The 7 TRAPPIST-1 Planets, Ranked in Order of Coolness

We live in a society that fundamentally does not appreciate space exploration. Every now and then I’ll be going about my humdrum life, probably trying to avoid eating something, and I’ll remember: Hey, didn’t they discover a planet capable of sustaining life a couple of years ago? And what about that planet we all thought was made of diamond?  How many exoplanets are there, anyway? And by the time I get through all of this I usually have to go do laundry or get my ears candled or something and can no longer spare the time to wonder about the great mysteries of the cosmos.

Because of this, the recent discovery of seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system has given me mixed feelings. On the one hand: Planets! OMG! And they look almost exactly like places you could visit from Mass Effect! But as soon as I get psyched about discovering alien life, I see articles with headlines like “NASA Just Discovered Seven New Exoplanets…So What?” and start feeling dismayed. We probably won’t find out more about these planets until at least 2018 or 2019, after the James Webb Space Telescope. I know we’re all a little preoccupied these days, what with the apparent destruction of Western Civilization as we know it, but can’t we get a little bit enthusiastic about science any more?

The average person probably has this motto about astronomy: If I Can’t Get There, I Don’t Care. They’ve got too much shit to do to get worked up about every gaseous giant or ultra-cool dwarf star that comes along. Which is stupid. I know more about Inspector Gadget then I do about outer space but even I can tell this is a great discovery. So, even if I’m not exactly Carl Sagan, let me give you a brief run down of the seven planets, listed from those that seem the least interesting to the most.

(The planets, as yet, don’t have official names, and also shouldn’t be confused with the Trappist Preserves, which are delicious, if a little expensive)


Aside from having the highest mass of all of these planets, there doesn’t seem to be much of note here for non-nerds. Don’t get me wrong, of course: everything here is exciting. But when they finally draw up the Virgin Space Travel Packages this one isn’t going in your top three or even top five and you know it.


The loneliest little planet out at the end of the system suffers from Pluto Syndrome. It’s probably best not to get too attached just in case it turns out to not be a planet after all and we have to start calling in Planet TRAPPIST-1h Subplanet a Article I or something.


It might not be possible to live on this pockmarked behemoth but there’s some intrigue there. It’s got the biggest radius, it’s closest to the sun (technically star TRAPPIST-1a) and it orbits in less than two Earth days. Also, I think I read somewhere that these planets have perpetual daylight on one side and perpetual darkness on the other, which is the plot of the Roger Zelazny novel Jack of Shadows, so maybe they could name one of these planets Zelazny? Heck, maybe they could name all of them after sci-fi authors: if Harlan Ellison gets his own planet maybe he’ll finally stop threatening to sue people.


More like TRAPPIST-1dgaf, am I right? Seriously, though, this is the icy one that resembles a giant eyeball, which means it really shouldn’t be staring at the sun. It kind of reminds me of the 600 A.D. world from Chrono Trigger and an artist’s rendering showed that the sea might be covered in alien ice flows for Werner Herzog to make a depressing documentary about. Pretty neat.


At a glance, this one seems to be the most like our home planet, with a mix of water, land and atmosphere. Despite that, it still completes its orbit in just a little over 6 days, which means there’s plenty of opportunity for an Interstellar-type situation to spring up once we’ve licked the whole crossing light years thing. If there’s really an alien war fleet gunning for our sweet, sweet desecrated resources, this is probably their home base. If not: man the space ark!


What’s up with this little runt? Brownish-green with a spine of emerald spots running through it, there’s definitely a likelihood that there’s a variety of terrain here, and I’m olding out hope that it might actually be the planet Koozebane.


I know the images we’re going off of are all “artist’s renditions” but I can tell you all you need to know about 1g in two words: Green. Planet. And not just in vegetation or anything boring like that. I’m talking the kind of eerie, fascinating mix of pale and dark green that looks like something out of Jack Vance’s wet dreams. Best part is, it’s one of the more Earth-ish ones, and if there’s any remote chance of getting humans on this one then sign me up stat, and make sure the space shuttle has plenty of Sun Ra, Pink Floyd and Bjork on board for all those light-years of contemplation. Set the controls for the heart of the big green marble.



The Double Nostalgia of “Stranger Things”

Spoilers for Stranger Things, including in the above recipe video, if you can believe it.

If you go by what the media tells us, the Boomer/Millennial conflict is one of the great culture battles going on under our noses. By now I’m sure you’ve seen dozens of Forbes, Fortune and New York Times headlines that talk about 20 and 30-somethings like they’re from another planet. Apparently, the Nickelodeon generation is so hard to understand that baffled middle-aged managers need countless studies, thinkpieces and instruction manuals just to get us to work for them. From this perspective, it feels like there’s some sort of inconsolable gap between the two age groups that will keep us from ever understanding each other.

The truth is, though, there’s a lot of key things Boomers and Millennials have in common. Both are social media and technology fiends, despite what you may assume. Both are unsure about the state of the country and their place in it. And both are stuck in similar tracks of nostalgia.

Look, I’m no Nate Silver, which is why I can’t substantiate much of the above with figures, just feelings and observations. Also, it’s almost bedtime and I’m writing a thinkpiece, not a doactualworkpiece. But one thing I’ve always found interesting is the parallel between Millennial nostalgia for the 80’s/90’s and Boomer nostalgia for the 50’s/60’s. Right now, the former is still in its stride, with music, films and TV shows gleefully strip-mining anything remotely connected to fuzzy feelings of the past. It’s easy for us not-so-young-ones to forget that the same thing happened a few decades earlier for our parents, and continues to soldier on, in its own way.

If you’re between 18 and 34, consider the pop culture both you and your parents grew up with. They had Captain Kangaroo. You had Sesame Street. They had Thunderbirds. You had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They had the British Invasion, the Jackson 5 and acid rock. You had boy bands, grunge and the hip hop golden age.

Now, age both of those generations into adulthood a bit. By the 70’s and 80’s, Boomer media was waxing reflective, with Happy Days, The Big Chill and the musical revivals of Britpop and doo wop mythologizing American life at the crux of the 20th century. Fast forward to the present day, and the Millennials are going through the same thing: in our version, we’ve got retrogaming, new synth,  “Uptown Funk” and entire movie franchises banking on our rosy tween memories. Why else would Disney decide to remake its own animated classics into humorless-looking live action movies? It’s reached the point where anything that isn’t actively a remake often feels like one somehow by association.

Which leads me, finally, to Stranger Things. It’s no secret that the show has culled the work of Stephen King for much of its inspiration. This applies not just to the typography porn of the intro sequence but the themes of the story itself: a young girl with psychic powers, children pit against supernatural monsters, government experiments gone wrong, an alcoholic protagonist, a dark world with a folksy name and the angst of suburban Americana are all mixed into an instantly familiar stew. King’s influence isn’t just nostalgia, but a kind of nostalgic nexus and part of the show’s most genius stylistic gambit.

I haven’t read that much King, myself, but even I can pick up on the interesting overlap going on. See, the man’s work is already rife with nostalgic references to his own Boomer youth, growing up in Maine on a steady diet of horror movies, rock music and weird fiction, one he recounts proudly in the first half of his book, On Writing. By 2016, we have two separate sets of generational memories converging on a single show. Though Stranger Things is set in 1983, it’s a version that echoes King’s own vision of the 80’s influenced by the 50’s and 60’s. For Millennials, it’s both our memories and our parents’ memories combined in a slick, streaming-friendly package.

And there’s yet another layer added when you consider the experience of Boomers in the 80’s being brought to bear. One parent I talked to reminisced about how Stranger Things sparked the memories she had of watching The Goonies with her daughter. The show attempts to recall the experience of both older and younger people reacting to the same cultural artifacts.

There’s no accident in the season’s plot structure, perhaps the most ingenious aspect of the show’s writing. For most of the story, we’re watching three separate 80’s throwback movies unfold: Micheal and Eleven and pals are essentially living through E.T., Nancy and Jonathan are stuck in a supernatural slasher flick and Winona Ryder joins Sheriff Hopper in a paranoid spy thriller meets ghost story. All of these are familiar enough structures for pretty much anyone to latch onto.

I wouldn’t say the show panders to both Boomers and Millennials equally, exactly. The fact that it features kids playing D&D at both the start and end of the series tips Stranger Things’ hand a little forcefully. There’s also lots of emphasis on the experience of using 80’s technology specifically as a child would. “Remember wood-paneled TV’s?” the show seems to be saying, like an unconscious version of South Park’s “Member Berries”. “And radios with antennas and record players and corded phones?” In fact, it was this sense of superficiality that left me cold at first. The show’s creators seemed so invested in reminding us of these things that there didn’t seem to be any room for Stranger Things to be about anything. And at a time when nerdy circles are desperately crying out for more diversity, the depiction of a group of all-male friends adds to the dangerous myth that there were no “real” nerdy girls in the 80’s, something far too many people still seem to believe today (if only Barb had stuck around longer to refute this stereotype).

