Of course, the good ones will push those limits as far and hard as they can. Former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, for example, released a classical music album, Metamorpheus, in 2005 and earned some plaudits. Still, the constant requests for a Genesis reunion continued.
In the time that followed, and with the albums that arrived, Hackett found some balance—from an artistic standpoint he's happy that he's stretching his legs enough. Meanwhile, his fans are being presented with music that they can fully embrace. They, too, enjoy some musical experimentation.
Earlier this year, Hackett released At the Edge of Light, his 25th solo album. Perhaps surprisingly to some, it charted in 12 countries and the man himself thinks it's the best-reviewed of all his solo efforts.
"I must have done something right," he says. "I think on every track I did something right. It's a favorite album—I like it a lot. I liked it a lot when it was done. Normally I have this sense of relief and it's like flying the flag for your latest project. You sort of coach yourself into it. But I didn't have to do that. I thought that this one's an interesting one. I still feel good about all the tracks in different ways."
By "different ways," he means that the songs are very different from each other, reiterating the fact that he's artistically satisfied.
"There's quite a lot of orchestra on it, quite a lot of world music stuff," Hackett says. "But I think beyond that, just the intention of every song has got something powerful and something, even at its most obvious, that works. I'm thinking of 'Hungry Years' —almost a '60s-meets-'70s pop song. Still, I like it from the way it sounds. It's a salute to folk rock."
While it would be a stretch to describe Hackett as a political musician, there are moments of social commentary on the new album, not least on the self-explanatory "Beasts in Our Time." Hackett, meanwhile, says that he likes the unusual harmonies and vocals on that one.
"It sounds like someone else," he says. "I have this thing about vocals where I have to get to the point where I think about 'he' the singer as opposed to 'me' the singer. I have to be dispassionate and think it's just another one of the instruments that happens to sound nice in the course of that song. So in particular with that one, it seems to have it the sweet spot. That crooner, balladeer."
That "crooner" approach is something else Hackett has embraced in recent years, though he says that he's found himself drifting back into rock territory of late. Of course, he could be doing something else entirely next year.
"Funnily enough, I've gone back to the idea of rock singing but that's the first time for a few albums," he says. "I've discovered that suddenly it's possible again and possible to a degree I haven't done before. Maybe because I distanced myself from it."
That's fair enough. Every genre has its limitations so it makes sense that somebody as progressively minded as Hackett would want to journey out when he feels like he's hit a wall. Hence the classical work that he's done.
"It's very nice to be able to come up with convincing orchestrations on things," he says. "But I think the real challenge for me at this stage is to be able to have different schools of thought that might collide with each other. Collisions are welcome. I love being able to do things in a song that you shouldn't really be able to do. It's the opposite from rootsy thinking. And even if you do do a rootsy song, isn't it nice to have something in there that's less rootsy?"
Overall, this is a record that Hackett is justifiably proud of and, when he gets to Tucson next week, he'll be performing songs from that as well as some oldies and goodies.
"We do the whole of [Genesis'] Selling England by the Pound, most of Spectral Mornings, and some stuff from At the Edge of Light, and we include a couple of things that started off life on [Genesis'] A Trick of the Tail. Also 'Deja Vu,' which we include in the Selling England set. It started off life as a song which Peter Gabriel brought and it was an unfinished song, but I thought it was a potential gem. We didn't finish it as a band back in the day, and I said to him, 'I really like that song, sorry we didn't do it, but how do you feel if I finished it off?' He said, 'Go ahead—let's split the publishing down the middle'."
The whole thing sounds like a career-spanning treat. Of course, it won't stop people asking him about a Genesis reunion. Hackett lets it all roll off his back.
"It's nice to do albums that sometimes chart outside of the whole Genesis canon," he says. "I don't feel the need to ram my latest album down their throats, even if I feel like it's one of the best things I've done, denying people old favorites. I like to be able to give people things they know and can participate in. I think memories are important. It's that feeling of time standing still. I want to be moved emotionally by it."
That's the key for a legacy prog artist—that balance we mentioned earlier. Hackett knows that he only has to be true to himself while respecting his fans, and they'll stick with him. Mind you, he doesn't feel like he has any other choice.
"I often find that I'll end up writing fluidly in a direction that I deny myself at first," he says." Yes, I ought to make a rock album, and then I'll be thinking of nothing but classical guitars and orchestra. Annoyingly. But it still has to be honored."
Do what you have to do, sir.