(All Album Reviews by Reginod)
Arguably the most recognizable guitarist in that nebulous musical firmament known as progressive rock, and famous as well as infamous for his broad body of work with Yes, Asia, and GTR, Steve Howe has in recent years become quite prolific has a solo artist. Since the turn of the century (no pun intended) he has released several albums on the well-respected and well-distributed InsideOut label. The latest such offering is entitled Spectrum, and although it continues Howe's tradition of holding himself to a very high standard in terms of craftsmanship and fret-wise virtuosity, it offers few surprises for those who have faithfully followed his career (to which I must plead guilty).
Upon a cursory inspection of the lineup of musicians on Spectrum, one thing is instantly enticing: God-of-all-things-bass Tony Levin plays on this album! Actually, he contributes on seven out of fifteen cuts, and remains fairly unobtrusive. The rest of the bass is handled by Howe himself (not an odd thing if you've kept up with Howe's solo work). The other contributors here are familiar as well: prog progenies Oliver Wakeman and Virgil Howe are the primary keyboardists (Steve also plays keys on a handful of cuts), and Dylan Howe continues in his role as dad's drummer. There is no singing this time around, and the longest cut is merely a shade over five minutes in length.
Howe is the consummate guitarist-artist. It is safe to say that at this point in his career, he is not only a fret-master, he is also a more than capable project-maestro, from writing, arranging, and production to artistic direction. No doubt he could put the guitar down for good (Heaven forbid) and embark upon a fruitful career as a photographer; aside from his own portrait, he took all the photos included on the cover and booklet insert. On the whole, the package is a model of perfection, made all the more inviting by the omnipresent, Roger Dean-designed logo on the front cover.
And those guitars… Howe is notorious as a collector of fine stringed instruments, and it seems as if he's determined to play every single one of them on every album he makes! OK, that's an exaggeration, but he does bless almost every cut with a copious bounty of diverse sounds. And of course all of the axes used are meticulously catalogued according to the cuts on which they can be heard. A Gibson Les Paul custom is used on the album's energetic opener "Tiger's Den" as well as "Band Of Light" and "Without Doubt," and Martin acoustic guitars and mandolins are "played throughout." And that's only scratching the surface. There's the dobro. There's the Steinberger. There's the Telecaster. There's the Stratocaster. There's the Sho-Bud Pedal Steel. There’s the Roland VG 88. There's the . . . well, you get the idea.
The only problem with Spectrum is that none of these pieces really stand out (at least in the early stages of listening) as being particularly memorable from a compositional standpoint. The playing is certainly sharp, and it isn't that the pieces are bad; it's just that they mostly lack that admittedly fleeting quality which allows a small percentage of music to stand head-and-shoulders above all the rest. Consider 1991's Turbulence as a point of comparison: the melodies and themes on that album seem much more painstakingly developed, and to this day it stands as a singularly inspired high mark of Howe's career, solo or group-wise. Spectrum focuses less on composition and more on Howe's abilities and agilities as a guitar virtuoso. Like several of his other recent albums (1998's Quantum Guitar and 2003's Elements come to mind), the pieces are quite often built around familiar, standardized vamps, and the end result is that Howe's stature as a guitarist is more important than the compositions themselves.
There are exceptions, and plenty of nuance and stylistic diversity for the discerning ear. The second cut "Labyrinth" juxtaposes some distinctive, jazzy runs played on a Gibson ES 175D with some beautiful passages on the Khono Spanish guitar. And the aforementioned vamps are executed in an imaginative fashion and built into viable tunes, never becoming too repetitive, with Howe's nimble, spider-fingered runs and chord embellishments providing much more color than the average guitarist can envision. And the emotion is present, if you give it time to sink in. For example, check out the crying Fender Steel and volume swells on “Hour Of Need,” or the poignant “Where Words Fail.”
Whether you love him, hate him, or simply choose to send a steady stream of non-committal yawns in his direction, there's no denying that Mr. Howe is still a master of his craft. Perhaps a fitting parallel can be drawn with one of Howe's primary influences, the late Chet Atkins (whose name graces one of the Gibsons Howe used on this recording). Throughout his career Atkins released album after album of guitar-based, often instrumental country music. Maybe only a relative handful of the songs he recorded were truly memorable, but the impact he had as a virtuoso guitarist (and producer as well) still resonates. With Spectrum, Steve Howe has continued to position himself to have a similar legacy as a rock guitarist.