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Genesis - Calling All Stations CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

2.49 | 1014 ratings

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2 stars BEST SONG: Alien Afternoon; WORST SONG: Small Talk Really 1.5 stars, but I'll begrudgingly round it up to 2 on the strength of some of the b-sides.

After Phil Collins' departure from the band, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks were still unwilling to call it a day, and who could blame them? While they had been members of the band from the beginning and contributed much to its success across multiple decades in genres, they were ignored in favor of a charismatic frontman not once but twice. Tony and Mike had just as much right to the Genesis name, if not more, than Phil did, and I don't hold their decision to continue against them in the least. Unfortunately, I do hold their lack of ability to create a strong album against them.

To create the album, Tony and Mike of course had to choose new collaborators, as one listen to Acting Very Strange or The Fugitive proves that neither was exactly primed to step up to the microphone, and thankfully they brought in human drummers instead of relying on a drum machine. Israeli drummer Nir Zidkyahu and then-Spock's Beard drummer Nick D'Virglio both acquit themselves quite well on the album, although I do have to wonder why the drumming spot was not offered to Chester Thompson. On the vocals, then, is one Ray Wilson, formerly of the band Stiltskin, whom I have not heard. Now, contrary to what some may say, Wilson is far from a bad singer. I've heard live recordings from the subsequent tour, and later recordings he's made of Genesis songs, and feel that he does rather well. Unfortunately, this album does not showcase his talents particularly well, as he alternates between bland, straightforward singing and overemoting. It doesn't help his case that I consider the three songs he cowrote ("Not About Us," "Small Talk," "There Must Be Some Other Way") to be the three worst on the album. However, while Ray's vocals never fully bring a song to life for me (though he has his moments on "Alien Afternoon" and in a couple of other places), they never significantly detract either, so overall I'll call his vocals a wash overall, it's just that he had the misfortune of trying to follow up two singers who could frequently bring mediocre material to life (and I maintain that Collins certainly could at times even to his end with the band).

No, the big problem on the album comes from the songwriting. It's clear that Tony and Mike wanted to steer the band back to art rock, if not full prog, but I must side with Rolling Stone (a rarity for me!) when they say that the album contains some of the worst aspects of both art rock and adult contemporary pop. A huge part of the problem is that neither Tony nor Mike had actually written in a prog style on a regular basis in over a decade and a half, token prog number on latter-day Phil albums notwithstanding. Basically, if We Can't Dance was a Phil Collins album featuring Genesis, then Calling All Stations is a Mike and the Mechanics album featuring Tony Banks, and although some of the more rabid Collins-bashers might castigate me for this I'll take the former every time. For all the issues I have with that album (and believe me, I have them), at least Phil had a sense of humor. "I Can't Dance" or "Jesus He Knows Me" are nothing resembling prog, but they are fun. CAS, on the other hand, sounds like an album made by people who have never had fun with their lives, which is a pretty odd path for Genesis to take. The band had always had a light-hearted, whimsical side even after Gabriel left, and had managed to keep some of that up to the end with Phil, and honestly, closing the nail on that coffin completely squanders any good will that the absence of drum machines and a few proggier ideas might have led to. This album just sounds depressing all the way through, and that's never been a word I've really used to describe Genesis. I guess the band could be respected for trying something new, but I don't consider trading the saccharine "Hold On My Heart" for the overwrought "Not About Us" to be worth anything. I don't know what annoys me the most about the album--the bland lyrics, the incredibly muddy production on the keyboards (although I suppose the guitars sound alright the few times they're featured), or the fact that Tony in particular seems either unwilling or incapable of doing anything even remotely interesting. Regarding the last point, I'm not sure if it's because he was so used to boring background keyboard tones that he didn't consider to do anything more interesting, that he was worried about scaring away "pop Genesis" fans by going too crazy, or that the keyboard work on the album is genuinely the best he was capable of at this point, and I'm not sure which scenario disappoints me the most. Also, they seemingly couldn't figure out how to properly end their songs, so they just had Ray overemote random lines as the songs fade out, which gets annoying fast.

