Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Album Review: Peter Gabriel: OVO

Gabriel-era Genesis is one of my favorite bands.  They're just so full of awesome songs (also ridiculous outfits).  That being said, I'm a fairly casual Peter Gabriel fan.  I like his first album, and then basically a few songs from most of his albums after that.  Still, there's this one album of his that could use a bit more consideration.  That album is OVO.  No, not an owl smiley, but as in eggs.  Okay, so the genesis (har har) of this album is a little unusual.

See, there's this dome.
This dome.
This dome is known at the Millennium Dome, and it was built in London to celebrate the start of the new millennium.  In order to inaugurate the dome, the British Dome Building Society (that's a thing, right?) requisitioned a Cirque de Soleil-esque (but presumably less Canadian) artsy acrobatics show with music by Peter Gabriel.

So OVO's fairly conceptual.  There's even a story... reportedly.  According the first song, the ridiculous rap of The Story of OVO, there's this guy named Theo who's all in tune with the earth and such, a hippy essentially.  And he has two kids: Ion, obsessed with his father's approval, and Sofia, who falls in love with a sky boy, who are seen as less than other people.  So then Theo dies and Ion takes over as patriarch, building this big tower and generally corrupting the world with his machines.  He particularly oppresses the sky people, causing them to fight back against him.  So then the previously unmentioned mom Beth shows up halfway through the song and lets the sky people into the tower, causing the tower to fall and the war to end.  Sofia and her lover reunite, and Sofia plants an acorn that Theo gave her before he died.  The world apparently ruined by Ion, Sofia leads the earth people up the tree into the sky. At the top of the tree she gives birth to a child named OVO (unusual name) who, uh, flies away in his nest?

So you've got all those themes of balance between technology and nature and such.  Not a bad plot for a rock opera, really.  I mean, maybe it's not as direct as Jesus Christ Superstar, but it's also neither as self-involved as The Wall or as, well, bizarre as Tarkus.  (I don't care if the latter is actually about war in its subtext, it's still about a sentient armadillo tank birthed from a volcano that fights a bunch of weird creatures.)  Of course, like most rock operas, the songs themselves are only tangentially related to the actual plot, so we have to kind of take it on Peter Gabriel's word that there's actually a story in here.

Right, so let's talk about the actual music, yes?  As previously mentioned, the album beings with The Story of OVO (kind of, it wasn't on the limited edition).  Now look, I'm not into rap.  I'm not even going to try to put on a rap critic hat because I would honestly have no idea what I was talking about.  That being said, this is... not a very good song, at least in my opinion.  It has potential, fine quirky music and a decent chorus, but it's so... sluggish.  This song's supposed to be telling the story of the entire album, but it has literally no forward momentum, and the man and woman rapping it just do not seem into it.  Honestly, if you listen to OVO, listen to this song once to get a feel for the story, but after that I'd recommend skipping it and going straight on to the next, because Low Light is where the album really starts.

The track comes in with that ominous droning Peter Gabriel synth sound, building up very, very slowly.  Yes, this song takes its time with its build-up, but it works in its favor and avoids boring, instead tilting into wonderfully atmospheric, with just enough touches to keep it interesting without covering up that ominous synth.  The song does build-up eventually, bringing in piano and strings (which perform a theme that shows up later on in the album), and then the vocals finally come in.  Oh, by the way, it's not Gabriel, there're a lot of guest vocalists on here.  In any case, the vocals are very nice and yearning, but they very quickly leave as we go back to focusing on that synth, this time with a lone flute above it.  The song builds up a bit more again before transitioning into The Time of The Turning.

The Time of The Turning starts off again fairly mellow, with some acoustic guitar and fading synths.  Then the vocals come in, and this time I think it's actually Peter Gabriel?  I'm not sure.  This is probably the most straightforward song on the album, and it's really excellent.  Especially the contrast between Pete's raspy verses and the floaty female voices over the chorus.  Like most of the songs on this album, Time of The Turning takes its time and stretches out a bit, but there's a sense of urgency and tension to it that perfectly fits the lyrics (change, good and bad, coming).  This is definitely one of the strongest songs on the album, and honestly one of my favorite Gabriel songs in general (you may hear me say that more in this review).

The first half of The Man Who Loved The Earth/The Hand That Sold Shadows is simply an instrumental version of The Story of OVO, which is... fine.  As before, it's quirky but doesn't really go anywhere.  The second half is a bit better, a more fast-paced piece with a bit of menace to it.  Really though, this track doesn't do all that much for me.

