Kronomyth 2.2: DOWNES IN THE DUMPS. I read that John wrote this song for Geoff Downes in five minutes, which sounds about right. Although it’s one of my least favorite Asia songs, I admit that I find myself humming it often, so maybe I’m not giving it enough credit. The band released a sophisticated video to support it: a miniature French film about divorce that ends with a little girl jumping off a bridge. I know, right, just when you thought the song couldn’t be any more depressing. Truly, the best of Asia represented the worst of times: loneliness, depression, nuclear war. The B side is another overlooked Steve Howe contribution, poppier than most of what made it onto Alpha, although it feels like the finishing touches for it are missing.
Kronomyth 2.01: OWNERS OF A LONELY ARK. The first single from Asia’s second album was the disappointing “Don’t Cry.” I write “disappointing” because it doesn’t stand up to the standards of their first record, which was itself an artistic compromise compared to Yes, U.K. and ELP. A cute video was released to support the single, featuring the band in a Raiders of the Lost Ark setting. Although the run time for this single is listed at about 15 seconds under the album version, it actually runs about eight seconds longer by my watch (3:38 versus the album’s 3:30 length). The difference in time can be explained by a longer fadeout at the end; otherwise, the two versions are identical. In the US, the B side was the nonalbum “Daylight,” which appeared only on cassette versions of Alpha. It’s actually better than most of the material on Alpha, with an ELO-styled chorus and a return to the verses of “Sole Survivor” in the middle.
Steve Howe and Martin Taylor are a pair of outstanding instrumentalists, but it’s the instruments that take center stage on Masterpiece Guitars. This collaborative project actually includes a third party, collector Scott Chinery, who had amassed an impressive array of classic guitars in his (short) lifetime. Chinery had planned to publish an illustrated book of his guitar collection and, after seeing Howe’s own guitar book, engaged Howe and Taylor to preserve the collection in eternal audio as well through new recordings. The music featured on Masterpiece Guitars includes original compositions from Howe and Taylor as well as classics arranged for (mostly) jazz guitar: “Smile,” “Somewhere,” “All The Things You Are,” “Thank Heaven For Little Girls.” Steve Howe’s role is primarily as a producer/accompanist, with Taylor assuming the lion’s share of the playing. Thus, the disc is skewed toward the fluid jazz style that Taylor had established during his years alongside Stephane Grappelli, with Howe’s new age or country pieces in between. In other words, Steve Howe fans don’t necessarily need to add this disc to their own collection. And yet it is a wonderful-sounding disc, rich with the ringing intonations of guitar royalty. If you can name more than five vintage luthiers, chances are you’ll appreciate this effort. In fact, if you even know what a luthier is, you’re probably in the target demographic for this disc. From a Steve Howe perspective (since I’m not a huge jazz guitar fan), it’s interesting to see Masterpiece Guitars as the culmination of Howe’s own guitar cataloguery (ok, I made that word up), but only a few tracks (e.g., “Tailpiece,” “Thought Waves”) actually sound like the work of Howe. For the same price, you could get an entire album of Howe on any one of the Homebrew recordings. So what you have here is a labor of love from a trio of interesting characters whose interests intersect on fabled bridges, the crossing of which you may or may not feel compelled to make.
Kronomyth 5.0: WATER YOU’VE DONE FOR ME LATELY. Geoff Downes gave Asia a reboot with Aqua, bringing in John Payne (bass/vocals) and Al Pitrelli (guitars) to flesh out a skeletal crew of Carl Palmer, Steve Howe and guests. (Note: Although Palmer and Howe are billed as full-time members, Howe is only audible on a few tracks and I have no earthly idea which tracks Palmer plays on.) John Payne is a very different vocalist than John Wetton, while Pitrelli isn’t that much different from Mandy Meyer, so it’s easy to get hung up on the vocals with Aqua. While the songs are much better than the professionally penned product found on Then & Now, that would apply to most things, so to give you some useful context I would tell you that Aqua is better than Alpha and not quite as good as Astra. The modern production reminds me a lot of Yes’ Union, which isn’t exactly an endorsement in prog circles. A lot of people didn’t like Union, but a lot of people need to lighten up. What Aqua does effectively is breathe new life into a dying franchise. “Who Will Stop The Rain,” “Heaven on Earth” and “The Voice of Reason” will stand the test of time far better than “Summer (Can’t Last Too Long).” Aqua is guilty of some commercial pandering—“Crime of the Heart,” for example, sounds like reheated Meatloaf—but it generally sticks to the love/war arena-rock blueprint of Asia’s beginnings. Honestly, I would forget about the Palmer/Howe connection, since they contribute little to the final product. Instead, this is all about Downes finding a sustainable way to keep Asia alive and somewhat relevant by mixing new blood and old friends. The cover illustration from Rodney Matthews is also a nice touch, showing that Asia understands the importance of preserving its legacy; a point the new material bears out as well.
