By Alison Henderson
Two albums have been released in the past month, which have presented an interesting fork in the prog road, so far as I am concerned. They have a great deal in common in terms of where their roots lie and the musicians which appear collectively on both. And both may succeed in their own ways in bringing more listeners into the proverbial prog fold.
Genesis Revisited II
Genesis Revisited II is Steve Hackett’s continuing project to rearrange and revitalise some of the vast Genesis canon, a task he started 16 years ago with the first volume, Watcher of the Skies. As currently one of the busiest and most sought after prog artists in the business, this has been a huge undertaking for him. The cast of musicians he has picked this time reflects the crème de la crème of prog with his trusty inner circle of Nick Beggs, Lee Pomeroy, Roger King, Gary O’Toole, Amanda Lehmann, Rob Townsend, Phil Mulford along with special guests that include Steven Wilson, Francis Dunnery, Nik Kershaw, Mikael Åkerfeldt, Steve Rothery, Nad Sylvan, Jakko Jakszyk, Neal Morse and Roine Stolt plus John Wetton, Nick Magnus and his brother John Hackett who appeared on volume one.
The dichotomy at the heart of this stunningly produced and presented double album is why one of the biggest segments of prog’s heritage is being rewritten some 40 years after it became a rite of passage for people of a certain age, including myself? Part of the charm then was wearing out albums such as Foxtrot and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the emergent crackle of vinyl adding to the overall slightly grainy appeal.
My own view is that in those days, Hackett, even though he was one of the main composers, was hiding behind his black framed glasses and beard, a quiet figure who deftly got on with his job alongside Mike Rutherford while flamboyant Peter Gabriel stalked the stage, Tony Banks’ mellifluous keyboards flooded the soundscapes and Phil Collins knocked seven bells out of the drumkit.
So, 40 years on, what works and what doesn’t? Well, filling the Gabriel/Collins singing role was never going to be an easy task because of the inevitable comparisons so putting in Agents of Mercy’s Nad Sylvan who can sound like both in equal measures is a clever piece of casting. He is particularly impressive on the opener, The Chamber of 32 Doors and The Musical Box, on which he captures well the deranged whimsy of the song.
Wilson also surprises with a very compelling upbeat vocal on Can-Utility and the Coastliners but the real zenith is Kershaw’s extraordinary performance on The Lamia. Not even attempting to sound like Gabriel is the key; instead he delivers the song with a heartrending purity and innocence which only heightens the intensity of Rael’s surreal experience lyrically. Add to that a stirring guitar solo from Rothery and this is the highlight in my humble opinion.
Morse and Stolt come back to finish what they started at the High Voltage Festival in London in 2010 when Hackett joined them onstage for a rip-roaring Return of the Giant Hogweed that really rocks here too.
What does not work are some of the other vocal-led song such as Afterglow with Wetton that does not have the energy and depth of the original; and also Ripples with Amanda Lehmann way outside her vocal comfort zone for the verses. Yet she is stunning on Return of the Hierophant which has become such a huge number performed live and very much at the suggestion of Wilson who takes a major role in the version here.
Moving swiftly on to Kompendium’s Beneath the Waves, this album also features the talents of Dunnery, Beggs and Jakszyk along with other prog legends Gavin Harrison, John Mitchell, Mel Collins, Nick Barrett – and Steve Hackett!
The album is the creation of Magenta’s multi-talented mainman Rob Reed for whom it has taken the best part of four years to bring to fruition. His aim throughout has been to craft an album to incorporate the magnitude of Wars of the Worlds and at the same time, acknowledging the influence of his heroes primarily Mike Oldfield.
Having secured the services of War of the Worlds’ artist Geoff Taylor to design the haunting images on the cover, Reed’s all-star cast grew to include Uilleann pipes maestro Troy Donockley, the English Chamber Choir, Dave Stewart who arranged the strings, the London Session Orchestra, Synergy Vocals, plus opera singers Rhys Meirion and Shan Cothi. Then add the final ingredient, two exceptional singers, Steve Balsamo, an erstwhile Jesus Christ as in Superstar and school teacher Angharad Brinn.
Then Reed’s brother Steve spins the lyrical web to tell a Celtic morality tale about love, loss, redemption and reunion – all played out with the sea at its heart. The threads of Celtic, prog and classical are all stitched together with such intricacy and detail throughout with Donockley’s ethereal pipes an overarching influence throughout the ever shifting moods and textures brought into the individual compositions.
It is as though Reed has stirred up his own personal storm, the musical elements ebbing and flowing, and the shapes of the sounds within it constantly evolving as the story unfolds. In particular, listen out for Beggs’ Chapman stick on Beneath the Waves as one example of how deep this album’s waters run.
But above all, Balsamo is immense, his voice in itself a showcase of expression in contrast to Brinn’s angelically pure singing, which touches the heart especially when paired with Hackett’s nylon guitar sounding like a harp on the track Lilly.
So, here we are looking back and well as forward within these two albums; but what unites them along with their stellar casts is their possible appeal to those outside the prog boundaries.
Genesis Revisited II I hope will provide a starting point for parents – even grand-parents of a certain age – to show the X-Factor/American Idol-loving Generation digital natives within their families the music on which they were raised and hope that they may find it more artistically absorbing than the current Grand Parade of overhyped, under-talented Packaging on offer.
Beneath the Waves’ potential reach is probably wider still because of its operatic and classical leanings. Already, two non-prog friends have fallen in love with it as well as my mother (who did ask for a couple of Rick Wakeman albums for her 79th birthday two years ago, it has to be said)!
So these are two excellent examples of how past and present can shape the future of prog and more importantly change the way our best-kept musical secret is perceived outside the immediate circle.