Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cleaning Out the Closets & Caveat Emptor

By Steve Evans

Came across this concert DVD, Steve Hackett: Once Above A Time, while clearing out the closets. Spring cleaning gets done early around here. At first, I couldn't imagine how I came into possession of this disc, then remembered I'd found it in the cutout bin of a used record store.

For those of you who don't know but might still be interested, anyway, Steve Hackett was a guitarist for prog-rockers Genesis in the 1970s. He joined the band in 1970, about the same time as Phil Collins, but departed for a solo career in 1977. The aftermath can be found on this DVD. Lest you repeat my mistakes, read on.

Hackett throws down 20 tracks of progressive rock, now a quaint anachronism, in this April 2004 concert in Budapest.

This will not be a kind review.

Now, there's nothing wrong with arty space rock, per se. Me and my delinquent high school buddies wasted a recreational hour or two in our parents' basements back in the day, listening to King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes—and, yes, Genesis. The opening chords of "Roundabout" or "Dance on a Volcano" can transport me instantly to a simpler time, when black-light posters were more fun (and less expensive) than computer games, when bongs bubbled merrily under cover of purplish neon light, and the room was filled with sweet, pungent smoke. And laughter. Does anybody remember laughter?

It was in that spirit that I wanted to enjoy this concert: to relive memories of a misspent youth. Ah, but I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now. In the intervening years, I've also made peace with an important discovery: The problem with progressive rock, then as now, is the fan base is constantly growing up. Teenagers tend to take themselves far more seriously than adults who have experienced a bit of life, acquired an education, and opened their minds to—among other things—music that doesn't require heavy ingestion of vodka and Quaaludes in order to render it listenable.

Put another way, it's no wonder Peter Gabriel quit Genesis a quarter-century ago to develop his own socially conscious (and melodic) music. Long after Gabriel bailed and recorded a quartet of brilliant solo albums, Genesis was still plodding along under the leadership of drummer and crooner Phil Collins, riffing on esoteric music for extraterrestrials until the band finally imploded from an overdose of fan indifference. Collins went on to win an Academy Award for composing and singing the songs in Disney's Tarzan; Hackett, as this disc proves, stuck with what he knows best: the same ol' thing. The result is a mess.

This brings us, finally, to the problem of this concert DVD.

If penning pretentious songs and performing them with the élan of a busted chainsaw were a capital offense, there would be no need for this review. I would be absorbed in a good film, and the people responsible for this DVD would be chilling on death row. At times I had to stab the pause button on my remote control while enduring this concert; such was the convulsion of my laughter. This is not a compliment.

Lumbering tunes like "Mechanical Bride" (!) and "Air-Conditioned Nightmare" are embarrassingly bad, like forks on a blackboard. My favorite song title on this disc is "The Circus of Becoming," the sort of gibberish we might expect from an arrogant grad student of English lit.

Let me be clear: Comedy is where you find it, be it intentional or otherwise. If the song titles are supposed to invoke imagery during Hackett's free-form performances, then the titles are also equally arbitrary and interchangeable and, therefore, meaningless. By this logic "Mechanical Bride" might as well be called "Pig Squealing in Hot Oil," which would lend greater truth in advertising.

Call me a philistine, but Hackett's experimental noise, if it can be charitably described as such, could make hounds howl. One song, tongue-twistingly titled "Firth of Fifth," opens with the tweety sounds of a wooden whistle. I waited for Ian McKellen and Elijah Wood to come onstage in Middle Earth garb, inquiring about a certain Ring of Power, but the song just droned on instead.

After two spins of this disc, I am convinced that black beret–wearing tenth graders with clove cigarettes dangling from their lips and musical instruments off the shelves of Wal-Mart could make sound no less intolerable than the 104 minutes of sonic irritation produced by Hackett and Co.

So what's favorable to be said?

The video image is vivid; the Dolby sound mix as clear as plucked Waterford crystal. Holding the camera on the musicians for minutes at a time is also a welcome reprieve from the rapid-fire cutting that ruins so many otherwise enjoyable concert discs. Sound and image were captured by professionals. And the light show is pretty good. These technical achievements elevate the disc from the cutout bin and prompt me to goose the overall rating from a goose egg. Extras are limited to a short backstage featurette.

The concert was recorded in Budapest during a European tour in support of Hackett's album To Watch the Storms. To listen to a storm, cue up this DVD and give the volume knob a sharp, clockwise twist.

But remember: I warned ya.

Set list:

• Valley of the Kings
• Mechanical Bride
• The Circus of Becoming
• Frozen Statues
• Slogans
• Serpentine Song
• Ace of Wands
• Hammer in the Sand
• Blood on the Rooftops
• Fly on a Windshield
• Please Don't Touch
• Firth of Fifth
• If You Can't Find Heaven
• Darktown
• Brand New
• Air-Conditioned Nightmare
• Every Day
• Clocks
• Spectral Mornings
• Los Endos

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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