“A Second Opinion ” - Tony Banks' A Chord Too Far box set reviewed by Stuart Barnes.
So, here's my take on the latest offering from Tony Banks. A Chord Too Far represents some of the best output from Genesis' keyboard department. Presented in an almost hardback book-like package, the four discs are arranged with two either side of a colour booklet containing notes written by Tony covering the events surrounding each of his albums. There are lots of colour photos, both official publicity pics and more personal ones taken in and around studio sessions going right back to A Curious Feeling. My only criticism of the packaging is that the discs are placed in an overlapping pattern, meaning that to get to the lower disc, you have to take the upper one out as well. I can understand that this arrangement makes for a smaller overall package and that separating the discs out would make the box/book as large as the two Genesis Archive box sets, but understanding the reasoning, doesn't make me find it any less awkward.
On to the music, and the whole set starts off with an 82 second long instrumental. Whilst this might seem a bit odd, especially given Tony's comments in a recent TWR interview about starting an album with a strong track, I can see what has been done here. This one piece sums up Tony's music perfectly. From the simple flute melody on top of a simple sounding chord melody (based around Dm, the saddest of all chords), it's only 23 seconds before one of Tony's 'special' chords makes an appearance. Sure, it's only an Am with an F natural hanging over from the previous chord (Bb), but it's beautiful in its simplicity and it the way it turns an ordinary minor/major chord sequence into something a bit more interesting. The arrangement continues with the arrival of an organ like sound holding a minor 7th version of the main Dm chord (hold a D bass and play an F major chord and you have yourself D minor 7th in a simplisitic way. That's how some of Tony's and Genesis' songs come about; playing a chord and holding a different bass note to the chord. e.g. the opening of Eleventh Earl of Mar and the first couple of verses of An Island In The Darkness) and with the melody taken over with a Synclavier lead sound similar to the one used in Second Home By The Sea. The phrase repeats again and a brass sample adds to the melody line. Having played Soundtracks to death in the mid 80's, I was expecting to hear what I'd heard dozens of times before; the brass sound not quite lining up in time with the Synclavier lead. Not this time. This boxset is all new mixes. Songs have been taken back to their raw elements, which has allowed Nick Davis to repair things that weren't quite right first time around. Hearing the brass and Synclavier in sync together was very refreshing.
And so began my listening in earnest. As a semi-pro keyboard player and sound engineer, my enjoyment of listening to music has been spoiled to a degree by learning the secrets of how things are done in a studio. Things that once sounded magical to me can now be explained as effects and as different recording techniques (early Jean-Michel Jarre will never sound the same once you learn what delay is and also what a 'Small Stone' phase pedal can do for a sound). At The Edge Of Night now sounds grittier, as the bass guitar and bass drum have more oomph and Tony's vocal has been treated with what sounds like a flange/overdrive type effect. Not all the changes are as noticeable. Walls Of Sound sounds pretty much as it did on the original release execpt that the percussion and muted guitar in the verses are a bit more prominent. Lion Of Symmetry and The More I Hide It sound clearer than ever with a better spread of instruments in the stereo panorama than on the original released albums. The Waters Of Lethe is one of my favourite instrumentals that Tony has written and recorded and here is it with it's CP70 piano, filter swell strings, simple melody that can be sung along to, and a plethora of 'those chords'. Mmmm.....
Moving on to disc two and who could ignore An Island In The Darkness? Arguably a masterpiece and an excellent example of Tony letting himself run free with a composition and letting it develop. Wonderfully deep bass notes and crystal clear cymbals make it seem as if you are in the room with the drummer. A perfect example of a master of his craft at work, this song has several distinct sections. It's how these sections are joined that is the art. You can't hear the gaps or the lack of ideas from one section to the next. Each one blends into the other seamlessly. That's how prog rock is done. Another Murder Of A Day is another example of multiple ideas being extended to make one song, but this is let down by the piano sounds used, in my opinion. I had that observation when Still was first released, so nothing has changed there, apart from the mix being clearer. Moving Under however has been improved by making Tony's vocals drier and more 'in your face'.
