Exploring rock albums and large scale works
A little bio
Anthony Phillips is mostly known for being “the guy who co-founded Genesis in 1969 and left them for good in 1971” even though he released quite a huge corpus of works afterwards.
When he left the band, Phillips was reportedly the main creative force and contributed to its trademark sound by introducing the layered tapestries of 12 string guitars created with Mike Rutherford.
After some years spent studying and teaching music while writing and recording demos in his home studio in the countryside (Sand Barns), he came back on the saddle releasing The Geese And The Ghost in 1977 (ultimately moving to his new Englewood Studios).
After some failed attempt with “rock” albums, he committed to instrumental music and never looked back.
From the late seventies, Phillips “day job” has been soundtrack work (mainly TV and documentaries and especially the so-called Library music, sort of stock music that specialized publishers make exclusively available to TV and movie makers).
The course of Phillips’ career is the key to understand the diverse and sometimes confusing nature of his published work, that includes a lot of “Library” collections and plenty of compiled works that escape commercial purposes and are made with low or no budget at all, and generally sees a progressive turn towards less complex writing: most of the ambitious or “intellectual” pieces, indeed, date to the Sand Barns years or the following, being also an attempt to try out and showcase compositional skills; but with autonomy for personal projects progressively reduced, welcome are short, simpler tunes that can be more easily managed in the spare time left from library work and, not to be forgotten, self financed (a rule broken only once, when Virgin Record provided budget for Slow Dance and New England).
Overall, Phillips’ output can be grouped in three main categories: rock albums, large scale or major instrumental works, collections. Plus live albums.
This article is about the first two; the next ones will focus on acoustic music, collections and a distinctive peculiarity of Phillips’ discography, the Private Parts & Pieces series.
- Wise After The Event (1978)
- Sides (1979)
- The Invisible Man (1984) w/ Richard Scott
Between contrasting worlds
While coming from a prog rock band, Phillips released only three “proper” albums as a titular songwriter (though many songs, usually demos, can be heard in series and archives albums).
There’s no need to describe them singularly, as they have many things in common despite radical different styles: the first two are closer to prog, the last is a blatant wink at new wave and/or technopop.
The reason for such difference is merely contingent: differently from Geese, that was a passion project full of “youthful idealism”, those albums aimed at a place in the market, and were strongly “encouraged” by his record company. So they reflect the musical styles in use at the time they were made.
Which, in turns, gives the reason for the small number: commercial failure. And historical reasons aside (by the time the first two came out, prog was a dead-genre-walking and Genesis themselves were about to move to pop-ish territories; while the inclusion of some songs about the Falklands conflict in the latter may have impaired its marketing potential in the UK), top ten albums they are not. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course.
They grow on you, but they need time: at the first listen Wise and Sides might appear unfocused and the latter confused between different styles, while Men even too easy and shallow (and that drum machine sounds a little silly today) but without that spark that ignites the masses (also ageing worse then the first two, possibly because the stronger push to be contemporary and trendy).
Wise is weakened by Phillips voice as a lead singer (that almost disappears under lush arrangements) while Sides ultimately appears to be the more balanced; both benefit of the classic sound that records from the Seventies have nowadays.
Though not working as full albums, all three have their moments and overlooking them would be unfair.
Truth is: Phillips is an artist of nuances. And certainly he’s never been a mass-market songwriter; he lacks that strong hook-writing that makes a tune immediately irresistible and successful. And his lyrics are sometimes too crafty (if not high-brow), other times blatantly obvious and prosaic; in both cases unfit to please the crowds. He waves between sophistication and naivetée; rarely with a strong and immediate character (he kind of processed the idea himself, in Um & Aargh from Sides).
In fact, you can feel these albums being torn between a genuine musical personality and the need to keep it simple. This quality might be a plus in his instrumental music, but is detrimental in commercial songs.
