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Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway
There are two basic ways to follow up perfection - one is to continue to milk the style in which said perfect album was done for all it's worth, the other is to veer in a new direction all together. Genesis, smart band that they were, chose the second route. The result was a double-length rock opera and an album proclaimed by many fans as the absolute pinnacle and culmination of Gabriel-era Genesis. And it is great, don't get me wrong. But the fact remains that in many, many ways, it is a giant abberration in Genesis' development, one only tangentially resembling the style in which they had shown the greatest mastery. In other words, choosing this as Genesis' best album is a lot like choosing Relayer as Yes' best - I mean, it's definitely possible, and I would never condemn either statement (not to mention that I adore both albums), but ... ehn.
Ok, first things first, I won't go over the story in too much detail here (except when I have to) - there are plenty of lengthy essays of interpretation and explanation of The Lamb to be found on the net (I would highly recommend going here - my interpretation mostly matches with this one, though I have a few additional insights, like the symbolism behind the hairy heart). Suffice it to say that it rules, both on the surface (as one of the trippiest tales ever told) and deep below (as a powerfully religious modern-day story loosely reminiscient of Dante's Inferno). And although many have said that Gabriel went overboard with it as far as complexity goes (in fact, all of the lyrics, with the exception of those to The Light Dies Down on Broadway, come from Peter), I've never bought that - after a couple of readings through the booklet and one listen to the album, I understood the basic plot just fine, thank you.
But what about the music? Like I said, there is a great amount of distance between the stylistics here and on England. The bulk of the music was written by Tony and Mike, with Steve only helping to arrange it, and as a result there is an enormous dropoff in the fundamental importance of Steve to the sound. It's not like he's made invisible or anything, and he does have a few passages where he is more-or-less emphasized, but even then there are very few instances of "vintage Hackett" - he's playing his slow meticulous passages, but only on a few occasions do they have the power and bite that he had shown on the previous album (the very end of his Supernatural Anaesthetist solo is the most notable one - view the contrast between the last chunk and the rest of the solo). His playing is mostly reduced to texture and atmospherics, and while he does a very good job in these regards, his presence as a featured player is kinda missed.
The main focus of the album, then, is on the Banksynths. But, and this is a big but, for the most part they work. Large chunks of the story are very dark, murky and often take place in sub-earthly realms, and Banks' keyboards do a mostly impeccable job of scene-setting (I actually thought for a long time this was due to the presence of Brian Eno, who is credited with "Enossification" on the album, but as a reader below points out, the instrumentals have nothing to do with Eno). But regardless of who came up with most of these ideas, although the abundance of keys squeezes out Steve to a far greater extent than had yet happened, it's hard to complain here when the ominous mellotrons and moody pianos work so well.
Now, as far as the actual songs go, my main problem with the album lies with the instrumentals: there are four of them on this album, and only one of them manages to hold my attention throughout (side 2's Hairless Heart, which has a sick, perverse beauty glistening off of every note). The thing is, the remaining three all fit in well with the general flow of the story, but I don't think anybody would want to argue that they couldn't have each been cut to a minute and a half or so (especially the total cacophony of The Waiting Room, which is supposed to reflect Rael's paranoia in the dark cave but is probably 4 or 5 times too long). Same goes for the pretty Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats and the ominous, "windy" Ravine. Good plot-setters and mood-setters, to be sure, but not much else.
But the rest, well, the rest is just great. The uber-classic, of course, is the opening title track - from the fabulous opening piano line to the incredible vocal delivery by Peter (dig especially the way he sings "RAEL IMPERIAL AEROSOL KID") and the catchy melody of the song, it does a terrific job of hooking in the listener right away, preparing him for the arduous journey ahead. The next track, Fly on a Windshield, is also amazing, particularly the way the music actually makes the strange story in the booklet come to life; in particular, I'm referring to the way we have "and I'm hovering like a fly, waiting for the windshield on the freewaaay" ... and then *SPLAT* as Phil begins pounding a simple but intense rhythm (driving a jam underpinned with fantastic synth chords and Hackett at his best). And, of course, don't forget the trippy Broadway Melody of 1974 that follows it, or the cute little ditty Cuckoo Cocoon.
Closing out side one is In The Cage, found ugly by some but just wonderful by me. The opening is quiet and gentle, with Rael (the main character) feeling queazy and unable to move, while the rest of it builds and becomes more menacing (especially after the Thick as a Brick style bassline for a couple of measures that pops up to launch us into the rest of the song) until you have overwhelmingly disturbing and intensely real images of things like his dead brother John slowly turning his head towards him while crying blood. BUT, BUT, the part of the song that I love the most comes at the very end, and maybe I'm just imagining it, because nobody else has ever mentioned it, but here goes anyways. You will recall that the end of this song ends in very quiet instrumental noodling that doesn't really have anything to do with the rest of the song. Now, when was the last time we had passages specifically like that? Anybody? Anybody? The answer is ... From Genesis to Revelation. Now, given that, even if the album wasn't meant as a real religious metaphor, the band probably would have realized that it would be taken as such, and if so, what a NEAT self-reference (especially since FGTR was their first big religious spiel). Of course, maybe I'm just looking for meta that isn't there, but whatever - I think it's cool.
