|1. Lost In Your Eyes|
|2. In The Heart Of The City|
|3. Sierra Quemada|
|4. Vampyre With A Healthy Appetite|
|5. Take These Pearls|
|6. Little America|
|7. There Are Many Sides To The Night|
|8. Walking Away From Rainbows|
|9. Like An Arrow|
|10. Dark As The Grave|
|11. Paint Your Picture|
One of the more unexpected developments in the current "progressive revival" has been Steve Hackett's return to a high level of artistic credibility. Of the six albums that Hackett has released since 1992, five have been works on par with the better material of his earlier years (and the other, Blues With A Feeling, was intended as something entirely different).
Given that Hackett generally disappeared from the public eye after the GTR project (which he has since criticized), this sudden re-emergence is particularly surprising. Having released no material between the acoustic masterpiece Momentum (1988) and the live extravaganza Timelapse (1992), Hackett's restored workrate is truly an impressive feat (and enough to make one suspect that contractual wranglings might have contributed to the "period of silence" to some considerable degree).
Guitar Noir is not quite the best of Hackett's recent releases, but it played an important role in re-asserting his position as an active player in the progressive scene. Once Timelapse got the ball rolling, some new studio material was the logical next choice, and for his first solo studio recording in five years -- and his first to feature electric guitar in nine! -- Hackett provides the listener with an extremely diverse array of styles and arrangement, encapsulating in the space of an album the eclectic directions which his career would undergo in subsequent years.
Not all of the album is successful, but the work as a whole should be regarded as a triumphant return to form.
The album begins on a rather curious note with "Lost In Your Eyes", a harmonica-driven blues rock number which seems deliberately calculated to scare and surprise Hackett's diehard following. The drums are mixed extremely high (Let's Dance comparisons are both predictable and appropriate), and Hackett deliberately incorporates a bluesy American drawl into his singing performance. This isn't necessarily the best way that the album could have started, though he clearly made the right choice if his intention was to provoke. Content wise, the song is a reasonably good work of British blues-rock (Stones comparisons are equally predictable and appropriate), but nothing special. And it must be admitted that the guitar solo in mid-song is not a career highpoint.
"In The Heart Of The City" is a much more typical Hackett track, in spite of its obvious parallels with Gilmour-era Pink Floyd ("Sorrow" comes to mind). The track begins with an allusion to "Clocks - The Angel Of Mons" on percussion, and develops into a moody tale of urban isolation with well-harmonized vocals. Hackett's solo towards the end of the track is on par with those of earlier times, holding a few fleeting similarities to "Firth Of Fifth" in its development. A very good number.
"Sierra Quemada" (which, according to the liner notes, loosely translates as "Scorched Earth") is an instrumental electric guitar showcase, with Hackett utilizing his impressive technical arsenal over Julian Colbeck's Banks-esque keyboard lines. The emotive sustained notes on this number suggest the best material of his earlier years, and the acoustic and harmonic effects halfway through the song are quite interesting as well. If there is anything to complain about in this track, it would be his guitar tone seems a bit to "metalish" towards the opening. This should not seriously interfere with the listener's response, however.
"Vampyre With A Healthy Appetite" is a questionable idea salvaged by a decent arrangement. Beginning with a brief "Matilda Smith-Williams"-esque scale, the song quickly develops into a gothic(?) narrative of a vampire stealing blood from a New Orleans depository. The execution of the lyrical sections is a bit on the silly side (at least some of which was deliberate), but the dark progressive riffs with dominate the instrumental parts generally make up for this. Each instrumental takes a brief solo towards the end, with Hackett's obviously being the longest (though still less than his best).
The first four songs all feature the lineup of Hackett/Colbeck/Ball/ Degenhardt. "Take These Pearls" shifts the focus to Hackett's collaboration with Aron Friedman, which generally feature a more lush, acoustic feel to them. Friedman opens this track with ambient programming, soon joined by Hackett's Spanish-styled acoustic guitar passage and altered-tone electric solo. The result is quite impressive, and is rendered no less so by the fact that Hackett's vocal performance here is perhaps the best of his career. This is an extremely haunting number, and is probably the most instantly memorable work on the album.