Luckily next we come to The Time Of The Turning (Reprise)/The Weaver's Reel!  The reprise of Time Of The Turning sounds pretty much like what you'd expect, Time of The Turning with a different verse, only female voice, and some somber horns.  No, the real star of this track is The Weaver's Reel, which is awesome.  It's this...  Arabian Irish reel instrumental thingy.  It's invigorating and fun, and has the best instrumental melody of any of the tracks so far.  It's also by far the most energetic track on the album.  Just makes it stand out more.  Seriously, I love this instrumental.  It's awesome, and I honestly wish there was a version without the Time of The Turning stuff (I like that too, but I'd like to hear the Reel by itself).  It ends in sufficiently big fashion with pounding drum.

The next song keeps up the quality, but in a different way.  Father, Son is probably the most emotional song Gabriel's written, at least in my opinion.  It's a really touching tribute to his father, backed by a somber and minimalistic arrangement: Piano, bass, and strings.  Although I might find The Weaver's Wheel more fun, this is probably the best song on the album.  It's rare to see art rock-types really rawly expose their emotions, and Gabriel does it really well here.

Now, however, is where it starts to drop off, at least for me.  The Tower That Ate People is a noise-rock piece with heavily distorted voices.  Decent piece of menace, but not my kind of thing, especially the vocals which I find pretty annoying. Much better is the mid section where we get to hear some non-distorted vocals and some real melody. I actually really like this mid section, combines the thoughtful melody of the earlier songs with some more interesting backing.  Sadly it's surrounded by all this noisy dirty stuff which I just don't really like.

Revenge is a short fast-paced instrumental that carries on from The Tower.  I don't have much to say about this one, really, it's pretty short.  It's a decent enough vaguely threatening segue with some cool percussion, but it doesn't really stand on its own at all.

White Ashes is a weird one...  More weird noise in the background and some creepy female voices.  I, uh, can't say I'd go out of my way to listen to it (although if I ever make a playlist of creepy songs I'll throw this on), as far as weird noise rock songs go, I do find it more compelling than The Tower That Ate People, even if it doesn't have that nice mid section.  It's a fine song as part of the album, and it doesn't put me off as much as Tower does, but unlike some of the stronger songs on this album, I certainly wouldn't casually listen to it.

On Downside Up we go back to the mold of the earlier songs.  Okay, so you know how I was complementing Father, Son and Time of The Turning earlier?  I take it back, this is probably actually my favorite song on the album.  It's got a beautiful "after the battle" feel, cautiously optimistic, and the contrast between the male and female vocals are great, just as they were earlier on the album.  Like most of the best songs on this album, it's fairly long (6:13), but it doesn't overstay its welcome.  It passes through multiple moods (cautious, energetic and uplifting, and back to cautious), and I don't mind in the second half of the song when it starts throwing in some weird sounds, because it doesn't consume the song, it just adds flavor.  If you're going to listen to one song from OVO, listen to this, it probably sums up the feel of the album best.

When The Nest That Sailed The Sky comes in with its droning synth, you might be thinking, "Low Light!".  Although shorter and running on a different melody, I kind of view this song as a reprise of Low Light.  They have similar feels, but whereas Low Light seems a bit portentous, The Nest That Sailed The Sky is much more of a release.  It really fits its title, the idea of a new born child floating off to the horizon.  Comforting, but hopeful and mysterious.

Now on the limited edition there's another track here.  I don't have the limited edition, but I found it on YouTube.  It's called The Tree That Went Up and, well, it's fairly good.  I'm disappointed it's not on the regular release, at least.  It's another short fast-paced instrumental, similar to Revenge.  I find it a bit more interesting though, as there's more going on in it compared to Revenge.  It's, again, not a song I'd listen to by itself, but it serves as a nice way of segueing into...

Make Tomorrow!  I think this is probably Gabriel's longest song, clocking in at over ten minutes.  However, it manages to deftly not get boring or tiresome.  Like the best prog songs, it continually shifts and develops while still staying cohesive.  It shifts through the various moods that permeate the album, from the sweeping-but-mellow epicness, to the threatening booming, to the cautious optimism.  And, like many of the best tracks on this album, it builds up excellently, for the most part it's mostly acoustic and synth-y strings, but it goes in a more electronic direction during the second half and the climax, before paring itself back down again as it slowly fades out.  It's long sure, but it's not tedious, and it's a very satisfying end to the album.

So, honestly?  It's a pretty good album.  This album was pretty badly received and I'm not totally sure why.  I mean, it's a but uneven and fairly mellow, but it has more than enough good songs on it to make it a worthwhile listen, and some of the songs on here rank as some of my favorite Gabriel songs.  This really, really should not be your first Gabriel album, but if you're already familiar with him, give OVO a listen.  You probably won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. Wait, didn't I say next time I wasn't going to go song-by-song? I guess I just like to torture you with long reviews.