The first work that John Cale recorded after his emergence from the Velvet Underground was a collaboration with the minimalist composer, Terry Riley. As it turned out, Church of Anthrax would wait a year to see its formal release, but nearly all agree that it was worth waiting for. The first side of music is one of the most stunning examples of experimental, instrumental jazz/rock on record. “Church of Anthrax” is a shifting mosaic of semi-structured jazz/rock that builds up to an explosive Om. It is at once thought-provoking and lurid, beginning with Cale’s insistent bass guitar riff and adding organ, sax and drums to the magnificent drone of jazz-wise Om. A dying horn and squeaking chair end the piece, pulling the listener quickly back into reality, but not before their vision of music’s possibilities has inalterably changed. ”The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles” has been called a proto-ambient piece, and it does seem like a logical precursor to the fixed studies of Brian Eno. Here, sonorous piano notes are clumped together to create a thick fog of sound from which Riley’s horns emerge. Steadily hammered piano notes serve as a mad metronome, while Riley’s sax becomes the focal point, and then a new storm of sounds swirls around us before the entire piece dissipates. Side two brings a jarring note of normalcy in John Cale’s stilted pop song, “The Soul of Patrick Lee.” It honestly feels like a pop advertisement after the previous two pieces; the effect is stunning, but it’s a complete departure from the previous collaboration with Terry Riley. Patrick Lee turns out to be a sweet anomaly, however, as the pair return to the wide berths of chaos on the last two tracks. Truth be told, “Ides of March” is a long bore, featuring only piano and drums for eleven minutes, and “The Protégé” is exactly what you would have expected from a Cale/Riley collaboration: a VU backing track with a wrench thrown into it. Had the Church of Anthrax been contained only to the second side of music, critics would remember it for “The Soul of Patrick Lee” and little else. It’s on the first two tracks that Church’s faithful have built their foundation, and those tracks remain a vital destination for musical pilgrims who would kneel at one of the 70s great altars of alternative rock.
Kronomyth 4.0: MY SPANISH GUITART. Despite their personal differences over the years, Al Di Meola and Chick Corea have always been kindred spirits musically speaking. Splendido Hotel reunites the pair in what could be seen as a remake of My Spanish Heart in the guitarist’s own image. Both are double-album displays of a singular genius from multiple angles: jazz/rock fusion, Latin, classical, funk, romantic. Now, truth be told, not all of these facets were native to Di Meola, and it seems that some were fastened on to expand the Hotel. The classical “Isfahan,” for example, has its source in the languid jazz/classical landscapes of Corea, not Di Meola. And the ready-made funk song, “I Can Tell,” while well done (Di Meola’s voice is surprisingly restrained and effective), has more in common with Stanley C than Al Di. The rest of Splendido Hotel offers excellent views of Dimeoladom: the sonic steeplechases (“Alien Chase on Arabian Desert,” “Dinner Music of the Gods”), the various tangos (“Splendido Sundance,” “Two to Tango”) and tango fusions (“Al Di’s Dream Theme”), the romantic warrior poems (“Silent Story In Her Eyes”). Had Di Meola simply stopped there, Splendido Hotel would have been a logical (and excellent) continuation of his first three albums. Instead, he adds about an album’s worth of material that exposes a heretofore unseen side of the artist: smooth jazz (provided by a young Philippe Saisse on his first recording), funk, classical and pop (a duet with Les Paul on the Al Martino hit, “Spanish Eyes”), and even a closing lullaby (“Bianca’s Midnight Lullaby”). As I said earlier, it’s a bit of a case of artificial siding, but Di Meola doesn’t disappoint in any of those settings (although “Isfahan” is admittedly arid). I’d stop short of calling Splendido Hotel his masterpiece, because Al Di Meola albums don’t shake out like that; consistency is one of his hallmarks. Rather, this is a masterful collection of many pieces, some of which fit perfectly with previous impressions, and others that are slightly foreign but nearly as flattering.
