Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The path is clear, though no eyes can see. The course laid down, loooong before! - Firth of Fifth - Genesis

Bank Note Souvenir
What has been stuck in my head for weeks now, ever since my daughter's bango teacher played me an acoustic version on his beautiful Ibanez, is "Firth of Fifth," arguably the greatest 9½ minutes of music Genesis ever made (it vies for the finest prog piece of all), making Selling England by the Pound a solid AM9. While often compared to ELP's "Tarkus" or Yes' "Close to the Edge," "Firth of Fifth's" structure is far less chaotic and a bit easier on the ears; no abrupt key changes or flippant new meters here. It also delivers (here much more like "Close to the Edge"), a crisp clean sound of which Emerson rarely indulged due to an affinity for the Hammond organ with its murky undertones. Tony Banks’ piece relies on its clean tenor, avoiding the distorted timbre of ELP, Tull or the Yes of "Starship Trooper." The same can be said for Steve Hackett's muted fuzztone giving a warm, comforting feel to it all.

While the song relies most heavily on Banks’ piano intro, one of the most famous in prog, the lengthy piece allows each of the musicians the opportunity to harmoniously contribute: Kaye's luscious display of keyboards, Gabriel's perfect lyrical delivery and flute, Collins' syncopated jazz beat, Mike Rutherford's underrated bass and Hackett's subtle guitar.

Of the epic piece, Steve Hackett said, "It's the same melody played three times with minimal variation. It's done like jazz, with the statement of the theme then you go off and improvise, and then return to the theme. On 'Firth of Fifth,' when it comes back, it's a larger arrangement. It's the tune as written, then 'let's take this to the mountains,' to a certain extent. I was playing it on electric guitar, then it struck me that it had certain similarities with other melodies that I had been playing that I liked. It ended up with aspects of Eric Satie, and aspects of King Crimson. The song had an aspect of blues, an aspect of gospel about it. It had something of English church music – but it also had an aspect of something Oriental or Indian, almost. So, it was a fusion of influences. But at the time, we weren't using the word fusion and we were using the word progressive. It would eventually be described as progressive, which was a catch all phase covering an awful lot of bases."

The Firth (River) of Forth
In Robert Macan's book Rocking the Classics, he describes the structure of "Firth of Fifth" as resembling "an arch form" (A B C A C B A). He simplifies it by referring to it as a sonata. The A section is a lengthy instrumental overture; the B section an "exposition," which contains the verses; and the C section is the instrumental "development," which contains a new theme. This section then returns and develops the A and C themes, before section B returns as the "recapitulation," and concluding with an instrumental coda that heavily borrows from the A section. OK, so I don't portend to fully grasp his introspection, but reaching back into my music theory days, I see it as the perfect mountainscape (thanks to Steve Hackett for the imagery), rising, falling, rising a bit further, falling, again rising, less this time, then back to whence we came, like a novel by Steinbeck that ends where it started; though you as the reader, as the listener, are different.

While the piece's piano intro is among the most iconic in progressive rock, Hackett's solo is incredible, mostly because he picks a spine-tingling, beautiful guitar tone, a slightly psychedelic, highly sustained, highly lyrical one that's oddly creepy, like those heard all over The Court of the Crimson King - and he just lets it rip for several minutes, ironically like a gorgeous sorrow. My only gripe has always been, and this is merely a production decision aesthetically, the brevity of the piano's coda at the track's end.

1 comment:

  1. I believe you mean Tony Banks, Kaye played for the early lineup of Yes (and more recently). Still a fantastic post!