Tentative Review #8

Steve Howe

(released 1996)

1. Sketches In The Sun ****
2. Sharp On Attack ****1/2
3. The Valley Of Rock ****1/2
4. Georgia's Theme ****
5. Dorothy ****
6. Meadow Rag ***1/2
7. At The Full Moon ***1/2
8. Never Stop Learning ***
9. Red And White ***
10. More About You ***
11. Rare Birds ***
12. Big Love ***1/2
13. Running In The Human Race ***1/2
14. Barren Land **1/2
15. Against The Tide **
16. Break Away From It All ***1/2
17. For This Moment ***1/2



If an insider's history of Yes is ever commissioned, Steve Howe would be more qualified to write it than any other band member (the Yeswest years obviously excluded). In recent years, Howe has taken an active role in ensuring the release of rare and archival material, always accompanied by extensive and detailed liner notes. Mothballs, released in late 1994, was the first stage in this process, covering rare material from Howe's pre-Yes days. More recently, Homebrew (1996) has provided an interesting glimpse into his subsequent projects.

The very nature of this album virtually ensures that not every track here included will be of "top-notch" status: each track is a demo. While some, such as "Sharp On Attack", can stand on their own merits as "finished" works, others -- such as "Break Away From It All" -- are considerably more "rough". Much of this material must then be judged as "work-in-progress".

Even in spite of this, however, most of the album makes for interesting listening on its own merits.

The album begins on an extremely strong note with various solo instrumental works. "Sketches In The Sun" (which had previously been featured on the "Asia in Asia" video, and later emerged on GTR) appears here in a somewhat altered demo form (ie. a different tuning, some supplementary additions). Though not as polished as the official version, it's just as interesting. Similarly, "Sharp On Attack" -- while lacking the variety of the final version (available on Guitar Speak 1) -- is essentially just as good when judged on its own (though the loss of the acoustic intro is regretted). It also provides proof that Howe was still capable of coming up with really good music in 1985, officially released evidence to the contrary.

Further evidence of this tendency is provided by "The Valley Of Rock" (essentially the same track as "The Valley Of Rocks", which appears on The Grand Scheme Of Things). The Homebrew version of this piece shows more of a direct resemblance to the early American country guitarists that influenced Howe, and Howe pulls this off rather nicely (along the glockenspiel effect is a bit odd, to say the least...). This piece may eventually be regarded as the '80s equivalent of "Clap" as regards its place among Howe's solo tunes.

"Georgia's Theme" is generally a good piece, marked by a very nice 12-string section (though it must be admitted that a few too many power chords also appear at about the same time). The second part of this piece is a beautiful Stratocaster solo. The track was dedicated to his daughter, and is obviously a respectful work as such. (The track also appears on The Grand Scheme Of Things, even though this version dates from 1982).

"Dorothy", another "dedication" piece (to Howe's favourite aunt this time, although Howe also dedicates it to his mother's memory in the liner notes), and also features a very beautiful acoustic guitar section. The synth-saxophones at the beginning were probably a mistake, but the piece works well aside from this.

"Meadow Rag" (which also appears on The Steve Howe Album) is a rather abrupt change of pace -- a "growly" guitar duet, recorded in stereo. It's a bit on the short side, but fairly good while it lasts. The use of electric guitars, of course, provides a nice "alternative" version from the acoustic album track.

At this juncture, the album showcases a series of demos which were eventually used for the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album. Unlike the earlier guitar showcases, these tracks are vocal works, generally featuring a strong emphasis on song structure as opposed to instrumental development. They aren't quite as good as the opening pieces, but they still merit some attention.

"At The Full Moon" was eventually transformed (with Jon Anderson's help) to "The Big Dream" by ABWH. A hint of the good section of "Shock To The System" also emerges. On its own, the track is somewhat short of spectacular, but is good nonetheless.

"Never Stop Learning" (which later became "Long Lost Brother Of Mine") features some irritating drum parts from Matt Clifford, but is a fairly good demo otherwise. "Red And White" and "More About You" (later "Birthright" and "I Wanna Learn") fall into a similar category; the former has a strange and interesting guitar section before the concluding reprise, which perhaps merits further attention. "Rare Birds" (later "Vultures") is more minimalist than most other Howe works, but succeeds on its own merits nonetheless (despite some occasional vocal strains).

"Big Love" (part of which would later emerge in "I Would Have Waited Forever") merits its higher rating by virtue of the extended guitar section in the middle of the piece. Also of note is the fact that Howe's voice is in better condition on his track than on most other works on the album. "Running In The Human Race" is a vocal version of the track which appears on Turbulence, and may actually be the better version of the two. On Turbulence, of course, Howe's guitar lines play the vocal part; it retrospect, this seems now a bit "contrived". On its own, though, the song is quite good.

Unfortunately, a strong sense of one's history frequently means that one must dredge up best-forgotten activities. "Barren Land" (later to become "Lying To Yourself"), recorded as a demo for Asia, is somewhat inferior to the other tracks on the album; the melody is nice enough, but the overly earnest theme destroys the intended effect. Even worse, however, is "Against The Tide" (later "Toe The Line" on GTR). It wasn't very interesting in its final form, and this track does very little to redeem it.

The final two tracks on the album, however, are much better. "Break Away From It All" (the final version of which appears on Beginnings, is a very rough demo, featuring a middle instrumental section which must have been improvised on the spot. This should not be regarded as a condemnation of the performance, however, which is actually quite interesting; the composition itself, moreover, is one of the better "songs" that Howe has come up with.

"For This Moment" is an early demo of "The Revealing Science Of God", performed only on guitar and keyboards, with new vocals overdubbed for its official release. As a historical landmark, this is unbelievably valuable; on its own, its a perfectly listenable demo (and suggests that some of the keyboard parts may have been written by Howe, rather than Anderson or Wakeman). An excellent manner to end the album, certainly.

This work, then, is an excellent purchase for the serious Yes/Howe fan, although newcomers would be advised to start somewhere else. One must respect any major artist willing to co-operate with hardcore fans and collectors in this manner.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 2 May 1997)

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