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Friday, January 20, 2017

Genesis – Trespass

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 11

Best Song: THE KNIFE

It didn't take Genesis very long to realize that if they continued on the path they were on – one of Bee Gees-style orchestral pop with concepts chosen by third parties – they would fade into oblivion and would go on to pursue whatever careers on which they'd fall back. The path they chose instead, one of long-winded progressive rock, was certainly a wise one, in retrospect anyways, but there were still plenty of kinks to work out. On a purely formal level, Trespass isn't missing a thing from their classic albums: an artsy cover with the members of the group nowhere to be found, a number of lengthy compositions, a wide variety of melodies, textures and instruments, lyrics with a heavy literary influence and of course, Peter Gabriel's big personality and distinctive voice to deliver them.

While it's definitely a stretch to say the album is a failure overall, it's certainly a relative failure compared to its successors. There are two chief accusations that come to mind when trying to explain these relative problems. The first is the instrumental passages. While most of them display instrumental skill and contain atmosphere, only a handful really make you go "wow!", and not always for an extended period of time. If even Nursery Cryme, where the group's two best instrumentalists would finally join, had some boring moments, what could you expect here when they're absent? The second problem is in the lyrics. It's a slightly smaller problem, but it's worth noting that Peter's personal stamp of mixing the modern with the medieval in a whimsical fantasy world has yet to develop, although he tries his best. I should note that part of that problem has nothing to do with his lyrics, but rather those of Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks and Anthony Phillips.

Still, in spite of the flaws preventing the album from being an all-time classic, it mostly stands up on a song-to-song basis. Side one is somewhat weaker, if only because it has the LP's weakest song and only one major highlight. The former refers to "White Mountain", a mystical tune about two wolves fighting for power inspired by the works of Jack London (in fact, the two wolves in question are named after London characters from the novel White Fang), among others. As long as Peter is singing, the song is pretty good; yeah, the melody doesn't really change much from verse to chorus in anything other than number of notes and speed, but it's a decent melody that has a storytelling vibe to it (and the high note each refrain ends on borders on cathartic). And the backing music during the refrain is especially notable, with Banks playing twinkling organ arpeggios that, coupled with robotic drumming and equally robotic drum fills, makes you picture a cold, rhythmic snowstorm. The instrumental breaks are where the problem sets in. They're cold and atmospheric, to be sure, but they're so quiet they're almost unnoticeable unless you really pay attention, and even then it's not worth the extra effort; inaudible flute, slow guitar arpeggios, distant Mellotron fiddling and equally distant choral vocals from the other members don't exactly make one shed a tear or jump up for joy. The only time it's effective is in the intro, since it allows the song to gradually build up into the vocal parts.

The aforementioned major highlight follows soon after, in the form of "Visions of Angels", a song whose lyrics were developed by Phillips about Gabriel's then-girlfriend. As one can deduce from the song's origins and its title, the aim was to create a beautiful and ethereal ballad meant to reflect on this woman's angelic beauty and/or character, and they achieve just that. The song's main instrumental hook is a pretty nine-note piano sequence played as a round which, with brief pauses between each three notes of it, resembles a sigh of a man plagued by unrequited love, and while it's only played before each verse, its scarcity only adds to the poignancy. Otherwise, you have Peter sing a tricky melody that's caught between despaired and hopeful, with the latter especially emphasized once the choral backup vocals come in with the refrain/title line, and the musical accompaniment of sparse, chiming guitar patterns and wisps of chirping organ that grow bombastic as the melody and vocals (and booming drums) do is every bit as breathtaking as the hooky piano line, even if it takes more time to come to appreciate them. The instrumental passages, other than the main hook, are also much more interesting than those of the preceding track. It's where the organ/guitar combo of the vocal parts and the piano meet, with the former two gradually pulsating faster and faster like the main character's heart as the angelic woman passes him by and the latter cascading like the beads of sweat running down his forehead. Ok, that sounded really pretentious, but you catch my drift.

While I don't consider it to be a major highlight, I still quite like the opening "Looking for Someone", as it does an excellent job setting the pace for the rest of the album. The main melody is quite a lengthy one, going through a number of moods, from desperate ("Looking for someone/I guess I'm doing that"), to disgusted/angry ("dirty man, you're looking like a Buddha/I know you well"), to tearful ("Nobody needs to discover me"), to forceful/courageous ("And in the darkness of my mind/Damascus wasn't far behind!"), and the music follows suite, initially with just quiet acoustic guitar and organ, then joined by noodly electric guitar patterns and bombastic piano and drums. Another asset of the track is that it's one of two with instrumental passages focused on power: the first of these following the lengthy verses is focused on speedy, two-note bass runs, pummelling drums, pulsating organ chords and distorted jangly guitars, before transforming into a stop-and-start sequence of powerful organ/piano chords battling with flurrying aggressive flutes and finally into softer flute parts accompanied by twinkling piano and slick guitars. The second section of the first instrumental passage is developed further after a brief bridge and makes for a fine conclusion to the track. With all the praise I've given it, it might seem a bit odd that I don't consider it to be a major highlight of the LP. As much as I like the instrumental passages, they go through too many ideas for them to be memorable, but the power of both these passages and the vocal parts are enough for this to be a minor highlight, at the very least.

