Issue 2012-021: Squackett - A Life Within A Day - Round Table Review
Tracklist: A Life Within A Day (6:35), Tall Ships (6:18), Divided Self (4:06), Aliens (5:32), Sea Of Smiles (5:25), The Summer Backwards (3:00), Storm Chaser (5:26), Can't Stop The Rain (5:47), Perfect Love Song (4:04)
Alison Henderson's Review
You can read Alison's interview with both Chris and Steve here!
And so it came to pass that perhaps the most eagerly anticipated musical coupling of two of prog’s legends has finally been delivered five years after its original inception when Chris Squire invited Steve Hackett to provide the guitar playing on his Swiss Choir album. That done and dusted, Squire reciprocated by laying down some bass lines for Hackett’s last two albums -and Squackett was the side project which took on a separate life of its own.
But first, for those fans of the bands with whom they are most closely associated, I have some bad news. While there are touches of Yes and Genesis nuanced throughout the album via their trademark musical styles, this is not Close to the Foxtrot nor is it Trespass Tales. All the songs here are under seven minutes in duration while the whole album comes in at just over forty six minutes, the length of two of their magnum opera played back to back.
The good news is A Life Within A Day is a wonderful exhibition of two masters of the craft making music for the sheer enjoyment of it all. Free from the restraints of contractual obligations, they have created songs which truly live and breathe. Although they may sound straight forward on a superficial level, on closer examination, they all possess tremendous depth in the way they have been constructed, which is good news for those listening on a 5.1 system.
Much of this is down to the faultless production of Roger King, Hackett’s long-time musical collaborator, in bringing both clarity and airiness to the mix so that every note sounds sharp and every vocal harmony has an individual freshness. King is an integral part of the line-up as he also supplies keyboards and programming, and is credited as a co-writer on all nine of the songs in the Squackett collection. The musical line-up is further augmented by Jeremy Stacey on drums and Amanda Lehmann on backing vocals.
So let’s talk you through what is going on here and be ready for plenty of surprises such as close harmonies that suggest Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, some metal moments and melodies which melt in your mind.
Opening proceedings is the title track A Life Within A Day which is a tour de force in extremis. A waterfall keyboard intro gives way to a mighty guitar motif and then it is a full-on Zep Kashmir riff which drives the engine of this kaleidoscopic juggernaut, twisting and turning as it does through jazzy crags and orchestral flurries. Squire’s bass rumbles and Hackett guitar blazes to wondrous effect. With its dazzling lyrical imagery and panoply of prog sonics, the song more than lives up its name and sets the bar incredibly high for the rest of the album.
Then it is straight into the stately Tall Ships with Hackett’s glorious acoustic guitar making way for Squire’s growling bass and Jeremy Stacey’s metronome drums, followed by King’s shimmering keys. This is a track which Hackett recommends is best listened to in 5.1 and it is easy to hear why. It has multi-textures and orchestral tones aplenty swirling deep down in the mix. You can detect a hint of Heart Of The Sunrise in Squire’s bass-line and the silky vocal harmonies of the chorus just make it all sail along with effortless grace and ease. It is the nearest anyone will ever get musically to conjuring up the feeling of being on a magnificent three mast ship in the Aegean Sea during the height of summer.
Divided Self is an uptempo poppy number which put me in mind of Nick Lowe’s Cruel To Be Kind with Squire leading off on vocals and Hackett’s guitar adding a jangling melody line. There is a touch of Yes in the delivery of the chorus hook and Hackett adds a solo which somehow manages to combine warmth with a real edge. After some vocal jiggery-pokery, it suddenly ends with a touch of good old English eccentricity through a fairground organ piping away.
A Yes theme then comes into view through Aliens that Squire once performed with Oliver Wakeman as part of one of their sets. This acoustically driven song with orchestral background emits a really dreamy quality. Squire is on top of his game vocally leading some creamy harmonies explaining why aliens are only us from the future and how one day we will all have passports to the sun.
There is an overriding air of nostalgia to Sea Of Smiles, the designated single from the album, which has bells, percussion, a sonorous bass and the tightest sweetest harmonies all of which together give off almost a hippie vibe. It keeps its shape and restraint enough for Hackett to deliver a gorgeous guitar flourish, but there also seems to be several musical conversations going on at the same time.
For Hackett fans, The Summer Backwards is The Serpentine Song revisited. All the same elements are there with the strong harmonies, an achingly lovely melody and a choral backdrop giving it a psychedelic twist. This is what summer listening is all about.
No pretties now as Stacey’s Bonham-like beat announces the arrival of Stormchaser with crashing guitars and dirty bass, that grooves along in a metal haze with some interesting programming effects from King, pared down vocals from Hackett and a very catchy chorus line in which Lehmann’s voice offer up a delicate lightness to this out and out rocker. Think of Hackett’s Still Waters with a hefty wedge of Zeppelin thrown in.
