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Calling All Stations (1997) – a classic album review

Calling All Stations - Genesis
Calling All Stations opens with a guitar riff approximately the size and weight of your average deity. Huge, in other words. Big drums, moody keys reminiscent of Home By The Sea, and then, from out of the clouds, this voice arrives; a warm, bluesy voice like a melding of Peter Gabriel and Paul Carrack, but with intonation unlike either of them. I won’t try to sell you that Ray Wilson’s performance on this album was so fantastic that it could have cured cancer, but even now, I listen to this album and think he added something they’d been needing for a long time. The song has a beautiful guitar solo, and then Ray returns to belt out an impassioned plea with the outro that gives me goosebumps. I remember when I first heard it, my thinking was ‘I could have belted that out better’, but then, I was pretty cocky in 1997. Now I wish I could sing that powerfully.

Congo opens with some simulated African percussion and vocalizing, followed by an incongruous accordion sound, and then another world-destroying riff crunches down, this time in part from Tony, with perhaps his most edgy sound patch in two decades. The problem is, the tune is really good, but it doesn’t quite reach 11 for me. It’s missing a quintessential bit of fire. I remember thinking it was a little too much like a track from Invisible Touch, except without the Simmons drums. It closes on a riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tony Banks solo album, but somehow, it just sounds like it missed Genesis by about fifteen years. Still, the song has grown on me over the years, and it’s no longer the one I skip past.

Shipwrecked is a gorgeous Banksian ballad that demonstrates Ray’s ample ability to deliver a love song. There are a few tracks on this album that try to hit this space, and this is maybe a little safe by Genesis standards, but it IS a lovely tune, so I won’t run it through the shredder. That said, I think Ray brings it with a little more conviction elsewhere on this record. More on that in a minute.

Alien Afternoon is an odd duck, in that it works a bit like Home By The Sea, with a moody pop opener and a really killer ending, but doesn’t attempt to build that same dual structure, which is fine, but maybe missed a golden opportunity to really knock one out of the park. It’s a bit lighter than I would have liked, but the only part that really worries me about this is that Ray seems to have a bit of trouble delivering Tony’s lyric with enough conviction. Not sure if they let him have a crack at reworking them to suit him better, but somehow, it doesn’t come off. I suspect Tony was trying for one of those ‘sounds great/less filling’ lyrics like they used to do on ABACAB and Genesis, where the sound of the lyric is more important than the message, but Phil was always better at those than Tony. It’s one of my favourite tracks from the album, and I love that it has diverse sections, a mini epic at almost eight minutes, really. It’s just a wee bit stiff until it gets to the back half of the tun, at around 5:00, at which the drums and guitars get really good, and Ray starts belting and wailing like a heavyweight champ.

Not About Us opens with acoustic guitar, which we haven’t heard featured on a Genesis album since Duke, really. And this song is right up Ray’s alley. It’s heart-wrenchingly pretty. This is where Ray really shines, but it’s also a great place for the rest of the band to get in the groove, including (IIRC) guest drummer Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard, who turns in perhaps his most Collinsesque performance of the whole album… which outlines part of my problem with this album. The band used two drummers, and Nick is certainly no lightweight, but he was perhaps a little too reverential to the guy whose throne he was sitting on, which I think hurt him and the record, over all. That said, this song works to all of their strengths; a ballad that didn’t sound one bit like a Phil Collins R&B-infelcted number, or one of Mike or Tony’s amazing pop ballads that still managed to sound too much like a Phil Collins ballad.

If That’s What You Need seems to me to be a Mike Rutherford number that would have sounded right on a Mechanics album, even if it’s almost buried in an avalanche of synth strings, but here it just softens the album to an almost detrimental degree. It’s a bit of a throwback to those Genesis ballads not initiated by Phil, but it definitely didn’t discover any new territory. It’s a lovely song. Perhaps a little too lovely. The sequencing of the album sets this next to the following song, which may have been a clever idea on their part, but I’m not so sure it worked in their favour

The Dividing Line opens with a killer bass synth sound, followed by Nir Z delivering one of the most blistering drum parts Genesis has had in years… and he was holding back! Mike’s guitar sound on this isn’t quite as huge as the one he used on the title track, but it comes pretty close. Even Tony’s melody sounds are fuzzy, buzzy and edgy. And then Ray opens his mouth and you finally realize, yeah, he IS undeniably a great singer. It’s a vast, sprawling, killer track from start to finish. For my money, they missed a golden opportunity to release this and really shake up the listeners, make them see that the band still had something powerful to offer. For me, this is hands down the most powerful track, which is why I used to sequence it to the end of the album. It’s also one of my all time favourite Genesis tunes. It’s probably the main reason you are reading this review, actually. The song ends where it began, with blistering drums and a killer bass synth. Nir Z may not have been as faithful to the Collins sound, but he brought some undeniable fire to the proceedings. I’d have hired him, and Ray did, when their time in Genesis was done. Mike’s guitar soars and battles Tony’s most inspired keyboard riff of the decade. This track alone could have cemented their comeback, if they’d only put it forward.

