It is currently fashionable among writers in the rock press to proclaim the imminent death of rock 'n' roll. With some justification, they note the lack of new ideas and innovative artists and the increasing commercialization of the music itself, while gazing wistfully back at the momentous days of the mid-60s when rock defiantly asserted its right to exist as something greater than "pop" music.
Like any form of expression, however, rock's revolutions and innovations tend to go in cycles, with each exciting New Sound being followed by a period of calm, in which the implications of the sound are worked out and perfected. This calm is a time of solid, steady workmanship that often yields music whose value is whispered instead of shouted. It is a time of the craftsman, not the revolutionary.
Rock music is calm at the moment, and high on the list of craftsmen who are sustaining and nurturing it is an English group, Genesis. The group has, over a period of eight years and nine albums, pursued a style of composition and playing that is guided by a sense of purpose uncommon among contemporary rock groups. These qualities are amply demostrated in their newest record, "Seconds Out" (Atlantic SD 2-9002), recorded at two concerts in Paris in 1976-77 and featuring music from various periods of the group's career. The record documents the evolution of Genesis' writing style while also showing the precision of their concert presentations.
Seen thus in a perspertive that is lacking on their previous releases, the group's pretension turns out to be an honest one, based on an imaginative reworking of such innovative groups as the Beatles (lyricism, classicism), Soft Machine (avant-gardism) and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown (theatricality). While not "original" in the sense of interjecting new ideas, they have chosen to enrich the vocabulary of rock music by blending past innovations with their own musical sensibilities. The result is a sound that is simultaneously familiar and different.
The record includes pieces that represent the major characteristics of Genesis' music - long, flowing melody lines with mystical lyrics ("After-glow"), layer upon layer of sound coloring set against quirky rhythms ("Cinema Show") and a richness of sound that is tempered by a witty or bizarre playfulness (sections of "Supper's Ready").
Because of this richness, Genesis has been called a "classical-rock" group. Their classicism (like the Beatles') is derived more from form and content than any sophomoric borrowing of baroque and romantic devices. The sound they produce is like a Gothic cathedral - a grand facade that encloses niches of subtle and complex workmanship.
This is mirrored in their concert performances. The pieces are highly structured, with little room for extended improvisation. Guitarist Steve Hackett, keyboardist Tony Banks and bassist-guitarist Mike Rutherford maintain a sense of control and discipline in their solo and ensemble playing. This control is most effective on pieces such as "Dance on a Volcano," in which furious instrumental sections explode in a calculated frenzy. Pieces such as "Supper's Ready" and "Cinema Show," which feature diverse and complex musical motifs, are performed with such ease that the musical qualities of the songs are allowed to unfold naturally. This discipline, in addition to the musicians' technical prowess and a barrage of electronic instruments (synthesizers, mellotrons, Moog bass pedals, etc.) allow Genesis a musical diversity of color and dynamics that is equalled by few rock groups.
"Second Out" features the work of two "temporary" drummers - Bill Bruford (ex-King Crimson) and American Chester Thompson. Bruford makes a brief, energetic appearance on "Cinema Show" while Thompson's jazz-based style on the remainder of the album provides a more fluid contrast on the highly structured pieces. The use of Bruford and Thompson was made necessary when drummer Phil Collins became lead vocalist with the departure of Peter Gabriel, the lead singer whose theatricality was, for years, a mainstay of Genesis concerts.
The vocals of Collins prove more than adequate to the task of replacing the "irreplacable" Gabriel. His versions of such early Genesis material as "The Musical Box" (1971) and "Supper's Ready" (1972) are strikingly similar to Gabriel's, but Collins adds an earthiness that balances the lushness of the instrumental sound to a far greater degree that his predecessor. The most impressive aspect of "Seconds Out" is the way in which the distinctive character of Collins' singing (humorous, mock-dramatic, lyrical) blends with the somewhat "majestic" style of playing to produce music that is intelligent while retaining the exuberance that characterizes the best of rock music.