Saturday, 16 August 2008
Monday, 24 December 2007
Went to see Allan Holdsworth at The Brook in Southampton a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, hardly anyone else went; the Brook is a tiny venue but it was less than half full - maybe 80 people. Holdsworth is a legendary figure, a highly influential guitarist with astounding technique. He was, briefly, a member of UK and played in Bill Bruford's band before releasing a number of solo albums. He plays really really fast, which is why I made the photo of him look a bit blurry (it's not camera shake, honest.) Holdsworth's band featured two other gifted and high-profile musicians, Chad Wackerman (Zappa, Petrucci, Vai) on drums and Jimmy Johnson on bass. Jimmy played on Roger Waters' Amused to Death which is a very good thing to have been involved with.
I can't imagine why so few people turned up for the gig. Ok, fusion isn't everyone's cup-of-tea, being short on hummable tunes and, to some extent, emotional impact, but these guys perform at the very highest level of technical ability on their respective instruments. Still, the lack of audience meant we got to stand right at the front, which was nice.
Incidentally, Alan Holdsworth is 61 years old. He looks great for his age, don'tcha think?
Monday, 5 November 2007
Thursday, 21 June 2007
I had originally booked tickets for Budapest but the venue was changed to Prague (and then changed from a stadium in Prague to a smaller temporary open air construction in the parking area next to Sazka indoor arena and called, prosaically, Parking Lot.) The temporary arena was limited to 18,000 fans so, by chance, I ended up seeing Genesis on probably the smallest show of the European leg of the tour.
I was hoping for a gig which re-unified the different eras of the band's music. However, after the awful Invisible Touch era (when, for me, the band seemed to have lost the plot completely) and disappointing shows at Knebworth in 1992 and at the NEC on the execrable Calling all Stations tour (my last two experiences of seeing Genesis live), I was not at all hopeful.
This was a gig of stunning quality. Genesis are back as a serious band playing beautiful music. They would argue that this has always been the case. However, for me, the band made so many wrong moves in the 80's and 90's with their recordings, live shows and attitudes to their earlier music that there was a danger of damaging their legacy.
For the hard-core fan, it's it's all about balance. If you feel the band's heart lies more with the crowd-pleasing songs than with their artistic side, then the balance doesn't feel right. After a long period of spending so much time and energy on chasing hits and commercial success in the 80's and 90's, the band seemed to have spent too long on the wrong side of that equation to make a comeback as an artistic force. However, I left that stadium last Wednesday feeling that the appropriate balance had finally been restored.
To the casual fan, this must all seem impossibly arcane. However, to longstanding fans, the new tour has meant an opportunity for a kind of rapprochement with a group of people that have been an important part of their lives.
Wednesday, 13 June 2007
I became a Genesis fan in 1976 at the start of the period covered by this first box set, and, for the past 30 years, they have been my favourite band. In music, no-one else comes close. The only other artists that have lived with me for so long, and have been so important to me, work in different fields; Alan Garner as a writer and Monty Python in comedy and film.
I am not immune to the weaknesses of Genesis, and their occasional misjudgements, so this review will not be uncritical. However, I am a fan, which is the perspective from which I write.
A Trick of the Tail
The power and the glory
This album shows Genesis at the height of their powers; a colossus sat astride the progressive rock genre. Along with Selling England by the Pound, it is their most complex and sophisticated work.
There are no out-and-out epics, on the album, they keep things tight and concise, with the songs, as always, at the centre of things. However, this is full-on progressive rock and within almost every track there are breathtaking instrumental passages, some madrigal and melancholy (Entangled, Mad Man Moon) , others showing devastating ensemble playing (Dance on a Volcano, Los Endos.) Of particular note is the almost absurdly complicated instrumental passage in Robbery, Assault and Battery, where the band takes flight over constantly evolving time signatures; Rutherford and Collins let rip on this song, and Banks plays an astonishing asymmetrical solo.
Almost all of the classic Genesis styles and sounds are represented on this album, and all in their most evolved forms (fantasy and story based lyrics, the multiple 12-string songs, the piano-led tracks, sections drenched in Mellotron, the fast-paced instrumental work-outs, and even a quirky pop-song.)
