When I was 12 years old, I discovered progressive rock. I had been a musician, and an all-around music geek all my life — I come from a long family tradition of salsa and cumbia musicians from my mother’s side. After becoming a punk fan at 10 and a metalhead at 11, to find a style of rock in which compositional complexity and musicianship are at the front was an intense, identity-building experience. It was Tool’s Lateralus which got me into prog-metal, which later (through Opeth) gave me Porcupine Tree, which then sent me on a trip through Rush, Pink Floyd, Yes, ELP, Eloy, the Krautrock scene, the Italian bands and of course, King Crimson and Genesis.
Those two bands, each from its specific trench, set the elements that constitute the sonic idiosyncrasies of golden-era prog, and remain the best examples of what Prog should sound like. While Robert Fripp’s group was dark and brooding, solemn and architectural, Genesis aimed for the epic, the theatrical, and most of all, the unmistakably British. The former was a vehicle for the vision of its generation’s most impressive creator; the latter was a perfect collaborative project. A full-on band in every sense of the word.
Genesis’ classic line-up is still considered one of the greatest Rock groups ever assembled. Fronting the band was Peter Gabriel, a theater freak from Surrey, who would later go on to revolutionize art-pop. Inspired by Arthur Brown, he developed a striking visual aspect for their live performances — which includes the fox in a red dress costume that graces this album’s cover — and a lyrical style that both honors and satirizes British culture and daily life. On guitar, Steve Hackett’s tender, elegant tone, and intricate techniques provided a different imagination of the instrument in the Rock context. Tony Banks contributes the grandiose compositional scope to the group, with a strong emphasis on dense keyboard sounds and broad arrangements. The rhythm section, though, is the most vital part of the Genesis sound, as bassist Mike Rutherford and drummer (later leader, later lamest rock star on Earth) Phil Collins operate on a level of chemistry and dynamism unparalleled at the time. Squire/Bruford were multifaceted jazz-influenced virtuosi. Ayers/Wyatt were composer-minded explorers. But Rutherford/Collins were anchors, playing only the appropriate amount, tightly solidifying the sonic ground, doing the very thing a rhythm section is for and keeping it exciting.
Foxtrot feels like a masterpiece from the start. “Watcher of the Skies” opens with an affirmation of greatness via its iconic Mellotron and church organ lines. Yet the most memorable component of this piece is Gabriel’s musical theater approach, moving in and out of characters with ease and lyrical conviction. The record follows with the nostalgic, piano-led “Time Table”, and then with “Get’em Out by Friday”, one of the most gripping examples of the band’s dynamics — Peter’s characters illustrating the social commentary of the lyrics, Hackett’s subtle-but-superb leads, and the Rutherford/Collins intelligent interplay. Side A ends with “Can-Utility and the Coastliners”, an effective condensation of the band’s compositional efforts, in which a quiet acoustic guitar intro gives way to a heavier, dramatic track with several shifts in time and melody, led by Rutherford’s thundering basslines. It is a 15-minute suite done in only five.
Steve Hackett has always been my favorite member of the band; he’s one of those guitarists whose brain equals his heart. On “Horizons” he makes a creative use of harmonics while constructing a web of beautiful, heartfelt acoustic melodies. This piece serves as an introduction to the true Epic of this album, the elephant in the room: “Supper’s Ready”. Lyrically based on the book of Revelations, the record’s main event (and possibly the band’s magnum opus) begins with “Lover’s Leap”, an ethereal, multi-layered section once again led by Hackett’s smart overdubbed guitars. Then the band builds into a full song for “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man”, a section that introduces the story of a farmer and a con-man, echoing Jesus and the Antichrist. This Good/Evil confrontation becomes a battle, represented in the harder-edged arrangements of “Ikhnaton And Itsacon and their Band Of Merry Men” and in Hackett’s amazing solo — Yes, we’re finally talking about finger-tapping. This conflagration turns into calm in “How Dare I Be So Beautiful?”, a slow, synth-driven reflection on the inevitability of death. “Willow’s Farm”, the following movement, takes you into a bizarre, funny world, in part reminiscent of the Beatles’ weirdest, most-playful moments, but definitely much more deliberately confusing. Genesis are in on the joke, with Gabriel saying “ “we’ll end with a whistle and end with a bang, and all of us fit in our places.” And then comes “Apocalypse in 9/8”, the final battle raging on, St. John’s Armageddon, musicalized. This is perhaps one of the most exciting moments in Prog history, as the full band takes on the titular time signature with singular passion and razor-sharp focus. Then we hear a reprise of “Lover’s Leap”, announcing the battle is over and Good has won. “As Sure as Eggs is Eggs”, a reprise of “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man” but bigger in scope, closes the suite, symbolizing the hope of mankind and the possibility of Heaven.
There is a pretty strong consensus that this is Genesis’ peak period, but the debate as for which is their best record is still on. If Foxtrot is not the most solid (that may be Selling England by the Pound) or the most ambitious (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), it sure is the most progressive, the one that encapsulates the nerdy spirit of the genre that I love so much. And it’s an awesome introduction to Prog; I still remember going through Live365 Radio that evening in 2002 and getting my mind blown.