Peter Gabriel - So
Some people (read: Peter Gabriel) can afford a period of silence, that spans other peoples (read: The Beatles) entire musical career. For over 10 years the world has been waiting for what can be considered the closing chapter of the two-letter trilogy (So/Us/Up). And now it's here.
Introduction by Nigel
The backdrop of this album is set against the influence of moon and the water, which should also play an important role in future tour designs. In fact over 20,000 "lunatics" would regularly log onto PG's website every full moon to download new material from the album.
On this album PG took the production of his own album into his own hands for the first time together with the assistance of Tchad Blake. The only truly familiar faces who appear on the album are Tony Levin, David Rhodes and Manu Katche. Various familiar names from the Real World label such as The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Richard Chappell, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, just to mention a few, further contribute together with some surprise additions such as PG's daughter Melanie on backing vocals.
BJ: As my fellow reviewers I was quite put off by the opener of the album. However, I think this is a school example of exaggeration. Of course the heavy, industrial choruses are meant as a sharp contrast to the mellow verses, however, in my opinion the two moods are too far apart. The heavy bits destroy one of the most beautiful melodies Gabriel has ever recorded and the mellow bits take the pace out of what could have been a great aggressive track. A pity, really, because some of the verses ("walking through the undergrowth to the house in the woods...") are so stunningly beautiful that I can only pity the fact that Gabriel didn't finish the song in a slightly less controversial way. I mean, I love controversial, uncommon styles, but *not* when they destroy such an utterly beautiful song, if you know what I mean.
On a different note, when I listened to this track for the first time, and I heard some of the distorted vocal parts, I noticed a hint of The Grand Parade Of Lifeless Packaging, reminding me that this is indeed the same man who once sang in a little band called Genesis.
Nigel: The opening track is one hell of an eye-opener. The track itself is based on memories of what scared PG most when he was a kid. Expecting something more or less alongside the lines of Us I cranked the volume up high so as not to miss any sound but the sound that emanated just rocked the foundations of my home. Not since the days of his first solo albums has PG sounded so aggressive and as David Rhodes belts out some impressively crunching riffs one really appreciates the musical boundaries this genius is willing to explore. However, as always, PG is a man of sharp contrasts and nowhere else is this more evident then on Darkness. From the eerie grungy vocals and sharp guitars complemented by stark drums, the music suddenly shifts into the unmistakable pleading vocals that we have grown to love alongside the strings of the London Session Orchestra.
BJ: An uptempo song that immediately grabs the attention. After an intro, a bit in the vein of the live version of Steam, a dance beat kicks in, starting what probably is the most melodic track on the album. I quite like the computer background noises Ed mentioned and I absolutely adore the multiple vocal melodies in this track. Towards the end the track drags on for a tad too long and more than the 'my ghost likes to travel' lyric, I hate that irritating organ that keeps on repeating the melody at the end.
Nigel: Possibly the only other track that can complement the first single from the album, The Barry Williams Show, in terms of upbeat tempo, Growing Up deals with man's search throughout his life for a meaning of his being within the structure of the universe as well as within his life. Once again one feels that the music has much more in common with earlier PG albums than the world music that one expected on this release. In fact one must also add that this time round the dominant style is actually good old-fashioned art-rock rather than world music with the ethnic elements acting as enhancers rather than core material. The groove and rhythm may be related to the Us album but this is definitely one track which if accompanied by a (non-banned) video should make the charts.
BJ: I agree with Ed on this one. The track reminds me slightly of Fourteen Black Paintings from the Us album, and the Blind Boys of Alabama are brilliant, albeit somewhat monotonous. As later turns out to be the case with more songs, the song never seems to break loose. All the time tension gets built up, yet a satisfactory climax stays out. Instead it just continues and dies out in the end.
Nigel: PG has always been a master of ballad-like material, some of them being memorable pieces such as Here Comes The Flood and Don't Give Up. Sky Blue, which incidentally is the oldest track on the album, has PG at his vocal best with his desperate rasp voice, that reminds me somewhat of Italian singer Zucchero on this particular track. The track deals with how one can lose his way in life and love and finding a way to deal with solitude through the vastness of nature. The first overt contribution from artists on the Real World label emerges through on this particular track with The Blind Boys Of Alabama whose gospel voices slowly take over from PG and the instruments creating a most inspirational angelic atmosphere. The chorus of this piece had also appeared on the soundtrack to the film Rabbit Proof Fence, Long Way Home, an album PG released only a few months ago, though without the use of lyrics as vocals. Sky Blue has been described as the most backward looking track on the album with Daniel Lanois and the legendary Peter Green providing a succinct atmosphere with their guitar work.
No Way Out
BJ: Like JJ, I immediately though of James Bond when hearing the guitar sound. I quite like this track, of which parts of the vocal melody remind me of both Mercy Street and Red Rain, while the rhythm sounds eerily similar to Come Talk To Me. A great track, but, as JJ pointed out, this is another song that fails to climax. A distorted percussion solo at the end feels like the start of a full band reprise, yet it just fades out from this point, thus ending rather a bit disappointingly.
