Genesis' Ambitious and Absorbing Rock Opera Masterpiece
Written: Jan 12, 2010 (Updated Jan 2, 2011)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:It has some great songs in it!
Cons:The second half is a little weaker...
The Bottom Line: While this isn't Genesis' best album, it's still a masterpiece in my book. The instrumentals are frequently absorbing, it has good melodies, and Gabriel turns in some great vocal performances.
(Disclaimer: Those looking for a brief description of the album will find what their looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review is not necessarily written by the point of view of a Genesis fan.)
Overall Score: 5/5
Best song: “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” and “The Carpet Crawlers”
Worst song: “The Chamber of 32”
I'm oversimplifying it, but Genesis had been rewriting the same album over and over again until they perfected it with Selling England By the Pound. Since it seems they couldn't go any higher, they decided to do something different and create this sprawling, 23-track, double-disc rock opera.
This is very, very pretentious, but that's not a shocker; this is Genesis, and they have always been pretentious, even back when they were a pop band aiming to be the next Bee Gees. Some listeners have complained that the concept is way too difficult to understand, but I don't find it to be too tantalizing. It's a strange oftentimes abstract story, but that just means it's like every other self-respecting rock opera out there. With that said, I've chosen not to try to interpret the rock opera for you. It'd just take too much space. All I'll tell you is that they're worth a bit of time studying for yourself.
The album begins with the explosive title track, which contains so much glory and drama that I could not think of a better opener for a rock opera. The song has me hooked right from the beginning when we hear Tony Banks' tight keyboard textures fade-in. Those sorts of beautiful keyboard textures are one of the hallmarks of this album, surfacing on many of the most memorable tracks. I can't imagine that “Cuckoo Cocoon” would have been even remotely as absorbing if it weren't for Banks' enchanting keyboard texture that draws me in right from the beginning. Similarly, I'm convinced that “The Carpet Crawlers” is one of the most beautiful, mystifying songs of all time thanks in part to those delicate keyboard patterns throughout!
Of course, the keyboards aren't the only great thing about listening to this album; the melodies are frequently so rich and warm that I have trouble keeping myself from singing along with them from my heart. (I should be embarrassed for writing that, but I've been growing much more comfortable with my geekery ever since I hit 25.) “Counting Out Time” is one of the album's poppiest songs, which makes it especially fun to sing along with. I'd even go so far as to say that song might, believe it or not, have made a great arena-rocker.
While this album has plenty of great moments, there are plenty weaker bits as well, but I even find the weaker moments to be wholly entertaining. Two of the 7+ minute tracks, “The Lamia” and “The Colony of Slippermen,” might fail to ignite my imagination like so many of their lengthy compositions have done in the past, but I enjoy listening to their complicated and constantly evolving guitar/keyboard/drum textures that they always seem to come up with. Also, a few of the ambient tracks in the second half are pretty well-done, but not quite absorbing enough to be considered great in my book. You can read more details about those, if you want, in the track reviews.
The closing song, “It,” has been known to cause a few Genesis fans some grief; they have complained that it is a rather disappointingly cheap ending that effectively parodies the whole album. I understand what they mean, since it has always reminded me of a cheesy game show theme, but I'm still fond of it. Gabriel's vocal performance is as intense and dramatic as ever and the melody is extremely catchy. I suppose they could have ended the album with something more definitively epic, but through the years I've been listening to this, I've found it to fit pretty well.
There are enough weak spots—particularly in the second half—that I have to consider this a major step down from Genesis' heights in Foxtrot and Selling England By the Pound, but it remains a great, ambitious work in its own right. If nothing else, it has a bunch of excellent songs on it that I enjoy the crap out of! What more could I ever want from an album?
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway A+
What an explosive beginning! This song gets me right away with that fade-in of that busy piano texture, which sparkles. Then of course Peter Gabriel's voice comes in like some sort of great god, and he sings over it these cryptic, pretentious lyrics! (I went through these lyrics in a very detailed fashion at one point in my life, and I'm not really interested in trying to summarize everything for you here... I'll leave that to you! These lyrics are all very poetic and ambiguous, so you'll have fun with them.) This is the best possible way to begin a rock opera.
Fly on a Windshield A-
Right away, it's pretty clear to me why this album never struck me quite like Selling England By the Pound always did. Of course this is an excellent song—very atmospheric and very brooding—but it doesn't quite grab me like all the songs on that album did. It starts with a Medieval folk intro and it eventually explodes to a thunderous, drum-heavy bit. Great atmospheres, but I suppose the problem I have is that the vocal melody is “eh.”
Broadway Melody of 1974 A
And the previous song leads directly into this... Why didn't they just call them the same song? I guess they were tired of playing the old prog games. ...Immediately, this track seems to have a little thicker atmosphere and it continues to have the drama packed onto it. The vocal melody continues to be memorable and well performed by Gabriel. This probably isn't going to be one of the main moments you remember from this album, but it's a good one.