Okay, first of all, take a deep breath. No one is putting a gun to your head to buy this. Yes, it has Steve Howe’s name on it, but if the man made dresses would you wear one? (You don’t have to answer that.) Seraphim is an album of new age music by a Swiss keyboard player named Paul Sutin featuring Steve Howe and Carlo Bettini. At least, that’s how it was originally presented. Then, someone got the bright idea that the album should be re-packaged as a Sutin/Howe collaboration and, voila, Yes fans fell upon it like ants on an errant melon cube. Much grousing ensued, most of it centered on the fact that Seraphim was not what it purported to be (half of a Steve Howe album), with a few peaceful souls noting that it was, in fact, a pretty good album of new age music all the same. You have to pity Paul Sutin that the only people who buy his records are disappointed Steve Howe fans. Now, I actually enjoy electronic music, although new age is a maligned category for a reason, and we’ve all run into treacly albums of trite melodies mixed with flutes, birds and the occasional whale, and promptly gone running in the opposite direction. Seraphim does have flutes, birds and some trite melodies (apparently, they saved the whales for their next album, Voyagers). It also has some sections of very soothing and stately music that recall the work of Vangelis. That’s right, the guy who almost replaced Rick Wakeman in Yes instead of Patrick Moraz. Suddenly, those Jon and Vangelis and Patrick Moraz/Bill Bruford albums come flooding back into your memory, and you realize that maybe a Sutin/Howe album isn’t so bad after all. In fact, I find this album very calming and lovely in spots (“A Venetian Passage,” “Seraphim”), certainly better than pointless jazz or aimless airiness. So forget that this is a Steve Howe album. Rub his name off the cover with an eraser if it helps. Then approach this as a new age album by an artist you’ve never heard of, and you’ll find it a pleasant companion for a peaceful walk through your mind. Or ignore it altogether and buy yourself another round of Homebrew.
Steve Howe was already a guitarist of some renown when he joined Yes, having played with various groups through the mid to late 60s including the psychedelic outfit Tomorrow (which featured Keith West). Although Howe appeared on the cover of Time And A Word, his first recorded appearance with the band was on The Yes Album. Howe didn’t re-invent the role of the guitar in Yes; rather, he embellished it with a wider range of stringed instruments like the steel guitar and dobro.
Howe’s superlative style, cosmic consciousness and strong songwriting provided the missing piece to Yes’ music. Together with Jon Anderson and Chris Squire, Howe authored some of the band’s most indelible moments including “Starship Trooper” (actually a holdover from his days in Bodast), “Close To The Edge,” “Roundabout” and much of the massive (if misbegotten) Tales From Topographic Oceans. During a mid 70s hiatus, Howe joined his bandmates in releasing his first solo album, Beginnings. A followup, titled simply The Steve Howe Album, was released in between Yes albums.
In the 1980s, Howe joined the arena-rock supergroup Asia with former Yes keyboardist Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer and John Wetton. Howe appeared on their first two albums, Asia and Alpha, then appeared in a similar venture with Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, GTR. In the 1990s, Steve Howe focused primarily on a solo career while re-connecting with Yes (and sometimes Asia) mates for various reunions. The Grand Scheme of Things featured Steve with his sons Dylan (drums) and Virgil (piano); Dylan would become a permanent fixture on Steve’s subsequent records. Over the years, Howe has also recorded a pair of new age/instrumental albums with Paul Sutin and released no less than six Homebrew albums featuring home studio recordings. (You like how I glossed over two decades of music there? Sorry, I don’t really enjoy writing biographies.)
