The cover illustration on Steve Howe's new album, "The Grand Scheme of Things," says it all. The British guitar virtuoso's photo is superimposed on an outer-space motif, with planets, constellations and star systems swirling about behind him.
Then there's the song list: Titles including "Road to One's Self," "Maiden Voyage" and "At the Gates of the New World" give fair notice of the artist's concerns.
Howe, the former axman with Yes, Asia, GTR and Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe, has been a leading light in the progressive-rock movement for nearly a quarter of a century. His solo concert tonight at the Coach House should be a banner event for those enamored of pure displays of technical mastery.
The diminutive musician is renowned for playing in a mind-boggling variety of styles. He cites such disparate guitar wizards as Roy Smeck, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian and Albert Lee among his list of "immortals."
Still, some of Howe's recorded output has been pandering--personified by his involvement with Asia--and self-important at others. Even the most die-hard Yes fan would have trouble denying that the group sometimes went to embarrassing excess.
But for those predisposed to the grandiose sonic output of Yes, crossed with New Age philosophizing and jaw-dropping guitar stuntsmanship, "Grand Scheme" will be a revelation. Fans of this genre will rejoice in every classical-derived melody and delight in such quasi-mystical lyrical sentiments as "the future is the path to distant light."
Howe is earnest about his music and passions, amiable and honest in conversation and undeniably excellent at what he does. A lot of thought, time and effort went into the making of "Grand Scheme," an album Howe considers among his finest.
"I thought I'd do an album that was quite colorful but quite personal, actually," said Howe in a recent phone interview. "I took it to the Nth degree I needed to, I refined it, I made sure that it was something I would be happy with for the rest of my life.
"There's a lot of floaty sort of ideas--spiritual, I guess you could call it. This has been a gradual rather than a noticeable thing that's become part of my life. It was triggered off in the early '70s when I became a vegetarian, and then in the early '80s, I began dabbling in . . . alternative healing and medicine, alternative thought and personal development--things that are for yourself and of great value that you won't find advertised on television.
"In a way, 'Grand Scheme' gets me up to date with those ideas. It's like, now I can go on from here, having made a statement contained in the album. It's a chance to keep looking forward and not look backward."
Another aspect of "Grand Scheme" that made it special for Howe was recording with his children--drummer Dylan and keyboardist Virgil--for the first time.
"Dylan's 24 now and a professional in his own right, so it was time we worked together," said Howe, 46. "He came down to play on a few tracks, and I thought he was ready to play on the whole album, which he ended up doing.
"My younger son, Virgil, is a student, and he did a couple tracks too," he said. "It was very special, especially with Dylan, because he had a longer run at it. I nurtured them, really, rather than directed them, and Dylan's come back sort of full circle. It's really very nice, sort of a closer connection with the family than if it had been just people you meet."
If Howe is personally and musically satisfied with "Grand Scheme," he is less so about some of his previous projects. Looking back on fabricated '80s "supergroup" Asia, which featured former members of Yes, Roxy Music, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson, Howe readily fesses up to some mistakes.
"By the time we got to 'Alpha,' our second record in '83, there was a staleness settling in," he said. "This was when Asia started going off the rails, really. There was a feeling that we'd had a big album, and now we should go on and have an even bigger album.
"It was thought that it would be a good idea to play very direct songs, and it failed," he said. "It disrupted the group's creativity, and the audiences found it too direct as well.
"It happens because musicians lose their direction a little bit. I know Asia did. Yes did, too," he said. "You know, a big, successful album can disrupt your career, unless you've really got your head screwed on. But you can also have commercialism with integrity, like we had in GTR and Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe."
In Howe's case, he sometimes can't win for losing when it comes to the often-nasty world of music criticism. Howe takes the knocks he's received over the years philosophically.
"Of course, the press is very quickly on the back of a musician as soon as he's not doing it quite right," he said. "But I really don't mind that. I can (live with) that, because we don't get it right all the time. The only music an audience deserves to hear is when you're doing what you bloody well want to be doing."
* Guitarist Steve Howe plays tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano. $15. (714) 496-8930.