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Revisiting Steve Hackett’s Voyage of the Acolyte

In the latest in our series reflecting on classic albums from decades past, we revisit Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett's 1975 debut solo album, which demonstrates his formidable creative talent

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Conventional rock wisdom has it that Peter Gabriel was the creative and musical force of Genesis – the band’s sun around which other members revolved. There’s no doubt that he was a stellar talent, as he showed both before and after he left in 1976, but could it be that Steve Hackett’s light shone just as bright?

As lead guitarist of Genesis from 1971 to 1977, Hackett made a massive contribution to the band’s sound during what many consider to be their finest years, from 1971’s Nursery Crime to 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

His innovative and distinctive guitar sound – one not heard in any other contemporary rock group – was surely just as important to the early Genesis sound as Gabriel’s vocals. He contributed to six studio albums, three live albums, seven singles and one EP before recording his first solo album.

It's for this reason that Voyage of the Acolyte is such an interesting prospect to any progressive rock fan, especially if you've never before heard it.

"[Hackett] has always been ‘a musician’s musician’, hugely respected in the rock world for his distinctive techniques"

It’s a little off the beaten track for most followers of this musical genre, yet is of such high quality that it could almost be thought of as a lost Genesis album – something between The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and 1976’s A Trick of the Tail. This is not just due to guest appearances from some of the post-Gabriel Genesis line-up, but also the fact that its musical high point, Star of Sirius, features Phil Collins doing some classic Genesis-style vocals.

When Hackett released Voyage of the Acolyte in October 1975, he was still a member of Genesis. It was another three years before he released his next album, and 11 before he co-founded the rock ‘supergroup’ GTR in 1986. Despite his relatively limited commercial success as a solo artist, he has always been ‘a musician’s musician’, hugely respected in the rock world for his distinctive techniques including guitar tapping and sweep picking. These are said to have influenced many of his contemporaries, such as Queen’s Brian May and Rush’s Alex Lifeson.

"Voyage... was a concept album, with each song inspired by a Tarot card"

Born in London, he grew up in a musical family, and soon became a multi-instrumentalist; legend has it that he didn’t start playing guitar until the age of 12. His influences spanned classical to blues, which set him up perfectly for the progressive rock scene that was to come. In December 1970 he was recruited by Peter Gabriel after reading an advert that the latter had put in Melody Maker, and from then on became a leading musical force in the band. He left in October 1977 due to ‘creative differences’.

Recorded during a break in Genesis activity between June and July 1975, at Kingsway Recorders, London, Voyage of the Acolyte also featured Genesis’ own Mike Rutherford (12-string guitar) and Phil Collins (vocals, drums). It was his first recorded collaboration with his brother John, who provided flute and ARP synthesiser work. John Acock contributed most of the other keyboard sounds – acoustic piano, synthesiser and of course that prog rock essential, the Mellotron. Robin Miller’s oboe and English horn playing lends a charmingly baroque feel in parts, as does Nigel Warren-Green’s cello. Sally Oldfield, who also did vocals, would soon become known as the wife of UK album chart topping musician Mike.As was fashionable back then, Voyage... was a concept album, with each song inspired by a Tarot card. Much of it was written in hotel rooms while touring with Genesis, and some was older material that Hackett had written for the band – Hackett hoped that Shadow of the Hierophant, for example, would appear on Foxtrot. The artwork was a Chinese watercolour painting by Kim Poor, a Brazilian artist who Hackett later married.

"His guitar playing, songwriting and arrangements conjure up an almost other-worldly sound that is beguiling and emotive"

Anyone who’s heard A Trick of the Tail-era Genesis will feel instantly at home with this album. It uses mostly similar instruments and musicians, so it’s not surprising that there’s is a strong family resemblance. It alternates throughout between heavy, guitar-driven rock and slower ballads which have a more pastoral, almost mystical feel. The soaring flute and Mellotron work make it all the more ethereal, as evidenced by Hands of the Priestess, Parts 1 and II. As you would expect, it’s more instrumental than typical early Genesis albums; where Peter Gabriel’s surreal lyrical stylings would be, there are layers of beautiful instrumentation instead.

As well as these two songs, tracks like The Hermit and Star of Sirius show that Hackett is/was as special as anyone in Genesis, and one of the finest progressive rock musicians of his time. His guitar playing, songwriting and arrangements conjure up an almost other-worldly sound that is beguiling and emotive. The music is also exquisitely crafted and immaculately (self) produced, showing his all-round genius. Indeed Voyage of the Acolyte is arguably a better sounding album than any of the Genesis recordings he was involved with, possibly with the exception of A Trick of the Tail.

It sounds as dry and crisp as you’d expect from a mid-1970s progressive rock album, with none of the warmth of records coming out of – for example – the Stax or Motown stables. Yet there’s more depth and body to the sound than with many early Genesis recordings, which can be thin and anaemic even at the best of times, especially on low quality replay equipment. The Lovers is a case in point. It starts with a close-miked classical guitar, morphs into a dreamy, reverb-heavy flute solo, and then soars into a massive wall of sound, complete with an explosive drum break and cascading keyboards. Again, this song is highly evocative, conjuring up a mystical, magical mood that could almost soundtrack an episode of Game of Thrones.

"Albums such as this remain buried treasure for many rock fans who haven’t dared to venture off the beaten track"

Voyage of the Acolyte serves as a reminder that by the mid-70s, there wasn’t much wrong with analogue music recording – providing it was done right. Although this album doesn’t have the crystalline translucence of modern digital, even by today’s standards it is surprisingly tight, dynamic and well resolved – but with the faintest touch of warmth to garnish things in a pleasing way. Even the standard CD reissue [Charisma – 352 3142] sounds fine, while the original Japanese CD transfer [Virgin – VJCP-98030] is better still.

Since the release of his solo debut, Steve Hackett’s reputation has grown even higher. Time has given rock fans the chance to soberly assess the huge contribution that he made to Genesis during the band’s finest years, and his music has been able spread further and reach a wider audience. Indeed, Hackett has made a good living for himself touring, doing a combination of new and old work. Yet the man himself, and albums such as this, remain buried treasure for many rock fans who haven’t dared to venture off the beaten track. As ever more music becomes available to stream, and as hi-fi systems themselves improve with better digital technology, there’s never been a better time to experience hidden gems such as this.

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