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Genesis Selling England By The Pound (1973)

25785From johnmcferrinmusicreviews.org

You might not have noticed it, but although I certainly have a healthy dose of respect and love for well-done progressive rock, not ONCE have I given a prog rock album a perfect score – atmosphere and cool instrumentation can take you to the top of the mountain overlooking the land, but they won’t let you into Canaan, so to speak. But this album is a different story entirely. NEVER before and never again in the history of progressive rock can one find such a perfect confluence of atmospherics, bombastic and yet clever lyrics, catchy melodies, complicated song structures, and in a wonderous first for Genesis, constantly entertaining and often GORGEOUS arrangements (this album is Genesis’ peak in both quality of keyboard playing AND quality of guitar playing, which should tell you something right away) as can be found in this incredible 53 minute piece of British lore.

The arrangements, in particular, are what ultimately set this album above Foxtrot and The Lamb. You may not believe it, but not only do I have absolutely no complaints about Tony’s playing on this album, on more than a few occasions I truly believe in the title of genius that many fans have foisted upon him. This is made all the more incredible by the fact that it is on this album that he uses synthesizers for the first time, and while they would be incredibly annoying within 5 years time, here his use of them is always, dare I say it, tasteful, not to mention that he achieves some incredible stretches of cathartic beauty with them. But even with his newfound toys, he still manages to incorporate more piano on this album than any other in Genesis’ catalogue, and those passages are usually even more entertaining than his synth playing – bombastic, but sounding like they deserve all their bombast.

Even with all that, though, the full emergence of Steve Hackett is what distinguishes this album the most, as this album is easily the most guitar-heavy in Genesis’ catalogue, and given my attitude of “more Hackett is better Hackett,” that’s so much the better. With very few exceptions, he is ALWAYS playing a major role in the sound, whether it be an incredibly intelligent solo or just plain old solid riffing.

And finally, we have Gabriel reaching the absolute pinnacle of his “medieval British herald” shtick – only 3 of the songs have lyrics by him (well, 4 if you count the closing reprise Aisle of Plenty, which brings back the best parts of the opening track), but as far as his mix of bombast, incredibly British humor and unfettered whackiness go, those three songs are certainly among his peaks. Not to mention that he takes full advantage of the chance to play up to them with his singing – if you thought he was taking on some strange roles and offering weird interpretations before, well, you’d be right, but somehow he managed to outdo even himself.

Another thing that strikes me about the album in general is that, as bombastic as it may be in most cases, it also does an incredible job of deflating itself at the proper intervals so that you never feel overwhelmed by the album. I mean, examine the track order by genre – prog, pop, prog, pop, prog, soothing instrumental, prog, reprise. It’s simple, really, yet utterly ingenious (not to mention that the reprise is of just the right themes so that you truly feel complete at album’s end).

Ok, NOW for the specific songs. In case you aren’t aware of it, the opening Dancing with the Moonlit Knight is probably Genesis’ finest song ever, as the lyrics and music mix in such a way that is incredible even for this group. Gabriel probably puts forth his best singing effort yet, and he even gets the chance to sing a capella at the very beginning as he begins the process of magically transporting you back to the England that never was. But other instruments are slowly added, layer upon layer – some keys here, a light touch of acoustic guitar, as we build to the bombastic “the captain leads his dance right on through the night” passage before he launches us into a fabulous instrumental break with the cry “knights of the green shield stamp and shout!” And oh what a passage it is, filled with speedy solos and triumphant calls from Steve’s guitar, eventually leading to Tony’s mellotron imitating a heavenly choir as Peter begins his “There’s a fat old lady outside the saloon” spiel.

Eventually, the sung passages come to an end, and this time, the instrumental parts are driven forward by an utterly brilliant combination of dissonant pounding from Tony and weird tones coming from Steve’s guitar that sound like synths the first 20 times you hear them (only seeing live footage of the band doing the song is enough to confirm it otherwise), before it gradually slows down into a peaceful section with Mike playing 4 notes on his acoustic again and again. Tony plays a beautiful sequence of chords while Steve plays his own ambient selection and Peter throws in some lines on the flute, and it fades out nothing like it began, but seeming all the better for it.

And, of course, it is then followed by one of the greatest pop songs of all time, I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe), about a crossdresser who mows lawns for a living. The lyrics are insane yet memorable, the melody is incredibly complex yet catchy, and there are even lawnmower imitations on the bass guitar. But what amazes me most of all, though, is the drumming. It’s not even that the part is necessarily very complex – it’s that TONE that Phil pulls out of thin air. Never ever ever have I heard a song where the drums sound even remotely like that – how did he DO THAT??!! Inquiriing minds want to know, so impart thy knowledge please. (PS: A year later, I’ve finally figured out that that the coolest parts of the drumming are actually Mike making that upwards *DOY* noise off of Phil’s strike. I feel like an idiot for not figuring that out earlier, but whatever.)