Much like side one, side two begins with its second-best track, concludes with its best and leaves its weakest in the middle. That being said, "Dusk" is still much better than "White Mountain", and in fact, I only like it a little bit less than "Looking for Someone". It's the one song that solely relies on atmosphere, but it manages to do so quite successfully, evoking an image of a dark, winter evening in some secluded region of medieval Eastern Europe, thanks to dark acoustic/acoustic-emulating electric guitar chords and arpeggios, quasi-Gregorian chant-like backup vocals, an occasional bell as if there were a monastery in the distance, droning church-like organ and the occasional livelier instrumental passages based on dancing flute patterns. And of course, Peter's vocal melody is quite nice, sung in a rather subdued near-falsetto that's complemented quite nicely by the aforementioned backup vocals. I wouldn't put it in my top 10 Genesis compositions, but as far as their albums' lesser tracks go, this one is a better track compared to the rest of Trespass than, say, "Can-Utility and the Coastliners" is to the rest of Foxtrot.

Of the three major highlights, "Stagnation" was the last one to become one to my ears, but its charms gradually grew on me. As best as I can deduce, the song is about a man or group of people lost in a desert dreaming of an oasis, longing for their days back in civilization, and the music and vocals reflect just that. The initial vocal parts have Peter sing in a tired, dragging way, his voice in a higher pitch than normal, but one that cracks just a bit, backed by equally slow, dragged jangled guitar arpeggios. Then, there's an organ solo from Tony Banks where he adopts a tone that's quite peculiar; it sounds kind of like rain droplets and has him bending the notes in an oh-so-subtly and vaguely psychedelic way that I can't help but think it's the desert wanderers' hallucination of a nearby oasis. Finally, it concludes in a couple of really great melodies where the song reach its climax, first with the subtle goofy vocal where he describes "digging" for minnows in "slimy water", then with a powerful "AH AH AH AH I said I want to sit down/I want a drink/To take all the dust and the dirt from my throat!" that's as cathartic as any similar vocal twists in their upcoming albums, and concludes with a collective sigh of relief from the backing vocalists with a quasi-Biblical toast-raising of "Then let us drink/Then let us smile/Then let us go".

Finally, who could forget "The Knife", the album's best-known song, one that's a stylistic leap from the rest of the album anchored in progressive-folk? In fact, not only does the song have the group do something different from the rest of the album, but aside from key moments in subsequent compositions, they'd never really go this heavy again. Supposedly, the idea here was to capture the kind of dirty, yet classically inspired organ/with wild, post-psychedelic guitar-based sound that the Nice displayed in full force on "Rondo", and boy does it show, what with an accurately jagged set of mighty organ riffs (and I doubt there's a coincidence that the song is named "The Knife" and Keith Emerson used to play "Rondo" with the help of knives in concert) – some just plain rocking, others even hypnotic – a head-pounding rhythm section with the same "du-dum du-dum" beat as "Rondo" and Phillips delivering all kinds of great guitar lines, including a fantastic, searing solo near the end that showed he could be as great a guitarist as Hackett if he wanted to be.

That's not all, either. Peter Gabriel delivers the lyrics about an armed revolution seemingly gone wrong with the verve of a charismatic would-be dictator, with my favourite lines being the verse that starts with "I'll give you the names of those you must kill/All must die with their children", or the refrain of "Some of you are going to die/Martyrs of course for the freedom that I shall provide" (a hauntingly disturbing line when one knows the history of communist regimes) sung in the ideal "Iron Man"-like robotic growl. And in case you think the song will just be 8 minutes of this onslaught, there's a brief moment of frightful silence, where the organ quiets down to a high-pitched hum, first accompanied by a moody flute solo, and then with harmony vocals that chant mindlessly and sheepishly "We are only wanting freedom" (as if brainwashed by Gabriel's dictator character). This all builds back up with brilliantly selected voice-overs of a police riot squad cracking down on people and concludes in a blood-curdling scream the likes of which would make Roger Waters jealous. There's even one point afterwards where the entire group – organ, guitar, bass and drums – hammer down on a chord with devilish verve, as if descending into the pits of hell. As you may have guessed, this song has to be heard to be believed (as clichéd as that may be).

So, while the album would probably only merit a strong 10/15 without its closing track, it's such a brilliant way to conclude the album that the overall rating skyrockets to a strong 11/15. In fact, the group was so pleased with the twist to the calm, yet cold album that precedes that they asked the artist who made the cover art – a cold, Ancient Greek-influenced temple of some sort – to start anew, and upon his refusal, they asked if he would permit them to slash the artwork to represent "The Knife" and photograph it, with the latter event resulting in the even colder blue-ish tint you see today. Sometimes the history of rock music results in these kinds of memorable stories. Anyways, while I wouldn't suggest this as your first Genesis purchase (one of the three/four confirmed classics would have a better chance of converting you into a fan), upon getting their better known prog-era records, do yourself a favour and get this early glimpse at the genius you'd hear on the likes of Foxtrot or Selling England by the Pound.

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