The band never sounded so good, and, arguably, never would do so again.
Wind and Wuthering
Romance and stagnation
Wind and Wuthering came hot on the heels of A Trick of the Tail, released just 10 months afterwards. Genesis were exceptionally prolific in the early and mid 1970's and yet their quality control was very high - each album from Trespass through to A Trick of the Tail added something better or different to their catalogue. Wind and Wuthering is, for me, the first evidence that the band's extraordinary burst of creativity and progress was just beginning to fade. There is much that is very good on Wind and Wuthering, little that is truly outstanding.
Wind and Wuthering was the last time that Genesis were to work almost exclusively within the bounds of their classic progressive style; indeed, many of the songs on Wind and Wuthering can be directly compared with antecedents on A Trick of the Tail or earlier albums. For example, the album opener, 11th Earl of Mar, borrows its Mellotron crescendo idea from Fountain of Salmacis. Those crescendos do sound absolutely fantastic, but at the end of the day it's a competent and well-arranged song rather than anything really special. Wot Gorilla? is another take on the jazz-rock of Los Endos, but seems underdeveloped, like an excerpt from a longer piece. Similarly, One for the Vine, although benefitting from Banks' nicely arranged piano and Mellotron and typically outstanding bass work from Rutherford, isn't anywhere near as strong as its equivalent on Trick, Mad Man Moon (the perfunctory performance from Hackett on One for the Vine doesn't help.)
All in a Mouse's Night, the album's humorous song, is, again, a highly competent track and this time Hackett does make a good fist of things, with a strong solo on the playout. In That Quiet Earth is a more developed instrumental than Wot Gorilla?, building on one of the themes from 11th Earl of Mar and benefitting greatly from the SACD 5.1 mix (the more pronounced bass pedals have a surprising and interesting effect on the tonality of the piece). However,it still lacks the 'wow' factor. And then there is Afterglow, which, whilst having something of an anthemic quality, is, in truth, a bit of a plodder, showing little of the band's normally sprightly sense of rhythm and lightness of touch (something they addressed when they played the song live where Afterglow took on a different dimension.)
Worst of all the songs on the album, however, is Rutherford's Your Own Special Way. It's a dreary and drippy love song with a horrible middle-eight from Banks. Whilst the chorus is reasonable and some of the lyrics quite pretty, at six minutes, it is absurdly long for such a small idea.
All of this may sound overly critical, and perhaps it is. With the exception of Your Own Special Way, none of these tracks are weak, and some are very good. Wind and Wuthering is still a strong piece of work; it's just that too much of the music is a bit ordinary, and, less than a year earlier, Genesis were doing so many extraordinary things on A Trick of the Tail.
To be fair, there are two songs on Wind and Wuthering, Blood on the Rooftops and Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers, which are exceptional and as good as anything the band has ever done. Both of these tracks are predominantly the work of Steve Hackett; a parting gift from a writer who needed more space. Both tracks make extensive use of Hackett's classical guitar; this is clearly a style that would have developed further if Hackett had stayed on board.
As well as these two gems, two of the other songs recorded as part of the album sessions, which were held back for the later 'Spot the Pigeon' EP release were also very strong and would have strengthened the album. Inside and Out is a very powerful composition; the band's final significant demonstration of the multiple 12-string style (with a fast-paced instrumental section bolted on the end) which would have added a sense of drive to the album. Pigeons is a different kind of thing altogether, but just as strong, a quirky, Beatles-influenced song which should have replaced the dreary Your Own Special Way (both of these non-abum songs are available in splendidly re-mixed form in the box set of the '76-'82 releases.)
Unfortunately, in holding these songs back for the EP release, Genesis did not make the best use of the available material, and, despite the presence of Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers and Blood on the Rooftops and the attractively dreamy and romantic feel of the album as a whole, Wind and Wuthering is the sound of a band that has become suddenly becalmed.
And Then There Were Three
In which our heroes, weakened by the loss of lead guitar player, Steve Hackett, take the first significant steps in a process of change which would take them far from their classic progressive rock style.
