My intent is not to review every Genesis album; this one was not even on my radar. Funny how your material picks itself.
Duke was the beginning of their “pop” phase, although the strands of progressive-rock were prevalent in their music. Gone were the epic suites of long songs. Mostly.
Duke was important for several reasons.
It really started the Phil Collins Decade, you can hear it on several Collins-penned songs on the album, and would be continued with the release of Face Value the next year. Collins was becoming a prolific writer and songs written in this period would launch his solo career. Collins was in the midst of a martial crisis and this fallow period for the band was in part from Collins’ move to Canada to save his relationship. The emotionally-difficult period was giving him plenty to write about. Banks and Rutherford released solo albums in 1979, so it put pressure on all them when they gathered to begin recording a new group album.
Duke helped Genesis to find their sound, which in the 1980s was predominantly keyboard-focused. Collins was writing on the Prophet synthesizer, the instrument of choice for bands. Tony Banks used a variety of keyboards in his writing and was the de facto musical director for the band. Rutherford has taken over the guitar as well as bass, but the band’s sound no longer had a strong guitar influence. Producer David Hentschel, who was making his last appearance with the band, was a keyboard player, and mostly used synthesized strings to a natural orchestra. Synthesizers were cheaper and becoming quite sophisticated and more natural sounding. Duke delivers a slicker sound that would get even more polished in the 1980s. Deep echo and industrial sounds would rule the decade and Genesis set a path for the heart of this production gloss. The more organic sound of organs, acoustic pianos and mellotrons were replaced by sophisticated electronics and programmed drum machines.
Beginning with their next album, Abacab, Genesis would begin recording at their own studio, and producing their music.
It is interesting to note, punk rock in particular set their sights on bands like Genesis, progressive-rock behemoths. Instead of bowing to changing tastes, Genesis became more popular, in part by their fine-tuned commercial sound. According to Collins, the band had intended to write a very long musical piece (back to their prog roots) but decided it break it into pieces and put some different songs in the middle. He also said the cartoon fellow on the cover is not Duke and there was no concept to the album. He also pointed out that the only real concept album was Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
“Behind the Lines” Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford 5:31 A brilliant opening to an album. The intro sound is powerful and lasts for more than two minutes. The next song section is a great R&B flavored piece of rock, with Rutherford working the bass and rhythm guitar. Banks cascades the listener with layers of synthesizers.
“Duchess” Banks, Collins, Rutherford 6:40 The drum machine makes an appearance. This is the first section of the “Duke” suite that was broken into separate songs. The first third of the song is a light dance of keyboard and drum machine before the band powers up the song. The beat almost sounds like a march at times. This song more than any other typifies the eventual sound Genesis would aim for during the next fifteen years.
“Guide Vocal” Banks 1:18 This song has a lot to say, it’s beautiful and wets your appetite for more when it stops. Ten years prior, this song would have had acoustic guitars, now everything gets the full keyboard treatment. Just saying.
“Man of Our Times” Rutherford 5:35 One of the weakest songs on the album. It has bombast, but not a lot else. The song runs along the scale, but makes no real distinction. More layers of sound does not make it better.
“Misunderstanding” Collins 3:11 The super-duper commercial single. Following “Follow You Follow Me” from the last album, Collins upped his game. His songs seem so basic but how can anything simple have so many commercial hooks? Collins gives it that Motown vocal work on the chorus. The song make it to number 14 on the chart.
“Heathaze” Banks 5:00 An underappreciated song. Banks’ best song on the album. It has a haunting quality, he pulls back the excess to let the melody breathe. Too dense to be a single but it has every quality you want in one.
“Turn It On Again” Banks, Collins, Rutherford 3:50 Another master album opener. This song vibrates with energy. Reportedly, this song was assembled from leftover pieces from songs not included on solo albums. The “Frankenstein’s Monster” of a song is quite good. Somehow it failed to crack the top 40 when released as a single.
“Alone Tonight” Rutherford 3:54 Finally, some guitar. A big vocal by Collins as the song gains a dynamic edge. This song is much better “Man of Our Times.”
“Cul-de-sac” Banks 5:02 This is sort of the king and his army arrive, announced with horns and bombast. I’m not sure what the song is about, it sort of rambles through various chord progressions. The song doesn’t advance the album or make a significant statement. Not one of Banks’ better songs.
“Please Don’t Ask” Collins 4:00 Collins hits a homerun here. A terrific melody and arrangement. An aching ballad, which would be Collin’s forte in the next decade. This would have been a more viable single than “Duchess.” And even a little guitar in the arrangement!
“Duke’s Travels” Banks, Collins, Rutherford 8:41 Another section of the long, progressive-rock suite. It’s an okay instrumental jam, with some vocals attached. Only the last two minutes of the song really give you a taste of what they could have done with this. If you want really good jazz-rock, check out the band Collin’s joined when he wasn’t working with Genesis, Brand-X.
“Duke’s End” (instrumental) Banks, Collins, Rutherford 2:04 A great bookend to “Turn it On Again” which opens this side of the album. Rutherford even chips on some really nice guitar, which is lacking on this album.