Let’s get this out of the way: I’m not very good at music reviews. What I am, however, is someone scarily obsessed with the rock band Genesis, specifically the classic progressive (or prog) era in the 70’s. If you only vaguely know them as the group behind that song that plays in CVS sometimes, follow me back to 1970, as we chart the beginnings of one of the oddest and most eclectic groups of its time. Though it would eventually become known for catchy synth-pop, Genesis famously began as a prog staple, eventually turning all of its members into music industry mainstays, some more than others.
“But Andy,” some of you may be saying, “if you’re doing a Genesis retrospective, why aren’t you starting with the first album, From Genesis to Revelation?” There’s no real answer, other than the fact that a) even many die-hard fans find that album obscure and b) I don’t wanna. If I do enough of these reviews I might go back to it eventually. For now, I find it easier to start with the group’s sophomore work, Trespass, especially since it has way fewer songs.
Even with only one album behind it, Trespass is kind of an oddity, starting with the ugly cover art. At the time, the group consisted of Peter Gabriel as vocalist, Tony Banks on various keyboard instruments, Anthony Phillips on lead guitar, Mike Rutherford on bass and John Mayhew on drums. Only Gabriel, Rutherford and Banks would move on to the next albums, and much of the folky feel of this one would be left behind with the discarded members. While it makes sense as a starting point for someone looking to get into classic Genesis, don’t be saddened if you’re not into it: the stuff on the horizon will be different.
With that in mind, let’s break down the album track by track. Keep in mind that I’m no musical expert and sometimes have trouble telling who’s doing what, instrument wise:
Looking for Someone: It’s weird that the first moments of the first song at the very beginning of Peter Gabriel’s first band actually sounds a lot like his later work. We get his vocals over a moody soundscape, and it’s not until about half a minute in that the guitars perk up and we think, “oh, right, it’s the 70’s.” I guess this is kind of a weird song to open the album in general. It’s all over the place musically and doesn’t really fit in with the whole folky, Medieval vibe, as Gabriel’s protagonist wrestles with whether or not he wants to be in a relationship. It’s a pretty good representation of what the band was good at, though, as this one song manages to cram so many different moods and tones into a single piece. Genesis was certainly guilty of using all the prog cliches, but they could also transcend them and create a genuinely eclectic sound at their best. That isn’t the case, here, yet, unfortunately, but there’s enough going on that it makes for a solid opener, if an odd one. While the best prog tracks make all the complicated tempo changes flow naturally, this feels like four or five songs stuck together. I guess it’s better to have too many ideas than too few, especially in progland.
Ranking: *** (three out of five)
White Mountains: If the first song put you to sleep, this one will (eventually) perk you back up again, old friend. Instead of an angsty ballad about boring things like feelings, we get a totally ridiculous Beowulf-esque saga about a clash between talking wolves that sounds like “Battle of Evermore” meets “Classical Gas.” Moreso than many prog groups, Genesis loved to tell stories, and although the narrative here is pretty basic, it’s a good beginning to the mini-opera style the band would embrace going forward. There’s some great acoustic and synth work, the latter courtesy of Tony Banks, as well as a few lovely little pastoral passages and that weird echoey effect that makes it sound like there’s a dozen Peter Gabriels yelling at you at once. This song also sets up the loose theme (don’t call it a concept!) tying the album together, about who is allowed kingly authority over whom. There would be much better versions of this kind of thing later in the band’s career, but White Mountains is still an album highlight as far as I’m concerned, full of drama and lots of great atmosphere. As a side note, how does a wolf hold a scepter, exactly?
Ranking: **** (four out of five)
Visions of Angels: Here’s where things start to sag a little. As with the other weaker tracks, there’s a bunch of good elements here searching for a better song. The lyrics, about a grief-stricken pilgrim grappling with his faith in a barren forest, fit better with the general tone of the album than the opener, and the middle piece with all the AHHHHHHHs would be a great instrumental on its own. Banks showboats here pretty well and adds some nice little Rick Wakemany touches, including the opening riff. This one is mainly undone by it own stateliness. There’s too much buildup, and the chorus, while grand and majestic the first time you hear it, is repeated no less than THREE TIMES at the end, leaving you pretty exhausted. Sometimes that shit works but this isn’t “The Mercy Seat” and all that grandiosity just becomes tedious (it does make you appreciate the roughness in Gabriel’s voice, though, so different from other prog singers). Pacing was not a strength of classic prog in general, and would come to Genesis slowly. “Visions” isn’t bad by any stretch, just not extremely memorable.
