REVIEW: Virgil & Steve Howe – “Nexus”

I’d like to preface this review with a warning that it won’t be a review like much of the others on here. It’s not structured in a typical way and that’s intentional because… well, this isn’t a typical album. I will not shy away from discussing the music, my feelings toward it and the circumstances under which it has been released because I feel it’s important. As my colleague Dominik did in his review for Hallatar‘s No Stars Upon the Bridge, I will not be concluding this review with a score. My reasoning for this is similar to his and will soon become clear. If familial death or loss in general hits you particularly hard emotionally, this is my gentle warning to you that it’s a topic that will pervade the remainder of this review.

Steve Howe is pretty legendary. His work with seminal progressive rock group Yes have cemented his legacy many times over, including playing guitar on the prog opus Close to the Edge (I’m more partial to Fragile myself, but hey, he was on that too). When I heard that he had released a project with his son, Virgil, my curiosity was piqued. Despite being a fan of Yes, I hadn’t exactly followed Steve, let alone his son, closely. I researched the duo in an effort to prepare myself for what I was going to inevitably listen to. That’s when I learned of the tragic fate that looms over this album, casting a monolithic shadow.

Two months before the release of Nexus, Virgil passed away.

We started to work together in 2016 by selecting about nine tunes from his stockpile of piano based music that he’d periodically sent [my wife] Jan and I each time he’d written and recorded a new idea. I began adding guitars to them, then I’d play them to Virgil… The tunes went from straightforward ‘duets’ to something bigger & better, more of a complete picture than a mere shape.’ Nexus is the result of the father-son collaborative effort and while it wasn’t written or composed after Virgil’s untimely death, the weight of that tragedy still comes with it. As such, this is not inherently sad music. Only those privy to this backstory are afforded an extra layer of emotion. It’s not necessary to enjoy it, but it’s definitely supplementary.

The album opens up with the title track. It’s piano led, and sounds like the sun rising on a new day; a warm welcome. It’s inviting. Steve’s guitar joins in and harmonizes with the piano. This is one of many moments where the harmony is especially symbolic and, to be frank, really pulls at your heartstrings. It’s instantly apparent that care was taken with these compositions; there’s nothing kitschy or out-of-place with them. One of the cool parts with this album as a whole is the variation of tone and mood that lends itself to wonderful pacing. Just listen to the next track, “Hidden Planet”. The piano is a lot heavier, the deep bass of those low notes really filling up the room with a nice groove. Steve’s guitar hums along, providing the ‘voice’ of the track and percussive accents really flavor it up throughout.

Up next are two tracks that are significantly slower, including “Nick’s Star”, a song written in tribute to Virgil’s best friend who also passed away. It’s an ethereal track with airy piano providing atmosphere that’s more spacious with a slight triumphant edge than poignant. “Night Hawk” brings the tempo up again. It’s a guitar-driven track that’s reminiscent of earlier Scale the Summit music. Drums also shine here, with some jazzy passages that add some neat bounce to the song. The electronics are pretty conservative throughout the whole album, more present in feeling than the instrumentation itself and this song is a great example of that with its sweet, danceable groove.

It’s by this point in the album that you start to notice a subtle theme developing. Nearly every track is space themed in name, and they rouse feelings of exploration or discovery. The songs on Nexus always leave a lot of room around the listener, as if to create a sense of suspension in space or isolated travel through it, but it’s not cold and desolate as we are often told the final frontier is. It’s approached with the enthusiasm and glee, naivete even, of a would-be explorer. In this regard, “Passing Titan” is another standout track. Light, pulsing synths and a great sitar feature help paint images of blankets of flickering stars in the black sea of space. It’s a tranquilizing thought and one that you’re allowed to ride out even into the next track, “Dawn Mission”, which carries the same mood in a slightly different direction. The last time I was taken on a journey like this was with Haywyre‘s similarly spacey album, aptly titled The Voyage.

“Astral Plane” has a beautiful back-and-forth dynamic between the guitars and pianos in addition to harmonizing. Both trade off utilizing the same riff – the guitar’s rounded and higher pitched ‘twang’ meeting face to face with the softly played keys. “Freefall”, the final track, is fitting in that placement because it definitely has a sense of finality to it. It’s like the music is saying goodbye. It’s like Virgil and Steve saying goodbye, to each other and to the listener. It’s a supremely powerful moment. Again, this isn’t an overwhelmingly sad moment musically, despite it making me emotional upon first (and second and third) listen. The goodbye is a peaceful, bittersweet one and it’s over just as fast as it started.

Nexus is a well-suited title for this project because music was definitely the nexus that held Steve and Virgil together. It shows in the music with how well they complemented each other’s style and instrumentation. It’s wondrous, rich and colorful, unlike any other album I’ve heard this whole year. This project wasn’t made for any reason other than these two found a great way to make music together and they wanted to share it with the world. To that effect, I give great thanks to Steve for choosing to release this music; it was no doubt a tough decision. In doing so, he’s shown us a beautiful duet between two talented individuals who happen to be father and son. It’s infinitely more touching to dedicate it to Virgil: ‘we hope that the music just completed will stand as a fitting tribute to his life and legacy‘. I’d say there’s no more fitting tribute than for Virgil’s final composition to be one so intimately constructed with his father.

RIP Virgil Howe

Notable Tracks: “Nexus”, “Hidden Planet”, “Night Hawk”, “Passing Titan”

FFO: Soundscape, Haywyre, Yes‘ atmospheric side

Steve Howe can be followed on Facebook and has an official site as well. Nexus can be purchased physically via the InsideOutMusic shop and digitally streamed through services like Amazon, Spotify and Apple Music.

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