Nigel: No Way Out is one of the darkest pieces on the album as PG talks about the sudden loss of a beloved one through a car accident and the attempts of those who love that person to prevent death approaching to the point of these attempts becoming egoistic. The musical ideas for this track were laid down about eight years ago making it one of the earliest pieces composed which could explain the ethnic drum pattern present, which is quite like what we had on a few numbers of Us. Though never really taking off, one of the more interesting points on the track was the utilisation of Danny Thompson's upright bass playing which acts as a bridge between the more electric and rhythmic sections of the piece and the relatively more mundane parts.
BJ: This track alone was enough to buy the (otherwise excellent) City Of Angels soundtrack. The version on Up is supposed to be a re-recording, but differences are hard to spot. I can imagine Gabriel re-recorded his vocals, but the music sounds more like a remix (or even remaster) of the original. There is less emphasis on the lower tones, but as far as I can tell the music is the same. It's just 45 seconds shorter than the original, that's all. Then again, I may be completely wrong - In any case it is a stunning ballad with heartbreaking lyrics. Definitely one of the highlights on the album.
Nigel: Released some five years ago as part of The City Of Angels soundtrack, I Grieve is a masterpiece of a song and deals with the experiences of grief and moving on. However, I am sure, knowing what PG fans who yearn for new material from the man are like, that they already own this soundtrack. Was there really a need for inclusion, albeit new version, of this track with many other unknown pieces omitted from the album? Starting off at a placid heart-breaking pace, I Grieve slowly picks up in rhythm as PG's voice shines through allowing more ethnic elements such as Shankar's double violin to come to the fore letting a shimmer of light in at the end of the dark tunnel.
The Barry Williams Show
BJ: It doesn't take a genius to figure out who or what this song is about. The words "Barry Williams" in the chorus can easily be substituted for "Jerry Springer" without disturbing the flow of the melody. Most probably Gabriel deliberately gave his show a name with similar syllables. The cynical lyrics are brilliant yet the music is a bit of a rehash of Digging Up The Dirt with a dose of older fun songs like Big Time and Shock The Monkey.
Nigel: Which artist would film the video to the first single to his album in such a controversial manner that it would be banned by almost all television stations? The Barry Williams Show deals with the depiction of reality portrayed by various television shows, the most famous of which is The Jerry Springer Show. Without any shadow of doubt this is the most commercial track on the album with a very ear-friendly chorus, however it is still a far cry from the more successful singles PG has release in the past. On the other hand, when seen within the context of the album, the track just does not fit in. It sounds too much of an "easy" tune and is out of context with the rest of the album both in style as well as thematically.
My Head Sounds Like That
What's more, the brass orchestration (which was already used on OVO's Father Son) and the Imagine-like melody and piano sound makes this feel like an attempt to create a Roger Waters meets John Lennon sound.
BJ: As Lennonesque the piano sound may be, I found its melody sounding quite like Toto's I'll Be Over You. That "Wonky Nord" Gabriel plays is the wobbly sound I first mistook as tabla - mind you, it could be the left-hand drum on a tabla set, I don't know. It gives the track a slight eastern flavour. The song is a relatively simple ballad, which shifts 180 degrees in a short mid-section, which is half a minute of heavy percussionate beat-poetry before it returns to the serene ballad format. This seems to be typically Up - a mood swing just when you least expect it, so that you don't get too comfortable with the music...
Nigel: My Head Sounds Like That deals with the heightened sensitivity to sound brought about by numbness. This is the music that allows Gabriel's vocals to highlighted. The sound itself seems to be enveloped, really giving the sense of numbness with the brass section creating that sense of bewilderment and fright that accompanies such a sensation. The minimalist creations of Peter Gabriel remind me of the work of artists such as Peter Hammill, an artist oft compared to PG. One should listen carefully to the music as one can hear faint sounds that would otherwise escape the unsuspecting individual that really enhance this piece of work.
More Than This
BJ: More Than This is indeed a happier song, more in the vein of some of the stuff found on Us. Good stuff, but not overly special.
Nigel: Strangely enough, Peter Gabriel is unable to fully play the guitar, though he does doodle around on the instrument, faithfully recording anything that he manages to compose as he would be practically unable to recreate it! Thus More Than This came about by PG sampling and manipulating some of these doodles, resulting in one of the most uplifting tracks on the album whose subject matter deals with the belief that something else exists out there. The vocal harmonies of PG come to the fore as does the exquisite percussion work which gives the track a dance feel, though it is practically impossible to do so to this rhythm! Strangely enough, the lyrical aspect of the song is somewhat strange from Peter Gabriel as he seems to put his belief in something else being out there, such as life after death, in pure faith. In fact he seems to tell us just to have faith and to trust him. Very un-Gabrielesque if you had to ask me!
