Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 2: Trespass

After failing to secure a hit under Jonathan King's wing at Decca, Genesis signed a new deal with Charisma Records in 1970, and so began their long association with the label that was to become one of the pioneers of the burgeoning Progressive Rock scene. 'Trespass', their first album for Charisma, saw a marked shift in the lyrical and musical content of the band's material and the development of a signature style that proved seminal for many acts that were to follow them over the years. It also saw the first of three album cover designs by Paul Whitehead, that were soon to become classics of their genre.

The line-up of the band remained unchanged from their debut apart from a change of drummer, John Mayhew moving onto the drum stool in place of John Silver. The overall sound is enhanced by a broadening of the instrumental palette, most notably the addition of Mellotron, a device which was to gain greater prominence in their music in years to come, and also by the development of a longer song format. On their debut, the longer song was 4:36; on this sophomore release the shortest song is 4:14. This enabled the band to develop their narrative lyrical style more, telling stories more than simply writing love songs. They continue to address philosophical concepts in their songs, and Scriptural imagery and allusion is never far away: "Yet in the darkness of my mind Damascus wasn't far behind"; "Once a Jesus suffered, Heaven could not see him"; and the song 'Visions of Angels' being just some examples.

The album opens with 'Looking for Someone', and the first thing we hear is Gabriel's voice cutting through the silence, gently backed by Banks' keyboards. The song ebbs and flows, with organ and piano struggling for dominance, guitars picking a gentle counter-melody and then building to a harsh crescendo, flute offering some gentle respite before the final denouement, and Gabriel's vocals offering soft plaintiveness and a harsher edge as the song reaches its climax.

'White Mountain' is the first of the Genesis story songs, a tale of internecine struggles within a pack of wolves. It opens with dreamy 12-string guitar and takes on a kind of folky air as the story unfolds, with organ & drums building the tension. The verses are nicely punctuated by dual 12-string and flute passages, and as the tale builds to its bloody climax Gabriel's vocals are heavily reverbed to give the King's proclamation a certain gravitas. Rather oddly it then ends with whistling and a kind of choral finale, assuring us that peace and stability have returned to the lupine world.

'Visions of Angels' is a song of longing for a love lost in death, a crying out to a god who seems to have abandoned the bereaved one and a falling away of old certainties in the face of tragedy. Of all their songs that still carry vestiges of inherited faith this is, in its pathos and pain, perhaps the most brutal, and I can't help but wonder at the events that sparked its writing. Musically it starts in a somewhat upbeat way with lilting piano leading to guitars and drums. The vocals seem a little backward in the mix, giving it an ethereal quality, and the harmonies in the chorus add to this other-worldly air. The music and the singing become a little angrier as the song reaches its end, particularly in the final instrumental passage, raging against particular pious platitudes (some believe that when they die they really live: I believe there never is an end; God gave up this world, its people, long ago; why she's never there I still don't understand). A rage against the dying of the light?

From a song of loss and death, we move to 'Stagnation', a tale of a man who buries himself many miles beneath the ground and becomes the only surviving member of the human race. Again Phillips' 12-string is very much in evidence, and there are some quite innovative keyboard effects in evidence. For the most part this is a quiet, reflective piece with some driving, up-beat sections particularly in the 'I want a drink' section. The song wraps with a motif which makes an appearance in later live versions of 'I Know What I Like'.

'Dusk', the short song on the album, is perhaps the one song most reminiscent of their debut, with its acoustic, psychedelic, almost Indian feel. This is Gabriel's voice at its most pure, and the other voices combine well in the second parts of each verse to produce something almost choral. The instrumental interlude of acoustic guitar and flute is quite buoyant and lifts the song from simple melancholy to something richer and fuller.

The album concludes with live favourite 'The Knife', quite a contrast in musical style to what has gone before. This is a full-on rocker, a song of revolution very much at odds with the pastoral tones that have preceded it, but showing the versatility and range of the group. Gone is the 12-string lyricism, replaced with distorted electric power chords and a driving rhythm, and Gabriel's vocals are raw, raucous and rousing: this is one to raise the roof and stir the crowds! A fitting finale!

This album shows a marked shift on the band's musical direction, one which would set them on the course towards cult status and eventual musical world domination. At the time of its release it was largely ignored, and even on its reissue in 1974 Rolling Stone described it as "spotty, poorly defined, at times innately boring, and should be avoided by all but the most rabid Genesis fans". Some 45 years on, I think that, although it is a product of its time, this collection stands up to scrutiny and sets the scene for some of the most ground-breaking and enduring works of the progressive rock canon that would follow in its wake.