Ranking: *** (three out of five)
Stagnation: With a title like that, you’re probably not expecting anything rousing, but this is actually a gorgeous Genesis slow burn, building up to a great climactic chorus. The start’s a little rough: the guitar and keys sound like they’re trying to overpower each other, you can barely hear Gabriel’s watery vocals and the overall quality is pretty muddy. Things get good, though, once the drums come in, and the scene abruptly turns strange and languid. Tony Banks does this delightfully weird thing that sounds like a series of dial tones before things morph into a kind of jam, then switch again a couple more times until we get to that wonderful baroque “I WANNA DRINK” part, followed by the long, melodic outro. If that’s Phillips on the guitar, he brings a lot of enthusiasm to the jammy crescendo that makes it feel like a symphony instead of an open-ended free jazz session. Unlike “Looking for Someone,” the progressions feel organic, even when they’re radically different from what came before. It really does sound like you’re staring at a still pond while being abducted by aliens, which probably isn’t what the song is about but is as good as anyone else’s guess.
Ranking: **** (four out of five)
Dusk: The only song on this album shorter than five minutes is, weirdly enough, also the dullest. I used to think this was a beautiful tune, but the more I listen to it the less I like it. It’s pretty, sure, and that’s about it, and the more it goes on the more it sounds like second-rate Moody Blues foofery, (or, as my brother might say, “dreary hippie music”) especially with those choruses. I like the flute stuff in the middle sections and the chamber harmonies well enough, and it leaves a good memory afterwards if you don’t fall asleep. Like “Visions,” the middle section might have made a good instrumental piece if presented on its own. Unfortunately, it’s deadened by faux-mystical fluff and SO. MANY. FINGER CYMBALS. Seriously. If you take a shot every time you hear finger cymbals, you will probably be dead within two minutes.
Ranking: ** (two out of five)
The Knife: Now we’re talking. After tracks of wistful forest guitars and chimes, we now get a total 180, from the pounding opening chords onward. There was a time when I listened to this song multiple times a day, and I was a little worried it wouldn’t hold up upon a revisit. As dated as everything on Trespass is, “The Knife,” is still awesome, urgent and frightening in a way that throttles the album up to a high note. Instead of closing with something overtly olde fashouned, the band wisely opted for a song about violent rebellion, a topic that’s both modern and timeless. Gabriel’s manic guerilla leader proudly exhorts followers to “stand up and fight/for you know we are right” while callously noting that “some of you are going to die/martyrs, of course, to the freedom that I shall provide.”) The tension doesn’t let up, even when the obligatory flute interlude appears, and the sequence where a repeated chant leads to sounds of gunfire, screams, and a kickass guitar solo is truly masterful. If “White Mountain,” a song about coronation, had been the opener, “The Knife,” a song about the rulers being overthrown, would have been an even better conclusion. The only false step comes at the very end, where the song resolves with a weird loungey “ta-DA!” moment instead of a yell, which would have been more appropriate. That’s nitpicking, though. This is the first essential Genesis track, and, as far as I’m concern, the only thing you truly need to hear from this album, if you’re short of time but still have nine minutes to spare, somehow.
Ranking: ***** (five out of five)
Conclusion: Believe it or not, I used to proudly call Trespass my favorite Genesis album, little snob that I am, and in a way I’m glad I’ve listened to it enough to no longer feel that way. It’s very much a humorless 60’s hangover, lacking much of the surreal psychodramas, bizarre jokes and propulsive rock that would define the band’s best work. The good stuff here is notable, though, and when seen as part of a full catalogue, helps show why the band’s output was more diverse than many give it credit for.