Cuckoo Cocoon A+
This two-minute track, on the other hand, is probably going to be one that you remember. They create such a beautiful, gentle, and absorbing atmosphere that I find myself immediately grabbed by it. Gabriel turns in an especially pleasant flute solo. Nothing but warmness. I suppose like the cocoon.
In the Cage A
Alright! Now we have an eight minute track, which is more like what I'm used to from these guys, and this is quite a song. It starts out tense and dramatic with Gabriel's brilliant showman singing an excellent melody. The texture is tight and continues to evolve, which keeps it refreshed and always engaging to my ear. The rather lengthy instrumental in the middle seems somewhat stiff to me, particularly Banks' synth-solo, but that's just a nitpick.
The Grand Parade A
Unlike most of these other songs, this actually gives off a Broadway showtune vibe to me. It starts out with a tiny marching drum and stiff synthesizers as Gabriel whispers the narration in that very showtune sort of way. It gradually gets louder and spookier, and this evil deep-voiced demon person joins in the vocals. Apparently Brian Eno helped with this production, which I suppose we can notice because of all the sound effects in this.
Back in N.Y.C. B+
Not so well instrumented like most of these other songs. The first half of it merely contains a single arpeggiating synthesizer and a rather nicely complicated drum texture. But this seems too bare and too dull for me. Two minutes into it, a piano pipes up and other synthesized sounds. The guitars pipe up way too late—when the song is already half over. Gabriel does a nice job singing it, absolutely screaming his head off at the beginning. It's slightly obnoxious, but for some reason I'm buying everything he does. It picks up some nice energy at the end, but this isn't memorable. It seems to drag on for a bit too long.
Hairless Heart A
After a dark and energetic song such as “Back to N.Y.C.” it's nice that they take a moment to deliver this calmer and more beautiful instrumental to help us recuperate. They might have been better off using a harp rather than a synthesizer, but the delicate textures are still dazzling to my ears. Even the main synth melody during the louder portions of this track are memorable to me.
Counting Out Time A+
I made a comment in my earlier review of this album that this could have been a stadium rock number. Well, the melody is way too meandering and complicated for a band like Foreigner or Journey to have been able to do! But it's kind of cool to hear what Gabriel-era Genesis sounds like when they try out such numbers. The verses section is a very catchy, bouncy pop number and there are some very cool power electric guitar chords in one of the bridges. (That's where I got the stadium rock connection.) They use some quirky instrumentation in here, too, playing around with some amusingly watery synthesizers in the middle. For an album that's supposedly off-puttingly serious, this is pretty quirky.
The Carpet Crawlers A+
Oh man!!! This is the most beautiful song I've ever heard! This is the sort of album that earns a lot of A+s, but this A+ is slightly stronger than the others. A lot of people like to give Tony Banks a lot of flack for monopolizing Genesis songs with his synthesizers, but listening to that gorgeous texture he comes up with immediately arresting. Gabriel similarly comes in with a brilliantly beautiful and ethereal vocal performance, and his melody is utterly gorgeous. The guitars make appearances in the background, playing a few dreamy, extended notes, and they're perfect there. What a great song.
The Chamber of 32 B
After the breathtaking genius of the previous track, it's a little disconcerting to hear this rather clumsy song. The instrumentation is loud and big without delivering the nice textures, and the melody is rather weak. The beginning reminds me of a mediocre mid-career Band song, and even the progressive turns in the second half of the song don't dazzle me as much as Genesis has been known to... Its five-and-a-half minute running length seems over-stretched...
Lilywhite Lilith A-
This is big and loud and fun to listen to for the most part. The vocal melody is pretty good—the chorus is pretty catchy, at least. The spooky mellotrons in the middle of the song really win me over as well as that rather evil sounding stabbing guitar helping keep the rhythm. Naturally, Gabriel's vocals are convincingly dramatic, which fits the mood of this.
The Waiting Room A
This track is nothing but psychedelic sound effects! For a track like that, this is pretty good. We get bubbly sounds, clangy sounds, airplane sounds, twinkly sounds, squeaky sounds, wild bending sounds, zippy sounds, bloopy sounds... Halfway through some music starts to fade in, which sounds cool when it comes in. Although I suppose they could have had a more interesting melody to this instrumental part as opposed to just pounding.
More of those beautiful Tony Banks textures! This one's played on the regular piano, which is nice. Gabriel gives another passionate, dramatic vocal performance, and he sings one of the more hookier melodies on this album. The instrumentation is particularly nice, with a few nicely placed synthesizers here and there, and Collins coming out with some very nice drumming patterns. Given that this song is only three minutes long, it's amazing they fit so much stuff in here. A dramatic crescendo in the middle and a thick, memorable guitar solo. Then a reprise of the main theme at the end. Quite good!!
