THE ALBUM -- Genesie, "Duke," Atlantic (SD 16014.); THE SHOW -- At Merriweather Post Pavilion, Saturday at 7:30.
In the beginning, there was rock'n'roll. The beat begat "art rock," mainly a product of British groups. Out of that movement came Genesis, with its lavish productions and super-sophisticated rock concept LP's, devoting entire album sides to groping narratives.
Ten years later, they'll still experimenting in rock symphonics on "Duke."
Although the band is only a threesome, their studio sound hints at an army of musicians, thanks to layers of overdubs. Two of the original members are still present; Tony Banks on keyboards and Mike Rutherford on guitar and bass. Drummer Phil Collins serves as lead vocalist, with a Bee Gees-style falsetto on some tracks. Together they produce intelligent rock compositions -- despite excesses similar to these of Yes, including synthesizer spectacles like those by former Yes-man Rick Wakeman.
Although "Duke" is only vaguely a concept album, there are general themes to its tracks. First-person musings describe an apparent split between Everyman, Duke and the "Duchess" and refer to his son, also lost in the breakup. One other cuts, the lonely Duke is feeling "like a stranger in an alien place" and talking to the familiar faces on TV to fill the void. Themes of lost love and alienation are intertwined, sometimes smothering the pretty virtuoso meanderings with "heavy" lyrics.
"Duke" has a distinctive feel that's foreign to straight-ahead rock'n'roll hearts. Although the sound is polished and evenly paced, no single instrument emerges from the classical-jazz rock whole. There's no foreground. Even the vocals blend into the intricately woven guitar, keyboard and percussive tracks.
Opening with a lengthy instrumental, the first side builds on guitar and synthesizer chord progressions into an emotional, typically ponderous vocal, agonizing over the crumbling romance. Hushed percussive passages segue into "Duchess" which flows with soft piano and drum machine beats into "Guide Vocal" -- nominee for the album's most pretentious track. A serious-sounding vocal is intoned as mystical free verse: I am the one who guided you this far, All you know and all you feel. Nobody must know my name For nobody would understand And you kill what you fear.
The delicate instrumental sweeps are entrancing but the lyrics often seem full of themselves.
The album's single, "Misunderstanding," comes closest to down-to-earth pop sentiment and hummable melody. Once again, the theme is heartache, but extended to express a profound disappointment in life. Portentious, but suitable for FM radio play.
To match the overblown narratives, the music is sometimes grandiose. Nine minutes of the instrumental, "Duke's Travels," could be the score for a motion picture epic (about Duke's disillusionment). Cymbals create the sensation of waves breaking, guitars tour imaginary worlds, and drums recreate a jungle. The mood breaks from primitive to high-tech. A space-age keyboard voyage and synthesizer flight round out the opus.
While Genesis has the technical expertise to borrow from classical music, as Banks is a classically trained pianist, their melodies don't stand alone. But on the whole, "Duke" will probably impress fans of Renaissance, Wakeman, Yes and others exploring the rock opera vein. Other rock addicts who prefer blues-based tunes may want to interrupt Genesis to play a few minutes of "Roll Over Beethoven."