Romanticism and Modernsim in the Music of Genesis

by criticalhit009

When discussing progressive rock with my partner, we concluded that prog rock music can be sorted into three categories:

  1. Conservative: Artists who fall into this category usually lean heavier on the classical influences in prog rock. In the case of Genesis, this conservatism also includes classical tendencies, with songs often dealing with pastoral scenery and draws from distinctly British forms of storytelling.
  2. Progressive: Bands that fall into this category actually push the forms and boundaries of prog rock. King Crimson is an example of this, consistently evolving in style and tone,  from classically composed rock jams to avant-garde eclecticism. If that wasn’t progressive enough, the band’s guitarist, Robert Fripp, even invented new forms of tape looping and tuning.
  3. Non-Rock: Some prog rock bands don’t even make “rock” music. Gentle Giant’s music, for instance, blends a variety of genres, and rarely sounds like rock at all.

While Genesis dealt with classical influences, such as stories involving the pastoral British countryside, this did not preclude the band from dabbling in science fiction. Foxtrot (1972) has both “Watcher of the Skies,” a song about an alien coming to view a decayed Earth, and “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” a song that envisions the future of factory life and the exploitation of working class. But in both cases, particularly the latter, it could be argued that technology itself is vile, particularly compared to the Romanticism on display in other album cuts such as “Time Table” and “Can-Utility And The Coastliners.” In the early 70s, Genesis’ music primarily consists of stories taking place in the past, or in the (contemporary) British countryside, or both.

Not so with their 1975 effort, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. This is album is a significant shift in a number of ways. Brutal modernism replaces the classical Romanticism, both in music and in lyrics. The guitars and percussion are often sharper and rougher compared to previous albums, as Peter Gabriel shrieks and shouts as he performs songs such as “Back In N.Y.C.” (he even swears in that one!). Modernist exclamations replace Romantic lyricism, as this double record concept album tells the story of Rael, a young man who becomes ensnared into the fantastical realm of underground New York City, rather than a Romanticized Britain. In both music and lyrics, Genesis pushes towards a modernism aesthetic.

Album art for The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

The modernist tensions within the album are well-represented in the album art.

This isn’t to say Genesis completely disregards is previous affinity with classical Romanticism. While the story begins in downtown NYC and its brutalism, the concept album largely deals with a fantastical world hidden underneath. Technology is still reviled, as the terror of the modern city is explored through the metaphor of the fantasy underground. In “The chamber of 32 Doors,” Gabriel sings:

I’d rather trust a countryman than a townman
You can judge by his eyes, take a look if you can
He’ll smile through his guard
Survival trains hard

I’d rather trust a man who works with his hands
He looks at you once, you know he understands
Don’t need any shield
When you’re out in the field

Technology and the city is yet again reviled in favour of the pure countryside, but this Romanticism does not coat the entirety of the album. While the album has mythical creatures such as the Lamia, it also indulges in surreal imagery, such as the “Carpet Crawlers” trying to escape the labyrinthian New York underground and the body horror of “The Colony Of Slippermen”. There are tensions between Romanticism and Modernism throughout the album, creating a singular effort in the Genesis discography as a hybrid fantasy epic.

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