However, after a few episodes the show’s multilayered nostalgia cake begins to reveal itself. It’s references on top of references, in a way that almost registers as camp but moves beyond into a kind of cross-generational signal fire. The show seems to be telling us that nostalgia is, at its core, the same, no matter who is feeling it or for what. The feelings King had when he wrote “The Body” or It must be on the same spectrum as the feelings we get while watching Stranger Things. The memories of a Boomer watching E.T.
with their kid intersect with that very kid’s memories of the same movie. Whether you were in your thirties or your teens when you first experienced one of the show’s source texts, revisiting it has an effect on you.

It’s not clear what happens next, though. I’m not just talking about Season 2, especially since there’s a few things obviously being set up. I’m referring more to the way our continued fascination with criticizing nostalgia will play out. Like, how many things can you really say about stuff we already know about? It’s true that every generation harvests the art that came before it for inspiration, but the consumer culture we find ourselves in now is in desperate need of new visions to give it some shape. I guess until then, we can look forward to new old-style title sequences. Not to mention more chances to eat things that vaguely resemble things from the show.

Classic Genesis Album Review: Selling England By The Pound


“Can you tell me where my country lies?”

That’s the opening line of the fifth Genesis album, and something I imagine a lot of people in the U.K. are asking themselves these days. Like many countries, Great Britain is currently in a bit of a crisis, stuck between the ghost of its former imperialist self and the uncertainty of modernity. On the one hand, London just elected its first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan. That’s good! On the other hand, the country is facing the “Brexit” question, which has deep possible consequences for all of Europe and seems to be dividing people pretty thoroughly.

While no one would ever call Genesis a protest band, they always had their own nerdy take on political issues, and usually addressed it with one song per album. Trespass had the revolutionary horrors of “The Knife,” Nursery Cryme took on Victorian sexual repression with “The Musical Box” and Foxtrot’s depiction of urban housing problems in “Get’em Out By Friday” is still pretty scary. Now we have an album where a Big Theme is woven into all of the music. It’s another concept album where the concept doesn’t drag everything down, and melds with the music in a way that makes you think, even if what you’re thinking is, “That’s an awful lot of synthesizer.”

The basic idea here is that Britain’s mythic past is invading the crass commercial present, showing the clash between the country’s ideals and the cold, bland reality. There’s a way this could have come across as nationalist or even flat out racist, but I don’t think that’s Genesis’ point. Remember, these are a bunch of nerdy prog guys we’re talking about. I think the bigger question for them is: “How can the land of Robin Hood and Shakespeare and King Arthur suddenly be filled with supermarkets, shitty fast food and financial problems? Where the hell does my country lie?” To ram the point home, Peter Gabriel would show up in concert as the spirit of Britannia, wearing the helmet and everything. At this point, it was one of the less weird things he’d done on stage, and it actually looked pretty good on him, given his haircut.

For many, this is THE album where things started coming together for Genesis. It still tends to rank pretty highly on lists of their best albums or even the best prog albums, period. It’s certainly a huge milestone for the band, with some of their most iconic and memorable moments present, BUT there’s also some flabby sections, which I’ll get into below. Even the lows are usually pretty interesting, though. It’s probably best to think of it as an album of sketches and short stories, so let’s crack it open and take a look:

“Dancing With the Moonlit Knight”: That opening line I mentioned? It’s rendered in stark a capella, shortly before the rest of the instruments start to fill in, coloring the corners of a surreal encounter on the London streets. The lyrics take weird mashups and blend them with an amplified Olde English riff, which gets downright symphonic during the choruses. Let me tell ya, only Gabriel could sing a line like “There’s a fat old lady outside a saloon” and sell it with that much gravity. The Hackett/Rutherford breakdowns get a little noodly, but it all pulls together for those moments when the chorus sings over the building guitars, and the fadeout sets the bar for the rest of the album to follow. Somebody needs to sample the main riff for an underground hip hop song if they haven’t already, the way that Illyfe sampled the theme from King Crimson’s “Moonchild.”

Rating: **** (four out of five)

“I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”: It’s hard to think of a song from the first few albums we’ve covered that you could describe as “joyful.” We’ve had rocking anthems, sweet love songs, even some grand epiphanies, but not really anything that could be described as pure fun, per se. By this point, the message was clear: If Prog Genesis was going to write a pop-ish song, they were going to do it on their own damn terms. As I’ve written in previous reviews, there were always shorter, poppy tunes in the band’s catalogue, but this song seemed to be a more deliberate effort to make something radio-friendly to go alongside the sprawling odysseys the band was getting known for. Even with all of that in mind, this is a gloriously weird and goofy song about Jacob, an adult still living with his Mom and mowing lawns for a living. Everyone wants him to get a better job and move out but he’s happy the way he is, taking naps on public benches and eavesdropping on people. Gabriel’s vocals on this are pretty odd, a sort of rap-like speak-singing that suddenly moves into the soaring, keyboard-backed vocals with lush sitar-esque noises and bouncing drum beats. I want to live in that “na na NA na na na”part after the first chorus forever. It’s my version of the Nexus.

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

“Firth of Fifth”: Wanna talk about iconic moments? The wonderful opening piano bit here is an instant classic, with a lot of great spiraling patterns that turn into a golden tinkly little movement. Then it crashes abruptly into the vocals, sternly singing some of the band’s most abstract lyrics so far, full of mixed metaphors about symphonies, cancer growths, sheep, and all sorts of stuff. It doesn’t matter, since it’s all a vehicle for some expert instrumentation, driven by Banks’ ingenius meoldies and all leading up to some excellent moody guitar work from Hackett. There’s lots of stuff to love in this, one of the most serious Prog Genesis songs, especially coming after the last one, and still one of the best. 

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

“More Fool Me”: There’s no getting around it. Even though he only co-wrote it, this is essentially a mediocre Phil Collins song that sounds like it was recorded secretly while the rest of the band was out reading Latin poetry on their lunch break or whatever. From the meowing opening line, this unfortunate entry begs to be snickered at as an early attempt from Phil to sneak another relatively normal song on a hopelessly proggy album. Just because you don’t want to write a seven minute epic about fighting wolves doesn’t give you a right to be boring. There’s something kind of endearing about it in a kind of pathetic way. Poor Phil. He would get better at this sort of stuff way later, obviously. When I revisit this album for non-review purposes, this is one of the tracks I almost always skip.

Rating: ** (two out of five)

“The Battle of Epping Forest”: …and here’s the other. I once debated about this song with a friend of mine, who defended it by basically saying “But it’s ‘The Battle of Epping Forest,’ Man! Come on!'” He’s entitled to his opinion and I respect him for it. I certainly appreciate how strange this song is, and the opening marching fanfare is promising. Right after that, though, things quickly get messy. Supposedly, Gabriel wrote all 0f the lyrics on top of the rest of the band’s contributions, and boy, it shows. There’s simply too much going on, in a story that starts as a mock-heroic gang war, takes a long detour in a section about a seedy reverend, then returns to the action, right before the crime bosses settle the score with a coin flip over the bodies of the dead. As with his other work to date, Gabriel’s elastic voice is pretty amazing, as he voices several different characters, changing on a dime from the hoarse Liquid Lem to the reedy Mick the Prick to the lisping Harold Demure, har dee har (why is a Lit major in the middle of a gang war anyway? And wouldn’t he find something better to do than fire acorns at the brawlers?). It’s not necessarily a trainwreck, but it’s tedious, and a little bizarre considering that “Supper’s Ready,” a song twice as long as this one, is way more listenable and dynamic. Tony Banks’ usually compelling arrangements are ugly and boring here, and the drums are drowned out by pretty much everything else. On top of all that, the narrative, which is supposed to be the whole point, is often inaudible thanks to Gabriel’s low voice in the mix and the muddy soup of word clutter. Whatever satirical bite the concept had is pretty much lost in the shuffle. I’d like to say that’s a shame but if this is the best they could have come up with they should have simply tried something else. This wouldn’t have worked even as an instrumental.