After The Lie is an excellent choice of song for the album. Starting off quietly with voice and piano, the song builds to a loud rock section with manic keyboard solo. I say 'manic', but there's still a sense of structure and melody to the solo. You could hum the tune if you wanted to. That's what sets Tony apart from his contemporaries (Wakeman, Emerson, etc; musically excellent players, but not known for only using two notes when half a dozen ones played really fast would show their ability off better).
Redwing represents one of Tony's film soundtrack pieces and you could almost invisage an orchestra playing it. Very atmospheric and a lovely example of the wine glass rim sound Tony described in his recent interview. Queen Of Darkness has a harder sound than before, with the drums almost barking at you.
One of the problems with tidying things up and making things sound clearer than before is that some things end up being heard in a way that sounds odd to the listener. I've heard I'll Be Waiting numerous times over the years, but the new mix has brought forward a trumpet/brass sample during the chorus that was never that clear to me before. As such it sticks out a bit and doesn't sit in the mix as well as before, in my humble opinion.
I don't necessarily agree with the inclusion of For A While in the boxset. A Curious Feeling would have been better, in my opinion, however For A While does include a guitar solo played by Tony, something of a rarity, given that he's noted as being a keyboard player. You Call This Victory is a welcome inclusion featuring vocals by the late Jim Diamond; probably the best of Tony's songs featuring his voice. Disc three ends with the aptly titled The Final Curtain, drawing a close to the rock based material in the boxset.
Disc Four is possibly why fans of Tony's music would want to buy the boxset. The opening 30 seconds of the first track, Blade, could set the scene for the beginning of a film. Despite being played by an orchestra, you can hear that the music is Tony's. From the 'In The Cage' like beat at the start, to the pentatonic runs in the violin solo, to the way the chords blend together. Black Down is a beautiful emotive piece using mostly strings that sounds as clear as ever now.
From The Undertow could have been included on the other discs, and sticks out on this disc a bit, as it isn't an orchestral piece, however it is a lovely example of Tony's chordwork. The opening chord to the piece shouldn't work. It's an F major starting on the dominant note underpinned by a C# bass note. That's just wrong. C# is a dissonant note to F. It's not even in the F major scale. Yet here it is as bold as brass played with an F major chord. It's things like that that make Tony's music interesting to me, as it's almost like he is thumbing his nose at the 'rules' of music and doing things his own way. OK, so using C# as the bass note makes the chord more like C#maj7 Aug5, which is a mouthful. F major with a C# bass is easier to say and have people understand... To listen to, it's divine, but to play, it's not logical. Trying to play along to Tony's songs can leave one frustrated and exasperated, as you try to contort your hands into shapes that feel like they shouldn't. However, once unlocked, it's surprising how simple some of the pieces are. The Waters Of Lethe for instance starts with an E major chord. Nothing else, just the three notes of the chord. I digress....
And so on to the demo pieces. This is what we're really here for, isn't it? The contrast of the bare CP70 piano and the orchestral samples with an underlying synth sound make for a contemporary versions of the instrumentals from A Curious Feeling. Listen a bit more carefully and they sound like an extensions of the intro section of An Island In The Darkness. Considering that Tony's foray into orchestral music followed the Strictly Inc album, it's not that large a leap if you think about it. All that's missing are the drums, guitars and vocals!
Poppet is another new track and whilst has an orchestral sound to it, it doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the material from Strictly Inc or from Seven, which probably explains why it was left out from both projects. Nonetheless it is a nice piece full of melody and more of 'those chords'.
The boxset is finished off with the orchestral version of The Wicked Lady, which whilst being one of Tony's early attempts at a film soundtrack has a very good arrangement and balances the loud with the quiet, all based on a couple of very well crafted melodic ideas.
Overall this boxet is well worth the expense. For the unitiated the boxset is cheaper than buying all of Tony's albums separately and represents some of the best writing and playing that he has done over the course of his extensive career. Sure, he's a musician's musician, but there is a very wide range of sounds and styles on show. From the out and out prog of the early A Curious Feeling material, to Tony finding his voice on The Fugitive right the way through to the orchestral material, it's all Tony, and that's what gives the boxset its value. If you haven't got it already, put it on your Christmas list!