Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Music Review: Calling All Stations

Calling All Stations
  • Band: Genesis (Ray Wilson, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks)
  • Publisher: Atlantic (USA), Virgin (UK)
  • Genre: Rock (Progressive)
  • Producers: Nick Davis, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks
  • Release: 1 September 1997
  • Formats: Casette, CD

Looks like there's one more thing Seanbaby and I will have to disagree with: Phil Collins, known as the drummer and one of the lead singers for the band Genesis.  The consensus on the other side of the arguement is that after he replaced the outgoing Peter Gabriel as the band's lead singer in 1975, their output steadily shifted from the progressive rock they were doing before to 80s-friendly soft rock.  A bunch of his songs, both with the band and as a solo artist, were still getting airplay while I was growing up, so I had an affinity for their kind of sound engraved in me at an early age.  So yeah, I'm a fan, and even though I recognize the shift in style caused by the switch from Peter to Phil as the band's frontman and perhaps driving creative force, I'd never admit that was a bad thing.  Then again, I admit I have yet to get into the band's Gabriel-era records, so I reserve the right to adjust my opinion once I do, although I'll still love the songs Phil made.  There's not much like them out there.

But what about after their heyday?  Phil Collins first left the band in 1993, putting its remaining two members on hiatus until a few years later, when they recruited lead singer Ray Wilson and two session drummers to record a new album, Calling All Stations, in 1997.  Wilson, originally from Scottish grunge bands Guaranteed Fine and Stiltskin, bears a positive resemblance to Gavin Rossdale from Bush (no, not even close).  Some say the reason for people's declining interest in Genesis, especially in America, was the band's apparent refusal to adapt to grunge and alternative rock in some way or another.  Depending on how you take that, coming from a progressive/pop rock band, the results could sound disturbing...  By the time they worked this style into Calling All Stations, it was too late to save the band; after this album's disappointing sales, they cancelled the American leg of their '97-'98 tour and eventually broke up "for good".  But is it worth exploring?