Rating: ** (two out of five)

“After the Ordeal”: Is this title a cheeky reference to the previous song? It certainly feels like a nice, streamlined respite after the overstuffed “ordeal” of “Epping Forest.” I like the way the piano and guitar parts build off of and weave around each other, especially as the song transitions into its final section, a sweet closing guitar bit from Hackett, the mastermind behind this song. As an extension of what he did on the previous album with “Horizons,” this is another great showcase that gives us some impressive work to add to his portfolio. If the prog version of the band had never broken up, the “Hackett instrumental” would probably have continued to develop as one of the highlights of each release.

Rating: **** (four out of five)

“The Cinema Show”: Or, “Why It Sucks To Get Cockblocked By Characters From Greek Mythology.” Apparently this is lifted pretty heavily from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, though I doubt knowing the source material makes this any less weird. Things start with a homey little intro giving us a modern Romeo and Juliet, except our versions are anything but romantic ideals: Juliet has to “clear her morning meal” in the evening, which is either an eating disorder reference or a description of a pretty lax cleaning schedule, and Romeo is a tacky lout who hopes bringing chocolate on his date will get him laid. I’ll admit that the first verses are a little silly, with the falsetto delivery of “cinema show” and especially “chocolate surprise” being one of those moments that will make any non-prog fans listening to this for the first time probably snort in derision (and if they haven’t done that by now, they are being quite civil). However, once we get past those lines we never rejoin the opening characters, instead taking an offramp to hang out with “Father Tiresias,” the mythical prophet who lived as both man and woman. I guess the band’s trying to make some mythological point about the union between sexes, but it honestly doesn’t matter once the grand arpeggios take over: there’s some admirable guitar work and one off the all-time best Banks freakouts that sounds like the work of the shaggy-haired madman he was, as well as some pounding drums from Collins. Then, finally, as things fade out, a haunting, familiar tune creeps back in. This is another essential Genesis piece, and one that would prove pretty durable in concert, even as the band struggled to redefine itself.

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

“Aisle of Plenty”: The first straight-up reprise on any of these albums brings back the tune of “Moonlit Knight” for a coda with an old lady named Tessa in a supermarket. Forgive the pretty terrible grocery store puns (“there’s the Safeway home”-ugh) and we get a foreboding ending to the whole enterprise. Honestly, the strength of this track isn’t in the lyrics or the callback, but the ending breakdown where lots of cries and strange noises start calling out to each other, like voices lost in the darkness, while the guitar sails on. 

Rating: *** (three out of five)

Final Thoughts: You should absolutely listen to Selling England, maybe even as a precursor the deeper, darker waters of the band’s prog period. It was their poppiest work to date but also the most sophisticated, showing a real desire to go bigger and grander while still staying smart. The only weak tracks are in the middle, and they’re easy enough to skip without spoiling the rest of the album’s majesty. This was also one of those albums marked by the dreaded “creative differences,” though, as the different factions within the group started to put pressure on each other. This would all result in the supernova of the next album, Gabriel’s final one with the band and a notorious work of prog spectacle that I will probably have to tackle in two parts.

Classic Genesis Album Review: Foxtrot


Ah, yes. If you’ve been reading these reviews waiting for me to really tear into some dusty old Dad Rock, then I’ve got some bad news for you: Foxtrot, the band’s fourth album, is a full-on masterpiece. There’s hardly a weak spot on it, a bad idea in it, or a moment of boredom to speak of. Even the softer sections are mysterious and entrancing instead of just dull. It tends to get dwarfed by its descendants, but to me, this is THE Prog Genesis album, the one that I have the least trouble defending. It marked a turning point in the band and a peak in the way it presented itself.

I don’t just want to spend all of these reviews focusing on Peter Gabriel, since part of the whole reason for his split with the band came from the way he started hogging the spotlight. Still, it’s hard not to connect the Foxtrot era with the rise of Gabriel’s famous costumes and theatrics. With all due respects to David Bowie (RIP), Gabriel would blow through several different costumes and stage persona per concert at his height to match his changing voice and bizarre, rambling stories. One of these costumes even included the fox in a red dress from the album’s cover.


I guess this makes Gabriel a kitsune…

Aside from him, the bandmembers who stand out the most on this album are Banks and Hackett: the former has lots of synth stuff to do, while the latter gets his first (brief) solo moment to shine as a composer. But really, everyone has some great moments, and let’s not forget that this album gave forth a legendarily long monster track, one that is a mini-masterpiece in its own right.

That might make all of this sound fairly disjointed, but this is also one of the tighter thematic albums of the band’s early years. Foxtrot is all about the apocalypse, in one form or the other, as each song sees some form of death or change arrive with cataclysmic results, culminating in a song about the actual, Biblical end of days. While it would be a suitable topic for a thrash-metal band, Genesis has an idiosyncratic take, weaving heavy rock, classical guitar, mellow ballads and pretty much anything they found interesting into a tight, propulsive collection of songs. There are fewer tracks here, but that’s only if you count the behemoth on Side 2 as a single song, which we’ll get into in a minute.

There’s so much to talk about with this one, it’s hard to know where to begin. Probably with the first track, right? That’s generally a good idea. Activate your prayer capsule and let’s get started.

Watcher of the Skies: Don’t let the ominous opening chords fool you: this is one of the most blistering, exciting tracks in the entire Prog Genesis library. After a chuchly Banks intro, we get a slowly building bass riff (presumably Mike Rutherford, and if so, it’s one of his all-time best moments) that bursts into the first line. Originally, I thought this song was about the last human searching hopelessly for more life in space, but the lyrics are actually so ambiguous that it could be about the exact opposite, a wandering alien arriving on Earth after humanity has wiped itself out. Either way, the combination of choral shouts and Gabriel’s aching verses is a perfect match for the grand, driving rhythm (I believe musicologists know it as DUHNUHNUHNUHNUHNUH NUHNUHNUH NUHNUHNUH NUHNUHNUH). There’s a great section where the synth and the guitars sort of trade the  beat back and forth, getting softer and then surging back loud again, and it’s exhilarating. This song became a classic live opener for the band (though it was an encore when I saw Genesis cover band The Musical Box do it a few years ago) and Gabriel’s character wore the iconic bat wings and glittery rainbow cape for the tune, as well as some great Ace Frehley-esque eye makeup.While Trey Anastasio and Phish deserves some credit for playing this at Genesis’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2010, they lose points for not even bothering with the costume. For shame!

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

Time Table: Get past the cutesy title and you’ll find a criminally underrated gem, and further proof that the prog and pop modes of Genesis weren’t entirely exclusive. Here’s a song that’s melodically catchy enough to play on any radio station and complex enough to fit alongside all the other more challenging stuff on this same record. The Keatsian lyrics use the subject of a Medieval oak table to meditate on the passage of time, and whether the greatness of former empires lives on or simply fades away. At first, the table is a handsome reminder of nobility, but by the second verse it’s dusty, musty and neglected. So, yeah, it’s literally a song about a table, which is kind of silly, and the words favor a sort of labored faux-middle English syntax that isn’t super singable (“A time when kings and queens sipped wine from goblets gold/And the brave would lead their ladies from out the room/ To arbors cool.”). It doesn’t matter, because everything works so well, even the tinkly piano outro which could have been cheesy but is instead heartfelt and sweet. I genuinely love this song and think it’s a great example of how you can combine several influences without producing a big honking mess.

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

Get’Em Out By Friday: In the near future, a greedy property company slowly squeezes its tenants out of their homes, bribing them with “a block of flats with central heating” before raising their rent anyway. This is kind of a companion piece to “Return of the Giant Hogweed” from the last album, a sci-fi mini-epic that tells a complete story and features Gabriel doing several voices, sometimes with electronic assistance. There’s also a little bit of “Harold the Barrel” in the way Gabriel switches tones and melodies for each character, including the landlord, the residents and “the Winkler,” the hatchet-man sent to conduct the evictions. Sometimes, Gabriel’s busy lyrics got in the way of the already chaotic orchestration of some of these story-songs, much to the rest of the band’s annoyance. Fortunately, things continue to work together well here, with Phil Collins’ frantic drumming and Banks’ classical riffs blending smoothly. Rutherford’s bass and Hackett’s guitar come out during the bridge, and eventually things get very quiet before the narrative abruptly shifts forward to a Dalek-like voice trumpeting an announcement from “Genetic Control.” Seems that the powers that be have decided to start breeding humans smaller so they can fit them into more buildings. Then the whole thing ends with an oddly cutting line suggesting that the church is in cahoots with all of it, which is probably a little too much given the amount of content already crammed in here. The song itself is a nice change of pace for the band, a surprisingly bouncy work that combines technical virtuosity and fantastical elements with some surprisingly strong social satire. At a time when families in Hong Kong are getting squeezed into illegal 40-foot subdivisions,  this song is actually still pretty relevant, and the sneering, sarcastic finale helped keep the band’s bleak sense of humor razor sharp.

