What are we to make of Steve Hackett's penchant for occasionally going back to his Genesis roots, cherry picking the best songs from the band's early and mid-70s heyday, and reinterpreting them in what seems like a musical version of Groundhog Day? This is the second time he's done this – the first being 1996's 'Watcher Of The Skies: Genesis Revisited' – but, in a way, you could say it's the third, as 'Genesis Revisited II' is a double album with a whopping 145 minutes of reheated Genesis, twice as long as its predecessor.
Perhaps these albums are an expression of regret that he left when he did, and an admission that what followed – a distinguished but not particularly eye-catching career – was not on the same level. This leads to the interesting point of whether a good band is more than the sum of its parts. At the moment of success, the members of a group might imagine that the musical chemistry can be cleanly divided up between them, rather like bank robbers splitting a heist.
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In place of original band chemistry, 'Genesis Revisited II' has more musical guests than the Chelsea Hotel; 35 in all, including fellow axe-men Steve Rothery of Marillion and Roine Stolt of The Flower Kings and Transatlantic. Vocalists include Steven Wilson, Mikael Akerfeldt, Francis Dunnery, John Wetton, Nik Kershaw, and Simon Collins, Phil's son, who actually sounds a lot like his old man, bringing in another loop with the past.
"What I'm doing is celebrating music without prejudice, which was what Genesis stood for back then," Hackett justifies the project. "We really had no limits, everything was possible. You could have short songs, long songs, loud bits, quiet moments, boys' own adventures, pantomime, humour, big band sounds, jazz, classical music…there was no barrier to what we were doing."
This plea of 'borderless music' in defence of what is essentially an album of cover versions is perhaps paradoxical, but it does remind us of the eclectic essence of prog, something that more negatively connotes self-indulgence and an 'anything goes' vibe antithetical to objective standards. There was always an element of this in early Genesis. Even at its peak, the band's output was always a bit patchy, mixing beautiful, haunting moments and fortuitous jams with awkward lyrics and ill-thought-out jerks of the musical gearbox. There were also pockets of 'rock amnesia,' when they occasionally wandered into a land that rock forgot.
So, how does this blast to the past work? Genesis fanatics will no doubt play and compare with the originals song-by-song. Others might listen to it as a 'new' album. Most will end up experiencing it somewhere between these two poles, hearing it as something fresh but with echoes of the familiar. The memory of Gabriel's distinctive vocal in particular haunts the new, gargantuan interpretation of 'Supper's Ready,' a track rerecorded with the vocal talents of Akerfeldt, Collins, and Conrad Keeley. This reinterpretation of a classic track keeps much of the original drama, and we get a good sense of the fluidity and flexibility of Hackett's style as it covers what is a piece of challenging and varied musical terrain.
The sheer length of Revisited II means that there are plenty of gentler, more bucolic patches of music. The album alternates between these 'BGM' moments and the more ramped up stuff. The first half of 'Blood On The Rooftops,' with its damped down acoustic arpeggios, feels like it could have come straight off a 'Ye Sounds Of Olde Spain' album picked up in a thrift shop in Torremolinos; while the next track 'The Return Of The Giant Hogweed' is much more rockist, starting with intro scales showcasing Hackett's innovative finger tapping technique, which was such an influence on Eddie Van Halen.
The album's main weakness is an obvious and unavoidable one, in that there's perhaps too much awareness of the original music. This can either lead to over-experimentation in musical texture so as to make the song distinct from the version in Hackett's head, or more commonly there is a tendency to respect the original shape of the songs too much, when more could be gained by lopping off a bit and making a freer reinterpretation. For example, it wouldn't have hurt to have pared back some of Gabriel's more schizoid singing parts and treat the songs more instrumentally.
Sometimes over-experimentation combines with undue deference. In 'The Return Of The Giant Hogweed,' Swedish guest Roine Stolt leads the main guitar solo with Hackett throwing in power chords, police siren noises, and a disembodied Mellotron. Steering this round the tight corners of the original song makes for a sometimes bumpy ride. Having said that, there is a sense of the original rough edges of many of the songs being smoothed off.
The album includes plenty of highlights – the King Crimsonesque 'Dancing With The Moonlight Knight,' the plangent 'Shadow Of The Hierophant' with Amanda Lehmann's angelic vocal, and 'The Lamia,' where Nik Kershaw's emotive vocal is backed by Hackett and Rothery swapping interlocking guitar phrases. This is an album that grows on you with repeated plays, but at 145 minutes per repeated play that growing process can be quite a time-consuming business!