Friday, 29 April 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 8: A Trick of the Tail

The decision of Peter Gabriel to quit Genesis in 1975 came as a huge blow not only to his fellow band members but also to their growing fan base. How would the band respond? For a while a couple of them took some time out and worked on solo and side projects. Steve worked with Phil & Mike and others on his first solo recording, 'Voyage of the Acolyte', while Phil developed his jazz-fusion band, 'Brand X'. But eventually they came back together to begin the next phase of their life as a four-piece with Collins assuming the role of singer and front-man. The first result of this renaissance was 'A Trick of the Tail'.

The album sleeve, another Hypgnosis design, depicts vignettes of the songs on the disc in artwork by Colin Elgie. Also, for the first time, individual song-writing credits are given (previously all songs were credited as band compositions), and it is worth noting that Tony Banks is the only band member with a credit for every song. With Gabriel's departure, it seems as if he has assumed the role of band leader.

That said, the album opens with a group composition, 'Dance on a Volcano', a rocky number written in 7/8 time which features some catchy guitar riffs, soaring keyboard runs, thundering bass pedals and driving drum work. There are echoes here of the work that Collins was doing with Brand X around that time - he'd recorded their debut release just before the band got together to make this album - as well as a music hark-back to 'Back in NYC', which was in a similar time signature. The drumming seems to be more involved than hitherto, as well. The song builds nicely during the instrumental section, before resolving into a typical Genesis sound of 12-strings and organ. A great opener!

In contrast to the bombast of 'Dance...', 'Entangled' is a serene waltz penned principally by Steve Hackett with help from Banks. It evokes feelings of waking from a dream, or more probably from sedation or general anaesthetic, as the lyrics have a medical theme to them. It begins with picked 12-string, which builds as the vocals enter and develops to strummed 12-string by the chorus. By verse 2 the Mellotron makes an appearance, albeit fleetingly, and after the second chorus we move into an extended instrumental section, where keyboards and Mellotron choir contrast the guitars, and there are echoes of 'Ravine' here as the song builds to its crescendo. As far as I can hear, there are no drums and no bass in the song, just 12-strings, keyboards and vocals: but a stunningly beautiful song.

'Squonk', however, hits you straight between the eyes from the off with bass, drums, guitars and keyboards - the full band! But still somewhat gently - there's nothing raucous here. The tale unfolds of the mythical creature, the Squonk, which when captured protects itself by dissolving into a pool of tears - not, perhaps, the most sensible of defence mechanisms - but the song may also be a critique of hunting perhaps. The structure of the song is on the whole quite simple, but the final verse has the feel of something separate, almost tacked on, with quite an abrupt transition.

'Mad Man Moon' has always been the stand-out track on the album for me. Unlike 'Squonk', this is anything but a simple song, in both its structure and its chord sequencing, and demonstrates the start of a distinct change in Banks's writing style. Lyrically poetic and slightly obtuse, it is a song which evokes the British weather but also seeks to make sense of the seeming lunacy of love sometimes. Musically the piano is to the fore, as perhaps one would expect of a Banks composition, with Mellotron & other keyboards evident. What seems to be almost (though not completely) missing is guitars, with Steve's trademark electric soloing only really surfacing in the passage leading into the final verse, and even then only briefly.

So (in old money) we move to side two, and to 'Robbery, Assault and Battery', a song from the school of dramatic and comic story-telling that Genesis made their own in the past with such gems as 'Harold the Barrel' and 'The Battle of Epping Forest', and which gives Phil Collins the opportunity to put his stage school training to good use. Guitars are more to the fore here, particularly during the chorus, but Banks gives himself an extended keyboard solo mid-way through, over some off-beat drumming. And is this the first instance of a (perhaps mild) profanity in the lyrics, when the parentage of the perp is questioned!

The ebb & flow/ light & shade/ loud & quiet of the album continues with the elegiac 'Ripples', a lament for the transient nature of beauty and a collaboration between Banks & Rutherford. 12-strings are again to the fore to begin with, with piano coming alongside by the second half of the verse and the chorus. After the second verse, the piano takes over, with Hackett's guitar singing mutedly over the top and other keyboards picking up a counter melody before the chorus returns to bring the song to its fading conclusion.

I've mentioned in earlier reviews the breadth of inspiration that Genesis have for the subject-matter of their songs, and for the title track, 'A Trick of the Tail', they turn to the writings of William Golding and his 1955 novel 'The Inheritors'. The song, in a quite jovial musical way, explores issues around xenophobia, suspicion and even matters of faith & doubt, and identity. This is another piano-led song, quite jaunty and light, and surprisingly released as a b-side to 'Entangled', where it might have fared better as the lead track. It is maybe the beginnnings of the band developing more along 'pop' lines rather than 'prog', a trajectory that would become more pronounced ovr the next couple of years and beyond.

