Howe is noted for his work as a member of Yes, Asia and GTR, but he’s also a solo artist.
His latest solo album, ‘Skyline,’ is an ambient, new age-inflected work. Sealed Digi-pack
1. Small acts of human kindness
2. Meridian strings
3. Secret arrow
4. Moon song
5. Shifting sands
6. Avenue de bel air
8. The anchor
9. Moment in time
11. Camera obscura
12. Small acts
5.0 out of 5 stars Plenty of room to take in the view….
For many of us music at its best is a dangerous, demanding adventure in mountaineering: the higher the peak and the greater the cloud cover, the more exhilarating and worthwhile it feels. But sometimes it does the soul good to spend some quiet time in the foothills; to meander around admiring the sheer, undemanding beauty of the scenery. Steve Howeâs -˜Skylineâ is an album for precisely those moments. It surveys the melodic shadows of the horizon with an unhurried ear. It is fret-less guitarism in the emotional rather than the technical sense of the word.
Essentially a set of fresh soundscapes ideally suited to Howeâs 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), -˜Skylineâ 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, -œpushing 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 Inside Out to -˜File under Progressive Rockâ. 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 -˜forâ, interestingly enough] Yesâ. In -˜Skylineâs context such labels are largely meaningless, of course, though they emphasise the particular market niche which provides Howeâs bread-and-butter income. And at least they fend off the other term that might well pollute such a venture, -˜New Ageâ. Itâs 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 Arrowâ and -˜Camera Obscuraâ come to mind) it as if a few of Howeâs 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. Howe uses twenty-one different guitars (including electric, steel, Spanish and FX, 6- and 12-string) to good effect. In each 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. Iâm 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 Kindnessâ and its reprise) are the most questionable aspects of the whole enterprise, and (ironically) they are also the point at which the guitaristâs 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 -œSkyline 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, some will probably still dismiss this album as elevator music. I can see why, to be fair. But -˜elevationalâ seems much more fitting to the tenor of -˜Skylineâ, and (like the music itself) it is a more generous and measured judgement.
A last word about the overall presentation: the lacquered disc comes in a beautiful two-texture digipak with a charming booklet and with glorious photography throughout from Howe. The front cover picture evokes the back of Yesâs -˜Going For the Oneâ (also recorded in Switzerland), but with the built environment receding into the night air. Like the music it envelopes, the freshness of the imagery cleanses the palette. In a violent and demanding world I am not ashamed to say that this album simply provided contentment. I’m unlikely to stay there for more than an hour at a time, but it is a good and necessary place to focus on, as Steve Howe knows.