Signal To Noise
BJ: With a vocal melody and a building that resembles Secret World you know this must be the grand finale. As my fellow reviewers already said, the string arrangement, the vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, but also the drums (both Dhol drums and distorted "U2-Achtung Baby" style drums) are superb. The dramatic melody of the massive string orchestra towards the end of the track resemble a movie soundtrack, as it keeps building and building up it tension, until... it just ends. Once again Gabriel fails to top off the anticipation built in the song with a proper climax. Maybe he does this on purpose, possibly even, and if this is the case, then I probably don't get his (current) music. For me personally Peter Gabriel is like the Steven Spielberg of music: brilliant, yet unable to deliver a satisfactory ending.
Nigel: Much has been said about Signal To Noise, especially since one of the main collaborators on this track, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, died some five years ago. The signal to noise ratio is the strength a sound signal sounds when compared to the level of background noise present, though the subject matter is about personal morality and compassion. This track is the showcase on the album whereby Gabriel can really bring to the fore his world music inspirations with a fusion of Khan's Sufi-vocals, rich percussion as well as rich string arrangements which for the first time Gabriel undertook to arranging, together with the help of Will Gregory. This track is one of the classic pieces on the album, though only in the eyes of Gabriel fans.
BJ: Here Comes The Flood part II, it seems. Yet Flood is one of the few songs that can make me cry each time I hear it and The Drop fails to enter that elite group. It is a small filler on the album, or as JJ called it, an encore. Welcome after the massive second half of Signal To Noise yet it's another song without a proper ending and in that respect not a good way to finish the album.
Nigel: As the album comes to an end with The Drop, so Peter Gabriel chooses to do away with the choked production of the preceding tracks and strip down the track to just piano (Bosendorfer) and vocals. The track itself is about a person in an aeroplane looking down through the clouds and trying to imagine what there actually is below. Many times have I heard of comparisons between Peter Hammill and PG yet the main distinguishing factor between these two great vocalists was heir different approach to composing. PG has most often been associated with creating music surrounded by numerous musicians and/or collaborators obtaining a rich and challenging sound. On the other hand, Hammill has a much more simple and minimalist approach which is challenging in its apparent simplicity. This time, the comparisons can really be made on this track.
Highlights: I Grieve, My Head Sounds Like That, Signal To Noise, The Drop
Ed: So was the album packed with hit singles. Us contained quite a few hits as well but expanded on the world music influence much more, resulting in some very diverse compositions. I do have to admit that I liked the versions on Secret World Live a lot more than the studio versions on Us. They seemed to have so much more energy that the somewhat dull production on the studio album (e.g. I think the studio version of Secret World is absolutely boring, while the live version is one of my favourite Gabriel tracks). Up expands on the styles, rhythms and influences found on these two albums and therefore isn't that much different. As a matter of fact I think a lot of the material on Up sounds very similar to the much ignored but brilliant OVO album.
There is much fantastic music to be found on Up and even the more commercial tracks are a lot smarter and more experimental than on for instance So. Combined with some excellent elements that were already explored on OVO all of the above results in Up probably becoming my favourite in the So/Us/Up series.
BJ: You could say that for many people this is the most anticipated album of the year. Or, if you prefer, the most anticipated album of last year, as Up was slated for release more than a year ago. And given the fact that it has been ten years since Gabriel's latest outing (not counting OVO, soundtracks or single songs) and in that respect it disappoints slightly.
The main thing I found lacking on the album is melody. There are a lot of sounds, noises, moods, beats and bleeps, yet real melody is rather absent in the music. Most songs have a rather simple, monotonous vocal melody, which often sounds close to previous work of Gabriel. It is ironic that the most beautiful melody that can be found on the album is actually in one of the weakest tracks, namely Darkness.
Furthermore, the long recording period was partly caused because Gabriel wasn't content with his work and constantly kept trying new things and changing things - It shows. To me, many of the songs, or parts in songs, sound as if they have been thought out too much. Overproduced if you will. As if each and every note has been carefully thought out, considered, weighed, played, erased and played again before it was recorded. Because of this the music sounds designed, rather than conceived.
To conclude, the album is a rather demanding album to listen to, with many great songs, some truly stunning moments, yet on the whole the album has it's shortcomings. Also, my opinion of the album depends on what mood I'm in when listening to it and over the past two weeks my mark has fluctuated between a 7- and a 9+. I have decided to mark the album according to the mean value of the two.
Nigel: I must admit to having been greatly surprised with Up. The music is refreshing and sees Peter Gabriel once again exploring the rock realm with the ethnic rhythms and effects placed within the background. I do not think that this album will win over too many new fans for PG, yet on the other hand will definitely win back many sceptics who were somewhat dismayed by the ethnicity of Us. It has been a long time since PG has had an album released which can actually be termed as progressive rock, something he has managed to achieve fully with this album.