Side two is slightly weaker, but still thoroughly entertaining. The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging is a cute little pop song with a neat chorus hook, while the following Back in NYC (which is Rael watching a "viewing" of his own life) has a bit of 'ugliness' to it, but dagnabit, it conveys the hopelessness and ugliness of his former life perfectly (not to mention that the experiences of his life are essential for understanding why he needs to go through what he goes through). And, of course, following Hairless Heart comes the hilarious pop song Counting Out Time, which describes Rael's preparation for his first sexual encounter by buying a textbook on the subject but still striking out in the end. I mean, how on EARTH can anybody resist a song whose chorus is "erogenous zones I love you, without you what would a poor boy do?" Well, unless you're as much of a prude as I'm probably supposed to be, but no matter ... The melody is catchy as a cold, not to mention that Peter's vocalizations are beyond hilarious.
Up next is an absolute classic in Carpet Crawlers. The melody is pretty, with a nice soft organ washing underneath it, but what truly makes the song is the harmonies (well, and Steve's quiet pretty textures weaving in and out). Peter and Phil work in perfect compliment with each other, as Phil hits all sorts of wonderful high notes while Peter's dark, expressive singing drives the song forward and inevitably brings tears to your eyes, even though the song itself only bears a very small place of importance in the plot. Not so with the last song on the disc, though, The Chamber of 32 Doors. Basically, Rael keeps trying door after door, but each one of them leads him straight back into the chamber, and Peter does an impeccable job of conveying his tearful frustration with the situation, as well as with the fact that everybody is calling out different directions for him to go but that he can't bring himself to trust any of them. He can't even bring himself to trust his own parents, which should tell you something.
After the melancholy of 32 Doors, side two opens with a blast thanks to the pop-rocker Lilywhite Lilith. Granted, it's only great for the first two-thirds of it or so, but HOO what a bunch of hooks! Which is a good thing, because hooks aren't coming again for a good while. After the agony of The Waiting Room, we come upon Anyway, which is Rael philosophizing about his wretched fate and about waiting for the reaper to show. I disliked this a little at first, but it makes for incredible gloomy atmosphere, and I love it to pieces now. Here Comes The Supernatural Anaesthetist, on the other hand, is at least funny, not to mention that it has some more wonderful backing harmonies from Phil and the aforementioned solo from Steve.
The centerpiece and most beautiful song on this side, however, is The Lamia. The melody is complicated but even more gorgeous than anything on England (just a lot more mellow), while the lyrics, describing Rael's experiences with these half-women-half-snakes, are sickening in a powerful sort of way. How else can I describe a song in which the women begin to nibble his flesh, shrivel up and die at the first taste of his blood, and then where Rael eats them because he's hungry??!! Plus, there's another very nice Steve solo here (at the end).
Following the instrumental Silent Sorrow ... we hit The Colony of Slippermen, and the story goes from strange to totally messed up. Essentially, Rael's pleasure from the Lamia was so intense that his body is going into a horrible withdrawl from its absence, and he has come across a whole colony of people who are suffering the same fate. He learns from one of these people that in order to get his body back to normal, he must remove the source of his problem - his "love rocket." And so, he and his brother John, whom he has just met again, go to the doctor and get castrated (this part features the beautiful line, "don't delay, dock the dick! I watch his countdown timer tick ...",) with their shlongs placed in a tube that they can wear for posterity. Alas, a raven comes down and grabs the tube from Rael (with Tony's keyboards doing a fine job of displaying the chaos surrounding this event). Rael then tries to catch up with the raven, though John declines to help him, only to watch the raven drop his tube into the river far below.
After the instrumental Ravine, we come to The Light Dies Down on Broadway, incorporating melodies from both the title track and The Lamia (so, of course, it just can't fail to rule). At this point, Rael sees an opening to take him back to his home, but as he runs towards it, he hears John crying for help in the gorge below him. He has to choose at this time to either save his brother's life or go back home - Rael chooses to save his brother's life. Which leads us to the funny and jolly Riding The Scree. Tony's keyboards are terrific here, from the wonderful sparks that fly from his hands in the beginning to the corny-but-better-for-it pseudo-heroic self-mockery at the end. And of course, it has another one of Gabriel's most memorable vocalizations, "Evil Knievel you got nothing on me" (it should be noted also Knievel was not yet a household name in '74; this is another impressive sign of cultural awareness on Peter's part).
And, last but certainly not least, we have the last two tracks on the album. In The Rapids has a beautiful, subdued melody, and even with the purposeful muffling of his vocals, Gabriel does yet another terrific job of moving you deep inside. And, of course, it contains one final and totally strange plot twist - as Rael drags his brother onto the shore, he looks into John's face ... and sees his own. He and his brother then fade away into the mist, into it, which happens to be the name of the last track. Featuring more energy in this one track than can be found on the rest of the disc, it would be difficult to think of a better ending to the album than it, from the great guitar runs to the simple-but-ingenious main riff, and especially the clever allusions to all that which is good and pleasurable in the universe (I especially love the line, "it is chicken, it is eggs, it is in between your legs").
And that's it - that wasn't so complicated was it? Er, maybe it was, as I think I wrote even more for this album than for England. No matter - point is, it's a really really really great album. But England is better.
PS: After the band toured this album, Peter left for good, essentially citing fears that the band was about to become too popular for its own good and for his own comfort. *sniff* Goodbye, Peter - thanks for the memories, and see you on your solo page.

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway / Fly On A Windshield / Broadway Melody Of 1974 / Cuckoo Cocoon / In The Cage / The Grand Parade Of Lifeless Packaging / Back In N.Y.C. / Hairless Heart / Counting Out Time / Carpet Crawlers / The Chamber Of 32 Doors / Lilywhite Lilith / The Waiting Room / Anyway / Here Comes The Supernatural Anaesthetist / The Lamia / Silent Sorrow In Empty Boats / The Colony Of Slippermen / Ravine / The Light Dies Down On Broadway / Riding The Scree / In The Rapids / it

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