This brooding, murky record is the masterpiece Peter Gabriel’s solo career. It marks the culmination of his experiments with “world music” on 3 and represents to my ears at least the last time outside of his soundtrack work that Gabriel got the balance of style and substance right. From the brooding opening of “The Rhythm of the Heat” to the desperate celebration of “Kiss of Life”, the album challenges listeners to re-examine their understanding of “civilisation” and “progress”. In fact it suggests that both these ideas, cornerstones of the first world for generations, are in reality political concepts: ideologies. There is consequently a great irony in the fact that the album was called for some markets Security. The whole experience of listening to it is quite unsettling and more likely to lead to insecurity than a feeling of safety and certainty.
When it was first released the album was something of a milestone, marking the first popular use of early sampling technology in the Fairlight-CMI. Every song uses sound textures sourced from such material as scraped metal, blown pipes and makeshift percussion. One of the keys to the success of the record, however, is that these elements are very smoothly incorporated into the songs themselves. There is never any sense of the technology being allowed to dominate proceedings for its own sake. Listen to “San Jacinto” for an idea of what I mean: the song features one of the more Genesis-like melodies on the album and a classic prog-structure of simple opening - increase in tension/complexity – climax - simplified coda rather than the verse – chorus pattern beloved of radio programmers. At the same time it is full of sampled “found sounds” and relates a shamanistic journey against the background of economic and cultural squalor. Quite an achievement in six and a half minutes!
“The Family and the Fishing Net” is probably the least accessible track on the album. It continues the theme of blurring the first world with the fourth, this time through a mixture of Ethiopian pipes, a heavy rhythm track, vocals that are raw and spontaneous in quality (aided by the great Peter Hammill) and lyrics which describe western marriage rituals through the eyes of a different culture. The singing on this song is extraordinary. Nothing smooth or tuneful about it, but full of passion.
Two other highlights are “Lay Your Hands on Me” (again featuring Peter Hammill) and “Wallflower”. The first of these depicts faith healing and ranges from muted introspection to ecstatic outbursts of both vocals and percussion, while “Wallflower” is a song most listeners will find immediately appealing: its melodic and arranged largely for familiar western instrumentation. Lyrically it marks the same ground as “Biko”, but is perhaps a little weaker lyrically even as it is musically stronger. That said, it is far superior to the maudlin “Don’t Give Up”, on So.
It’s often observed that the Hackett-era Genesis changed the structure of their songs by having a lot going on instrumentally at the same time as the vocals rather than in discreet instrumental solo sections. This album makes a similar change. The songs are concise but still both experimental and challenging. They often use percussion as a lead instrument with voice, but do this as part of the over-all theme of the album rather than as a rejection of past triumphs. I think it is one of the greatest progressive albums ever made.
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