And finally we come to perhaps the most beautifully ambiguous track on the album, the astonishing Can’t Stop The Rain with Squire on lead vocals. It is a rite of passage song about growing up and taking the knocks which life hands out occasionally. It does have the hallmark of an easy listening classic and if they were to put out another single, it would have to be this one because it would find a much wider audience with its commercial appeal.
As it builds to a huge climactic end with swelling guitar, it segues seamlessly into Perfect Love Song. Again, the melody line here is emotionally charged and once more, the voices blend perfectly. It is though they have been doing it all their musical lives. Hackett delivers yet another searing guitar solo which shows his power of musical self-expression marches on unabated and undiminished. It brings the album to a close on an unassailably high note.
So, in conclusion, to everyone who has spent the past few weeks in a darkened room listening to Storm Corrosion, I can only say pull back the curtains and open the windows, because summer in the land of prog has arrived through the release of A Life Within A Day.
It might be too light and frothy overall for some and others might think “This is not Genesis or Yes from the 70s so I refuse to listen”, but if that is their stance then they are sorely missing the point.
This is all about hearing how two extraordinary artists can work closely alongside each other, developing and putting down musical ideas together while having lots of fun at the same time. That enjoyment literally pours out of every track, which in turn makes it even more pleasurable to listen to. So by dint of this lovely, uplifting and totally life-affirming album - and their senior status, we can now officially declare Messrs Squire and Hackett “The Sunshine Boys” of Prog.
Jez Rowden's Review
Is it me or is 2012 becoming a very good year for highly anticipated releases?
Mention the word Squackett to most people and you’ll no doubt be met by a look of bewilderment even if they know who Chris Squire and Steve Hackett are. The project name may have been suggested as a joke but it has stuck and whetted the appetite for a humungous Yes/Classic Genesis hybrid but as with Hackett’s previous high profile alliance with a Yes-man, guitarist Steve Howe in GTR, the result is a melodic but safe guitar drenched album that owes little to the illustrious heritage of either party.
A Life Within A Day is by no means a bad album but considerably less than half of it should be regarded as anything other than merely acceptable. The title track is almost worth the price of entry on its own but the majority of the disc sounds like a good to variable Hackett album with a special guest rather than having a distinctive sound of its own. There is little, if any, Yes or Genesis, not much Conspiracy (Squire’s project Billy Sherwood), and absolutely nothing that points to this being a follow-up to Squire’s legendary and only true solo album, Fish Out Of Water. This is a shame but not particularly unexpected as with hopes being so high and the gestation period so long it was almost certain to fall short of the anticipated delights. The duo appear to have played it safe and not gone for a unique sound with which to brand the project but, no matter, it’s their baby and they can do with it what they will. Despite the criticisms there is still much to enjoy so long as expectations are checked at the door.
A Life Within A Day kicks off with the title track, building from a Kashmir stomp into a rip-roaring stunt guitar extravaganza with Hackett pulling out all the stops. Squire is harder to spot but his trademark bass thunders in here and there and he supplies a good backing vocal that ably supports Hackett’s lead, their voices blending nicely. Tall Ships manages to keep up the high standard with a funky Squire bass line, the easy strut of the first part lifting off into classic Hackett heights in the chorus where layered vocals from both give a smooth choir effect that will be familiar to Hackett followers.
So far so business as usual for Steve and there is nothing wrong with that. I like most of Hackett’s work and his recent output has seen him reach a new peak but I don’t quite get what Squire adds to this. The overall feel is of a Hackett solo release but the added interest of Nick Beggs’ bass and stick is missing. I love Chris Squire but he just doesn’t seem to have it together enough to write the material people want to hear from him. He seems to need, a Hackett, Sherwood or Trevor Horn to complete any scraps of material he has and make them presentable which is a shame as he has written some wonderful pieces over the years. The notorious Aliens is certainly not one of these but gets a studio debut here after appearing briefly in Yes’ live set a couple of years ago. Having watched a YouTube clip of it at the time my jaw dropped at how flaccid it was with cringingly hideous lyric to match. It is presented in an acceptable way here with nice additions from Hackett and I suspect much input, as throughout, from Steve’s keyboardist and regular collaborator Roger King. The lyric still sucks monkey balls and I wouldn’t mind if I never heard it again but it isn’t a complete car-crash. It’s still too long though.
Divided Self is a pleasant, up-beat track with some good moments and a nice chorus from Squire but it doesn’t do an awful lot, the echoey feel being another Steve trademark as is the quirky ending. Sea Of Smiles is nice but not essential; “Fire & ice my gypsy child”. Indeed. Oh well. The next track, The Summer Backwards, keeps the middle of the album resolutely cruising in third as it takes another step into Hackett’s comfy slipper drawer. That is not to do it a disservice as it is easily good enough to have made it onto just about any of his albums but that is the problem with Squackett – too much ‘Ackett’ and not enough ‘Squ’.
