Album preview: Steve Hackett, At the Edge of Light (Everyman Cinema, Crystal Palace)
Steve Hackett’s ‘At the Edge of Light’ album preview was held at the Everyman cinema in Crystal Palace on 21st January 2019, four days before the official release, and consisted of a run-through of the record played in Dolby 5.1 surround sound. The event was organised by Prog Magazine and Inside Out records and I ‘won’ tickets by holding a recently-delivered copy of Prog 94 (featuring Steve Hackett on the cover) and sending Prog a selfie. It’s interesting to note that the magazine thought it necessary to disallow any entry where the photo was taken in a newsagent!
I’d been to two King Crimson playbacks in the mid-late 90s for the releases of the ‘Epitaph’ box set and ‘The Night Watch’ CDs, both unmissable because they were relatively small gatherings of like-minded fans and featured the assembly of the musicians responsible for the performances but which also included fascinating side events: the offering of home-made cakes (I baked a date and walnut loaf), a Mellotron display, and John Wetton performing a solo acoustic version of ‘Book of Saturday’; an even more exclusive gathering, the ‘At the Edge of Light’ playback was a chance to hear the latest Steve Hackett release before the general public and had the distinct advantage of being held on my doorstep, a short 410 bus journey from home.
When I lived in Crystal Palace/Upper Norwood the former Rialto Cinema, opened in 1928, was being used as a bingo hall. The cinema had shown its last film in 1968 and Gala Bingo, in a restructuring exercise following diminishing profits and questionable financial viability partly blamed on the 2007 ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, closed the premises sometime around 2009. It was bought by Kingsway International Christian Centre but they failed to gain planning permission for change of use to an evangelical church partly because the development would result in the loss of an important leisure venue, deemed to be "harmful to the social, cultural and economic characteristics of the area." Repurposing as a church also incurred opposition from an active local group, founded in 2010, who campaigned to return the prominent Art Deco building to its original function and so, with the building listed as an asset of social value (ASV) ensuring KICC had no prospect of planning approval, they decided to sell up in 2017.
The building has been lovingly restored and given a new lease of life by Everyman, with the original main auditorium divided up to form four screens. Screen 4, the venue for the playback, seats 75 on plush two-seater sofas and provided a warm, intimate setting for the event. I had wondered why Hackett and the record label had chosen Everyman Crystal Palace but Steve Hackett’s live film ‘Wuthering Nights: Live in Birmingham’ was given a screening at Everyman King’s Cross on 15th Jan 2018, prior to its official release eleven days later; Marillion’s 2017 Royal Albert Hall concert film was screened at Everyman cinemas around the country in March 2018 prior to the release of a DVD/Blu-ray for home consumption; and Steven Wilson held a pre-release screening of ‘Home Invasion’ at Everyman King’s Cross last October. There’s a rumour that someone high up in the Everyman organisation is partial to prog!
It’s unclear how many ordinary punters were present, not industry insiders from Inside Out music or Prog magazine or members of the Hackett family (Steve’s wife, Jo; brother and collaborator John; their mother; aunt Betty) but regardless of status we were all treated to a signed card from Steve and some Green & Black’s chocolate. Prog editor Jerry Ewing commenced proceedings with a short introduction, declaring ‘At the Edge of Light’ the best offering from Hackett for 20 years; he handed over the mic to Hackett who thanked quite a few people present and said a little bit about the music and the guest musicians, and then we settled down to listen.
Having already watched three available YouTube videos and being fully aware of Hackett’s diverse styles through building up a comprehensive library of his recorded output, I wasn’t surprised by any of the material. It’s a natural successor to ‘Night Siren’ though with a more cohesive sound despite the eclectic mix and as Ewing suggested, probably his best album for many years. The fact that it’s not all-out prog is one of the album’s strengths, the eclecticism providing an almost commercial level of accessibility but without being commercial. My least favourite track is ‘Underground Railroad’ although I do love the story of the inspiration behind the song. It was written following a visit to Wilmington, Delaware, where he found out about the network that helped slaves escape in pre-Civil War America, spearheaded by people like Harriet Tubman; it’s just that I’m not a great fan of the Blues or, however well it’s played, harmonica.
I thought that there were a number of highlights; from the brief opening tune ‘Fallen Walls and Pedestals’ with its archetypal guitar sound to the prog mini-epic ‘Those Golden Wings’ to the three numbers forming a kind of suite closing the album, ‘Descent’ (which channels Holst or King Crimson), ‘Conflict’ and ‘Peace’ but the overall quality of song writing on the album is really high, including the infectious prog-pop of ‘The Hungry Years’! At times I was reminded of ‘Cured’-era Hackett which I think has a distinct overall sound. On completion of the album presentation he remained in the auditorium and chatted to the attendees, graciously posing for selfies with fans.
More than just the music, I admire Hackett’s viewpoint, expressed in both Prog 94 and in his explanation for the album’s title. He described the thread linking the songs as different interpretations of the contrast between light and dark, expressed at its most basic on ‘Beasts in Our Time’ as good versus evil, but also the more mystical interplay of dark and light magically combining in cultures such as that which provides the heartbeat of India (‘Shadow and Flame’). In summary, Hackett takes a hopeful stance: “In these dangerous times, deep shadows feel even sharper than usual and we find ourselves standing at the edge of light. Ultimately, this album embraces the need for all musical forms and cultures to connect and celebrate the wonder of unity in this divided world."
This review was taken from the lost blog ‘Flexitarian’ posted on 9th February 2019