Rating: **** (four out of five

Can-Utility and the Coastliners: The title, presumably a play on King Canute, is kind of dumb, but the song itself more than makes up for it. After an opening about the “scattered pages of a book/by the sea” (and the return of the loathsome finger cymbals) we hear the tale of an arrogant king who commands the sea to halt at his feet. There’s some ELP-esque riffs but also a cool, chill section (“Far from the north/overcast/ranks advance”) before the entire melody changes and we get into the harder guitar work. I always marvel at the way this song shifts so effortlessly from a classical beat to a shredding guitar within just a few bars. Like earlier Genesis songs, this essentially feels like two different pieces mashed up together, but the group pulls it off. The final bit has Gabriel uncharacteristically screaming and snarling before everyone tidies it up with a neat finish. By this point, you’ll probably forget the pastoral way the whole thing opened, and that’s a testament to just how much there is to hear.

Rating:**** (four out of five)

Horizons: Pity poor Steve Hackett. The guy seems like he worked really hard on this soothing classical guitar piece that’s both under two minutes and poorly placed on the album right before the longest album track in the band’s history. In interviews he’s said that some listeners assumed it was just an intro to the next song. That’s a shame, because this is a lovely little ditty (the first instrumental to appear on a Genesis album, in fact) that demonstrates Hackett’s virtuosity without being too showy. If I were a guitar expert I could probably tell you about all the different techniques he works into this one piece: alas, I’m merely a schlub who listens to Genesis too much. However, I did once again notice the easy way Hackett moved from arpeggios to sharp plucking, making a nice rise and fall before everything comes to a close. It might be the most easily overlooked track on the album, given its company, but “Horizons” was an early herald of some great things to come from Hackett.

Rating: **** (four out of five)

Supper’s Ready: Where do I even start with this beast? “Supper’s Ready” is an infamous, 23-minute behemoth that’s unique even in a genre loaded with overly long songs. While there is kind of a narrative tying the seven “movements” together, it’s more a series of tableaux and symbolic imagery, leading up to the finale to end all Genesis finales. I considered covering the entire song in one bullet, but there’s so much to unpack here I thought it made more sense to break it down into sections. While there’s lost of “official” program notes to go from, I’m just going to focus on what’s on the album and leave you to look that stuff up yourself, because I’m sure you’re interested.

I. Lover’s Leap: This gentle opening is so melodic it might trick you into thinking you’re listening to a normal song. Don’t be fooled! Gabriel harmonizes with a falsetto version himself and describes an ordinary evening at a couple’s home that starts to get weird. Taken on its own, this could almost be a standalone song, and in fact, future frontman Ray Wilson has performed just this section live. We don’t speak about Ray Wilson, though. Not yet.

II. The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man: The serene textures of the previous verse lead us to this folky part that suddenly turns into ecstatic fanfare to herald the arrival of the titular character, who doesn’t seem all that sincere. There’s some choruses and buoyant guitar work, but there’s no time to get too comfortable…

III. Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men:…because now we’re rushed into battle! Though Banks takes a lot of the spotlight here, the most memorable part of this movement by far is the dueling guitar riff that comes at the climax. Pretty rad, and it’s over all too quickly.

IV. How Dare I Be So Beautiful?: This is barely a section at all, and more  of a breather between the busier pieces. It’s hard not to snicker at the overly serious scene-setting, especially when Gabriel introduces a boy who’s been “stamped ‘Human Bacon/ by some butchery tool” before revealing “he is you.” What the hell does that mean? That’s a question you just can’t ask here, since no sooner does the boy appear than he transforms into a flower. “A flower?”

V. Willow Farm: Yup, it’s the bit where Gabriel stalks around dressed as a giant flower, single-handedly inventing Of Montreal in the process and confusing pretty much everyone. One of the most notorious moments in all of Genesis lore is also undisputably a song highlight, a goofy-yet-scary nightmare garden where nothing stays stable for long. What other band would put something so ludicrous in the middle of their huge opus? This is one case where you absolutely need to see some of the live concert footage, because the entire thing gets even crazier once you realize what was actually happening onstage while this madness was playing. In purely audio form, “Willow Farm” is still a trip, basically a 70’s version of “I Am The Walrus” full of weird Freudian imagery, pounding synth and Gabriel’s menacing purr. From here we’d get pop culture’s most sinister flower until Undertale (that reference is for the part of my readership that both loves old-school Genesis and has played a video game that came out last year. So, all of you.).

VI. Apocalypse in 9/8 (Co-Starring the Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet): What sounds at first like we’re gearing up for a 90’s videogame boss fight takes a sudden left turn into coziness with a protracted flute solo, which I know you were just dying to get back to. Once again, though, you can’t get too comfortable, because things take another turn when the flute cuts out, the keyboards start pounding and Gabriel’s voice begins echoing all over the place. For this section, he would put a magenta box on his head and don a shaggy black cloak as Magog, while describing a parade of dragons, flames, trumpets, and other Book of Revelations mainstays. And a parade is just what it sounds like, especially between the two sung verses, as the drumming gets more regimented and Tony Banks marches us higher and higher up the steps to the big confrontation. There’s a nice scratchy noise right before Gabriel shrieks “666,” too, that kind of sounds like a dolphin. Then, after so much intense buildup, we finally get the big release. I know I already said this, but please track down live concert footage of the 70’s performance of this with Gabriel: the first time I saw him burst out of a cloud of smoke in an all-white outfit and boogie to the sound of church bells I swear I burst out laughing (in a good way, Peter. Honest.).

VII. As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs (Aching Men’s Feet): Why does so much Christian rock suck? For many people, the genre makes you think of middle-aged white guys with soul patches groaning about how awesome Jesus is while bland rock-metal drones on in the background. Yet, here’s a song that unapologetically ends with God ushering humanity into New Jerusalem and it’s totally rockin’. It helps that a) the band seems more interested in the lore of the Bible than any evangelical message and b) everybody seems completely, joyously exhausted by this point. Gabriel’s voice is shot, the Mellotron is exploding, Phil is whaling on the drums with all his strength and the guitars are tangled around themselves in sweaty riff infinity. Hallelujah.

I thought about giving each of these sections individual ratings, but honestly, there’s no way I can give “Supper’s Ready” anything other than a five out of five. If the band did something this nutso on every album it wouldn’t be as special. Instead, this stands as their most grandiose piece yet, a totally one-of-a-kind prog thesis. The sheer amount of stuff packed in here without weighing the whole album down is extraordinary: pretty much every movement leads organically to the next, and it all feels pretty well-constructed, which is a miracle worthy of Magog itself. If the Rapture ever does happen, I want a band of angels to be playing the final melody as everyone disappears up to Heaven, which will probably piss off all the Zeppelin fans but whatevs.

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

Conclusion: By this point, you can probably tell I dig this album. It’s almost irreproachable as a great artifact of Prog Genesis, and it’s also a sign of how the band was developing as a group. After a couple of years of experimentation, they now had a sense of what was in their wheelhouse: epic rock songs, gentle pop tunes, story-driven sci-fi narratives, and instrumentals were all up for grabs, along with whatever else these five bookish madmen fancied. While they had yet to make the mainstream, true fans know how important Foxtrot is, and it still holds up well. Give it a listen, and re-live the glory days of ecstatic drums, sweep picking and Peter Gabriel’s unclassifiable haircut. Oooo-eeee-oooo-eeee-ahhhhhh.

Classic Genesis Album Review: Nursery Cryme

If 1970’s Trespass was too solemn, the following year would see Genesis double down on their quirky side in Nursery Cryme. That title is more than a little foreboding, especially since the unnecessary “y” makes it sounds like an embarassing hair metal record or something. With two new recruits joining the party, guitar wizard Steve Hackett and some guy named Phil Collins, Genesis was gearing up for the first major arrangement that would see it immortalized as a prog mainstay. Thus the group began developing its style to create a mix of snark, myth, bombast, monstrosity and madness. Nursery Cryme marks the phase where Genesis hones in on what makes it unique, rather than embracing the generic post-hippy stuff that you could get elsewhere.

Simply put, it’s a weird, lopsided album. Combine impish schoolboy giggling with some stone-faced mysticism and surprising attempts at pathos, and you’ll get the definition of a “mixed bag.” Some consider it a masterpiece, others are more critical, and the production value especially seems to have come under fire. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of toe-flavored tea, that’s for sure. However, its oddness is part of what makes it so interesting. Genesis would eventually establish its own voice among a crowded prog scene, and this is where they add an undeniable zip to their interest in myths and staggeringly long songs. Things hum along here in a way they didn’t before.

