Having just got back from seeing the exacting Genesis tribute band The Musical Box laying down the Selling England by the Pound Tour, I feel right ready for this one! Nothing like hearing the solo from “Firth of Fifth” live executed by a great player. I have a buddy who shares my Genesis fetish, so we get to bond when the band comes through town — God knows no one else understands! And I’ve had a blog for a year and never written about what is likely my favourite thing ever.
Genesis is not exactly a stranger to educated rock listeners. I mean, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard at least the much-disparaged eighties hits by the pop version of the group vocalized by Phil Collins. Some people who don’t love prog rock don’t know about the earlier theatrical art-rock years with Peter Gabriel. But many who are fans of the band have this ongoing and very, very silly debate that features three camps: a) We think Genesis sold out and ended up making “pop crap” and should be ashamed of themselves; b) We think Genesis got better when they stopped being so pretentious, and “Invisible Touch” is awesome; and c) We think there’s lots of good music to be found throughout the band’s career, so why doesn’t everyone just grow up and mind their business?
Naturally, I’m squarely in group C. However, if I have to choose, I favour the band’s output from about 1970-78. And of the albums they released in that period I favour this one. All of the albums released in the Gabriel era have myriad virtues, from the Romantic fantasy rock of Trespass to the development of a particularly weird and wonderful brand of distinctly British art music on Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound (the album most seem to consider the band’s masterpiece). After Gabriel left the band returned to a lighter tone of literate fantasy-inspired prog on albums like A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering.
However, I would argue that “The Lamb” represents all that is best about Genesis, in all its facets. And Genesis being a band comprised of musicians of singular ability and imagination, that would make this one of the best albums anyone’s ever made.
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is a ninety-minute opus that on the surface sounds really overbearingly ambitious, conceptually. The group was already kind of fracturing at that time as Gabriel started chafing to run his own show. Perhaps the tensions influenced the music, because there’s definitely an energy here that wasn’t there before — in the past, even when Genesis was rocking hard, there was still a languid vibe to the proceedings (except maybe on “The Knife” and some other particularly blaring sections in their songs). This album has plenty of appealing edge.
The story of this concept album is very odd, a series of fantastic events befalling a New York street punk named Rael, in bizarre landscapes that feature strange and mythic creatures. However, it’s sort of clear that it’s all happening in his mind, and there’s a Freudian kind of meaning to be gleaned from the whole thing. Frankly, I care not a whit for the story, though the lyrics contain many’s the compelling, jarring line that stays with you long after the song is over. Following the plot isn’t really all that necessary to the journey. And the music in itself is one of the best journeys you’ll ever take.
There are a few kinds of tunes on the record: long, ever-changing and highly structured pieces of the kind you would expect from Genesis; shorter, rock-oriented, almost post-punk sounding tunes (presaging post-punk by several years); and really odd little songs that are sort of filler to illustrate the action depicted in the story.
What differentiates this from a lot of the overblown prog from around that period is that these are definitely still songs, highly melodic, with killer hooks and riffs, even when they extend past the five-minute mark. Not only that, but the playing is mind-blowing. Not like Al Di Meola doing scale exercises mind-blowing. It’s all in the parts and how they’re executed. The band, for a reserved bunch of English chaps, really knows how to wring the drama from a crescendo or the emotion from a delicate ambient interlude. And the storytelling format of this album allowed them to totally stretch out in a way they couldn’t before, with their more rigorous work on SEBTP.
I once listened to the whole thing focusing solely on Mike Rutherford’s bass parts. What I learned was that in the pantheon of bass greats, this guy deserves a higher ranking. He really works the neck on that double-neck Rickenbacker, from higher parts that Peter Hook would drool over, to gutteral riffing on the low end. He always knows when to pull back or when to let the notes fly. Not to mention that he holds down most of the rhythm guitar work too!
Tony Banks is as nimble-fingered and precise as always, and everyone with any knowledge knows that Phil Collins is (well, was) one of rock’s most creative drummers.
Steve Hackett, of course, provides incredible textures with his patented volume swells, as well as his trademark angular but highly compelling soloing style. So the playing is just amazing too.
Here are what I see as the highlights:
The title track is the best-known song, with its famous fast piano intro, Gabriel’s impassioned, almost yelled vocal, and the bigger riffing than ever before. But other rock gems are the frenzied “Back in NYC“, “Counting Out Time” and “Lilywhite Lilith“, insanely catchy and ultra-modern shorter songs that would have fit well on Peter Gabriel’s second and third solo albums. The other best-known song is the dreamy “Carpet Crawlers“, which, surreal lyrics aside, contains probably the most beautiful guitar work (albeit not prominent in the mix) of Hackett’s career. The stately rhythm is so very soothing. Longer tracks more befitting the classic Genesis sound include the totally weird “The Lamia“, which Gabriel somehow makes tragically emotional, despite it being about Rael getting busy with then eating some sexy snake ladies. This track contains Hackett’s best solo of all time, just incredibly, ethereally beautiful despite being, as I said earlier, queerly angular.
The famous “In the Cage” features some of Gabriel’s best lyrics and Collins and Rutherford blasting out a roaring, insistent beat over an extended time. The ultra-hip “Fly on a Windshield“, in addition to having some killer mellotron textures, has cool, stylish lyrics that utilize classic American imagery. There’s also some delicate little pieces that are quite heartbreakingly lovely, particularly “Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats“, “Ravine” and “Hairless Heart“. But then there’s avant-garde weirdness in “The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging” (how’s that for a title) and “The Colony of Slippermen“. The album ends with the frenetic “It“, containing some more weird but strangely uplifting lyrics, cheekily concluding that “It’s only knock and knowall, but I like it”! Whatever that means.
The key to understanding my enthusiasm here is that each of these styles, in my opinion, simply can’t be done better. When they rock a beat, squeeze all the beauty out of a texture, or hammer a riff, it’s the best version of those things you’ve ever heard.
This is an album that you need to take in in a single sitting to understand, which is perhaps why it’s not quite got the acclaim that the previous record received, lacking a fun song like “I Know What I Like” for the casual listener to latch onto. But if you like arty rock, ambient touches, a locked-in rhythm section with flair but total dynamic control, understated but supremely skilled guitar and keyboard playing (yes, featuring the walls of mellotron that I love so well), really (really) creative lyrics, and of course a distinctive and dramatic lead singer, well, this album should be part of the bedrock of your music collection.
At its best, a prog rock concept album is an enticing journey the taking of which enriches your life — and this defines it!