Issue 2005-038: Steve Howe - Spectrum - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: Tigers Den (3:46), Labyrinth (3:57), Band Of Light (3:34), Ultra Definition (3:39), Ragga Of Our Time (4:12), Ebb and Flow (4:03), Realm Thirteen (4:27), Without Doubt (3:45), Highly Strung (4:30), Hour Of Need (5:13), Fools Gold (4:05), Where Words Fail (4:16), In The Skyway (3:13), Livelihood (3:34), Free Rein (3:52)
There's no discussion whatsoever that Steve Howe is one of the world's greatest guitar players. Already reached legendary status as provider of brilliant guitar and related sounds on numerous Yes, Asia and GTR albums, but also earned solid recognition with already a respectable catalogue of solo albums. There's hardly any instrument with strings he hasn't already played with great skills and creativity! With the looks of the, probably already pensioned, next-door carpenter, Steve is really an odd ball in the rock scene, but what an enrichment he is to it! And I personally honour him deeply for the terrific solo he laid down for the fabulous Queen track Innuendo! Enough praising and establishing the status of the man, now let's see what he produced this time.
Spectrum follows the albums Skyline (2002) that had a pretty relaxed feeling to it and Elements (2003) with a more traditional sound. Steve called in the help of some youngsters that are stepping in the musical footsteps of their fathers and one long time colleague: Tony Levin on bass, Oliver Wakeman on keyboards, Virgil Howe on moog and Dylan Howe on drums. On this album Steve displays a much broader spectrum, hence the title, of musical colours and even a few experiments with elements from other cultures. Steve commented on this album:
"I like to explore some really different sounds on each album. This time I included moods from remote countries on several parts of the album. 'Band Of Light' is a good example of that. For me this song seemed to require a very specific feeling and this is what came out of that."
Indeed there are some sound influences from around the world dispersed over the album (for instance the tabla and sitar in the introduction of Raga Of Our Time), but just very subtle; don't expect to find any really ethnic songs here!
As you might expect this album is another completely instrumental one, and I think Steve wisely chooses to emphasize on what he does best and has not tried to throw in vocals, since his song writing is clearly not focussed at that. He's certainly not a man of extreme experiments and guitar extravaganza, he clearly operates in a whole different area than Carlos Santana or Steve Vai to name two. But he does do his own little innovative creative experiments on a lesser obvious scale, concealed for the listener to find by throwing in a bit, but not too much, of various sorts of styles, techniques, instruments (it seems the man has dozens of string instruments) and influences. Alright, some sorts of guitar sounds you won't find here, like for instance the heavier kinds, but elements of jazz, blues, world and even a little bit of country are in there besides of course the classical and prog elements.
Compared to most of Steve's former albums this one has a little bit more light hearted feeling about it which seems to be intended as Steve explains:
"I wanted the music to have an air of self-confidence, a freshness and a feeling of 'being above'. I wanted it to reflect my approach to life by infusing it with love, optimism and a natural energy".
So this is a happy album, but don't fear this album is a series of over-joyful (religious-like) tunes; it's just that the general mood is somewhat more sparkling and joyous which might appeal a bit more to your musical taste or just not.
Don't expect much references to the work he's done in the past with Yes, Asia or GTR; his solo stuff is something of its own. Steve and his fellow musicians laid down some thorough tunes, but nothing over-exciting or spectacular in the sense of musical extravaganza and exhibitions of mind-blowing guitar licks. The mood is basically very relaxed, although some songs are pretty up-tempo, and it explores the quieter side of instrumental guitar based music.
The songs on this album are just very pleasant to listen to and very accessible; you could even share them with your non-progminded friends and relatives. That could be seen as a positive element, but also as a lack of serious innovation and creativity; this album won't blow your mind!
You get a feeling you heard it all before and that Steve can make a dozen of these albums a month. But don't be mistaken to think it's a dull album and an endless repetition of itself and similar albums, because the experience, talents and musical skills of especially Steve brings this music to a higher level. Every song has a touch, an atmosphere and little surprising details of its own that makes it stand out over other instrumental guitar songs! The strength of Steve lies not in bombastic, extravaganza, faster-than-light guitar playing or tunes that will stick in your mind for weeks, but in the subtle, but perfectly executed mellow tunes with nice details. If you're going to listen to this album just try to spot them!
My knowledge of Steve Howe's work outside of Yes is rather limited. The main reason for this is that I've never been overly convinced by the man's plunky playing style, which in my opinion can only work when combined with the similarly plunky basslines of Chris Squire, and Jon Anderson's celestial counter-melodies. For fellow 'haters' of the man's playing it may come as a surprise that this new solo album contains little or none or his trademark playing style. Instead we get 15 instrumental tracks in which various guitars are carefully chosen to play very accessible lead melodies.
Like on his previous album Howe is accompanied by his sons Dylan (Moog) and Virgil (drums), and Steve Howe's Remedy is expanded with yet another Yes junior Oliver Wakeman, and former Anderson/Bruford/Wakeman/Howe bassist Tony Levin. One big family reunion so to speak. The album presents a lovely variety of styles, ranging from rockabilly to jazz to country to whatever you want to call it. Not very prog one might say, but at the same time such varied instrumental albums are probably as prog as they come. Just don't expect any soaring and screaming guitar solos, the music on this album is more easy listening experience, the one which wouldn't be out of place on the sound system of a large department-store. Carefully crafted muzak with an edge.