And so we reach the end of this collection, returning almost full-circle to where we began with 'Los Endos', a band-penned instrumental that drives along at a cracking pace and allows all the band members to show their abilities. As a closing track it picks up a number of themes from earlier songs, notably 'Squonk' and 'Dance on a Volcano', and also (perhaps) wraps up the '(continued)' from the end of the lyric sheet for 'Supper's Ready' on 'Foxtrot' with Phil singing 'there's an angel standing in the sun' a couple of times as the track fades.

This is very mucha transitional album, laying down the benchmark for how the band would develop as a four-piece unit. Phil's drumming is developing as he brings into the band the fruit of his jazzier side-projects; Tony is nurturing a more distinct sound to his compostion; Mike continues to provide the bedrock of the sound with his 12-string, bass and bass padel work; Steve's electric work seems to me to be a little muted in this collection of songs, though this will change in their next venture. But maybe this was the first step on the band's road to becoming the pop-rock superstars that they became in the 1980s.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 7: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

1974 was to be a pivotal year in the life of Genesis, in that it would see the break-up of what we now know as the 'classic line-up' of the band. Much of the reason behind that fracture stemmed from their sixth studio album, 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway' and the subsequent tour that accompanied it.

Just as 'Selling England...' had seen a marked shift in the musical direction of the band, so 'The Lamb...' also saw much change (progression?). This was the band's first double album release, clocking in at a mammoth 94 minutes; it was their first foray into the world of the 'concept album', where an overarching theme or narrative embraces the songs throughout the album; and it was the first time that they had used Hipgnosis to design the album sleeve.

The story of the album is another of Peter Gabriel's bizarre, psychological tales (like that on the sleeve notes to 'Genesis Live'), concerning a half-Puerto Rican New York street punk by the name of Rael who embarks on a mysterious journey of self-discovery, which strays into areas of religion, sexuality and consumerism. Lyrically almost all of the songs were penned by Gabriel (the exception being 'The Light Dies Down on Broadway', which is a Banks/ Rutherford work), though he had very little to do with the music on the album, due to other commitments away from the band, apart from 'Carpet Crawlers'.

The story opens with the title track 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway', which leads off with cross-handed arpeggios on the piano, building to a crescendo as the vocals enter to tell the story of Rael, with crashing drums and throbbing bass driving the song forward. A keyboard riff that will return later in Carpet Crawlers flows beneath a quieter section, as Hackett's airy guitar cries over the top, before the band picks up again. We segue gently into 'Fly on a Windshield', a studio jam where Steve Hackett comes to the fore (and which still features in his live sets), which itself powers into 'Broadway Melody of 1974', laden with American cultural references, puns and culminating in the line "the children play at home with needles... needles and pins" with the last three words sung to the same notes as in the Nitschze & Bono song of the same name (made famous by The Searchers among others). A gentle, lilting guitar interlude then takes us into 'Cuckoo Cocoon', with some distortion to the vocals, interesting harmonies and picked guitar, with a flute solo midway through. This is very reminiscent musically to me of 'Stagnation' from Trespass in places - nicely nostalgic. 'In The Cage' finds Rael facing up to his predicament, trapped in some subterranean prison and contemplating his future (or possible lack of one). The latent spirituality that inhabits parts of Genesis's music resurfaces as  a 'childhood belief brings a moment's relief. But [his] cynic soon returns and the lifeboat burns.' Here one of the key components of the story emerges, as Raels' brother, John, appears, and we will find him popping up throughout this tale until its startling conclusion. This song races along, driven by Collins' powerful drumming and the counterpoint of Banks's organ, and has within it one of the better keyboard instrumental sections of the band's canon.  And yet another citation (both lyrically and melodically) of a early '60s hit, this time Del Shannon's 'Runaway'.

'The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging' has a wonderfully steam-driven, industrial feel to it, with interesting effects on the vocals and an intensity which builds throughout the song. This takes us into 'Back in NYC', a rollicking romp predominantly in 7/8 that takes us far from the latent spirituality of earlier into the beginnings of a baser carnality, both in violence and in sexuality, that will grow as the story proceeds. Gabriel's voice is perhaps at its rawest here, and this song has more recently been covered by the likes of Jeff Buckley and Tin Spirits. 'Hairless Heart' is by contrast a quiet instrumental piece, with lilting keyboard runs and acoustic guitar, leading to a Mellotron solo, and provides a natural link between Back in NYC and 'Counting Out Time', a somewhat comical tale of disastrous sexual experience, which again sees the humour of the band coming out and makes the point that intimate human encounter is more than a mechanical process. 'Carpet Crawlers', the only major musical contribution by Peter Gabriel on the album, begins a sequence where Rael is, along with others, searching for ultimate meaning in life. There is much powerful imagery here: the upward glance, the stairway spiralling out of sight, the wise and foolish virgins (who in Matthew 25 are awaiting the return of the Bridegroom) and the needle's eye winking and closing on the poor (reference to Jesus' assertion about the difficulty of the rich gaining access to the Kingdom of Heaven?). The oft-repeated line "We've got to get in to get out" is almost a mantra by the end of the song, which builds to a stirring crescendo in this desperately beautiful song. That search continues in 'The Chamber of 32 Doors', and carries with it an air of futility that leads to desperation as every avenue simply leads Rael back to where he began - "I need someone to believe in, someone to trust", echoes our hero, but so far to no avail. The song ends with a perceptible musical sigh of despair.

