This is Steve Hackett at his best: inventive, exciting and utterly musical. At the Edge of Light features his most consistent singing yet, typically dazzling guitar work, and bracing new compositions — driven at high velocity through unexpected twists, turns and switchbacks to surprising, satisfying destinations.
Admittedly, the album kicks off in a familiar place with “Fallen Walls and Pedestals”: a spacious stomp a la Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” or Hackett’s “The Steppes”, with sinuous riffs anchoring keening melodies and high-velocity shredding. Hackett’s guitar croons above Roger King’s plush keyboards and orchestrations over a hard-driving rhythm section — there’s even an exotic intro by Malik Mansurov on tar. So far, so fine — but then Hackett, King and company head off-road and ditch the map!
From there, I defy anyone to predict what’s coming next. “Beasts in Our Time’s” creepy orchestral decadence slams into desolate guitar/vocal laments for a world on the brink and scarifying solos by saxophonist Rob Townsend and Hackett, collapsing in an atonal heap after a brutal uptempo shuffle. The gospel flavored “Underground Railroad” plows through rich, soulful singing by Durga and Lorelei McBroom, dobro-based grooves and steaming locomotive boogie, morphing from menace to triumph for the soaring playout. Hackett and sitarist Sheema Mukherjee evoke the banks of India’s Ganges River on “Shadow and Flame”; “Hungry Years” is a killer pop song with tight harmonies, Byrds-flavored electric 12-string, and a guitar solo fade that paradoxically builds and builds … and builds …
It’s the way Hackett mixes, matches and juxtaposes his ingredients that makes this new material so thrilling. “Those Golden Wings” is another prime example: Hackett tosses off flamenco flourishes in a minor key, joined by King’s cushion of strings. Then a chugging major-key orchestral riff ramps up, as Nick d’Virgilio’s meaty beat propels the song forward under the lead vocal. An instrumental verse with more electric 12-string hops to a different minor key, then stops dead for an ambient string/chorus interlude. Then a dose of “spacious guitar stomp”, an electric 12-string reprise, a final vocal verse, another flamenco solo, more strings and chorus — and one last extended stomp, as both Hackett and d’Virgilio rock out for the fade. Whew!
And though there’s plenty of darkness afoot in these songs, Hackett holds out for the dawn, as portrayed in the album’s devastating concluding triptych. “Descent” evokes Gustav Holst’s “Mars” with pulsing strings, punishing power chords and howling feedback; “Conflict” is lashed with dark orchestral riffs and plummeting guitar spirals over a doomy mechanical loop. But then comes “Peace” — a gorgeous piano-based ballad, with Hackett stepping up for what may be his best vocal ever. And even “Peace” defies any expectations of Genesis’ “Afterglow” redone, easing into a power groove with mass choir vocals, whipsawing through a solo verse over reharmonized changes, melding chordal guitar plunges with the chorale. Then freezing on one note. Then a final, ravishing Hackett solo over the orchestra, hanging in your memory even after the last string chord reluctantly resolves.
I’m in total agreement with fellow Progarchist Bryan Morey here: At the Edge of Light is audacious, gorgeous, humanistic in the best sense of the word, powerful, musically deep — in sum, outright brilliant. After just a couple of listens, it’s easily my favorite album from Steve Hackett’s creative resurgence of the past decade; in fact, it may be my favorite Hackett album since 1979’s Spectral Mornings. Here’s hoping his 2019 tour (also featuring Spectral Mornings and Genesis’ Selling England by the Pound) crosses the pond to North America! In the meantime, listen for yourself:
— Rick Krueger