Classic Genesis Album Review: Foxtrot

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Ah, yes. If you’ve been reading these reviews waiting for me to really tear into some dusty old Dad Rock, then I’ve got some bad news for you: Foxtrot, the band’s fourth album, is a full-on masterpiece. There’s hardly a weak spot on it, a bad idea in it, or a moment of boredom to speak of. Even the softer sections are mysterious and entrancing instead of just dull. It tends to get dwarfed by its descendants, but to me, this is THE Prog Genesis album, the one that I have the least trouble defending. It marked a turning point in the band and a peak in the way it presented itself.

I don’t just want to spend all of these reviews focusing on Peter Gabriel, since part of the whole reason for his split with the band came from the way he started hogging the spotlight. Still, it’s hard not to connect the Foxtrot era with the rise of Gabriel’s famous costumes and theatrics. With all due respects to David Bowie (RIP), Gabriel would blow through several different costumes and stage persona per concert at his height to match his changing voice and bizarre, rambling stories. One of these costumes even included the fox in a red dress from the album’s cover.

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I guess this makes Gabriel a kitsune…

Aside from him, the bandmembers who stand out the most on this album are Banks and Hackett: the former has lots of synth stuff to do, while the latter gets his first (brief) solo moment to shine as a composer. But really, everyone has some great moments, and let’s not forget that this album gave forth a legendarily long monster track, one that is a mini-masterpiece in its own right.

That might make all of this sound fairly disjointed, but this is also one of the tighter thematic albums of the band’s early years. Foxtrot is all about the apocalypse, in one form or the other, as each song sees some form of death or change arrive with cataclysmic results, culminating in a song about the actual, Biblical end of days. While it would be a suitable topic for a thrash-metal band, Genesis has an idiosyncratic take, weaving heavy rock, classical guitar, mellow ballads and pretty much anything they found interesting into a tight, propulsive collection of songs. There are fewer tracks here, but that’s only if you count the behemoth on Side 2 as a single song, which we’ll get into in a minute.

There’s so much to talk about with this one, it’s hard to know where to begin. Probably with the first track, right? That’s generally a good idea. Activate your prayer capsule and let’s get started.

Watcher of the Skies: Don’t let the ominous opening chords fool you: this is one of the most blistering, exciting tracks in the entire Prog Genesis library. After a chuchly Banks intro, we get a slowly building bass riff (presumably Mike Rutherford, and if so, it’s one of his all-time best moments) that bursts into the first line. Originally, I thought this song was about the last human searching hopelessly for more life in space, but the lyrics are actually so ambiguous that it could be about the exact opposite, a wandering alien arriving on Earth after humanity has wiped itself out. Either way, the combination of choral shouts and Gabriel’s aching verses is a perfect match for the grand, driving rhythm (I believe musicologists know it as DUHNUHNUHNUHNUHNUH NUHNUHNUH NUHNUHNUH NUHNUHNUH). There’s a great section where the synth and the guitars sort of trade the  beat back and forth, getting softer and then surging back loud again, and it’s exhilarating. This song became a classic live opener for the band (though it was an encore when I saw Genesis cover band The Musical Box do it a few years ago) and Gabriel’s character wore the iconic bat wings and glittery rainbow cape for the tune, as well as some great Ace Frehley-esque eye makeup.While Trey Anastasio and Phish deserves some credit for playing this at Genesis’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2010, they lose points for not even bothering with the costume. For shame!

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

Time Table: Get past the cutesy title and you’ll find a criminally underrated gem, and further proof that the prog and pop modes of Genesis weren’t entirely exclusive. Here’s a song that’s melodically catchy enough to play on any radio station and complex enough to fit alongside all the other more challenging stuff on this same record. The Keatsian lyrics use the subject of a Medieval oak table to meditate on the passage of time, and whether the greatness of former empires lives on or simply fades away. At first, the table is a handsome reminder of nobility, but by the second verse it’s dusty, musty and neglected. So, yeah, it’s literally a song about a table, which is kind of silly, and the words favor a sort of labored faux-middle English syntax that isn’t super singable (“A time when kings and queens sipped wine from goblets gold/And the brave would lead their ladies from out the room/ To arbors cool.”). It doesn’t matter, because everything works so well, even the tinkly piano outro which could have been cheesy but is instead heartfelt and sweet. I genuinely love this song and think it’s a great example of how you can combine several influences without producing a big honking mess.