These early steps, although quite deliberate, did not, on the face of it, seem to be radical ; a decision was made to simplify the band's material and change the focus towards shorter length songs. In practice, this meant ditching most of the extended instrumental sections and concentrating on the vocal passages. However, the songs still show, for the most part, a familiar, lyrical, romantic story-based approach; for Genesis, change began with the music and only later would deal with what the songs were about.
So, the songs were shorter, but there were also some other changes at the margins of their music which seemed less important at the time, but, in retrospect, mark a real difference in the sound of the band. These changes include the loss of the multiple 12-string sections, the almost complete lack of Mellotron, which, sadly, would never again be used as part of Banks' recording set-up with Genesis (although it was still to get a short final airing on Banks' first solo album, A Curious Feeling), and the introduction of the sound of the Yamaha CP70 electric grand piano.
Despite the loss of some of the classic elements of Genesis and the deliberate change to shorter songs, there was much here for existing fans to enjoy. The songs are set within a rich variety of musical and lyrical settings, from the ferocious opening track Down and Out (which, against the flow of the abum's overall approach is highly complex and features one of Banks' finest and most blistering solos) to the drippy but strangely charming Snowbound. In between these two extremes we have the acoustic ballad Say It's Alright Joe, the story of a down-on-his luck alcoholic (which sadly fades out, when on earlier albums there would have been a madrigal 12-string section), a couple of excellent piano-based anthems in Undertow and Many Too Many, two prog mini-epics in Burning Rope (based on the Mad Man Moon / One for the Vine template, but with some of the instrumental sections which were originally written for the song edited out) and the Lady Lies; two up-tempo tunes with a wild west setting: Deep in the Motherlode and Ballad of Big and another, less successful, up-tempo song, Scenes From A Night's Dream.
The final song in this set is particularly noteworthy. Follow You Follow Me became a major hit which took the band into unexpectedly popular territory (although it has to be said that the beautiful and subtle Follow You Follow Me is a million miles away from the crass commercial sensibilities of later songs such as Invisible Touch and Illegal Alien.)
If Follow You Follow Me hinted at more changes to come, most of And Then There Were Three was close enough to the band's mid-period material to keep the hardcore fanbase happy. And Genesis would, once again, return to longer songs on their later albums, so this wasn't the end of the band's progressive rock sensibilities. However, many of the defining features of the band's classic music would never again be heard on subsequent releases, so perhaps And Then There Were Three marks more of a turning point for Genesis than a casual listen would suggest.
Finally, I must give a mention to the two 'b' sides from the set which are available in the box set release. The Day the Light Went Out is so-so, but Vancouver, with its shiny new mix, is a terrific little song. It's Genesis' take on She's Leaving Home and it could have sounded horribly twee, but a heartfelt vocal and lashings of organ from Tony Banks make it one of the best ever Genesis 'b' sides.
The real world
Duke is a very hard-edged, sombre piece of work. The tone is wary, almost bitter at times; it is a long way from the high romance of And Then There Were Three and Wind and Wuthering. Collectively, the band had been experiencing a remorselessly negative press, and progressive rock as a respected genre seemed to be dead in the water. There were challenges for the band members as individuals as well; Collins was experiencing the failure of his first marriage and the impact was also being felt by Rutherford and Banks. These problems had a major impact on the timbre of the album.
So, on Duke, the fantasy story-telling of previous albums was banished, replaced by realism, sometimes obscured by layers of imagery, at other times explicit. Indeed, Collins' first set of lyrics for Behind the Lines was vetoed by the other band members as being too direct an attack on music journalists.
Perversely, whilst the lyrics demonstrated a new realism, the band had decided that And Then There Were Three wasn't adventurous enough musically and had announced that one side of Duke would be taken up by a single 25 minute long song. In the post-punk days of the late 70's, this would have been a risky strategy and, in the end, the Duke Suite, as it came to be known, was split into two song-cycles which bookend the album. Another part of the long piece which was originally intended to be a short linking section between the two main chunks of music was sped up and expanded, and became one of the band's most successful singles, Turn it on Again.
