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THE LAMB STILL STANDS UP
on 11 September 2002
A curious one this; a mass of contradictions. A sprawling, pompous prog-rock concept album packed with taught, snappy tunes. A showcase for the virtuoso musicianship of this most British of progressive bands, but featuring some of the most awesomely tight ensemble playing you will hear this side of a Bartok string quartet. This was the sort of music that punk rock was invented as an antidote for, and yet its obession with the phenomenology of inner city street life was two decades ahead of its time (rap is still going down the same graffiti-strewn alley today).
The story behind the stylish, surrealistic lyrics is that of Rael, a young Puerto Rican graffiti artist on the streets of New York, who finds himself catapulted into a symbolic underworld (a sort of Jungian Hades) where the meaning or possibly the meaningless of his former street life is played out in a series of surreal cameos involving a cloning (The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging), religion (Carpet Crawlers), various sexual urges and anxieties (The Lamia, The Colony of Slippermen, The Doktor, etc.), disorientation (The Chamber of 32 Doors), and death (Anyway, The Supernatural Anaesthetist). The final message about saving one's own self through self-sacrifice is almost but not quite religious, and its curiously cautious optimism does not at all clash with the rest.
This was the last album Genesis made with Peter Gabriel as principal lyricist and vocalist, and the last but two featuring the astonishing Steve Hackett (now a successful solo artist in his own right) on lead guitar. Provided you can cope with the odd few minutes of self-indulgence it ranks as one the band's best albums. It certainly contains some of the best playing and one of the best studio productions of their career. In fact many would see it as the high point of Genesis' career as a real rock band (i.e. before it became a matching accessory for Phil Collins' solo career).
A particularly interesting feature of "The Lamb" is how modern it still sounds. Apart from a few cheesy moog noises that clearly date the work to the days when synths were an exciting novelty, it is all tasteful and clean. The rhythm section of Collins and Rutherford shows an almost uncanny rapport - they seem to work better together than on some much later cuts, while Gabriel's vocals and lyrics are a good advert for the stellar solo career that was about to be launched.
As usual it is Banks who provides the matrix that holds everything together - one of the enduring mysteries of rock is why his solo projects never quite gelled with the record-buying public. The classically trained keyboard virtuoso provided much of the unique quality that set Genesis apart from other progressive bands in the seventies, and that keeps their early material sounding fresh and challenging today, viz. a grasp of musical architecture. They knew how to use space, different instrumental textures and compositional structure in a way that no other rock band ever equalled let alone surpassed.
To me and to many others, the band's subsequent inch-by-inch descent into the swamps of adult-orientated radio rock is one of the great musical tragedies of the late 20th century. "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" is not perfect and is arguably not their best album. Nevertheless, in this mixture of good and average, punk and classicism, indulgence and discipline, experimentation and pop, "The Lamb" captures everything that almost made Genesis the greatest rock band ever. And as with all true classics, much of sounds even better now, nearly 30 years on, than it did on first release.