The Supernatural Anaesthetist B+
My only complaint about this one is the instrumental interlude seems awfully clunky, although it does contain one of the nicer guitar solos on the album. I suppose the main vocal melody (whenever that pops up) might have been improved slightly as well. It definitely seems like they didn't polish this up when it's compared to most of these other songs...
The Lamia A-
This is disappointing in a way. It's one of the album's more lengthy tracks at seven minutes, but it doesn't really take off for me. It's an extremely dramatic piano ballad with a rather forgettable melody. But at least Gabriel gives a passionate vocal performance, and the instrumentation is very nice. They're continuing to use those delicate keyboards, which makes it a rather sweet listen. The loud sections are also well placed and helps keep this song sounding fresh.
Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats A-
I listen to this album quite a lot, and this instrumental never seems to bother me. But as I'm scoring the track reviews right now, I have to note that there isn't a whole lot going on in here. It's a synthesizer instrumental that creates a good atmosphere. It gets more absorbing as some fake vocals fade in and out making me think that I've entered some sort of paradise. That's a nice feeling that it gives me, but halfway through the main thing that happens is six uninteresting synthesizer notes being repeated over and over again. You'll hear some interesting things in the background if you listen closely, but it seems like it's too little.
The Colony of Slippermen A-
It's very well-written, and I have to give them all the credit they deserve for creating interesting textures and atmospheres, but this isn't moving me a whole lot. The first two minutes of it is another synthscape, featuring some rather goofy bubbly and rubbery sounds. After that point, an actual song pipes up, and it's rather. The melody isn't much to speak of, but it never grows boring, because these guys know how to constantly change their textures to keep it interesting. Tony Banks turns in a few interesting synthesizer solos, but it seems like he was perhaps a little too loud at times. Let the guitarist noodle, too!!!! This song makes a good, entertaining listen, but it doesn't inspire my imagination enough. At more than eight minutes, you'd think a Genesis song would.
Another brief atmospheric track. For ambient music, this is alright. It's rather spooky and they make some nice wind effects and even give it tone with a whistling synthesizer. It's not long enough to be boring, but it doesn't make an incredible impression on me.
The Light Dies Down on Broadway A
This is a variation of the title track, and a pretty good one, too. It contains nothing of the energy and boldness as the first one did, and it isn't supposed to. This seems like it's supposed to be more of a world-worn afterthought, if we're to believe anything from the rather tattered state of Gabriel's vocal performance.
Riding the Scree A-
I promise you that I enjoy this album very much as I'm listening to it while driving or studying or something. As I'm studying it now, I'm not finding this to be extremely impressive apart from some really nice drumming and a lot of rather dazzling synthesizer work. The vocal melody isn't greatly memorable, though, and this is pretty weak on the atmospheres. I'm still glad this thing exists, but it seems like they were having trouble finding reasons to make this a double album. Other than to advance the plot, I guess, which I've been ignoring!
In the Rapids A
This folky song has a nice melody and an extremely well-done dramatic vocal performance from Gabriel! It's the sort of song that seems to start pleasantly, but then it grows more intense as it goes along. I'm probably expecting too much out of it by wishing it were more texturally developed, but this is just a good song. The melody is enjoyable, too.
I've had a few people over the years send me e-mails saying that this song was nothing more than a dumb parody of the rest of the album. Surely, the flashy instrumentation seems a little bright and crowd-pleasing, I suppose, but I find that it's best not to take such things as rock operas too seriously. I find this thing to be quite fun! The melody at least is catchy, and Gabriel's vocal performance is exciting. All in all, I suppose they could have ended it with something more epic, more awe-inspiring, but that doesn't make this any less of a good song. So there.
Genesis' sprawling rock opera is quite a thing to behold! It's a step down from Genesis' usual albums, having peaked already with Foxtrot and Selling England By the Pound, but at least this thing is radically different and a great album in its own right. Definitely get it.
Read More Genesis Reviews by Starcollector!
From Genesis to Revelation (1969) | Trespass (1970) | Nursery Cryme (1971) | Foxtrot (1972) | Genesis Live (1973) | Selling England By the Pound (1973) | The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) | A Trick of the Tail (1976) | Wind & Wuthering (1977) | Seconds Out (1977) | And Then There Were Three (1978) | Duke (1980) | Abacab (1981) | Three Sides Live (1982) | Genesis (1983) | Invisible Touch (1986) | We Can't Dance (1991) | The Way We Walk, Volume 1: The Shorts (1992) | The Way We Walk, Volume 2: The Longs (1993) | Calling All Stations (1997) | Genesis Archive 1967-75 (1998) | Genesis Archive 2: 1976-92 (2000)
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