Review Summary: The beginning of the end for the gabriel-genesis era, but what a beginning.
The year is 1973; the progressive boom is already taking place. Pink Floyd release what many consider to be the best progressive album of all time, The Dark Side of the Moon. The cold reality of the lyrics and the use of the mysterious samples raises the bar; a major influence for upcoming progressive artists. Genesis previous efforts contain elements of theatricality, light humour and tales of colourful characters creating the perfect blend of reality and fantasy. With Dark Side of the moon taking the progressive reigns, would Genesis follow suit with their latest offering, Selling England by the Pound? The answer is a resounding no.
Selling England by the Pound’s success lies in its perfect album structure and the bands willingness to experiment with their own unique strengths. Peter Gabriel’s Acapella in the opening number “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” is a testament to the eccentric artists’ dynamic vocal talent; once again he lives and breathes the characters the band is trying to portray. Steve Hackett’s soft guitar section feels like it could be implemented within any contemporary R&B track (as a sample). The piece then explodes into a rock song not dissimilar from the Rush masterpiece “2112”. Gabriel leads the charge with his powerful voice whilst the band follows closely in suit; This is the most exhilarating section on the album. Phil Collins intense drumming combined with Hackett’s soaring guitar exemplifies the epic nature of this wonderful journey. The piece ends with Hackett’s soft guitar creating the effect of a ticking clock leading the song out. My friends: this is how you start an album.
Peter Gabriel’s outlandish stage performances helped Genesis stand out from the progressive crowd, “I know what I like (in your wardrobe)” is the kind of song where Gabriel is let loose. The song reminds me of a Saturday morning kids cartoon complete with colourful characters and a good dose of injected silliness. Gabriel takes the role of the lawnmower, his vocal performance alongside Phil Collins helps illustrate this crazy town as they chant like school boys and taunt lovers behind the garden wall. The song also contains one of the catchiest choruses progressive genesis has ever conceived. Mike Rutherford’s bouncy bass lines keep the song bobbing along at an incredibly fun pace. This number comes across as a band having a lot of fun; it would become a regular choice for live tours.
Every album masterpiece must have its iconic song. Pink Floyd had “Money”, and Rush had “Limelight” for moving Pictures; “Firth of Fifth is the Genesis answer to that classic. As I mentioned before, every band member is given space to showcase their individual talents and this is the song where it couldn’t be clearer. I ask you; what is better than an ego trip? The answer: 3 ego trips!
The song opens with a beautiful Tony Banks Piano Melody before Gabriel takes up vocal and flute duty. Gabriel’s flute solo provides the soft tone but it doesn’t take long before Banks adds his cartoonish keyboard successfully creating the effect of music that isn’t just progressing, it’s evolving and changing tones whilst still retaining it’s perfectly judged pace. In keeping with the songs evolving sound, Banks passes the musical baton to Hackett who in turn knocks the ball out of the park with his effective guitar tapping technique and general skill which would make David Gilmour blush. The song ends with the opening piano melody rounding out what I consider to be the perfect Genesis song.
The album pace and structure is something that deserves to be highlighted. The songs follow an epic, fun, epic, fun progressive formula which other bands should take note of. Instead of guitar solo wankery ala Dream theatre, Genesis show restraint; they know how to keep their audience listening. It could be argued that a song like “More Fool Me” doesn’t really fit into the progressive Genesis discography, but it allows the audience to breathe and prepare for the next eight minute epic.
Whilst this album does deserve recognition for being possibly the best and most accessible progressive Genesis album, there is a major negative which need to be addressed; this negative goes by the title “The battle of Epping Forrest”. Clocking in at the nine minutes, the song is a mess. Rutherford who had been remarkably consistent throughout the album thus far doesn’t know to support this convoluted tripe. The keyboard parts lack any semi decent hooks because they follow Gabriel’s fast, chaotic lyrics into nothingness. The only redeeming feature is Collins drumming, keeping busy and technically brilliant despite everything happening around him. This song is a blemish on an otherwise superb album.
Genesis’ greatest strength can also be seen as a curse, every band member loves their input maybe just a little too much. Selling England by the Pound benefits from its passionate members but it wouldn’t be too long before Gabriel and Hackett turn solo while Phil Collins discovers he really can sing, thus becoming the master of the love song. Overall the album is a dynamic collection of uplifting songs put together in such a way that it all comes together in the end. Aisle of Plenty brings the album full circle borrowing from the opening songs arrangements. For any music fans wanting to start their progressive journey, this is the album for you. Hell, I didn’t even mention “The Cinema Show”.