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Steve Hackett - Darktown CD (album) cover

DARKTOWN

Steve Hackett

 

Eclectic Prog

3.80 | 202 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
3 stars While this isn't quite as good as the albums that follow it, this must nonetheless be considered the first album of Hackett's late period, which would prove, on the whole, to be his most fruitful one. In addition to being the first Hackett album to have significant input from keyboardist/bassist Roger King, who helped Hackett with production (in later albums he would become increasingly more prominent until he'd start receiving co-credits in the songwriting), it's also the first of his albums to balance the steady self-assuredness of Spectral Mornings with the slightly goofy what-the-hell-let's-throw-this-in nature of some of his other albums. Guitar Noir might have been steady and professional, but aside from a few bits it was pretty sterile and didn't show much potential, whereas this album, while getting the same grade, comes across as a slight waste of great potential, but showing promise for the future.

There are some misfires (to varying degrees) on this album, unfortunately, concentrated at the beginning and end. The title track, as well the later "Darktown Riot" (each based around a similar theme), try to create a dark unifying mood to the album, but they strike me as pretty ridiculous; the low-pitched encoded spoken vocals of the former, combined with the wailing saxophones (a waste of Ian McDonald), make for a track that I never look forward to hearing, and "Darktown Riot" ends up sounding like haunted house music. I'm all in favor of Steve being willing to try and fail, but that also means acknowledging that he fails from time to time, and he definitely does here.

I'm also not as thrilled with the opening "Omega Metallicus" or the closing "In Memoriam" as I'm sure some people are. The opening 20 seconds of "Omega Metallicus" sound embarrassing to me; the way the bassline, the percussion and one of the effects come together makes it seem like the album is going to be an album by an old fart trying to make what he thinks the hip young kids are gonna want to be grooving to, and it makes me grumpy. Luckily, the track quickly uses the foundation to build into something much better; Steve breaks out a wide assortment of licks, even sampling the riff from "Cassandra" to good effect, and the assault of guitar sound in its 3:48 is enough to make it worth listening to. Completely different, but also less effective than I think it was meant to be, is the 8- minute "In Memoriam," which is clearly supposed to be a groundshaking requiem (with guitars and keyboards that sometimes remind me of "Epitaph"), but (to my ears) is largely undermined by the spoken parts (in the same voice as in the title track) and the excess length (for the number of ideas). This could have worked at 4 or 5 minutes, even with the spoken delivery, but 8 minutes is way, way too much.

Fortunately, as much as the beginning and ending of the album frustrate me, the middle 7 tracks are enough to leave me with a positive feeling towards the album overall. There are some pretty lovely melancholy ballads on here; "Man Overboard" would have fit in equally well on Spectral Mornings and on Beyond the Shrouded Horizon, "Days of Long Ago" (featuring a nice vocal from Jim Diamond) makes for a great love song, and "Jane Austen's Door," even if it might be a little long for something bordering on adult- contemporary, has some rather moving lyrics and a nice delivery. "Rise Again" almost sounds like Magnetic Fields in the first half, and while the transition in the vocal delivery to screaming in the second half is kinda jarring, the shift in the music from gentle to rocking works just fine for me. There's also a rather curious 7-minute number in "Dreaming With Open Eyes," which starts off sounding like an Eastern-tinged shuffle with some lovely verses, but while the shuffling part ends up taking over and becomes somewhat monotonous, it never stops being attractive and never devolves into muzak, and I like it quite a bit.

As nice as these tracks are, though, the best two are a clear step above, even if they're completely different from each other. "The Golden Age of Steam" is late-period Hackett at his best, a song based around a couple of nagging Eastern-European-ish melodies that instantly transport the listener to a Technicolor version of 30s and 40s Europe, detailing the travels and adventures of a young man in one of the last periods where one could go off and have adventures in the classic European sense. There's only a little bit of guitar (some nylon string bits in the middle for texture), but it isn't needed, and Steve's vocal delivery more than makes up for the lack of his primary asset in the track.

Finally, there's the instrumental "Twice Around the Sun." The rational part of me recognizes that, in terms of overall structure, it's basically a repeat of "Spectral Mornings," what with its A-B-A form, where the A has a few slow atmospheric licks and the B section is an atmospheric contrast that slows things down to a borderline ambient level. I suppose I could be a stickler and say that it's too long and too monotonous, blah blah blah. Well, there's no room for rationality here; once I hear that opening mellotron, I'm pretty much done for. The balance between slow, winding guitar lines and mellotron chords hits me in all of the right gushy prog places, and even if having the final guitar note possibly be the longest single sustained guitar note ever recorded (as the liner notes) is a gimmick (and I kinda feel like it is), it's a marvelous gimmick that makes for a beautiful capstone.

In the end, 2/3 or so of this album is really good, but that remaining 1/3 is so irritating, and so badly positioned, that it can't help but reduce my overall view of the album pretty significantly. Still, this is a case where, even if the overall experience is frustrating, the peaks are so interesting that I have to recommend this to anybody who considers themselves a fan of Steve. For what's essentially the first step in an artistic rebirth, this is quite nice.

tarkus1980 | 3/5 |

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