Now, what comes next, the epic Firth of Fifth, is a whee bit controversial for me. You see, from a purely musical perspective, I could have easily dubbed this song as Genesis’ best ever, and thus the best on the album. Unfortunately, Tony writes the lyrics here, and they’re some of his worst to date. Not enough to hurt the album as a whole, of course, but enough to remove a whee bit of shine that the song would otherwise have. No matter, though. As far as melody, arrangements, and especially structure go, it is practically the perfect progressive composition. Tony’s opening piano line is incredible both in its beauty and its difficulty, the main melody is terrific, and then we have the mid-section. Oh boy, DO we have the mid-section. Peter contributes a pretty flute passage, in comes a relaxing piano section, then a bouncy synth reprise of the opening piano line, and to top it all off, Steve comes in and plays his best known solo. It’s not fast at all, but that doesn’t hurt it in the least – it’s a slow, winding, meticulous passage, with repeated climaxes building up the piece until it all releases itself and the main melody shows up again, followed by a wonderful piano fadeout. Can you say “symmetry” boys and girls? I knew you could.

The next track is probably the biggest surprise of all, actually. More Fool Me is a Collins song (both in composition and singing), but the scary thing is that not only does it not suck, it is an incredibly pretty acoustic-driven ballad. The melody is distinct and memorable, the lyrics aren’t too saccharine, and it’s pretty much the perfect way to catch your breath after the bombast of Firth of Fifth. In other words, lay off of it people – even Phil could write a good song on occasion.

Side two rolls around, and we get Peter’s fictional take on a gang battle in the 12 minute The Battle of Epping Forest. As far as Peter the “psychotic theatrical weirdo” goes, this piece was never topped by Gabriel, as Gabriel pulls out a legion of gangster voices (especially funny is hearing him go, “I’m breaking the legs of the bastard that got me framed!”). And musically, it’s fabulous, and honestly never seems overlong to my ears. Tony and Steve are each playing interesting riffs in counterpoint to each other, and Tony comes up with a REALLY good idea with his little trick after each “here comes the cavalry” line, as he makes it easy to see a bunch of ‘reinforcments’ storming in on horseback to help out.

And don’t forget the mid-section, the hilarious nonsensical tale of a reverend who is forced to become a karmamechanic! If you thought there were lots of funny voices in the rest of the song, this passage will absolutely astound you, not to mention that the lyrics are the absolutely whackiest that Gabriel would ever come up with.

Following Forest is a nice instrumental called, appropriately, After The Ordeal. Tony’s piano parts in the first half are grand and gorgeous, while the second half relies mostly on various Hackett passages of his usual quality. Overall, while not spectacular by any means, it’s still a fully acceptable and even beautiful inclusion onto the album (although I swear that I can hear some quotes of Can-Utility and the Coastliners on there …). But no matter, because Cinema Show is up as the grand finale. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t disagree with those who point out that the opening passage is just a whee bit too similar to the opening of Supper’s Ready (in fact, when the band reaches the “na na na na” parts in the middle, it’s all I can do to not start singing “I know a farmer who looks after the farm …”). The lyrics also come from Mike and Tony, so they can’t help but be slightly inferior (though the idea of incorporating Romeo and Juliet rather than two incognitos came from Peter). Still, the melody is quite beautiful, and the beauty is sufficient to save the main part of the song on its own.

But that’s not the part that everybody adores, now is it? No, it’s the lengthy conclusion to the song, which doesn’t seem quite right as an end to the song as an individual track, but is DEFINITELY the perfect ending climax for the album as a whole. For the longest time, I was convinced that it was a duet between Tony and Steve, as several of the notes sounded as if they were *plucked* rather than just pressed, but further information has proved me wrong about that. No matter – all that means is that the final stretch of the album is easily Tony Banks’ finest moment with the band. EVERYTHING about these keyboard solos exudes a beauty from deep inside – the main theme is incredible, the tones are lovely, the counterpoint near the end is astounding, and, well, I can’t begin to express what a well-placed mellotron part does for me. And then the keys slowly fade into the background, as the acoustic line from Moonlit Knight rears its head again, before we say goodbye via Aisle of Plenty.

I don’t what else I can say. In writing this, I expended energy and time that probably should have been better used back in 2001 in studying for my Advanced Calculus final, or my Investment Analysis final, or cramming my brain full of 20th Century Russian history and literature (menya zovoot “Reniassance Man”!). But I don’t care. This album deserves my best, and while it may take a while to understand why (again, I was mostly unimpressed when I first heard this), you will someday understand as well.

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March 17, 2013 - Posted by | Genesis Selling England By The Pound |

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