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

Get’Em Out By Friday: In the near future, a greedy property company slowly squeezes its tenants out of their homes, bribing them with “a block of flats with central heating” before raising their rent anyway. This is kind of a companion piece to “Return of the Giant Hogweed” from the last album, a sci-fi mini-epic that tells a complete story and features Gabriel doing several voices, sometimes with electronic assistance. There’s also a little bit of “Harold the Barrel” in the way Gabriel switches tones and melodies for each character, including the landlord, the residents and “the Winkler,” the hatchet-man sent to conduct the evictions. Sometimes, Gabriel’s busy lyrics got in the way of the already chaotic orchestration of some of these story-songs, much to the rest of the band’s annoyance. Fortunately, things continue to work together well here, with Phil Collins’ frantic drumming and Banks’ classical riffs blending smoothly. Rutherford’s bass and Hackett’s guitar come out during the bridge, and eventually things get very quiet before the narrative abruptly shifts forward to a Dalek-like voice trumpeting an announcement from “Genetic Control.” Seems that the powers that be have decided to start breeding humans smaller so they can fit them into more buildings. Then the whole thing ends with an oddly cutting line suggesting that the church is in cahoots with all of it, which is probably a little too much given the amount of content already crammed in here. The song itself is a nice change of pace for the band, a surprisingly bouncy work that combines technical virtuosity and fantastical elements with some surprisingly strong social satire. At a time when families in Hong Kong are getting squeezed into illegal 40-foot subdivisions,  this song is actually still pretty relevant, and the sneering, sarcastic finale helped keep the band’s bleak sense of humor razor sharp.

Rating: **** (four out of five

Can-Utility and the Coastliners: The title, presumably a play on King Canute, is kind of dumb, but the song itself more than makes up for it. After an opening about the “scattered pages of a book/by the sea” (and the return of the loathsome finger cymbals) we hear the tale of an arrogant king who commands the sea to halt at his feet. There’s some ELP-esque riffs but also a cool, chill section (“Far from the north/overcast/ranks advance”) before the entire melody changes and we get into the harder guitar work. I always marvel at the way this song shifts so effortlessly from a classical beat to a shredding guitar within just a few bars. Like earlier Genesis songs, this essentially feels like two different pieces mashed up together, but the group pulls it off. The final bit has Gabriel uncharacteristically screaming and snarling before everyone tidies it up with a neat finish. By this point, you’ll probably forget the pastoral way the whole thing opened, and that’s a testament to just how much there is to hear.

Rating:**** (four out of five)

Horizons: Pity poor Steve Hackett. The guy seems like he worked really hard on this soothing classical guitar piece that’s both under two minutes and poorly placed on the album right before the longest album track in the band’s history. In interviews he’s said that some listeners assumed it was just an intro to the next song. That’s a shame, because this is a lovely little ditty (the first instrumental to appear on a Genesis album, in fact) that demonstrates Hackett’s virtuosity without being too showy. If I were a guitar expert I could probably tell you about all the different techniques he works into this one piece: alas, I’m merely a schlub who listens to Genesis too much. However, I did once again notice the easy way Hackett moved from arpeggios to sharp plucking, making a nice rise and fall before everything comes to a close. It might be the most easily overlooked track on the album, given its company, but “Horizons” was an early herald of some great things to come from Hackett.

Rating: **** (four out of five)

Supper’s Ready: Where do I even start with this beast? “Supper’s Ready” is an infamous, 23-minute behemoth that’s unique even in a genre loaded with overly long songs. While there is kind of a narrative tying the seven “movements” together, it’s more a series of tableaux and symbolic imagery, leading up to the finale to end all Genesis finales. I considered covering the entire song in one bullet, but there’s so much to unpack here I thought it made more sense to break it down into sections. While there’s lost of “official” program notes to go from, I’m just going to focus on what’s on the album and leave you to look that stuff up yourself, because I’m sure you’re interested.

I. Lover’s Leap: This gentle opening is so melodic it might trick you into thinking you’re listening to a normal song. Don’t be fooled! Gabriel harmonizes with a falsetto version himself and describes an ordinary evening at a couple’s home that starts to get weird. Taken on its own, this could almost be a standalone song, and in fact, future frontman Ray Wilson has performed just this section live. We don’t speak about Ray Wilson, though. Not yet.

II. The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man: The serene textures of the previous verse lead us to this folky part that suddenly turns into ecstatic fanfare to herald the arrival of the titular character, who doesn’t seem all that sincere. There’s some choruses and buoyant guitar work, but there’s no time to get too comfortable…

III. Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men:…because now we’re rushed into battle! Though Banks takes a lot of the spotlight here, the most memorable part of this movement by far is the dueling guitar riff that comes at the climax. Pretty rad, and it’s over all too quickly.