The full band lineup is featured again on "Little America", but this track simply doesn't add up to very much. This is, essentially, a fairly ordinary pop rock number with view distinguishing characteristics prior to the solo towards the end. Hackett's lyrical references to American television don't work as postmodernism, and aren't terribly good otherwise. And even the closing solo doesn't add up to much until just before the track fades out. All told, this track could have been omitted without hurting the album in the slightest.
"There Are Many Sides To The Night", however, is a stunning work in terms of both composition and performance. After an ambient electric guitar/ keyboards introduction (again featuring Friedman, and more importantly featuring the expansive soloing that Hackett is known for), the track soon alters to a acoustic guitar performance accompanied only by Hackett's vocal performance (his recitation of the first verse being extremely appropriate for the track). The guitar work is excellent, and similar in form to Hackett's other acoustic performances. The lyrics, moreover, are not in any way embarrassing despite being self-consciously poetic. An easy highlight of the album.
The rest of the album as far as "Tristesse" generally sustains this level of quality. "Walking Away From Rainbows" is an entire solo Hackett performance, featuring expressive Spanish-influenced jazz-classical guitar over a keyboard texturing that seems to reprise some of the more troubling tones from "Calmaria" (from Bay Of Kings). This is mostly a meditative piece, and contains some very stirring moments.
"Like An Arrow" is also a contemplative number, though in a somewhat different manner. Hackett's sparse acoustic lines and rather low vocals create a dreamlike effect to match the lyrics -- this is hardly the most overwhelming number Hackett has done, but it works very well within the frame of its intentions. Friedman's brief "lead" at the end works well.
"Dark As The Grave" [spot the literary reference] is an extremely well-crafted work, with an interesting rhythmic background leading quickly to Hackett's acoustic guitar/vocal combination. This piece is a lush and mysterious elegy, and is quite successful as such. Friedman takes a brief solo in mid-track, and Hackett provides a sparse electric solo shortly thereafter. A second, much harsher electric passage appears out of nowhere towards the end of the track, and disappears just as quickly (in keeping with the mysterious nature of the piece).
"Paint Your Picture" features an amazing acoustic guitar lead (similar to "Calmaria" again, at some levels), and is only kept from a five-star rating through Hackett's rather strained vocal performance. This flaw aside, it's essentially as close to perfect as one could imagine.
Friedman's "Tristesse" begins with a classically structured guitar and piano duet, soon matched by a soaring (and somewhat dissonant) electric guitar passage which provides an excellent sonic counterpoint. This is an extremely appropriate "ending piece" to the album in the tradition of "Spectral Mornings" (the song); Aron Friedman's compositional style matches Hackett's performance manner quite well.
This should have been the end of the album. In fact, it was the end of the album, at first. But, for some curious reason, a second edition of Guitar Noir was later released featuring a Steve Hackett-Brian May duet track entitled "Cassandra" as an unnecessary coda. It might have made more sense to release this track as a CD single, though I suppose May's presence may have driven a few Queen completists into the Hackett camp accordingly. From an artistic standpoint, though, it seems hardly worth the effort.
"Cassandra", though containing some decent guitar leads throughout, is essentially just an '80s AOR tune, with Hackett singing lead on a truly embarrassing teen angst motif (the vocal wailing after the second verse doesn't suit him either). The two guitarists have their inevitable "duel" at the end of the track; Hackett clearly outshines May, as might be expected. Those who do own the original release of Guitar Noir are not advised to repay for the album to track down this elusive track (unless they're completists, as goes without saying).
Despite a few shaky moments, Guitar Noir was a solid step back in the right direction for Hackett in 1993. He has released better material since then (especially A Midsummer Night's Dream, his 1997 classic album), but those interested in following Hackett's career would be advised to vest their time in this work as well.
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 18 December 1997)