Unsurprisingly, the tracks really standing out today are usually those hidden gems that escape the commercial call: instrumentals like Nightmare and Sister of Remindum (pure prog) and Trail Of Tears (electronic), kind-of-impressionistic stuff like Squirrel (the last two are outtakes: go figure), the overly-romantic Regrets or more “critical” stuff inspired by contemporary events (The Woman Were Watching – truly a missed hit single – and Exocet).
The ambitious that never came to be
A little curiosity.
Initial plans for Wise were naively grandiose and quickly bumped into a wall of impracticability: an LP plus EP package, where songs were interspersed with instrumentals. Most of those links were scrapped, but you can find them in Private Parts & Pieces vol. II (Squirrel got the cut too, but was recovered for CD reissues). If you’re nerd enough, you can recompile the track-list and enjoy a new dimension of the album.
Based on info from Phillips’ interviews and some arbitrary adjustment, the track-list (65 minutes overall) is as it follows:
- We’re All As We Lie
- Pulling Faces
- Von Runkel’s Yorker Music
- Wise After The Event (includes link)
- Romany’s Aria
- Now What (Are They Doing To My Little Friends)
- Birdsong And Reprise
- Magic Garden
The “lost” rock album
Rock output from Phillips is pretty much limited to his first albums.
One notable exception is a weird aborted project aiming to merge Shakespeare and rock music he was involved with in the late Seventies. The instrumental recordings for Macbeth were completed but never released in their entirety and can almost be seen as a lost rock album.
Part of them (worth a try), ended up on PP&P II too, others on The Archive Collection vol II.
Large scale / instrumental works
- The Geese & The Ghost (released 1977 but written and recorded between 1973 and ’76) w/ Michael Rutherford
- 1984 (1981)
- Tarka (released in 1988 but written and recorded in the late Seventies) w/ Harry Williamson
- Slow Dance (1990, written in 1987)
- Meadows Of Englewood (1996) w/ Guillermo Cazenave
Large scale and/or concept albums are among the most meaningful Phillips’ output. Each one stands out on its own but for sake of cataloguing I put them all into the same category here.
All these works (except the last) share a planning, a vision and a consistency that give them the status of “true” albums and allow, if not require, a full, throughout listening.
The Geese & The Ghost
Phillips’ signature (and absolute fan favourite) album almost risked to never see the light: produced slowly enough to see the peak and decline of prog rock, it came progressively (pun intended) unfashionable by the second half of the decade so that even Charisma, who had advanced the money to record it, decided to pass. It was saved by Passports Records in the US, while manager Tony Smith founded the Hit & Run label just to release it in UK territory.
Despite coming out a little late than it was desirable (a feature common to several Phillips’ albums) it was well received and, since time heals everything, today the album fully deserves its status of classic.
Written mostly in collaboration with Michael Rutherford in his spare time from Genesis, and in a time Phillips was unsure about coming back to the business, the album is a unique blend of acoustic prog rock, pastoral ancient music and folk story-singing. It features a handful of before-Genesis songs dating back to ’69, all the rest is instrumental, widely exploiting the trademarked guitar layering that the two musicians developed in the band (see Trespass) and adding traditional sounds like oboe, flute, cello, piano and strings. There’s also some synth but so well integrated that it almost go unnoticed. The general feel is warm, dreamy, gentle and elegant, with a bit of melancholy only occasionally peaking to some more intense and electric moments.
The album is not strictly a concept, though it works as a musical journey, with the perfect balance within variety and consistency that is difficult to find today, and stands out as an original, personal and unmatched work.
For this second fan favourite, Phillips keeps on following the road of collaboration, writing four hands with Harry Williamson. While released at the end of the Eighties, the music is one decade old: aiming originally (and failing) at being the soundtrack to the movie taken from Williamson’s father’s book Tarka The Otter, and financed by Charisma, it laid recorded but unfashionable for the market until a deal for a totally different movie allowed the release.
Organized in three orchestral suites (aka Movements) plus a new age sounding Anthem, only Movement I features the trademarked guitar layering, even though Williamson brings another flavour to the music (see Gypsy Suite, also). Each movement is supposed to represent an arc of the story (the reissue includes detailed titles to follow through) and it’s a patch up of shorter pieces.