IV. How Dare I Be So Beautiful?: This is barely a section at all, and more  of a breather between the busier pieces. It’s hard not to snicker at the overly serious scene-setting, especially when Gabriel introduces a boy who’s been “stamped ‘Human Bacon/ by some butchery tool” before revealing “he is you.” What the hell does that mean? That’s a question you just can’t ask here, since no sooner does the boy appear than he transforms into a flower. “A flower?”

V. Willow Farm: Yup, it’s the bit where Gabriel stalks around dressed as a giant flower, single-handedly inventing Of Montreal in the process and confusing pretty much everyone. One of the most notorious moments in all of Genesis lore is also undisputably a song highlight, a goofy-yet-scary nightmare garden where nothing stays stable for long. What other band would put something so ludicrous in the middle of their huge opus? This is one case where you absolutely need to see some of the live concert footage, because the entire thing gets even crazier once you realize what was actually happening onstage while this madness was playing. In purely audio form, “Willow Farm” is still a trip, basically a 70’s version of “I Am The Walrus” full of weird Freudian imagery, pounding synth and Gabriel’s menacing purr. From here we’d get pop culture’s most sinister flower until Undertale (that reference is for the part of my readership that both loves old-school Genesis and has played a video game that came out last year. So, all of you.).

VI. Apocalypse in 9/8 (Co-Starring the Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet): What sounds at first like we’re gearing up for a 90’s videogame boss fight takes a sudden left turn into coziness with a protracted flute solo, which I know you were just dying to get back to. Once again, though, you can’t get too comfortable, because things take another turn when the flute cuts out, the keyboards start pounding and Gabriel’s voice begins echoing all over the place. For this section, he would put a magenta box on his head and don a shaggy black cloak as Magog, while describing a parade of dragons, flames, trumpets, and other Book of Revelations mainstays. And a parade is just what it sounds like, especially between the two sung verses, as the drumming gets more regimented and Tony Banks marches us higher and higher up the steps to the big confrontation. There’s a nice scratchy noise right before Gabriel shrieks “666,” too, that kind of sounds like a dolphin. Then, after so much intense buildup, we finally get the big release. I know I already said this, but please track down live concert footage of the 70’s performance of this with Gabriel: the first time I saw him burst out of a cloud of smoke in an all-white outfit and boogie to the sound of church bells I swear I burst out laughing (in a good way, Peter. Honest.).

VII. As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs (Aching Men’s Feet): Why does so much Christian rock suck? For many people, the genre makes you think of middle-aged white guys with soul patches groaning about how awesome Jesus is while bland rock-metal drones on in the background. Yet, here’s a song that unapologetically ends with God ushering humanity into New Jerusalem and it’s totally rockin’. It helps that a) the band seems more interested in the lore of the Bible than any evangelical message and b) everybody seems completely, joyously exhausted by this point. Gabriel’s voice is shot, the Mellotron is exploding, Phil is whaling on the drums with all his strength and the guitars are tangled around themselves in sweaty riff infinity. Hallelujah.

I thought about giving each of these sections individual ratings, but honestly, there’s no way I can give “Supper’s Ready” anything other than a five out of five. If the band did something this nutso on every album it wouldn’t be as special. Instead, this stands as their most grandiose piece yet, a totally one-of-a-kind prog thesis. The sheer amount of stuff packed in here without weighing the whole album down is extraordinary: pretty much every movement leads organically to the next, and it all feels pretty well-constructed, which is a miracle worthy of Magog itself. If the Rapture ever does happen, I want a band of angels to be playing the final melody as everyone disappears up to Heaven, which will probably piss off all the Zeppelin fans but whatevs.

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

Conclusion: By this point, you can probably tell I dig this album. It’s almost irreproachable as a great artifact of Prog Genesis, and it’s also a sign of how the band was developing as a group. After a couple of years of experimentation, they now had a sense of what was in their wheelhouse: epic rock songs, gentle pop tunes, story-driven sci-fi narratives, and instrumentals were all up for grabs, along with whatever else these five bookish madmen fancied. While they had yet to make the mainstream, true fans know how important Foxtrot is, and it still holds up well. Give it a listen, and re-live the glory days of ecstatic drums, sweep picking and Peter Gabriel’s unclassifiable haircut. Oooo-eeee-oooo-eeee-ahhhhhh.

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