A prime example of the confused nature of the album is "There Must Be Some Other Way," which has the boring synth sounds, uninteresting lyrics, and a sluggish tempo which are the hallmarks of adult contemporary, which would be bad enough as a three and a half minute number to be pumped through the speakers in the grocery store, but the band inexplicably decided to make the damn thing eight minutes long by sticking an interminable Banks keyboard solo into the middle of it. This is no "Cinema Show," in fact, it's not even "Fading Lights." It's "artsy" "prog" for the sake of being artsy prog, but overall I can't even get offended by the song, because I barely remember a thing about it, and the same goes for "If That's What You Need" and "Uncertain Weather." Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the aforementioned "Not About Us" or especially the abominable "Small Talk," which is easily the worst song this fine band's name has ever been attached to. The song tries to "rock," which I'd think would be a relief from all the midtempo sludge, but it does it in the wimpiest way possible and crosses the line from "irrelevant" to "ear-corroding" in a hurry. And the lyrics are terrible, too. A horrendous lapse of judgment on the part of the band. Getting slightly better, "The Dividing Line" has some decent instrumental jamming, although the song itself sucks, and while I don't actually like the song, I'll admit that the ballad "Shipwrecked" is at least well-written, and I wouldn't complain if I occasionally heard it in a store or something. It's better than a lot of the AC dreck, anyway. And to round the whining with the best of the bad songs, "Congo" has that cool "tribal" intro and a fairly melodic chorus even if the verse melody is one of the most underwritten things I've ever heard and Ray way way oversings the outro.

So, now that I've spent over a thousand words doing nothing but complain, I should point out that there are a few things I like about the album! In fact, there are three songs that I have fairly positive feelings for and will actually go out of my way to listen to from time to time. First, the opening title track has a bizarre grunge influence that sounds ridiculous on paper and has nothing to do with Genesis, but I actually find it quite good. Mike actually gets to show some flash on his guitar, and this is the one song on the album where I feel that they were one hundred percent committed to doing something different, and it's much better for it. The song has the dark, moody atmosphere that chokes the rest of the album actually works here, and it helps that although the lyrics aren't brilliant poetry or anything, they still fit the mood of the song quite well. Pity they couldn't figure out how to end it, but it's still a success. "Alien Afternoon" is even better, being an actual multipart honest-to-god prog song that's well-sung, has decent instrumental performances from everybody, and fully deserves its 8 minutes. If you're at all curious about the album, check out "Alien Afternoon," because if you don't like it, the rest of the disc probably isn't going to do much for you. And finally, the closing "One Man's Fool" actually starts out almost as bad as the string of crud leading up to it, but the song has a nice subtle buildup, and you can hear the song getting more and more interesting as it goes along, so when the band finally, mercifully breaks into an actual uptempo groove towards the end the payoff feels deserved and adds some much-needed energy to the album. It helps that, once again, the lyrics are decent and Ray may not be doing a great job, but he's certainly adequate for the job. It's not a great song, but it's certainly good, and seems even better after the preceding half hour or so, and leaves me feeling more positive towards the album as a whole than I otherwise would. There's a lot to be said for starting and ending strong, and for all its faults in between, Calling All Stations does just that.

I've also heard other songs from the album sessions that were released as "b-sides" (read: bonus tracks on the cd singles), and honestly they're not that bad! I wouldn't consider any of them as good as the three good songs on the album, though the riff-rocker(!) "Papa He Said" comes mighty close, even if it's not prog, but none of them are worse than "Shipwrecked." There's even two different instrumentals that are quite enjoyable to listen to. Funnily enough, "Sign Your Life Away" reminds me quite a bit of Spock's Beard, but I'm not sure if D'Virglio drummed on it or not. What this leaves us with, then, is an album that may only have enough good material for a 20-minute EP, but throw on some of the b-sides and, what the heck, throw on "Congo" as a potential single and suddenly you have a decent album that makes me curious about where Wilson-era Genesis would have gone had they had one more album. This is still a pretty sad album for a great band such as Genesis to end their career on, and quite a bit of it does suck, but sometimes I wonder what could have been.

hughes | 2/5 |


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