There’s a more extensive use of a minimalist-like repetitive elements than in any other Phillips’ music, structure is sometimes loose and themes recur through the same or different movements (all features being a reflection of its nature of film music). I personally miss the lack of a proper symphonic structure here, and find the series of passages glued back to back a little dispersive on the long run; nevertheless, this work is highly ranked among Phillips’ fan-base, who seems not to share my concerns.
The overall sound is grandiose and epic and especially rare since a real orchestra (or the guitar+orchestra combination in Movement I) won’t come back until 2012’s Seventh Heaven.
This is when Phillips decided he could grasp electronic music on an official album (usually employed in his library works). A move that most of his fan-base has always generally rejected, not without reasons: while fully convincing as an acoustic musician, Phillips lacks the same strength when it comes to synths and he’s missing a signature personal sound and the deep explorative relationship with his tools that is the trademark of artists of the same years like Jarre or Vangelis.
The album is anyway interesting to any fan of the genre, since its unusual structure and because it comes out at an important crossroad in electronic music history: between the free creativity of the Seventies and the new wave/new age/melodic trend of the Eighties. As usually, Phillips seems to be totally unaware of the directions the market is taking, and comes out with an idea that would suit the Seventies better: an electronic album built like a (sort of) “classical” suite, structured in little thematic and interconnected snippets instead of a series of more accessible song-like parts.
It features Morris Pert playing “real” percussions (a contribution that adds a lot to the final result – but questions the “electronic” nature of the album in the eyes of purists).
Inspired by the famous Orwell’s dystopian novel, the album tries to work as sort of a symphonic poem. The sound is deliberately oppressive, as the rhythm is repetitive. It seems to come alive only at traits, like in the Prelude or in a brilliant section in the middle of Part 1. Whether this is a good or bad thing is up to personal taste.
Technically, this one is mainly electronic too (though a variety of acoustic instruments are employed as well, with sort of a new age sonic blend). With a huge BUT, though: it is orchestral, and one of the composer’s lifelong dreams is to revisit it with a real orchestra (and real drums).
Coming out late (again), at the beginning of a decade while fitting better the previous one (and in fact written three years before), it’s nevertheless a little miracle courtesy of Virgin Records who offered Phillips a two-album contract and financial backup. It’s the last time Phillips sits down to write a full scale album, to date. Too bad, because this one, while not flawless, is undoubtedly one of his best works (well, Part One at least) and one can only imagine what could have been reached following though this path.
The approach (vaguely “classical electronic music” in a two-parter suite) is similar to 1984, but the outcome couldn’t be more different, ‘cause Phillips has no dystopian template to follow and he just sticks to his formula: gentle and pastoral music, maybe a little too easy at traits but charming, with high prominence to melodic elements. But with an overall large scale structure with thematic connections and reprises (and aware of Mike Oldfield’s lesson).
The album is not only electronic orchestra, though: some sections are genuinely, pure electronic music (where the sounds are what they are supposed to be, not a cheap replacement of an expensive ensemble) and the variety of this hybrid nature is the quality that best describes the work.
Orchestral samples are obviously out of date, but their sound is closer to the electronic strings on Eighties’ synths than to the stiff imitations that followed later on, and give the album a peculiar “historical” sound that’s still enjoyable today.
Meadows Of Englewood
I put this here for sake of convenience, ‘cause it’s neither a large scale or a full instrumental work. While it includes a 40 minutes electronic instrumental suite (that could be an album on its own), the remaining pieces are a collection of heterogeneous fillers, including songs and acoustic pieces. Kind of a drunk version of a Private Parts & Pieces.
The suite and the instrumentals (except the acoustic ones) are musically atypical of Phillips standards, being written (I’d guess mostly improvised) four hands with Guillermo Cazenave; they’re interesting and sometimes mesmerizing but the overall feel is of lack of focus.
Here are my personal, recommended picks (a favourite plus a bonus).
- Rock albums: Sides and Wise After The Event
- Large scale: The Geese and The Ghost and Slow Dance