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Old 10-03-2021, 02:44 PM   #8 (permalink)
Trollheart
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1971 saw some major changes for the band. Already having separated themselves from the vision, and control of Jonathan King, they now decided that drummer John Mayhew did not cut the muster and fired him. After some auditions they settled on a young guy called Phil Collins, and also added a second guitarist, mostly to replace the by now departed Anthony Phillips. His name was Steve Hackett. Expanding on their penchant for long, involved songs with different time signatures and esoteric lyrics, and helping in the process to lay down the blueprint for what would become the progressive rock of the 1970s, they released their third album in November of that year.

Nursery Cryme (1971)


Similar to the previous album, this one was based not so much on track numbers as lengths, with one more track than Trespass but its opening song already becoming their longest to date, at almost ten and a half minutes. It was pretty clear even at this early stage that Genesis were not writing albums with a view to releasing hit singles, though there are two shorter songs on this one. Even the album sleeve shows a determination to look back to the past, with a young girl in Victorian dress playing croquet with heads on a lawn, and yet there's a nod to the future (or at least, the present) as the young girl's nanny, who is coming out seemingly to stop her, appears to be on wheels. All of this is drawn from the opening track, “The Musical Box”, while yet retaining an air of a sort of twisted version of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The opening song is as weird as they come, with the lyric “explained” in the inside cover of the album, and basically being the story of a homicidal young girl called Cynthia who kills her cousin, Henry. He then returns to her via a (supposedly) enchanted musical box, but when she opens it and it plays the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole”, Henry ages rapidly, and wishing to explore a lifetime's carnal desires in a single moment tries to rape Cynthia, before the nanny rushes in, throws the musical box at Henry and both disappear in a cloud of smoke. Yeah. This is the kind of thing you would come to expect from Genesis; their lyrics were seldom if ever rooted in the real world of real people, something which earned them labels such as “snobs”, “musical intelligentsia” and no doubt “pretentious bastards”, all of which pretty much has to be accepted.

While bands like Free were writing about wishing wells and their cousin Jake, and Sabbath were running from the devil, Steppenwolf were heading out on the highway and Marc Bolan was getting it on, Genesis became part of a sort of quasi-underground movement of bands who did not fit into the normal strictures of what was seen as rock music, and didn't want to. With stablemates like ELP, Yes and Pink Floyd, they would go on to explore different musical boundaries, break through them and create a whole new idea of what rock music could be. For a while, this new music, which would become known as progressive rock, would be the darling of the students, the educational elite, the hipsters of the day, and then at one point it would grow so big and bloated and self-important that it would just implode, and fall victim to the ravening jaws of punk rock.

But all of that was in the future, and even as they recorded this album Genesis could have had little inkling of how well their music would be received, how big they would get and how many people they would reach. Right now, they were just experimenting, flexing their musical muscles, seeing what they could do. Trespass had failed to gain any real interest, nor indeed would this album, but in Italy it would be an entirely different story, where, after a very successful tour to support it, Nursery Cryme would climb to the dizzy heights of number four in their charts.

But back to the music. “The Musical Box” opens with a strummed twelve-string guitar, played in an almost medieval manner, then the soft voice of Peter Gabriel comes in as he, in Henry's returning form, entreats Cynthia ”Play me “Old King Cole”/ That I may join with you.” The song again, somewhat like “Visions of Angels” on the previous release, seeks to not only distance the band from the notion of the Bible and God, but to actively deconstruct it. When Gabriel snarled ”I believe there never is an end/ God gave up this world/ Its people long ago” he was pretty much taking his first real potshots at the idea of a supreme deity, and here, in his role as Henry, now an old man, he snaps to Cynthia that ”The nurse will tell you lies/ Of a kingdom beyond the skies” but he has seen what lies beyond, and there's no Heaven, or even Hell. It's just a ”Half world” according to him, and he therefore wishes to dispel the young girl's foolish notions, put there by parents and guardians and nannies, of a reward, or even punishment, after death.