Uncertain Weather opens with synth pads and a mellow drum machine pattern, followed by Ray introducing the lyric, and then the real drums come in, another Nir Z part, on mellow mode, Mike vamping in the background, and then Ray sings the chorus, and the goosebumps start again. A beautiful example of Tony getting all the elements right, and the reason why most of his best material happened in Genesis; as manager Tony Smith is wont to say, Genesis IS Tony Banks’ solo career. If they had trimmed out all of the other softer tunes, I’d still have insisted on them including this one. It’s a perfect Tony Banks piece; one of his finest.

Small Talk is a curious piece that sounds like it was intended to be a radio hit, but sounds a bit like a misfire to me. It’s got some nice stuff in it: crunchy keyboard riff, bluesy guitar part, good drums, Ray sounding just fine, and a definite Genesis flavour to it. Perhaps too much so. It might have fit quite nicely on their previous album, with Phil singing it, though it would have been relegated to filler material there, too. It didn’t blaze any new trails, at least for me, but it certainly felt like a good enough tune to be on the album. Just not an olympic level number. The bridge has some cool voiceover samples burbling away, which adds something interesting to the track; probably the main reason for the song, really. It closes on a muted rephrase of the chorus, with a backing vocal round circlign around in the stereo space, which probably sounded au currant when they recorded it. Not bad, but not stellar.

There Must Be Some Other Way is another heavy number, though it starts a little mellow, semi-acoustic guitar and synth pad sounds introducing the track with a drum machine, Ray carrying us with a nice bit of bluesy singing, before the chorus lands with a thud. The drums here are magnificent, but the real star is Ray, belting like a rock and roll champion. I get the feeling this was largely a Mike track, but it’s got plenty of Genesis (i.e. Tony) feel, too. That chorus returns and Ray belts it out even more insistently, adding an element of hard rock attitude that hasn’t been witnessed on a Genesis album. Then the instrumental section arrives, with Nir Z and Tony Banks taking us on a journey; one of the finest moments on the album. This is why we bought Genesis albums. Tony trots out a couple of sounds we recognize, but we don’t mind, because it’s fricking Tony Banks taking the lead. The drums are perfect, the guitars are heavy, the keys are moody, and the song has depth and dimension. Then Ray returns to sing the last verse, delivering the goods, even though we know he’s going to have to go out on the hard rock chorus, which will make us forget this song even has verses. It’s not too often that the hook to a Genesis song is a growly voice, but here it is in spades.

One Man’s Fool opens with a standard Genesis drum machine and a little bit of noodling on keys and guitar, very mellow, very mild, very much something that would have fit on We Can’t Dance. I actually really like this track, but I think closing with it was a bit of a misstep; I used to sequence it in the place where The Dividing Line currently resides. The drums come in, a really nice, commanding performance, but the chorus itself just doesn’t lift us very far. Ray actually sounds better in the verses here, where he’s not fighting with Tony’s fuzzy synth horn patch and his background vocal, which sounds good but somehow holds him back. The piece DOEs transform into a slightly older vintage of Genesis track, leaning back on a Mellotron sound that evokes a bit of the 70s, or perhaps the Duke album (my personal favourite, which I WILL review some day). It IS a good closer, if you don’t have a track like The Dividing Line on the same album, which has the kind of weight of a Los Endos or Duke’s End, as compared to this, which has more of a Fading Lights weight to it. Not the worst choice; just not the best. Great song, though. Lovely message. Great groove. Ray gets to go out on another great rock god performance, and Nir Z gives us his impression of a Stewart Copeland performance. Very uplifting, over all.

SUMMARY

All told, this album was and is not the failure that I fear the boys thought it was. It’s a bit uneven, yes, but it mostly goes to ten, and once or twice goes to eleven, which is more than most bands of this vintage could manage in 1997. I believe with all my heart that this album would have been the beginning of a new, shining chapter in Genesis history. Perhaps the uncertainty of rebuilding in the face of resistance and radio apathy was just a bit too much for Mike and Tony to maintain their drive for. The title of the show ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ comes springing to mind here. As it is, reviewing this album feels a bit like exhuming a corpse, which bothers and irritates me. I feel like Quincy bellowing ‘it was moydah!’ to an empty room. In my humble, uninformed, unsolicited opinion, the only true mistake Genesis ever made in their four decade career was not following up this album. They could have slogged it for another year or so and seen the growth of the internet become their new champion, as radio faded away from view.

Moreover, in this new era of crowdfunded records and fan-bougth pre-order albums (Hello, Marillion), Mike and Tony could mount a new album project with no difficulty, if they took a mind to. They might have to scrounge up a new drummer and vocalist again, but if they followed the same template they had for this album, or lead on from where they were with it, I’m certain they would achieve greater success than they realized in 1997 and 1998. I believe that with all my heart. Whether it will ever happen is another of those mysteries that may not get solved before it’s too late to save the client, though. I may have to live with the coroner’s declaration on this one, but I don’t have to agree with it.

by Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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