Steve Hackett – Voyage of the Acolyte

The break-up of the progressive Genesis is one of the quiet tragedies of rock music. While the band technically lived to fight another day well into the eighties and beyond, the pop- oriented style was a world away from the bombastic prog epics they were first known for. In a sense, Genesis became a different band with the same name, and while I’m sure there are many out there who prefer the 80′s pop- American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, for one- I’ll always remember the band for their contributions to prog. Although Peter Gabriel’s departure was the first nail in the coffin, it was Hackett’s decision to leave that set the band’s transformation in focus. Although the Genesis guitarist’s solo debut “Voyage of the Acolyte” was released and recorded while he was still in the band, it is clear here that the main band was no longer scratching Steve Hackett’s creative itch. With the same playful, cinematic guitar work and symphonic structures that defined much of Genesis’ best work, paired with the fact that Steve is backed up here by fellow bandmembers, “Voyage of the Acolyte” may be seen as the route Genesis would have taken, had Hackett been given full control instead of Collins. Taking his distinctive style one step further, “Voyage of the Acolyte” comes close to bridging the gap between the archetypal rock band and symphonic orchestra. It may not feel as smooth as the refined masterpieces of Genesis proper, but Hackett’s first foray into the solo realm is indeed spectacular.

There’s no surprise when “Voyage of the Acolyte” bears a strong resemblance to Genesis. Much like an orchestral symphony, the mood and style is complex, without ever being jarring on the ears. I read a comment once where it was said that Hackett was a master of the subconscious, and it certainly rings true here. In spite of (or perhaps because) the music is largely instrumental, there is a more otherworldly atmosphere here than the Gabriel-fueled romps through the farce of British working class society in early Genesis. The album art (painted by his wife, if I’m not mistaken) is a perfect counterpart to the mood. As always, Hackett’s guitar tone is deep and meaty, and his playing reserved, melodic and rarely showy. It’s well-assumed that the guitar element would play a heavier role here, but Hackett pays good consideration to the music as a whole. The synthesizers are allotted some of the most beautiful melodies on the album, and though Hackett’s guitar is always doing something in the works, he seems less excited to sport his skills, and more enthusiastic about letting others spread their wings. Especially for the solo album of a guitar player- this is pretty rare. Suffice to say, there are no blistering guitar solos or longwinded 16 bar blues jams. Narcissistic musicians and listeners will no doubt feel alienated by this approach.

“Ace of Wands” is a perfect way to open the album. Almost as were it an energetic overture of sorts, it is a highly dynamic instrumental piece that runs the spectrum from Celtic- influenced prog grooves to classical arrangements and the odd touch of ethereal atmosphere. The next three tracks run together as a longer piece, with “A Tower Struck Down” offering a near King Crimson-esque tension to contrast the relative lightness of “Hand of the Priestess”. Thus far, “Voyage of the Acolyte” has been an entirely instrumental trip, and the lack of vocals gives Hackett the room to exercise his composition skills to their full potential. With the great success of this instrumental material in mind, it comes as something of a dull shock when Hackett’s own voice is heard on the melancholic acoustic piece “The Hermit”. The accompanying cello (performed here by Nigel Warren-Green) is a pleasantly dark accompaniment to the baroque sound of Hackett’s acoustic arrangement. The vocals, however, feel quite ill-fitted for the sound. Although Hackett is not a poor vocalist by any means, his croon feels dry, muffled, and even poorly produced compared to the excellent instrumentation. “Star of Sirius” is arguably the most poppy tune here. Perhaps coincidentally, Phil Collins offers his voice here, and though his vocal delivery is much more effective than Hackett’s on “The Hermit”, the music runs into a similar problem; the production feels less professional than it did when the music was purely instrumental. It’s as if “Voyage of the Acolyte” is self-aware that the instrumental material thus far is superior, and wants to draw a bolder line between the two. The result is that “Voyage of the Acolyte” comes across as a bit of an uneven record, at least relative to its studio success.

“The Lovers” is a short acoustic interlude, the likes of which we have seen before from Hackett on “Foxtrot”s own “Horizons”. Being little more than a slow exercise in fingerpicking, it’s largely benign. However, it’s given the great honour of being the extended introduction for “Shadow of the Hierophant”, the mandatory prog epic that closes off the record. It’s here where everything comes together; all of Hackett’s scattered pieces coalesce into something monstrous, beautiful, alien and intimate. Although it flirts with the eleven minute mark, “Shadow of the Hierophant” is a surprisingly minimalistic composition, relying largely on two motifs to get by, one soft and vocal-driven, the other more anthemic and proggy. It may have felt slightly longwinded, had it not been one of the most beautifully composed and performed things Steve Hackett has ever touched. Thanks in large part to guest vocalist Sally Oldfield’s incredibly pristine voice, “Voyage of the Acolyte” forgives its slightly weaker midsection and delivers something straight out of a world of fantasy. Sally’s voice really cannot be overestimated here, her vibrato and floating quality gives her the voice the semblance of an angel. Fused with Steve Hackett’s classical ambitions and moderate Celtic influences, it’s something really wonderful. The repeating final section does tend to feel a tad overextended by the end, but there’s no mistaking that “Voyage of the Acolyte” leaves its best for last; really wonderful stuff.

It will no doubt be exciting for someone to listen to Steve Hackett’s debut, especially if they’re any fan of the progressive-era Genesis. If Genesis could be seen as an earthy form of progressive rock, then “Voyage of the Acolyte” is somewhere between that and the aether, where Yes have claimed their perch. For whatever reason, the album feels uneven in the way it was recorded. It certainly opens and ends on its strongest notes, and while there is a consistent beauty throughout the music here, I cannot help but feel that the album could have been even better, had the flow come across a little more smoothly. It’s not perfect, but it’s some of the most vital Hackett’s creativity has ever felt.


1. Ace Of Wands (5:23)
2. Hands Of The Priestess Part I (3:28)
3. A Tower Struck Down (4:53)
4. Hands Of The Priestess Part II (1:31)
5. The Hermit (4:49)
6. Star Of Sirius (7:08)
7. The Lovers (1:50)
8. Shadow Of The Hierophant (11:44)


* Steve Hackett – electric & acoustic guitar, Mellotron, harmonium, bells, autoharp, vocal, effects
* John Hackett – flute, Arp synthetizer, bells
* Mike Rutherford – bass guitar, bass pedals, Fuzz 12-String
* Phil Collins – drums, vibes, percussion, vocals
* John Acock – Elka, Rhapsody, Mellotron, harmonium, piano
* Sally Oldfield – vocal
* Robin Miller – oboe, cor Anglais
* Nigel Warren-Green – solo cello
* Percy Jones – extra bass on “Tower”
* Johnny Gustafson – bass on “Star”
* Steve Tobin – parrot and cough

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