The mood lifts with the advent of 'Lilywhite Lilith', the music excited and hopeful as Rael's blind guide shepherds him out of his endless cycle and leads him into a big round cave where he awaits the next stage of his mysterious adventure. Throughout this album the skills of the five members of the band have been gently augmented by the experimental 'twiddlings' of Brian Eno, but these come to the fore now with 'The Waiting Room', a piece quite unlike anything else in the band's canon: a collection of ambient sounds, tinkling bells, distortion & sound effects that create an air of unreality and suspense, which eventually resolve themselves into a pulsing, rhythmic melody. As Rael is confronted with his own mortality yet again, we move into one of Genesis's (to my mind) most under-rated songs, the sublime 'Anyway'. Starting out light and flowing with piano to the fore, this song builds to an explosion - a rage against the dying of the light? - mid-way through into some of Banks's best piano work outside 'Firth of Fifth', complemented by some almost brassy guitar harmonies, before settling back into its earlier gentle mood. 'Here comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist' is almost an instrumental track, with just a brief vocal section at the start. This is quite a jaunty piece (bearing in mind it's about the approach of death!), with Hackett's guitar riffs providing a strong lead. Instead of finding himself dead, Rael journeys onward through a long passageway to a perfumed pool in which he encounters 'The Lamia', feminine serpentine seductresses who take him to heights of pleasure never known before. The music is quite pastoral throughout, with piano dominant for the greater part of the song, and the echoes of 'Trespass' are quite clear here to me. We move into the sad, elegiac 'Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats', an instrumental dominated by Mellotron choirs and a lilting guitar riff which slowly fades as the lights are dimmed.

The story continues with almost rubbery, playful sounds as we launch into 'The Colony of Slippermen', a three-part tale of the consequences of Rael's romantic encounters with the Lamia. The playfulness continues in the melody, as Rael arrives, wandering 'lonely as a cloud', and encounters the Slippermen, bemused by their appearance until he discovers that he himself is one of them. His only hope is a visit to the Doktor, whose solution to the problem is to 'dock the dick'. Musically & lyrically this section is quite staccato in its feel, with much alliteration. The intensity of the song increases with the arrival of The Raven: the music drives along during the first verse and takes off during the keyboard solo which swoops and soars until the bird pounces and flies off with Rael's tubed member. The song concludes with a reprise of the opening melody as Rael seeks in vain to persuade John to join in in pursuit of the bird, and hurries off only to see the tube drop into the river and disappear. The final instrumental track, 'Ravine', follows: a moody, ambient piece using quiet strumming guitars behind synthesiser sounds of winds and what sounds like a musical saw (which puts me in mind, in a less developed and rhythmic form, of 'Unquiet slumber for the sleepers...' on 1977's 'Wind & Wuthering'), and that takes us into 'The Light Dies Down on Broadway', a slower, more melancholy, minor key version of the opening title track in which Rael contemplates returning to the life he once knew, but is then faced with a counter-choice of saving brother John who is now flailing in the waters below. This dilemma is faced at an even tempo, musically, in contrast to the frenetic pace of earlier, which gives it a kind of dreamy feel. 'Riding the Scree' has a scurrying, urgent feel to it, and as the instrumental section kicks in towards the end it takes on a kind of playful tone - Rael is almost enjoying this! But by the time he hits the water and is 'In The Rapids' the tone is quieter. The strident 12-string chords and the tone of Gabriel's voice here conjure up a chill in the raging waters. There is a quiet desperation in the song, and Gabriel's voice is perhaps at its most soulful than at any other point in his time with the band (as that time comes to its end). The song climaxes as Rael saves John, only to discover that it is in fact himself he has saved!, and the synth's siren wail ushers in the finale - 'it'. What is 'it'? It is what he has been searching for all along, what we all search for but so often can't elucidate: it is identity, it is love, it is intimacy; it is looked for (and found?) in food, in drink, in drugs, in travel, in religion, in sex, in money - in everything and in nothing. Yes, it's only knock and knowall, but I like it!

Genesis's largest studio project, 'The Lamb' has (like many similar concept albums) been held up as a great creative masterpiece, a work of great philosophical and existential exploration and also as a pretentious, over-indulgent, incomprehensible mess. Over 40 years on people still wonder about what the heck it's all about, but you can't deny that it is a piece of musical and lyrical inventiveness and creativity, that still holds its own alongside the other great works of the progressive genre. Perhaps just (just) a little too long, it is, of course, the album that ended the creative partnership of Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Hackett & Rutherford after only four years and four albums. But what a legacy that 'classic' line-up left us!