Some groups are important because of the music they produce, others because of the soloists who emerge from their ranks. Genesis fits the bill on both counts. Since its formation two decades ago at Charterhouse, an English boarding school, the group has not only epitomized the strength and resilience of British art rock, but has been the springboard for a number of successful solo careers, from Peter Gabriel, the original singer, to Phil Collins, its current vocalist and drummer.
These days, in fact, the band runs the risk of being dwarfed by its members' personal projects. Certainly that seems to be the case with Collins, who in the past two years has become one of rock's most recognizable song stylists.
Fortunately, that's not an issue on the new Genesis album, "Invisible Touch" (Atlantic 7 81641-1-E). Although some of the songs, including the title cut, smack of Collins' solo work, there's never a sense that we've heard this before. "Anything She Does," for example, opens up with a burst of synthesized brass similar to the horn arrangements Collins is famous for, but breaks down into a choppy, synthesized skank that's pure Genesis. Similarly, "In Too Deep" seems on the surface to be a standard Collins piano ballad, but moves in an entirely unexpected direction thanks to Tony Banks' ingenious keyboard voicings.
In many ways Banks is the unsung hero here. By condensing his keyboard style to fit the contemporary taste for lean, visceral synth lines that merely suggest the orchestral grandeur of old, he has set the tone for the rest of the band without significantly compromising its sound. A typical example is the way the instrumental section of "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" builds slowly and ominously from the rhythm bed, hinting at musical storms instead of simply thundering.
Mike Rutherford, the third member of the group, also acquits himself admirably, but is content to use his guitar and bass work to shore up the songs instead of shaping them. Don't mistake that modesty for a lack of clout, though, because it's essentially the same approach he takes on his own "Mike + the Mechanics" (Atlantic 7 81278-1).
Because Rutherford, who will bring his band to DAR Constitution Hall on June 21, doesn't sing, he has been a little less visible than Collins. But that hasn't hurt the Mechanics any, for Rutherford has enlisted a pair of superior singers, Paul Carrack (formerly of Ace and Squeeze) and Paul Young (of Sad Cafe). Although there are a few bits in the arrangements redolent of Genesis, most of the songs take on a fairly straightforward pop/rock cast, and thanks to Rutherford's genius for melody, the best -- "Taken In" and "All I Need Is a Miracle" -- are well nigh irresistible.
Melody has always seemed a stumbling block for English art rock bands -- not because they're unable to produce any, but because they tend to tuck the tuneful bits under ridiculously overwrought arrangements. That's certainly the case with "GTR" (Arista AL8-8400). This guitar band, fronted by former Genesis member Steve Hackett and ex-Yes man Steve Howe, and due at Constitution Hall on June 30, is capable of amazing feats of fretboard agility, but seems utterly without a clue as to how such virtuosity can be turned into music. A typical example is "When the Heart Rules the Mind," which ends up sounding less like a song than an arrangement run amok.
The most impressive arrangements are those that seem almost invisible, so perfectly do they support the song. Such treatments have long been the signature strength of singer Peter Gabriel.
Take, as an example, "Don't Give Up," from his new album "So" (Geffen GHS 24088). The song is an affecting reflection on the decline of the British spirit, but while the lyrics sketch out the scene, it's the music that ultimately provides the content. This is partly a matter of melodic structure, as Gabriel shifts from a moody, contemplative line for the complaining verse, to the humanlike cadence of the redemptive chorus. But Gabriel craftily underscores this scheme by deftly deploying his players in support of the musical drama, handing the chorus over to the delightfully maternal Kate Bush and slipping a bit of gospel piano under the hope-filled bridge.
Typically for Gabriel, the musical details are the most telling aspects of the production. "Red Rain," for instance, boasts the same surging majesty as most of his songs about water, with a dark, driving rhythm that swells impressively at the bridge, only to ebb humbly by song's end. Still, the most delicious part of the arrangement is the way Stewart Copeland's eloquent hi-hat pattern sets the whole thing up. Similarly, "Mercy Street," Gabriel's tribute to poet Anne Sexton, owes much of its haunting power to Djalma Correia's quietly thrumming percussion.
The big news here is that, like Collins, Gabriel has discovered dance music. But where Collins tends to throw himself headlong into the groove, Gabriel's singing holds back, cagily riding the tension between the beat and his own coy delivery. That's one reason why "Sledgehammer," the album's first single, is so winning. Another is the effervescent clarity of its rhythm arrangement, as lean as that to Prince's "Kiss" but somehow far lighter and cheerier. In all, it appears Gabriel will reap quite a harvest from "So."