From the delirious green and yellows gatefold cover to the tones of the songs themselves, this album feels like a mad trip. Let’s dive in, shall we?

The Musical Box: I have a confession to make. I’m not typically a big fan of this one, and, not having heard it for a while, was tempted to give it a mere two stars. For most true Genesis-heads, that might border on heresy. “The Musical Box” would go on to become one of the band’s signature tunes, so much so that there’s a whole cover band named after this very song (whom I once saw perform it, as luck would have it). I’m not sure why I’ve been so lukewarm on it. Maybe it’s the story, about a decapitated Victorian boy who returns as a horny old ghost and tries to seduce his former playmate. Peter Gabriel’s thoroughly creepy old man voice and the accompanying mask are effectively off-putting, so much so that it distracts from the rest of the admirable guitar work and mounting tonal intensity.

However, this gets a big bump in the rankings for one reason and one reason alone: Phil Collins. In 2016, it’s really easy to make fun of the omnipresent Collins, but back in the day he was a true badass, believe it or not, and this song gives him a great introduction. You can’t hear it well on the Spotify version (at least until the end), so check out the clip below and follow along with Phil’s great percussion work and odd yeow yeow noises.

See? The way he works in sync with Peter, especially, is noteworthy giving the split that would come a few albums later (spoiler alert!). You could listen to just his part of the song and still get everything you need out of it, as he totally nails intricate rhythm changes and tricky lyric cues. Because of that, and because of its importance in Genesis’ prog history, this song deserves a higher ranking, which it shall have.

Ranking: **** (four out of five)

For Absent Friends: Look at that! A complete song in less than three minutes! I have no idea if it was played on the radio much (or at all), but this is the first Genesis song of this era that feels “normal people friendly.” I was a little hard on the band’s folkier song “Dusk” last album, so I’ll make up for it by saying this is a pleasant breather placed between two phantasmagoric beasts. You might say that makes the slice of life lyrics about a bittersweet “widowed pair” visiting church feel insincere. After all, this is coming after a song with lines like “the nurse will tell you lies/Of the kingdom beyond the skies”. I, however, think of it as the opposite of “Musical Box,” a song celebrating the comforts people get from church after loss, meager though they might be. Kind of like “Eleanor Rigby,” sung with hope instead of lamentation. Not much else to say. It’s kind of amazing that the band could produce such a complete song in so short a time. I think that’s Philly C singing in there? You can hear his isolated vocals here, thanks to one enterprising YouTuber. Get used to it.

Ranking: *** (three out of five)

The Return of the Giant Hogweed: How can you not like a song about man-eating plants? The opening, with Banks and Collins both delivering a kickass riff, is one of the best moments of the entire album and makes me wish Muse would hurry up and cover this song already. From there on, the track this most resembles is “The Knife,” with Gabriel yelling violent commands while the keyboards pound and mock-fanfare plays. The United Kingdom is ravaged by the titular vegetable menace, thanks to “a Victorian explorer” who foolishly brought it back to the royal family from a Russian marsh. Because “fashionable country gentlemen” let it grow, it’s now unstoppable, “immune to all our herbicidal battering,” even though it’s also apparently defenseless at night. Both the mock-seriousness and the jaunty rhythm makes this a little easier of a listen than the devastating “Knife,” and the way the different instruments weave in and out keeps your attention. The new kids get a chance to show off their stuff, later, as Hackett and Collins (I think) collaborate on a little jig-like section that almost sounds like a Dropkick Murphys tune. Like all great stories about man-eating plants, it ends with humanity being consumed, just in case you thought the band was getting soft, so don’t worry. The conclusion sounds like the end of a monster movie, which is, of course, perfect. I also love the way Gabriel introduces this song with a scream before going completely bananas in one of the live versions.

Ranking: ***** (five out of five)

Seven Stones: I can’t remember when I first noticed that a lot of prog Genesis songs don’t even bother to rhyme. It’s interesting that so many can go by without you even realizing that instead of A-B-A-B, the rhyme scheme is A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H etc. “Seven Stones” isn’t the best example of a more rhyme-centric song, not at all, but it is interesting to notice more among the lyrics. Anyway, has early warning signs of some of the bad habits of Trespass, with an organ opening and the line “I heard the old man tell his taaaaaale…Fortunately, “Seven Stones” turns out to be much tighter and more interesting than something like “Visions of Angels.” Banks is certainly Banksing it up under the main melody, almost to its detriment. We get some more AHHHHHHs but they’re used far more effectively, and the drumming continues to be suitably impressive and powerful without drowning everything out. This is also a good example of a Genesis prog song with lots of clunky lyrics that still don’t feel overwritten, especially with Gabriel’s steady delivery. The dreaded flute is also well-integrated. When all is said and done, though, there are more memorable Genesis songs in this vein. It’s another example of being pretty and well-made and ultimately lackluster.

Ranking: *** (three out of five)

Harold the Barrel: Here’s a weird one, a deliberately obnoxious vaudevillian jingle about a madman who ends up falling to his doom (presumably). An eccentric bloke makes a series of bad choices and it culminates with a whole crowd begging him not to jump from a building. Though it’s a little ambiguous, given that the last line is “take a running jump,” I think we can hazard a guess as to what happens. This song is pretty chaotic, mostly in a good way, and the refrain is catchy even if you have no idea what’s going on. By using it to split up the achingly earnest “Seven Stones” and “Harlequin,” Genesis were at least pacing things way better on this album. Don’t like five-minute Mellotron odysseys? It’s time for something completely different. The thumping piano and different voices makes this sound a lot like “Lady Madonna,” and the slower part where we segue into the title character’s inner monologue on the ledge is kind of like Harry Chapin’s “Sniper” (though mercifully shorter). Some are definitely going to find Gabriel’s nasally tone too much to take. I like the jittery piano, unexpected choral parts (“You must be jokiiiiiing!”) and especially the final melancholy tone fadeout. It’s a nice bookend to the cymbal  sound at the beginning, both of them signals that this is something out of the ordinary, like the rise and fall of a curtain. Whether or not you like it, this song is going to stick in your memory, which is more than I can say for the likes of “Seven Stones.”

Ranking: *** (three out of five)

Harlequin: Jeez, Genesis. Stop it with the three-minute long songs, already, people are going to think you’re, like, a regular band or something. Since I gave “Absent Friends” a pass, I’m laying the hammer down again for this. It’s still not as loose as Trespass but it’s awfully forgettable. I think this is supposed to be a poetic description of the sky after a storm: if you read the lyrics straight they kind of sound like one of Gollum’s riddles from The Hobbit, like they’re describing something we’re supposed to guess. Aside from that it’s all cloying harmonies and sunshiney guitar. I’m saving my one-star ratings for the truly awful, so this one gets two for being merely meh.  Still, it’s interesting again to note that the band has its roots as deep in pop as it does in prog. At any rate, it was making this kind of music at the same time as longer epics like “Musical Box,” which is impressive in its own right.

Ranking: ** (two out of five)

The Fountain of Salmacis: If nothing else, Nursery Cryme‘s setlist gives us a much faster-paced selection than what came before. Even the long songs feel more focused. I love the spooky opening to this one, with the shimmering cymbals and wandering keyboard synth. From there, we’re plunged into the tale of Salmacis the nymph, who tricks Hermaphroditus into merging with her into one being, from which we may get a certain word you can probably figure out. Yup, it’s a song based on a Greek myth, and unlike Seven Stones, nothing rhymes here at all.  This one has fine instrumentation weighed down by ponderous lyrics that feel like Gabriel’s just reading from a high school copy of Ovid. I like the echoing choruses a good deal, and the drums once again prevent this from getting too sleepy. I keep wanting to call this “The Font of Salmacis” because it sounds more classical. They really missed a golden opportunity there.

Ranking: **** (four out of five)

Conclusion: The more I listened to this album, the more I liked it. Things that I found disposable at first proved to be far more complex the more I paid attention. It’s undeniably step in the right direction after the growing pains of Trespass, and it’s probably the Genesis prog album most obviously influenced by the Beatles, whom I already referenced twice in this post alone, if you were paying attention. Adding Hackett and Collins to the group, both of whom have lots to do here, gave the sound a lot more personality and energy, necessary for dealing with songs as long as 10 minutes. Though there are dull moments, they don’t weigh this album down like they did on the previous one. At their proggiest, Genesis would combine all the strengths of other groups in the genre (King Crimson’s experimentalism, Jethro Tull’s twee humor, Floyd’s darkness, ELP’s statelieness, Rush’s nerdiness) into one distinct blend. Nursery Cryme moves us further in that direction and prepares us for what’s to come. It’s also apparently one of Geddy Lee’s favorite albums, so I can’t diss it too much.

