Much like Yes’ masterwork Close to the Edge, Voyage of the Acolyte begins with the eruption of sound from silence. Waves and blobs of prog magnificence crash on the beach of your eardrums, Hackett playing his precision acoustic underlay while synths and laser-like lead guitar build to a big finish. Track two, “Hands Of The Priestess (part 1)” takes the music in a more pastoral direction with Hackett’s brother John’s flute line leading the song into a memorable place where prog rock, English folk and classical music blend easily and beautifully.
Coming from one of the pillars of early 70’s English prog, Genesis, Steve Hackett had much to prove with his first solo album from 1975. Peter Gabriel had delivered his masterpiece (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway) and left the band to find a new direction and lead singer. Remarkably, Phil Collins stepped out from behind the drums, opened his mouth and made Genesis one of the most popular bands of the late 70’s and on through the 90’s. An incredible second act for an eccentric band that had absolutely no business going anywhere near the pop charts. However, on the song “Star Of Sirius” we can hear exactly where Genesis was coming from and where it was going. Hackett gently brings forth billowy textures of melody with synths, Mellotron, all manner of guitar and percussion while Phil Collins, literally, finds his legs as a vocalist. Historically speaking it is an important moment in a lot of musicians’ careers. As the song stretches to seven minutes with a sublime acoustic guitar and synthesizer duet before bursting back to the central theme, it feels like the grand summing up of early 70’s prog-rock, while simultaneously pulling the curtain back on the next ten years of popular music.
The album concludes with its boldest statement, the 11-minute epic “Shadow Of The Hierophant” (all the song titles are references to cards in the Tarot deck). Sally Oldfield sings a beautiful set of lyrics over Hackett’s carefully unwinding musical story. Like the best of Genesis’ early music this piece is musically complex, with long passages showcasing various aspects of Hackett’s musical strong suits. About five minutes in, his guitar is swirling around with Zeppelin-esque bravado and then suddenly gives way to a soft harmonium-led interlude, once again building into an epic tour-de-force to restate the main theme with an orchestra of modern instrumentation. And make no mistake about it: Voyage of the Acolyte is a prog album, not a pop album. These are long songs, carefully crafted into moody movements, large swaths of musical inspiration. This is recommended for fans of bands like Yes, Renaissance, Pink Floyd and, of course Gabriel-era Genesis.
Steve Hackett went on to make many good records after this one, and his contribution to Genesis’ greatest works is undeniable, but he truly found his sweet spot with Voyage of the Acolyte. From the evocative cover art, to the ambitious and ever-changing soundscapes he creates, to his restrained but masterful musicianship this is his greatest achievement and most personal album.
- Paul Epstein