Since I hate my earlier song reviews in retrospect, I think I'll have more luck taking on a whole album as a macrocosm.  I'll still put down notes for individual songs, to explain whether or how they fit into the album's overarching theme, should one exist.
  1. "Calling All Stations": The guitar riff which opens this track sets the tone for not only the rest of the song, but also the album as a whole.  It's a shade (no pun intended) darker than the stuff the band put out with Phil Collins, and possibly Peter Gabriel, but has all the epic, bombastic production that you can only get from the progressive rock scene.  After a brief moment to let the soundscape wash over you, we are introduced to our new lead singer, Ray Wilson.  Being a guy who was substantially younger than his two bandmates at the time (almost 29 years old, versus 47 for both Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks), his voice sounds quite different from Phil's.  In fact, it's more like what Peter's voice would be if he had dabbled in grunge.  Not to bag on any of the three frontmen, but it would be difficult to imagine Phil singing these new songs, or vice-versa for Ray and their older material.  Fortunately, his voice adds to the moody... mood of the songs on this album.  This title track showcases the best potential for Ray's vocals, as they range from a growling, desperate intro to a passionate, heartfelt climax - twice in the same song.  We get an instrumental break mid-way to remind us that not everything about Genesis has changed.  Unlike with some of the other songs on this and other albums, which I'll get to in a moment, it's not too long; it stays just long enough to build on the emotions present in the rest of the song before moving along with the next verse.  It's one of the best songs on the album; but at 5:43 long, pity it wasn't made a single.  Call it wishful thinking on my part, but it could've even saved this album's chances in America. 5 stars.
  2. "Congo": You'd be forgiven for thinking this song is similar to the last one.  After all, they share the same key signature, changed from major to minor.  But, as the title suggests, there is an African edge to it, mostly in the form of tribalesque instrumentation layered onto some segments.  I suppose I should take this opportunity to discuss the two session drummers the band recruited for recording this album and for the following tour.  With the position vacated by Phil Collins, they got Nir Zidkyahu and Nick D'Virgilio (the latter from the band Spock's Beard) as temporary replacements, but believe me, with them around you may not even miss Phil.  They still do the same echoing drum fills you know and love, even if some songs showcase this more or less than others.  Released as a single.  5 stars.
  3. "Shipwrecked": Again, depending on how cynical you're feeling at the moment, this track may bear more than a little semblance to "Calling All Stations", except lyrically rather than musically this time around.  The singer's persona feels 'shipwrecked', or lost from the desertion of a lover/loved one and nigh unable to know where to from there.  Deja vu anyone?  Welp, if that's just Ray speaking from experience, I don't blame him.  The more orchestra-driven music accentuates this feeling of emptiness.  Released as a single.  4 stars.
  4. "Alien Afternoon": This is where the album shifts into high gear, especially if you've fallen off the Genesis bandwagon during Phil's reign.  It starts off with the music, which sounds like a bunch of extraterrestrials took over a Caribbean band.  The story presented by the lyrics starts off with the singer's persona waking up to a mundane, everyday... day, only for things to take a turn for the weird as all matter of natural phenomena take place around him.  (See, Patrice Wilson, this is how you pull this kind of thing off!)  It's sort of like the beginning of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and anyone who can channel that kind of insanity gets props in my book.  So anyway, as these things may only be happening in the central figure's mind, he expresses his need to take a vacation before he goes insane (unless he already has).  For anyone who listens to the preceding tracks and think this album will go further down the pop-rock road perfected by Collins, this will come at you like whoa.  5 stars.
  5. "Not About Us": At first listen, this wasn't one of the memorable tracks I found on this album.  But given the accoustic guitar backing most of this track, and the reconciliatory nature of the lyrics, this could've worked as a Britpop ballad.  In fact, it makes me wonder what would've happened if Wilson's Genesis had pursued that direction further, given the popularity of Oasis and Blur in the mid-to-late 90s when this album was released.  ...On second thought, that's a horrible idea.  If America couldn't handle the change we got, doing this would spell disaster for Genesis and their image among their less-understanding fans..  Released as a single.  3 stars.
  6. "If That's What You Need": Yet another song that tries to be as epic as the title track.  Thing is, they nailed that target during the choruses, but the verses are too soft and unambitious by comparison.  Oh well, at least I got the good parts stuck in my head!  As for the lyrics, there's an interesting dichotomy between the chorus and the verses.  In the former, he paints these troubadourian devotions of love, but in the verses, we learn that he's too scared and shy to say them outright.  Hm, sounds like the kind of song Shinji would write.  4 stars.
  7. "The Dividing Line": You'd be forgiven for thinking this song doesn't have a hook to speak of.  After all, the first vocals don't kick in until 2 minutes into this 7-odd-minute track.  Still, the power of the guitar riffs that drive the intro, as well as the lyrics, give this song some bite for those who stick around.  5 stars.
  8. "Uncertain Weather": Reminiscent of "Alien Afternoon" a few tracks back, and that's a plus in my book.  This one apparently describes someone whose life was ruined, remembered only by a photograph from better times (depending on how literally you take the lyrics).  Makes you wonder what happened to him: was he a soldier killed in a literal war, or did he lose in a more personal struggle with drugs, domestic abuse, or what?  5 stars.
  9. "Small Talk": It's kinda hard to make out what this song is ultimately about.  Is our man tired of everyone else talking about anything, or just malicious rumors?  Must be lies, since his girlfriend has done the same, and now he wants her to say anything as long as it's true.  And as long as she's not talking back to him.  And in the mid-track bridge, they overlay a layer of random chatter over the usual instrumentation.  You would think this would ruin any seriousness they desired, but they're prog rockers, they're allowed to do this sort of thing.  And besides, the chorus, as always, provides the singer with an opportunity to emotionally break loose.   3 stars.
  10. "There Must Be Some Other Way": In the past I've decried denying that your significant other has left you, but whoever wrote this song pulled it off tastefully.  Our main man may be trying to accept the fact that his girl's out of his life (I think we're making some progress, doc!), but he's going to make one last shot of making her take him back.  Sure, it's padded with a(nother epic) instrumental break mid-way through, but that's nothing the band hasn't done before.  5 stars.
  11. "One Man's Fool": No matter where it fits on the sliding scale of pop versus prog, it seems a Genesis album is not complete without two similar-sounding songs smashed into one double-length track.  The lineup shakeup does nothing to change this, as "One Man's Fool" fits the bill this time around.  Even more so than some of their other examples, the two halves of this suite are similar enough for one to flow more naturally into the other.  And the lyrics bring up a great point for fiction writers: good and bad are relative.  In other words, those whom we regard as the opposing force in any arguement we come across, big or small, have the right to believe what they're doing is right.  The very words I live by.  5 stars.
And this once again brings me to my original point: Genesis means a lot to me.  As far as their supposed pandering to the shallow desires of 80s audiences goes, I'll take people's words for it.  But still, even at its worst, Genesis does more and better things than some other bands can put out at their best.  Calling All Stations strikes a perfect balance between their symphonic soundscapes of the 80s and the sense of exploration from the 70s, with the angsty spirit of grunge thrown in for good measure - never mind that grunge was pretty much dead in America by the time they made this album.  I'm sorry to say this particular album, in all its glory, has spoiled me to expect more deep lyrical themes from future albums I listened to in the future.  But as long as it refines my tastes while not inhibiting me from enjoying songs for what they are, that can't be a bad thing, can it?

With all the lavish praise I've layered on this album so far, I've wondered to myself whether or not I should break out a perfect score for this occasion.  As I discussed before, a score of 100% (A+) is the highest out of the 21 ranks I can give something.  But what does it mean?  If it were to be used for only works with no flaws whatsoever, I'd never have to break it out, but if I were to use it too often, it would be rendered cheap and meaningless.  For now, let's think about the ratings I gave the individual songs.  The total comes out to 49 of 55 stars, or roughly 90%.  Since that's only taking the songs without context, I have to consider how they're all worked into an album.  On the whole, the production is consistent, the pacing is decent, with longer songs ("Alien Afternoon", "The Dividing Line", "There Must Be Some Other Way") bookending groups of shorter songs, and the songwriting is mature, exploring numerous themes without naivete, while any perceived narm can be excused by the fact that they're prog rockers at heart - they're allowed to take risks.  So, all things considered, does Calling All Stations deserve my highest honour?


Sure, why not!

The Call: 100% (A+)

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