Raga Of Our Times is probably the standout track on the album. The title explains exactly what this is. An Indian raga (including tabla and sitar) updated to the 21st century with drums, keyboards and electric guitars. While played in the style of Western rock, the music on this track retains an oriental flavour by using Eastern scales and ditto rhythm. The song's counterpart, Highly Strung does the opposite: here the sitar plays a very Western melody. Highly Strung is also probably the most proggy track on the album, which even reminds of the work of Yes at times.
There are some other moments of recognition too. For example Labyrinth uses some of the chord sequences from Yes' Turn Of The Century and Fools Gold is the one track where Howe's trademark guitar playing comes around. Even though this track would classify as rockabilly, it immediately evokes comparisons to the sound of Yes, purely for Howe's playing style.
There are also a few occasions of acoustic guitar, which remind the listener of Howe's first forays into solo work like The Clap and Mood For A Day. However, no matter how acoustic a track starts, there is always a full band arrangement that appears at some point. It's as if Howe never wants to claim a solo spot and take away the attention of the rest of the band. Ah, what a difference this makes from the days of Yes.
With Spectrum Steve Howe has released a very accessible, light-hearted album. Guitar aficionados will find plenty they like on this album. I agree with Joris that this is the type of music a man like Howe can create in five minutes, with his eyes closed and two fingers up his nose, but to his credit the man's earned his spurs well enough to be allowed a little fun. After all, there is no need to write another Close To The Edge every week, is there. If nothing else most of the music is more interesting than the (studio) stuff he's done with Yes in the last 10 years.
If the name Steve Howe needs any introduction to you then you will probably have stumbled on this page by accident and in fact are already leaving our site. Bon voyage. For the rest of us the name Steve Howe is one that has and still is synonymous with the progressive music scene over the last five decades now and the man shows very little sign of retiring or even slowing down. In fact his output has increased dramatically in the last few years with the massive resurgence of interest in the music of Yes. The never ending Yes DVD's flooding the market in the last couple of years must surely be testament to this. Along with this Steve has continued with both recording and touring with his solo and joint performances, along with Steve Howe's Remedy and of course now there is "The More Drama Tour" in the offing. *
So what Spectrum displays to me is man who truly loves his instrument and one who still wishes to share this immense enthusiasm with anyone prepared to listen. I doubt Spectrum will earn Steve any new fans, but for the converted this album will be warmly received.
Now my penchant for guitar instrumental albums is well charted within the DPRP archives, so the opportunity to join this RTR of one of prog's icons was an obvious decision. But surprisingly enough I didn't immediately volunteer. I've seen and heard Steve in many formats over the years, but I still prefer to listen to his playing within the confines of Yes, and even then I prefer his performances on the earlier Yes material. However it was at Bart's suggestion that I give this album a few spins, suggesting that the album was a grower and that he felt I would in fact warm to the album fairly quickly. He was right, my initial listening to the album was one of enjoyment, but it didn't initially grab me - demanding little in terms of further investigation. However two and three runs through and the sheer diversity of sounds within the material had won me over.
Spectrum as picked up by both Joris and Bart is what this album is about, and I can honestly say that Steve Howe has pushed the boat out on this release. For not only has he encompassed many varying styles of music, but he has carefully chosen a vast array of sounds to capture these styles. So much so that there are sections and even entire tracks that offer a new slant to Mr Howe's already notable comprehension of guitar music. On the downside I did find the music lacking any great emotion or depth and perhaps would go as far as saying I found it a little bland. But hey, I think the guy has more than paid his dues and is allowed his self indulgences.
Yes fans will be well aware of the vast array of guitars used by Steve on-stage and here on Spectrum we are treated to a large selection of differing guitars, each with their own individual sound and, as to be expected, selected with great thought. All is then captured by the crystal clear production, ensuring that we miss none of these subtle nuances.
I've said little about the individual tracks and this is simply because I would be struggling with a starting point - so varied are the influences on Spectrum. Surely there can be very few guitarists who can convincingly mix a progressive rock edge with country, classical and jazz formats and come up with an album that works well. Steve Morse is the only guy who comes readily to mind.
Personal favourites (in no particular order) are Labyrinth as it best sums up the points just made as well as having a great groove. As picked on by my fellow DPRPees, the jaunty East meets West flavoured Ragga Of Our Time. The Yessy Highly Strung and the gentle, rippling Where Words Fail. And last but not least the up-tempo opener Tigers Den.
Before concluding it would be remiss of me to overlook the contributions made by the other Howe's, Oliver Wakeman and the redoubtable Tony Levin. A great line-up, taking a somewhat secondary role here, but their playing is crisp, tight and sympathetic to Steve's arrangements.
Steve's ardent fans will already have this album firmly located on the shelves of their CD collection, along with his previous offerings I feel. For those who have always considered buying a Steve Howe solo album, then this could well be a good place to start. There is much for the Yes fan on Spectrum as there are many sections that echo his work with the band. And as both Bart and Joris mention this album may well serve as complimentary music for an evening with friends, who might not share your prog leanings.
*Sadly "The More Drama Tour" was cancelled shortly after the writing of this article.