Gabriel's voice turns from soft and cajoling to bitter and angry in a moment, but the music remains gentle, carried on Steve Hackett's twelve-string, then Gabriel adds in some flute, the whole thing deceptively pastoral. It could almost be a tryst between lovers, which in a way it kind of is. IN the third minute the music becomes a little more intense, stately, grand, almost a musical declamation, but this fades away quickly as Henry again asks Cynthia ”Play me my song” at which point Tony Banks's newly-purchased Mellotron makes its voice heard, and with the addition of percussion from new guy Collins as well as a scorching solo from Mike Rutherford the tempo increases as things begin to spiral a little out of control. Whereas on Trespass there is little of what might be kindly called hard rock until the last track, the midsection here is a powerpunch in the face (for a Genesis album), then Gabriel recites the “King Cole” nursery rhyme, his voice dropping to almost a whisper as the music follows him down, deceiving the listener who relaxes just before a powerful aural assault takes us into another galloping instrumental which allows everyone to give vent to their talents, Collins hammering away at the kit, Banks trumpeting the keys and the two guitarists trading licks until finally it all stops suddenly as Gabriel takes us into the final section, a slow, yearning ode to love that, characteristically for this song, does not remain gentle for long, pounding up into a manic vocal with thundering drums and blaring keys, finally ending with Gabriel's desperate plea to Cynthia ”Why don't you touch me now?”, the whole thing finally ending on hammered mellotron chords, driving, wailing guitar and punching drums.

After that somewhat breathtaking introduction to this album, the next song is the shortest on it, and is a simple look at growing old, as two people visit a church to remember and perhaps say a prayer “For Absent Friends”, the first time Collins takes lead vocals. It's very pastoral, very folky and has echoes of “She's Leaving Home” in its melody. It's never been one of my favourites on the album to be honest, and owes more to the debut album than the second, but it's a nice opportunity to catch your breath after the epic opener, and not much of a breather, as the next one is eight minutes long and again shows the “heavier” side of Genesis, opening with a dancing, swirling keyboard run from Banks as “Return of the Giant Hogweed” relates the tale of a mysterious plant found in Russia and brought back to England during Victorian times. Honestly, I thought it was about John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids but it appears to be based on actual events. There are elements of “The Knife” and later “Watcher of the Skies”, as Banks seeks to make the Mellotron a signature sound for Genesis.

It proceeds mostly on a sort of marching beat, building to a frenetic crescendo, with a dangerous, warning and even frantic vocal from Gabriel as he warns ”Hurry now! We must protect ourselves/ And find some shelter!” The idea of an implacable enemy advancing is represented really well by the bass and the ticking drumbeats, and is something that thematically the band would return to almost a decade later on Duke. About halfway in, there's a powerful instrumental break which seems to presage the situation spiralling out of control as the Giant Hogweed threaten to take over the Earth. Even Gabriel's flute sounds somehow menacing. Then a rolling, rippling piano line from Banks almost offers some respite, a lonely guitar solo sounding a note of alarm as the tempo increases and things begin to build. This, again, has not ever been a favourite track of mine but you have to admire the way it's constructed, almost like a movie soundtrack. The wave breaks as the Hogweed prepare to attack and there's a big keyboard finish.

Apparently as I say this is based on real events, but I've never heard of such a thing happening. I could research it, but let's be honest: in all likelihood nobody's reading this review and if you are then I doubt you are bothered that much, so I'm not going to trouble myself. As is becoming the trend for at least this album, we have an epic piece of bombast followed by a more serene, gentle and simple tune. “Seven Stones” talks about prophecies, farmers, sailors and “the changes of no consequence”, but I have to be honest, I have no idea what it's about. Possibly the fallacy of putting faith in seers? Anyway, it's a nice soft tune driven on acoustic guitar and gentle keys, with some nice backing vocals, pretty much a vehicle for Banks to show his softer side after the manic intensity of “Return of the Giant Hogweed”. It has a nice chorus with quite the hook in it, and though there's not as much in it as either of the two epics, it's a song I do enjoy and return to from time to time. A fine vocal performance from Gabriel, who for once doesn't descend into his harder, rougher style, and adds some more of what is becoming his trademark flute passages.