Things improve with the brooding stomp of Storm Chaser. The bass is big and bold; the guitar dances and swoops. Unfortunately the drums still plod. The most surprising thing on the album is the brief King Crimson riff from Steve! I did hear that he was almost involved in 21st Century Schizoid Band which would have been interesting. Steve breaks out the acoustic for Can’t Stop The Rain, another pretty song nicely sung by Squire, although with a strange, almost synthetic, tone to his voice, which builds in interest right at the death to segue into the third ‘good’ track on the album, Perfect Love Song, which has grace and power to top things off on a high. The pace doesn’t pick up too much but still makes a change from much of what has gone before. There is a touch more Conspiracy to this one which makes me think it has come from Squire but the icing is Steve’s always immaculate guitar.
Hackett is supreme on this release, peeling out notes in a myriad different ways over material that generally doesn’t deserve them and making A Life Within A Day something of a curate’s egg. The tunes are catchy but the vocals over polished with too much multitracking. If I only had one word to describe this album it could be ‘nice’, it certainly wouldn’t be either ‘bollocks’ or ‘exciting’ but is most likely to be ‘pleasant’.
So, masters of their craft present a nice album with little new and nothing too exciting. Hackett shines but this all seems a little one sided and an opportunity missed. That said I’ll be forking out for the mooted UK dates in the autumn. Well, it would be rude not to and I still love the both of them but I’ll be there mainly in the hope that they will resurrect some Fish Out Of Water material.
Bob Mulvey's Review
Many moons ago when the Squackett project was first muted I didn't quite know what to expect, but certainly not a return to the halcyon days of their respective bands. Look you're reading this article on DPRP so you will know who I am talking about here ;0)... As more information became available and earlier this year when a few snippets from A Life Within A Day started to emerge on the internet, I somewhat unkindly renamed the project 'Hackettire'. To be truthful when the album arrived and after a few spins I still heard more of Steve Hackett's influence than I did Chris Squire. Not that that's a bad thing necessarily, more an observation, but perhaps not too surprising as A Life Within A Day also features Steve's long time stable mate and keyboard man Roger King along with backing vocals from Amanda Lehmann.
The title track didn't do much to alter any of my initial thoughts and A Life Within A Day could have sat very comfortably on either Out Of The Tunnel's Mouth or Beyond The Shrouded Horizon. But enough of what may seem to be a negative slant in this review and from the initial keyboard flourish from Roger, through Steve's signature guitar we move into the stomping album opener. With its Eastern motif and pounding rhythm Led Zeppelin's mini epic, Kashmir, is certainly a reference point. Bookend by an a cappella vocal, the middle instrumental is pure Hackett, but with the added bonus of Chris Squire's rollicking bass lines. I love this track - almost worth the admission fee by itself.
Tall Ships opens with a brief classical guitar intro from Steve before another stomping rhythm steps in, held rock solid by Jeremy Stacey. Squire's bass fills sit nicely alongside the funky(ish) guitar. Squire's influence starts to emerge with the strong, infectious vocal harmonies and here his Conspiracy project came to mind. Divided Self on the other hand, with its Byrds' like twelve string guitar and sweet vocals adds a lighter touch to the album. An infectious number that had the hallmarks of both Chris and Steve re-visiting their youth.
With such a strong opening salvo there has to be a lull and Aliens was that for me. It is a catchy enough song, lyrically perhaps not their finest moment and a tad too repetitive, however the infectious vocal harmonies raise the ante somewhat. Things pick up with the "return to the past" and 60s sounding Sea Of Smiles. Roger King's selective sounds nicely set the scene for this summery, vocally rich track. Final touch comes from the Hackett solo breaks... As Alison mentions in her review The Summer Backwards is a close relation to The Serpentine Song taken from Steve Hackett's 2003 release To Watch The Storms. Lush harmony vocals and a melody that sticks long in the memory.
Oddly enough Storm Chaser conjured memories of ELP's (Black Moon) - "big drums", plodding beat, driving bass, strong theme and a solid hook for the choruses. Although Can't Stop The Rain shares a common tempo to the previous track, it is a different animal altogether. Again like much of the album there's a summery feel to much of the material and this track is no exception, albeit this time a tranquil, rainy day. Hackett plays some fine acoustic guitar here, gradually adding in some jazzier electric guitar phrasings. Can't Stop The Rain segues into the final track and yes folks another infectious track that sticks in the head for days after you've listened to it.
A Life Within A Day is a lush album with multiple layers of instrumentation and vocals - thankfully the production values cope with this admirably.
And there we have it - an enjoyable listen from start to finish. On a more critical note I found the tempos a little one dimensional, but as whole the album comes across well. If you were under any illusion that Messrs Squire and Hackett might have looked to rekindle their formative GenYesis days then be advised and approach A Life Within A Day with caution. If however you are in for some well crafted, ear friendly songs with more than enough depth and edge to take it out of the run of the mill AOR category, then this may well be an album for you. Definitely a grower and an album that can be enjoyed on several listening levels...