Classic Genesis Album Review: Trespass


Time to get this party started.

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m not very good at music reviews. What I am, however, is someone scarily obsessed with the rock band Genesis, specifically the classic progressive (or prog) era in the 70’s. If you only vaguely know them as the group behind that song that plays in CVS sometimes, follow me back to 1970, as we chart the beginnings of one of the oddest and most eclectic groups of its time. Though it would eventually become known for catchy synth-pop, Genesis famously began as a prog staple, eventually turning all of its members into music industry mainstays, some more than others.

“But Andy,” some of you may be saying, “if you’re doing a Genesis retrospective, why aren’t you starting with the first album, From Genesis to Revelation?” There’s no real answer, other than the fact that a) even many die-hard fans find that album obscure and b) I don’t wanna. If I do enough of these reviews I might go back to it eventually. For now, I find it easier to start with the group’s sophomore work, Trespass, especially since it has way fewer songs.

Even with only one album behind it, Trespass is kind of an oddity, starting with the ugly cover art. At the time, the group consisted of Peter Gabriel as vocalist, Tony Banks on various keyboard instruments, Anthony Phillips on lead guitar, Mike Rutherford on bass and John Mayhew on drums. Only Gabriel, Rutherford and Banks would move on to the next albums, and much of the folky feel of this one would be left behind with the discarded members. While it makes sense as a starting point for someone looking to get into classic Genesis, don’t be saddened if you’re not into it: the stuff on the horizon will be different.

With that in mind, let’s break down the album track by track. Keep in mind that I’m no musical expert and sometimes have trouble telling who’s doing what, instrument wise:

Looking for Someone: It’s weird that the first moments of the first song at the very beginning of Peter Gabriel’s first band actually sounds a lot like his later work. We get his vocals over a moody soundscape, and it’s not until about half a minute in that the guitars perk up and we think, “oh, right, it’s the 70’s.” I guess this is kind of a weird song to open the album in general. It’s all over the place musically and doesn’t really fit in with  the whole folky, Medieval vibe, as Gabriel’s protagonist wrestles with whether or not he wants to be in a relationship. It’s a pretty good representation of what the band was good at, though, as this one song manages to cram so many different moods and tones into a single piece. Genesis was certainly guilty of using all the prog cliches, but they could also transcend them and create a genuinely eclectic sound at their best. That isn’t the case, here, yet, unfortunately, but there’s enough going on that it makes for a solid opener, if an odd one. While the best prog tracks make all the complicated tempo changes flow naturally, this feels like four or five songs stuck together. I guess it’s better to have too many ideas than too few, especially in progland.

Ranking: *** (three out of five)

White Mountains: If the first song put you to sleep, this one will (eventually) perk you back up again, old friend. Instead of an angsty ballad about boring things like feelings, we get a totally ridiculous Beowulf-esque saga about a clash between talking wolves that sounds like “Battle of Evermore” meets “Classical Gas.” Moreso than many prog groups, Genesis loved to tell stories, and although the narrative here is pretty basic, it’s a good beginning to the mini-opera style the band would embrace going forward. There’s some great acoustic and synth work, the latter courtesy of Tony Banks, as well as a few lovely little pastoral passages and that weird echoey effect that makes it sound like there’s a dozen Peter Gabriels yelling at you at once. This song also sets up the loose theme (don’t call it a concept!) tying the album together, about who is allowed kingly authority over whom. There would be much better versions of this kind of thing later in the band’s career, but White Mountains is still an album highlight as far as I’m concerned, full of drama and lots of great atmosphere. As a side note, how does a wolf hold a scepter, exactly?

Ranking: **** (four out of five)

Visions of Angels: Here’s where things start to sag a little. As with the other weaker tracks, there’s a bunch of good elements here searching for a better song. The lyrics, about a grief-stricken pilgrim grappling with his faith in a barren forest, fit better with the general tone of the album than the opener, and the middle piece with all the AHHHHHHHs would be a great instrumental on its own. Banks showboats here pretty well and adds some nice little Rick Wakemany touches, including the opening riff. This one is mainly undone by it own stateliness. There’s too much buildup, and the chorus, while grand and majestic the first time you hear it, is repeated no less than THREE TIMES at the end, leaving you pretty exhausted. Sometimes that shit works but this isn’t “The Mercy Seat” and all that grandiosity just becomes tedious (it does make you appreciate the roughness in Gabriel’s voice, though, so different from other prog singers). Pacing was not a strength of classic prog in general, and would come to Genesis slowly. “Visions” isn’t bad by any stretch, just not extremely memorable.

Ranking: *** (three out of five)

Stagnation: With a title like that, you’re probably not expecting anything rousing, but this is actually a gorgeous Genesis slow burn, building up to a great climactic chorus. The start’s a little rough: the guitar and keys sound like they’re trying to overpower each other, you can barely hear Gabriel’s watery vocals and the overall quality is pretty muddy. Things get good, though, once the drums come in, and the scene abruptly turns strange and languid. Tony Banks does this delightfully weird thing that sounds like a series of dial tones before things morph into a kind of jam, then switch again a couple more times until we get to that wonderful baroque “I WANNA DRINK” part, followed by the long, melodic outro. If that’s Phillips on the guitar, he brings a lot of enthusiasm to the jammy crescendo that makes it feel like a symphony instead of an open-ended free jazz session. Unlike “Looking for Someone,” the progressions feel organic, even when they’re radically different from what came before. It really does sound like you’re staring at a still pond while being abducted by aliens, which probably isn’t what the song is about but is as good as anyone else’s guess.

Ranking: **** (four out of five)

Dusk: The only song on this album shorter than five minutes is, weirdly enough, also the dullest. I used to think this was a beautiful tune, but the more I listen to it the less I like it. It’s pretty, sure, and that’s about it, and the more it goes on the more it sounds like second-rate Moody Blues foofery, (or, as my brother might say, “dreary hippie music”) especially with those choruses. I like the flute stuff in the middle sections and the chamber harmonies well enough, and it leaves a good memory afterwards if you don’t fall asleep. Like “Visions,” the middle section might have made a good instrumental piece if presented on its own. Unfortunately, it’s deadened by faux-mystical fluff and SO. MANY. FINGER CYMBALS. Seriously. If you take a shot every time you hear finger cymbals, you will probably be dead within two minutes.

Ranking: ** (two out of five)

The Knife: Now we’re talking. After tracks of wistful forest guitars and chimes, we now get a total 180, from the pounding opening chords onward. There was a time when I listened to this song multiple times a day, and I was a little worried it wouldn’t hold up upon a revisit. As dated as everything on Trespass is, “The Knife,” is still awesome, urgent and frightening in a way that throttles the album up to  a high note. Instead of closing with something overtly olde fashouned, the band wisely opted for a song about violent rebellion, a topic that’s both modern and timeless. Gabriel’s manic guerilla leader proudly exhorts followers to “stand up and fight/for you know we are right” while callously noting that “some of you are going to die/martyrs, of course, to the freedom that I shall provide.”) The tension doesn’t let up, even when the obligatory flute interlude appears, and the sequence where a repeated chant leads to sounds of gunfire, screams, and a kickass guitar solo is truly masterful. If “White Mountain,” a song about coronation, had been the opener, “The Knife,” a song about the rulers being overthrown, would have been an even better conclusion. The only false step comes at the very end, where the song resolves with a weird loungey “ta-DA!” moment instead of a yell, which would have been more appropriate. That’s nitpicking, though. This is the first essential Genesis track, and, as far as I’m concern, the only thing you truly need to hear from this album, if you’re short of time but still have nine minutes to spare, somehow.

Ranking: ***** (five out of five)

Conclusion: Believe it or not, I used to proudly call Trespass my favorite Genesis album, little snob that I am, and in a way I’m glad I’ve listened to it enough to no longer feel that way. It’s very much a humorless 60’s hangover, lacking much of the surreal psychodramas, bizarre jokes and propulsive rock that would define the band’s best work. The good stuff here is notable, though, and when seen as part of a full catalogue, helps show why the band’s output was more diverse than many give it credit for.

Indie Games of Guilt: Undertale and The Stanley Parable

[spoilers for the games in the title, so be warned]

Well, everyone else has churned out an Undertale thinkpiece by now, so why not I?

