Sunday, December 15, 2002


Audio CD (28 October, 2002)
Label: InsideOut 65362

A slightly curious choice for review in NewFrontEars perhaps, but bear with me. Essentially a set of fresh soundscapes ideally suited to Steve Howe’s crystalline playing (the Gibson ES-175D and Fender Precision Bass take the most prominent spots in a sea of strings that also includes Koto, Danelectro Coral sitar, Autoharp and mandolin), ‘Skyline’ employs electronic keyboards for atmosphere and texture. The bass additions harmonise unobtrusively into the instrumental blend, and the percussion provides more of a pulse than a beat, “pushing the rhythms enough to complement the flavour”, as Howe says in a brief, prosaic liner note. Paul Sutin, a long-term collaborator, takes the keys on eight of the twelve tracks – which clock in at exactly one hour in total. A very rounded project.

Under the bar code on the back of the package we are encouraged by InsideOut to ‘File under Progressive Rock’. This is a tag that Howe will never escape, and just to rub it in there are two stickers reminding us that he is ‘the guitarist of [rather than ‘for’, interestingly enough] Yes’. In ‘Skyline’s context such labels are largely meaningless, of course, though they emphasise the particular market niche which provides Howe’s bread-and-butter income. And at least they fend off the other term that might well pollute such a venture, ‘New Age’. It’s hard to deny that this is restful, ambient music. But that need not be the insult it often implies. There are some softly strong themes at work here, and in a couple of places (‘Secret Arrow’ and ‘Camera Obscura’ come to mind) it as if a few of Howe’s trademark ascending and descending runs, with their oddly metered phrasing and counter-harmonic propensities, are being gently lowered toward us from the rooftop. This is soloing in slow motion, composition patiently reconstructed, improvisation through temporal expansion.

Each of the dozen tracks has its own charm, but some take a little more time to reveal their worth than others. Howe uses twenty-one different guitars (including electric, steel, Spanish and FX, 6- and 12-string) to good effect. In every case it is the overall tapestry of sound and emotional scope he is interested in, not instrument-swapping for its own sake. A few of the pieces drift in and out of consciousness, some stand out and call for more attention. I’m none-too-keen on fades, and that remains true even in this essentially pastoral setting. The hinted vocals and keyboard patches on the opening and closing pieces (‘Small Acts of Human Kindness’ and its reprise) are the most questionable aspects of the whole enterprise, and (ironically) they are also the point at which the guitarist’s lineage is most evident. They might just have worked better in Yes, and Yes might similarly work better sometimes if it paid more attention to Howe the colourist.

However, if Steve Howe is about the nearest Yes have got to a muse, his heart is rarely obscured. He tells us in his notes that “Skyline offers me the opportunity to explore the partnership of melodic and improvisational playing.” He is known for both, of course. Here you have the opportunity to view them at close quarters and at contemplative pace. Pleasingly, the join is hard to detect. In spite of its merits, many will probably still dismiss this album as elevator music. I can see why, to be fair. It isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally go for. But ‘elevational’ seems much more fitting to the tenor of ‘Skyline’, and (like the music itself) it is a more generous and measured judgement.

If, like me. you enjoy Howe’s sound, phrasing and melodic angularity but find this particular offering a little too soporific, I suggest you try Not Necessarily Acoustic, Natural Timbre or The Steve Howe Album – at least until his duo with the peerless jazz fretman Martin Taylor, appears in January 2003. That’s called Masterpiece Guitars (see immediately below).

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