There the pattern breaks, as the next two songs are both short, just under three minutes each, but “Harold the Barrel” reveals the playful side of Genesis, typified by the tale of a man who ”Cut off his toes/ And served them all for tea”! There's great humour in the song, and it cannons along at a loping pace, starting fast and only breaking down once for a rather beautiful little interlude where Harold, stuck on a ledge and about to jump, imagines himself ”Sailing in an open boat on the sea.” Something else that would come through later is a cast of characters, with people like Mister Plod the Policeman (really!), the BBC reporter, Harold's mother, the Lord Mayor and others all making an appearance, and all voiced by Collins. Real wisecracks like ”He can't last long/ Hasn't got a leg to stand on” and Harold's own advice to the policeman who tries to coax him off the ledge, ”Take a running jump!” help to pull the song along and it ends on a last descending piano chord from Banks, presumably indicating that poor Harold has taken his own advice. A soft ballad in a folky vein, reminiscent of the best of CSNY, “Harlequin” again has a lyric I don't understand, but it's not that necessary when it's driven by such a beautiful performance by Steve Hackett on the twelve-string and with sweet vocal harmonies, and it leads into the final epic, and one of my favourite Genesis songs.

Again, ploughing a path which would seem them alienated lyrically from other bands who concentrated on more “earthy” subjects, “The Fountain of Salmacis” is based on the ancient Greek myth of the nymph Salmacis who pursued the demigod Hermaphroditus, until she ended up merging with him and they became one being, hence the idea of hermaphrodites. You keeping up? Good. But lyrical matter aside, it's a beautiful song, which opens with a swirling, almost echoing keyboard that grows and falls back, grows and falls back, almost like the tide ebbing and flowing, that then gives way to Collins's workmanilke drums and Gabriel's vocal as he relates the story. The tempo picks up then as Hermaphroditus, pursuing a stag, finds himself chased by a lusty nymph. Again there are some great vocal effects, with Gabriel singing the main line and Collins (?) singing another one, as Marillion would later repeat on “Fugazi”.

The song runs for eight minutes, therefore making it the third epic on the album, and around the second minute that swirling, rising keyboard line returns to usher in the next verse. In the denouement, as the demigod shrinks back from the nymph and she refuses to be parted from him and calls on the gods to witness their union, Collins goes mad on the kit, with Banks setting up a real tarantella on the mellotron, driving home the danger and the urgency as Hermaphroditus tries to get away, unsuccessfully. A squealing guitar solo from Hackett underlines the struggle, then a vocal chorus witnesses the joining. Another long instrumental passage, somewhat in the mould of “Hogweed” before Banks takes control again with first the mellotron then a reprise of the keyboard intro to take the song into its final verse, the doom of the god and a sonorous organ brings everything to a close as Gabriel sighs ”Both had given everything they had” and they had, quite literally, each giving up their individuality to become one. A metaphor for marriage? Maybe. Don't ask me. All I know is there is a superb guitar solo to almost close the track, and the album out, before a rising organ and sussurating cymbals underline the final chapter in this tragedy, and with that final flourish the album comes to an end.

TRACK LISTING

The Musical Box
For Absent Friends
The Return of the Giant Hogweed
Seven Stones
Harold the Barrel
Harlequin
The Fountain of Salmacis

There's nobody, myself included, who could deny this album is self-indulgent, and on a grand scale. Not really until Yes began getting established, and ELP came on the scene, would rock see such excess both in terms of lyrical content and musical interpretation. None of these songs, like the previous album in fact, feature anything like a rock guitar solo, a verse/verse/chorus/verse structure; in fact, some of the songs don't even have choruses and in that way I suppose they're as close to jazz in terms of being freeform. The songs tend to look to teach rather than just repeat cliches, to open up a world of classical influences, including literature, theatre, philosophy and religion, and to make the listener actually think about the lyrics. It's a heavy album, but worth the slogging through I believe.

But if their newly won fans thought that was epic, they would be knocked sideways by what they would hear next.

Rating: 9.6/10
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