Video games have been making players feel guilty ever since YOUR PRINCESS IS IN ANOTHER CASTLE, and probably earlier. Sometimes this was all a part of the show, and others it was a way for developers to openly harass you. I can still remember the narrator of Logical Journey of the Zoombinis telling you to turn off the computer, or The Dagger of Amon Ra forcing you to watch the protagonist get murdered if you failed to solve the game’s murder mystery. Nevermind the cries of horror from supporting characters should you walk the path of darkness in Knights of the Old Republic, or pretty much any Bioware game, for that matter.

This kind of guilt stems from the game making judgments of the player’s behavior, or cruelly punishing you for not doing well enough. These days, though, guilt is the game, at least for some popular indie titles. Undertale and The Stanley Parable don’t appear to have much in common at first, but both use the mechanics of guilt as a playing field to test the user’s boundaries and push your further.

Undertale has been endlessly analyzed and picked apart by now, but in case you’re unfamiliar, guilt is this game’s bread and butter. At first glance, it’s a minimalist SNES-style RPG that submits you to regular battles with enemies in a monster-infested world. However, the game now-famously gives players the choice to either be completely good, sparing all opponents and not gaining any “EXP,” or be the opposite and seek out and destroy every single creature in the game’s fictional world. Most will probably fall somewhere in the middle, at least the first time through.

I recently beat Undertale with my girlfriend. We took the “pacifist” route, unlocked the most satisfying ending, and, after the credits finally ended, launched the game one more time to be greeted with a message begging us not to reset it. Even in the best case scenario, the one where you spare virtually everybody and never truly harm a soul, the game still finds a way to make you feel bad about your choices. If you do kill creatures in the game, you open yourself up to criticism almost immediately as characters openly comment about how bloodthirsty you are.

Faced with that choice, we decided we had no desire to go back. And we probably won’t. That’s the only way to truly “beat” the game, although some might argue that abstaining is actually robbing yourself of the whole experience, since there are some events that only open up if you play through multiple times and eventually decide to go “genocidal.”

No matter how you decide to play, Undertale pulls a pretty major guilt trip on you towards the end anyway. Although the standard genre trappings would make you think you earn “experience points,” a monologue reveals that EXP actually refers to “execution points,” i.e. your capacity to kill without remorse. So, all that time you thought you were leveling up, you were becoming more and more heartless. The poor gamers who dove right in without hearing any of the buzz must have been gut-wrenched to get to that part.

But where does the definition of what is “good” and “bad” in a game come from, anyway? In game theory terms, traditional “finite” play has a protagonist and an antagonist, a goal and a way to lose, but infinite, “recursive” play does not. Hijacking the game for your own perverse ends could be good or bad, depending on whether you define it that way or let the game define it for you.

Such are the lessons of the other game I wanted to mention, The Stanley Parable. Like Undertale, this game sets up expectations and then tests you to see whether or not you’ll violate them. It starts out simply enough: a narrator is guiding your character through an abandoned office when you reach a set of doors. He instructs you to go left (he actually puts it in the past tense, as if you already went left), but there’s nothing stopping you from breaking the script and going right. Doing so prompts a series of further choices, which can test the narrator even more, causing him to become downright hostile.

The thing is, the Narrator, a stuffy-sounding British man with hostility lurking just below his pleasant voice, really does want your character to find happiness, of a sort. Maybe. If you listen to his commands and follow the story as he describes it, you actually do reach probably the best ending available, one where your character, the office drone Stanley, gets a chance to find Paradise. It’s only if you disobey the prescribed path that the narrator changes what they want, opting to drive you insane, or punish you for being selfish, or just beg for you to play the game the “right” way.

And none of the endings you find if you stray off the beaten path tend to be that “good,” either. One of them, in fact, only concludes when you’ve hurled yourself off the top of a flight of stairs until you die, with the narrator pleading for you to stop and go do something enjoyable instead. Moments like this approach a sort of existential horror: like Undertale, the player has gone from being the victim of a series of arbitrary rules to the one in control, perhaps even the villain. Although both games clearly give you the choice to do something violent or destructive, to work against the “intended” narrative, the other NPC’s don’t actually expect you to do anything about it.

In another context, it’s easy to imagine this being the point. The joy of taking the “wrong” path, seeing the “bad” ending and causing as much mayhem as possible in video games has generally been to see the game world turn against you and laugh at its pitiful attempts at moral condemnation. Isn’t this the reason that Grand Theft Auto and other stylized ultra-violent romps are so cathartic? It’s a chance to gleefully destroy things while assuring yourself that none of what you’re doing actually matters, or has any impact on you, the player.

Interestingly, though, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Like I said above, I have no intention or desire to play through Undertale’s Genocide or No Mercy endings, partly because I don’t usually do that, but also because it doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t feel like doing so would be fun. And even the people on YouTube who have posted videos of themselves tearing through the virtual world one creature at a time seem to do so almost apologetically. Is this because the world developer Toby Fox created is so palpable and cute that we genuinely feel bad about wanton destruction? Or is it because the game actually does implicate the player, not the character, who may or may not be the possessing spirit of that universe’s ultimate, elusive evil? Even for desensitized gamers, those who grew up on the RPG’s the game resembles, the goal of the game is to make violence mean something, and to illustrate the defenses people put up that allow them to commit heinous acts.

Stanley doesn’t seem to be as gut wrenching, partly because it’s far shorter than even the relatively concise Undertale (I “beat” it about four times during one hour the first time I booted it up). Still, the joke seems to be on you if you decide to do something “wrong,” and there’s no real way to outsmart the game itself. Flummoxing the narrator seems to be a kind of victory, but it always ends with some sort of unsatisfying oblivion. Stanley can only really find happiness on someone else’s terms, and attempts to define your own vision of success can only be judged by you.

Maybe you relished the ending where you jumped off a platform multiple times as a kind of ultimate “up yours” to determinism. If that’s the case, you’re welcome to rejoice in your ending: the game certainly won’t do it for you. It’s certainly fun to intentionally frustrate the narrator by doing the exact opposite of what he asks until the whole game glitches out, but there’s nothing close to closure or happiness to be had that way. I thought one of the more hidden endings, in which your character discovers an escape pod and blasts away from the empty building, would be a nice middle ground, offering freedom on your own terms, but this is an awkward choice that doesn’t give you any real hint as to what lies beyond.

What’s truly amazing about Stanley is the tremendous range of emotions it generates with a simple range of tools. There are precious few other characters, and most of the game really is wandering around corridors and offices…until it isn’t. It’s been called “interactive fiction,” and while that term doesn’t only refer to text adventures, Stanley is a throwback to the glory days of parser-based games like Bureaucracy and the Hitchhiker’s Guide game, which were pretty much dramatized arguments between the player and an anal-retentive narrator, anyway.

I guess what both of these games are saying is: stop taking so many things for granted! Games came to be considered art in the first place because generations of people were having emotional experiences through them, similar to the epiphanies critics have described in response to films, painting, comics, rock music and theater. With “retro” games still they indie palette du jour, we seem to be reaching a point where reflection is pushing developers to new boundaries. Instead of simply agreeing to live this life, we have to actually evaluate what it is worth and the consequences of our actions. As long as we know there are other decisions to be made, we may feel guilty, but the key is to be able to live with certain kinds of guilt and not feel tempted into making choices we’ll regret. Because if we do get the chance to make those choices, they may not turn out to be what we expect anyways.

Like, what if one of those choices is to write 1,700 words about video games instead of going out on a Friday night? What sort of life decisions will we…

Oh. Wait…

9 Pop Culture Things I’m Looking Forward to in 2016

It’s that time of year again: when various culture sites and blogs crank out Year in Review articles, usually beginning with “it’s that time of year again.” Most are focusing on what the last 12 months had to offer when it comes to books, movies and games, which is all well and good if you like remembering things. Me, I didn’t get to experience nearly as much as I would have liked to this year (although I did take in a lot more contemporary television than usual), so I’m jumping ahead to 2016. Here’s a few things worth getting excited about, along with the appropriate level of excitement included with each.

Cautiously Optimistic: The American Gods TV Series

Between this and Ash Vs. Evil Dead, we may be living in an age where we can no longer afford to not give a shit about Starz. This show has been a long time in the works, and could very well get pushed to 2017 and beyond, so I’m not going to get too excited until we see some cold, hard trailers. Still, this has the chance to be a more fully fleshed-out adaptation than any film would be, so let’s see what materializes. With the jillions of characters and leisurely road trip pace of the novel, a show will be a good chance to watch Gaiman’s European-deities-abroad tale unfold, so here’s hoping they do it right.

