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Steve Howe – Time (2011) – an album review

December 31, 2011

An album of pastoral pieces recorded without drums, a first for Steve Howe.

tl;dr Version: Slow  but sure wins the race… or does it?

‘Splain, Lucy Version: I’m a Steve Howe fan, so I’m supposed to love this stuff automatically, but will I? Another under-the-gun review will show us whether the new album stacks up.

Boring Version: I’ve been a Yes fan and a Steve Howe fan for decades, but it took me over two decades to get around to collecting his solo back catalogue. I’d heard a number of his solo pieces, but I’d just never gone out of my way (when I had the funds available) to collect his solo albums. That corrected, I now have the problem that I’ve only skimmed through a few of them to get a feel for his solo output, which, unsurprisingly, isn’t too far off from his work with Yes. At least, not the bits I’ve heard.

But what can we expect from Steve on an album he has been working on with collaborator and television composer Paul K. Joyce for five years? Let’s find out.

THE REVIEW
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (Aria) opens quietly, featuring Steve’s slide guitar playing covering the libretto. It’s incredibly pretty, and a bold choice for an introductory piece. It certainly sets the tone for a classical/folk album. The arrangement gets a little more sophisticated for the second pass, and Steve’s spacey slide guitar starts playing in harmonic octaves, adding its own kind of magic. It ends with a little bit of mandolin, tying up a rather nice piece.

King’s Ransom brings us back into Yes territory, as Steve steps aside and lets other musicians play on what is ostensibly one of his instrumental solo guitar numbers. It slips into a bit of a Spanish mode, not quite Flamenco at first, but a lilting passage that makes you want to get up and dance a bit. It’s followed quickly by a passage that takes us down deeper into the quiet parts of the piece, coming out on the other side to violins and what sounds to me like

Cantata No. 140 (Wachet Auf) opens rather cheerfully, with a lovely pastoral bit of string ensemble with acoustic. This is a piece by Vivaldi, which explains why it is so unabashedly romantic and lovely (I keep using that word today. Sheesh). Eventually a church organ creeps in and joins the strings, giving it a little more heft, but the focus remains on the acoustic, which is tweaked up to sound punchy like a steel string, but it almost certainly nylon strung.

Orange determinedly opens with banjo and double bass, but is quickly joined by violin and bassoon and some kettle drum, making it one of the strangest arrangements I have ever heard, and all the more charming for it. It has an intriguing middle eight with just seemingly highly effected bowed instruments (giving them a peculiar basso calliope sound) and banjo.

Purification is a nice piece that allows Steve the chance to play some of his solid body Gibson over an acoustic and this odd little percussive rhythm that sounds like bass notes plucked on another acoustic. There is some light orchestration here and there, including what might be a harp guitar, but mainly, it’s a showcase for understated jazzy folk guitar playing.

Rose is a very pretty acoustic piece with standup bass, vibes and an orchestral horn section playing softly in the background here and there. It’s a rather nice little piece, and it shifts up a bit with full though very light orchestration. A second rhythm acoustic sneaks in to bolster up the finish, and it quietly makes its exit. Very pretty piece.

The Explorer starts in a slightly melancholy state, until the fuzz guitar from Turn of the Century is joined by a lovely bit of viola playing and some vibes, horns and strings. A little harp and xylophone, some kettle drum, clarinet… basically, kitchen sink, but very sweet without being saccharine. That melancholy tone keeps the upward progression of the piece from getting too sappy. There’s just a lushness to the piece, and when the middle eight kicks in, it starts jaunty and then becomes anthemic, and you really recognize that guitar I mentioned, as the piece becomes Son of Turn. Very nice. I’ll have to play this one for a few friends. Oh, and it ends interestingly too, with dueling high notes in heavy echo. Nice effect.

Kindred Spirits has an almost soul vibe to it, the bass line suggesting things the rest of the instrumentation refutes. High, crying guitar over layers of vibes and acoustic guitar, plus that odd, ever-so-slightly funky synth bass figure. It sounds like a soundtrack piece from the 70s, but with the kind of fidelity to sound only the best remasters have. There’s some electric piano and horn in the middle eight, and then the guitar comes back to sing the verses. You can almost imagine John Wetton singing this one, though it’s not classic Asia by any means.

Concerto Grosso in D Minor Op. 3, No. 11 gives Steve a chance to play some Handel, with sweeping strings and flute accenting a harp and over all, Steve’s fuzz tone guitar playing a part doubtless never imagined by Handel, though it begs the question, what if he had predicted electric guitars, and would he have arranged them like this. I don’t know the piece, but it sounds like the guitar is playing horn and wind parts, and he winds up duetting with winds later in the piece. Quit nice, and thanks to the fuzz tone, not as sappy as it could have been.

The 3rd of March opens acoustically, strings quietly accompanying. Very romantic, like a love scene, which to my mind says Paul got his way. The orchestral instrumentation builds up a bit, until the guitar is dropped into an empty space and left to rediscover itself. Soon the guitar part is taken over by slide dobro sounding faintly East Indian. It’s a curious arrangement, but it’s got a levity and cleverness that deserves special notice. Even his more evocative numbers don’t move around as much as this. This wouldn’t have been out of place on Going For The One or perhaps Tormato, which could have used the boost.

Steam Age starts up with some fairly subdued finger picking, leaving plenty of room for the harp and clarinet (or is that oboe?). This section gives way to a rather jaunty little pop hook on acoustic that invites the orchestra to play a rhythmic figure you don’t usually get on symphonic albums. It’s cute and moving by turns, and at it’s heart is such a simple tune, but the whole orchestra seems to get in on the act, taking over sections. The hook is perfect for such a huge arrangement. No frills pop married with all the high falutin instrumentation. Nice.

Apollo is a cheerful number that sneaks in some classical guitar playing in chirpy mode, with plenty of restrained but lovely orchestration, strings mainly, but not exclusively. The piece sneaks in some Flamenco  after a fairly moody passage, but this too fades away, making room for a very pretty guitar figure, that itself makes room for a slightly Romanian melody, which leads to something else a little more progressive but not too challenging on the ear, strings and kettle drum echoing a guitar rhythm. A brief sojourn into a moody, atmospheric section brings us back to the main, jaunty riff from the beginning, and then the whole thing comes to a pleasant climax.

SUMMARY
All in all, this is a lovely album (there’s that word again), but I hasten to warn anyone looking for really progressive stuff that this might not do it for you. Any fan of Steve Howe can tell you that his music is about far mroe than just progressive chops and funky time signatures, but it might even be a stretch for Howe fans, who at least have the pleasure of being able to enjoy Howe’s acoustic pieces in relative isolation. This album leaves room for space in places, but gives over a lot of sonic landscape to the orchestra, which labours mightily not to drown out the guitars unduly. A very charming and mature album, but I don’t recommend it to people driving in heavy traffic, as it’s bound to relax you and perhaps even lull you to sleep with its fairly dulcet tones. Not a dull album, mind you; a very relaxed, lush, romantic album. You could certainly do worse than to slip this on while entertaining dinner guests or perhaps a certain special someone.

Lee.

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