas could have recorded it). Hackett takes an all-too-brief Faces-esque solo towards the end, saving the track by the slightest amount.
"Here I Wait" is an horrific number, with loud metal guitars, tuneless screaming, and empty lyrics; the mid-song improvisations by Hackett and Howe are bad, but not as much so as the rest of the track. "Jekyll And Hyde" is essentially the same idea done a little bit better -- though the dueling solos at the end of the track are so lamentable that it isn't funny. [Games proggers play #3: Unless I'm very much mistaken, Howe would later recycle a bit of this on "Bring Me To The Power"].
"You Can Still Get Through" is another terrible number, with horribly cheesy synthesizers and an equally lousy synth-bass presence in the into. The song itself is absolutely repulsive, with particularly low marks going to Bacon (surprise, surprise...); the guitar arrangements are sub-par, and the keyboard lines suggest that someone in the band owned a copy of Flashdance at some time or another. [Games proggers play #4: In salvaging what he could of this era, Howe would later recycle the introductory riff as "The Inner Battle"].
"Reach Out (Never Say No)" is more of the same. Some half-decent guitar work at the end takes the rating for this track out of the cellar, but the actual song is just so much more AOR drivel. Hackett and Howe earn their "backing vocals" credits with poorly harmonized "dit dit dit dits" in the second verse. [Games proggers play #5: The leadoff riff sounds like an extremely dumbed-down take on "Tempus Fugit", frighteningly enough].
Such are the "lower eight" of the ten tracks on this album. Thankfully, however, Hackett and Howe had enough self-respect to insist on one token track apiece of "real" music, divorced from the lame goings-on of the other tracks.
Even at the pit of the serpent's tail, Howe deserves some credit for still managing to come up with "Sketches In The Sun", a solo guitar performance which rates fairly close to his best work in the genre. It's fair to say that this track has absolutely nothing to do with anything else that was featured on the first half of the album, and merits praise accordingly. Though few would have imagined it at the time, Howe was embarking on a road to artistic recovery after his time in Asia -- that it was released on the GTR album (or, for that matter, first premiered on the 1983 Asia tour) is more than a bit ironic.
Hackett's featured piece of "real" music is a bit less essential -- entitled "Hackett To Bits", it's essentially just a revised (ie. slightly simplified) version of "Please Don't Touch", featuring accompaniment from Mover and Spalding. The original piece is one of Hackett's best solo moments; this version is almost as good, though somewhat superfluous in the greater scheme of his career. The track ends with a shift to an acoustic guitar piece, apparently a leftover from the excellent Bay Of Kings album. One wonders if Hackett was reluctant to put an entirely unique creation on an album whose creation he so despised -- in any event, though, this is still an easy highlight of the work.
After the GTR tour (now immortalized on a King Biscuit release), the band effectively ceased functioning in any real sense. Hackett recorded the all-acoustic Momentum (1988) and, after a few years of inactivity, showed a strong return to form with a series of new releases (beginning with Guitar Noir in 1993). Howe, in one of the more curious decisions of his career, attempted to keep the band for a bit with a new lineup -- Robert Berry was brought in as the second guitarist, and Nigel Glockner replaced Mover (who, according to one rumour, was more than a bit upset to find his drum kit in pieces after the tour's end!). Under such monikers as "Neurotrend", "Nero & The Trends" and so forth, this lineup fumbled along until the arrival of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe put it out of its misery.
As to the GTR album now: most prog fans will already know how bad this thing is, and a discommendation would hardly seem necessary. Buying it to get the studio version of "Sketches In The Sun" (with "Hackett To Bits" as a bonus) would be an acceptable decision. Use your judgement.
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 29 Aug 1998)