Uncautiously Optimistic: Venture Bros. Season 6

Despite it’s peaks and valleys, Venture Bros. still remains compelling, probably because it has felt increasingly like the coming of age story of two recognizable teens in a colorful world of dysfunctional parodies of pretty much every pop culture phenomenon of the 20th century. Venture Bros. may have a punishingly slow release schedule compared to other, “normal” shows, but the low quantity is almost always balanced out y high quality once stuff finally gets released. Last year’s special, “All This and Gargantua-2,” was a sweeping, emotional roller coaster that tied up some loosed ends and set the stage for another sweeping story arc. This year’s trailer has very rapid editing, demons and Nathan Fillion discharging web in his pants. Bring it.

Surprisingly Interested: Doctor Strange and Captain America: Civil War

I haven’t been a big MCU person, despite enjoying the comics, merely because I hadn’t actually seen more than a handful of the films until the last two years. In fact, I still have big gaps in my Marvel movie knowledge, ones which will probably be filled in later this year thanks to someone I happen to be close to who’s a bigger fan than I am. Benedict Cumberbatch wouldn’t have been my first choice for Sorcerer Supreme: his movie is actually most notable right now for it’s supporting cast, including Tilda Motherfuckin’ Swinton, who has been great in recent movies, even terrible ones like The Zero Theorem. And even if Civil War is just a bunch of setup for the next five jillion Marvel movies, I’m far more interested to see how it’ll play out than I was a year ago. Maturity or lack thereof? Don’t answer that.

Stoked and Not Afraid to Admit It: the new Ghostbusters

I know we’re not supposed to compare the all-female core cast of the next Ghostbusters film to the originals too much, but the thought of Kate McKinnon as the new Egon gets me genuinely super-excited. Egon was great, McKinnon is great, the cast is perfect and little else really matters. As long as we’re in for movie after movie of zombified brand management, let’s at least inject a little bit of life in there with some new ideas every once and a while. And maybe Ernie Hudson can finally play a version of Winston Zeddemore closer to his original character in his obligatory (but highly anticipated) cameo.

Stoked And A Little Afraid to Admit it: Gorillaz Phase 4

Hey, remember Gorillaz? The animated band of dysfunctional humanoids who were really a cover for anyone who wanted to hang out and jam with Damon Albarn? Music critics seem embarrassed to have to mention the concept behind this “virtual” group, but the sense of an ongoing drama in its fictional universe was always a unique part of Gorillaz, coloring the experience without having any direct impact on the music at all. Albarn makes concept albums where the onus is on you to piece together what’s going on, and reports are that there’s something coming up on the horizon. Since it’s been half a decade since The Fall, it’s high time to see what Murdoc Niccals and the gang have been up to after abandoning Plastic Beach. Even moreso, the word is they’ll be collaborating with David Bowie, the logical next step in their attempt to bring in every single famous person ever into the their fold. I’m sure it’ll be depressing and dancey, always a delicious combination!

Not Holding My Breath: Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion

Once upon a time, in the misty epoch of 2007, Gerard Way, the guy from My Chemical Romance, created a quirky, inspired and brilliantly dark riff on The X-Men by way of The Royal Tenenbaums. It featured time travel, family conspiracies and some very creative (and twisted) superpowers, like a guy with a portal to an eldritch realm in his stomach and a woman who can make anything happen by saying she “heard a rumor” about it. There were two volumes, and the third, Hotel Oblivion, got endlessly delayed to the point where it’s now not sure if it’s ever coming out. Way is supposedly working on it but there’s no real reason to believe it’ll come out in 2016, or any other year for that matter. It’s really just on this list as a kind of baseless hope, and what are we without our baseless hopes, I ask you?

Please Be Not Terrible: Red Dwarf XI

Red Dwarf X,  the last full season revival of this I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Still-On sci-fi sitcom epic, was very aggressively “meh”: not quite as bad as some previous seasons but definitely a pale version of its former self. The show has always walked a fine line balancing its setup-punchline format with its grander, darker saga of a desperate crew stranded millions of years in deep space, and the 2012 episodes, despite some stellar moments, felt like a much less inspired show than Dwarf had been in its glory days of the 80’s and 90’s. There were chuckles and a few major plot revelations but no major returning characters or continuity nods outside the regular cast. Judging by the obsessive coverage at fansite Ganymede & Titan, the upcoming episodes are going to go in some welcome new directions, including a reappearance of Starbug and a long-awaited story centering around the Cat, whose character has been grievously ignored in recent season. I guess that’s good news, so let’s hope that this is at least watchable. Because all the goodwill and nostalgia in the world can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t a show that can survive endless rebooting and sequelizing: right now, it’s living off of the backs of its (admittedly talented) cast. There’s actually a season XII coming, too, in 2017, so looks like we better buckle up, smegheads.

Please Actually Come Out Already: Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV

So, Cardboard Computer, makers of the surreal interactive fiction series Kentucky Route Zero claimed that the fourth of five “acts” would be out “soon” in November. I started playing this game a year ago, back when we were told the game would be complete sometime within a year. That doesn’t seem to be happening, but I’ll take the next chapter instead. When we last left morose truck driver Conway and his friends, they were just starting to get to the really interesting bit of their odyssey through an ominous pocket universe in the Deep South. Though this could still technically get released before 2016, I’m guessing it’s either not going to or will come out so close to the end of the year as to make no difference. And since Act III was the longest, richest and weirdest so far, here’s hoping that the successor will give us plenty of cell-shaded strangeness to chew on. Also, Junebug is awesome. More Junebug.

Brand Evangelist: El Ministerio Del Tiempo, Season 2

I was going to dedicate a whole entry to my hope that Steven Moffat will finally leave Doctor Who next year, but that would be ranty and there are plenty of places you can go to get that kind of thing (plus, there’s about as much chance of that as there is of Hotel Oblivion finally coming out). Let’s instead talk about something positive, a totally different European time travel show, just as outlandish as Who but also thought-provoking, fun and mature in a way the Doctor just doesn’t provide anymore. The premise sees three individuals from different periods in Spain’s history welcomed into the secret Ministry of Time, an agency designed to protect interlopers from interfering with the past. See, Spain is apparently rotten with time portals, so it’s up to the title agency to police them. There’s so much I could say about this show that I’ll probably save it for its own post.

Yes, it’s Spanish Timecops and it’s great. The show is very much not pitched to an outside audience, which makes it difficult for an American to understand sometimes but also a great opportunity to actually learn something about another culture. There’s a lot of great jokes about the mundane realities of a government-sponsored time travel agency, particularly one that can barely afford to pay its employees and has terrible security. If you are dorky enough that you like watching shows that prompt you to do some research later, like me, this is the program you didn’t know you needed. Alonso will be your new best friend. Moreover, it’s a real drama, centered on character motivations and relationships, as well as the question of what makes someone “historically significant” (or, in this case, truly “Spanish”?)

Unfortunately, watching it is a good news/bad news thing for us in the States: it’s all available online for free streaming from Spanish channel RTVE, but there’s currently no English subtitles. Assuming you’re not planning on messing around with illegal downloads, your best bet is to either rely unhealthily on Google Translate or watch it with a Spanish speaker. It’s work, but trust me, it’s worth it. I think.

New Piece on Splitsider: ‘What Could A New Series of Blackadder Look Like?”

Two things:

a) I still remember this blog exists.

b) I published something in Splitsider!

Ever since the news broke that there might be more Blackaddder, I’ve felt compelled to speculate on it fannishly. It’s also been a kind of secret dream of mine for a while to get something on the same site that Nathan Rabin contributes to, so go have a look and feel free to let me know what you think. And don’t worry, there are more posts coming. I’ve been directing my energies elsewhere for the past couple of months but I have a few ideas that might very well find there way here soon, so please check back!

Check out: Microchondria II at the Harvard Book Store

It’s been a while since I’ve done anything worth shilling, so here’s an update: I have a piece in the short short short story collection, Microchondria II available at the Harvard Bookstore. I have no idea if there are still copies available at the physical location or how long they might be there so check them out. My short story, “At Night,” is almost literally a compilation of thoughts rattling around my head during a snow February evening, and I bet many will be able to relate. Learn more about it here and be sure to check back for more news! There are four possible covers but that one is my personal favorite.

Also, thanks to the HBS and all the staff involved for coordinating a reading for the different participants. Even if we didn’t all get a chance to recite our whole story, it was still a fun time, and I was at least able to unleash the killer first line, which seemed to go down pretty well.