In retrospect, it's a great shame that Genesis didn't stick to their guns with the side-long track. The songs and musical passages that make up the Duke Suite are all very strong and would have made a classic extended piece. Even separated out, the remains of the long song make for a spectacular beginning and ending to the album with a number of sections being as good as anything Genesis have ever done.
The remaining songs on the album are more patchy, however; every band member got two songs each, and, in each case, that stretched the quality too far; one song per individual would have done it. So, in the positive column, we have Rutherford's extraordinary Man of our Times, as tough and challenging a piece of music as its close relative, Back in New York City; Bank's dreamy and reflective Heathaze, featuring a brilliant vocal performance from Collins (although sadly, like the rest of the album, not featuring any Mellotron; a flight of Trons on the chorus would have made the song far more dramatic) and Collins' own emotional end-of-relationship ballad, Please Don't Ask. On the debit side, Rutherford's Alone Tonight and Bank's Cul-de-Sac are fillers, and Collins' Misunderstanding is a horrid mid-tempo pop song which doesn't fit the serious mood of the rest of the album.
Of the two 'b' sides from the set which didn't make the album, Banks' Evidence of Autumn is very popular amongst Genesis fans and, whilst no classic, would have been better on than off, whilst Rutherford's Open Door is a bit of an oddity, sounding like an unsuccessful outtake from Wind and Wuthering.
So, Duke is a dark, powerful, sombre work, marred only by the presence of three weaker songs. Unfortunately, Banks and Rutherford had used up some superb material on their first solo albums which they worked on just before Duke. Even the thought of the possible inclusion on Duke of Banks' 'You', or Rutherford's 'Time and Time Again' is enough to make Genesis fans go weak at the knees.
Fire and water
The title track, which opens the album, builds on the Turn it on Again template, featuring a driving bass pulse. It's an interesting and original composition with an extended and very loosely played instrumental section, ending in one of Rutherford's best guitar solos. The lyrics are abstract, sounding good but offering little, if any, meaning. Next up is a song which caused palpitations for fans of the traditional Genesis sound; No Reply at All features extensibe use of the Earth, Wind and Fire horn section. Genesis never had guest musicians on their albums, either before or since, and the addition of a horn section was a provocative move.
In fact, the horn section adds little to the song and comes over as more of a gesture of difference and separation from the past rather than a significant musical contribution. It's more satisfying to focus on Bank's nice middle eight chord sequence and Rutherford's outstanding bass playing (has anyone ever written better bass parts than Rutherford at his best?)
Banks' contribution, Me and Sarah Jane finds Genesis back on more familiar ground, but it is an average song really, nothing to get excited about. The final song on the original side one of the album, Keep it Dark, is superficially more attractive with its driving riff and Trick of the Tale-style story, but it's not a song that pays repeated listens.
Dodo is a different beast altogether, a clever composition with a huge wall of sound and some very exciting moments, it's far and away the best song on the album.
What should have happened then is that Genesis should have put two of the later released 'b' sides from the Abacab sessions on the album straight after Dodo - the jazz-rock instrumental Naminanu. the lovely Submarine. This would have made side two of the album very convincing. Indeed, Tony Banks has recently confirmed that Genesis had planned an epic song on Abacab featuring these three songs which would have made for a very interesting listen. Sadly, all that seems to remain of the links between the tracks is the drum rolls at the end of Dodo and at the start of Submarine.
In any case, like the Duke Suite, the Dodo suite was never completed and Genesis decided instead that they would follow Dodo with what is felt by fans to be one of their worst ever tracks - Whodunnit. It's certainly a strange song which,at best,could be described as an experimental, new wave piece with synthesisers rather than guitars. Experimental or not, it's definitely terrible.
And after that, well, the album peters out with a couple of reasonable but unexciting solo compositions from Collins and Rutherford (respectively, Man on the Corner and Like it or Not) and, finally, a poor band-written song, Another Record.
Abacab was a necessary experiment in freshening things up, something that had to be done to keep the band working as a creative force. It was the first of two albums where Genesis re-invented themselves as an art-rock band. However, it is also unforgiveably dull, with precious little drama or excitement on show.