As a personal aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that while watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I kept thinking how much the elvin king looked like Steve Howe. Which might explain those spritely leaps during his performances…
Kronomyth 5.0: THE SOUND OF TWO HANDS CLAP-ING. After the release of The Grand Scheme of Things, Steve Howe had a much more intimate scheme in mind, taking up a one-man, multi-guitar tour of smaller venues. Not Necessarily Acoustic captures his performances in Philadelphia (Theatre of the Living Arts) and Montreal (Café Campus) in December 1993. For Steve Howe fans, it was Christmas come early as the Yes guitarist thumbed (and pinkied and index-fingered) his way through a storied catalog that included “The Clap,” “Mood For A Day,” “Masquerade,” “Ram,” “Meadow Rag,” “Roundabout” and a medley from Tales From Topographic Oceans (which, unfortunately, manages to shed no new light on that inscrutable opus). Despite some occasional, soft singing, this is an instrumental performance—a showcase, really, for the guitarist. Now, you might be thinking, do I really have the stamina for 60 minutes of mostly acoustic guitar? And the answer is, not surprisingly, Yes. Remember how “The Clap” or “Mood For Day” seemed to end too soon? It turns out that Howe has an unquenchable quiver of ideas, and we have an unquenchable thirst to hear them. Instead of building a setlist from his recorded works, which he could have handily done, Howe mixes in a lot of material that would have been new to listeners, such as the “Country Mix” medley, “Dorothy,” “Second Initial” and “Heritage.” The result is a deeper look at an artist that we thought we’d studied from every possible angle already. Cynical eyes may see this as Howe cashing in on the Unplugged phenomenon, but these performances are more about getting to the heart of Howe’s appeal as an artist. His past turns in the spotlight have always featured the acoustic guitar, and it makes perfect sense that, for an entire evening in the spotlight, he would do the same. Because of the new material and the quality of the performances, Not Necessarily Acoustic is definitely essential Steve Howe. It is a live recording, so you’ll have to tolerate that one dingbat at every concert who goes “whoo yeah” at the end of every song as if they’d just accomplished something themselves, but you can either ignore that or take solace in the knowledge that the person doing that probably has an eternity of being followed by a small demon who shouts “whoo yeah” at every action, no matter how small, waiting for them.
Kronomyth 4.5: YESTERDAY AND TOMORROW. Prior to joining Yes, Steve Howe was busy in a number of bands including the Syndicats (rhythm & blues), The In Crowd (flower-power pop), Tomorrow (psychedelic) and Bodast (early prog). Mothballs is a closet-clearing exercise that provides a nice mini-history of Howe’s evolution leading up to The Yes Album. In fact, the segue is seamless, as the guitar intro for the last track, “Nether Street,” was famously repurposed for “Würm,” the last movement of “Starship Trooper.” For Yes fans, the Bodast tracks at the end will be the most interesting, as they provide a clear link between Howe’s future work in Yes. The earlier material is interesting from an archival perspective, much like listening to Denny Laine-era Moody Blues or David Bowie’s contemporaneous work from the 60s. The Syndicats were also-rans in the British Invasion who released a few singles, including the ambitious “On The Horizon.” The opening track, “Maybellene,” features an eye-opening guitar solo from Steve Howe. The selections from The In Crowd feature better production; a rocking version of Ike Turner’s “Finger Poppin’” is a standout. There are also two instrumental tracks credited to Steve Howe that feature interesting arrangements. With Tomorrow, the music takes a psychedelic turn, which prog fans are probably more amenable to than straight rhythm and blues. “Revolution” has a lot of interesting twists and turns, although it’s hard to hear it today without the mocking commentary of Frank Zappa’s We’re Only In It For The Money in my head. An old B side from Keith West, “The Kid Was A Killer,” signals a new level of musical sophistication, with complex harmonies that invite comparison to The Who. The closing three tracks from Bodast—and, to a lesser extent, the one song from the transitional Canto—will definitely pique the interest of prog fans. It’s on songs like “Beyond Winter” and “Nether Street” that Steve Howe emerges from his chrysalis and we’re treated to early, impressive scratchings at prog’s grand gates of delirium. Mothballs is mostly a history lesson, though, and history can wait.