Anthony Phillips – Field Day (2005) – a classic album review

In honour of the recent release of Seventh Heaven, his new album with composer Andrew Skeet, and because of the inauguration of the Private Suite: Anthony Phillips Appreciation fan page on Facebook, I thought I’d write the first of a series of my in-depth album reviews of some of the highlights of Ant’s career. The cool thing would be to review the new album, but predictably, I’m too broke to buy it just yet, so it will have to wait until I sell a few more tee-shirts, novels and songs. Therefore, the next best thing would be to fulfill a promise I made myself to review the most recent album of his that I do have, which happens to be Field Day, his most recent studio album prior to Seventh Heaven, which was released in 2005. It’s entirely composed of instrumentals on acoustic instruments, and it’s a two disc set, so this is going to take some work. I’ll try not to go on too long about each piece or you’ll be reading all day. Plus, my thesaurus only has so many different words for ‘beautiful’.

tl;dr Version: Anthony who? This isn’t going to be another another obscure pop star who used to be in a famous band or something, is he? Where’s the Adrenaline Mob review you promised?

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Okay, I’ve been a little burned out on writing record reviews recently. I haven’t quit doing them. I just needed a break. And one of the things I’m doing with music right now is recording and refining songs of my own, so I’ve been pretty busy. However, I also happen to be a big fan of Anthony Phillips, whom most folks might recognize as the original guitarist of Genesis, and who has recorded some thirty-odd albums of original music (not including his Library music, which I don’t own yet, or his collaborations and guest appearances, only some of which I have) since leaving the band in 1970 (the year of my birth). He’s a musical hero of mine, and I’m happy to finally be writing my first review of one of his albums. I hope it won’t be my last.

Boring Version: Anthony Phillips is a little bit of an enigma. He has been writing some of the most beautiful, accessible, bravely sensitive music ever recorded, and he hasn’t stopped writing and recording since he started in the late 60s with his old mate Mike Rutherford. They helped found the group that would be given the name Genesis (by a not-too-attentive record producer named Jonathan King) with Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks. Ant, as his friends like to call him, was the strongest proponent within the songwriter’s collective of learning to perform their own music live, which proved to be his own undoing, as he soon learned to his chagrin that he was developing crippling stage fright issues, which compounded by illness, lead to his leaving the band and effectively retiring from live performance, much to the band’s surprise and dismay. As the various founding members of Genesis have said many a time, that was the closest they ever came to breaking up in the days before they became a household word: Even the later exoduses of Peter and then Ant’s replacement, Steve Hackett, didn’t finish them, as many thought they would. The loss of Ant, one of their strongest songwriters and architects of what became the early Genesis sound was more detrimental to them than any defection since then, save perhaps that of Phil Collins, whose ubiquitous presence proved to be too great a loss for even a reconstituted Genesis in 1997 to surmount. But that’s another story*.

This was most certainly not the end of Ant’s musical career, however, and interestingly enough, his solo output has far outstripped any of his former band mates; the only member to even come close to his output is in fact Steve Hackett, whose solo and collaborative career has been as varied and experimental as Ant’s own, while similarly hewing to a certain songwriting aesthetic that the Mothership Genesis would eventually leave behind in favour of more commercially accessible music, particularly in the 80s. Ant himself dabbled in pop songwriting in the late 70s and early 80s, creating four of the smartest pop albums I own: The Geese and the Ghost, Wise After The Event, Sides, and Invisible Men. However, none of these proved to be the commercial breakthrough he’d hoped for, and the last left such a distaste in his mouth for the process of making pop records that he abandoned the idea entirely (much to MY chagrin).

However, parallel to his criminally flagging pop career, he also started recording more progressive and pastoral music, which he began collecting in a series called Private Parts and Pieces. These proved to be the niche he was born to fill, recording acoustic and sometimes electronic pieces of largely instrumental music, refining his skills as a guitarist and keyboardist, and moving further and further away from anything resembling rock music, but still carrying with it the unmistakable traces of the musical signature that launched his career.

This is not a Genesis album, nor is it even really a Genesis solo album. However, a mark of distinction in Ant’s music is that he has rarely if ever strayed too far from the voice and trappings of his formative years as a songwriter, a factor which coloured the early success of Genesis even after he had left. There isn’t much on this album that you can point to and say ‘ah yes, that sounds like White Mountain’ or ‘Oh! It’s another variation of The Musical Box’. Ant doesn’t really repeat himself. Listen carefully, and you’ll see what I mean; it would be easy to think that a man earnestly picking away at a 12-string guitar or classical guitar would get old fast, but Ant has continually gone back to the well and found more inspiration waiting for him. He has managed to spend the last forty years of his life experimenting and finding new ways to play, write and record the kind of music he started with in the band, and while pop stardom has long eluded him, he still writes some of the finest songs, pieces and suites you’ve never heard. Perhaps Field Day will be the album that finally wins you over. Let’s see if I can tell you what you’ve been missing.

The Voyage Out opens with synth pads and a quietly chiming 12-string echoing in the background, slowly moving forward in the mix until it’s suddenly sitting right next to you. It’s a short piece, as most of the pieces on this album are, but it’s a lovely start.

High Fives is an acoustic guitar piece in 5/8 that circles around and around the central riff for a moment before shifting into a pretty minor key section that plays a little bit with the time signature without being obvious; it feels like it’s shifting into common time, but the pulse remains in five. Interesting exercise.

Credo is a great little acoustic melody that reminds me of some of his acoustic pop songwriting work in the early 80s, and yet sounds as fresh as anything he’s done. It actually bears a strong resemblance to the work he did on PP&P VIII: New England, but then, I say that a lot.

Cerise is one of those songs Ant writes periodically that you expect him to write lyrics for and sing himself. As it is, it’s actually the opening gambit for the next piece…

Runaway Horse is a strong acoustic piece that clarifies for anyone who thinks all of Ant’s music is delicate and pastoral. This is a bold, almost rocking number you might expect from Jimmy Page or the late Michael Hedges. It’s a fun piece, and if it can’t get your blood pumping, you need to call your doctor.

Home Sweet Home IS that more pastoral number you might expect from Guy-with-a-guitar, but it’s a very short number that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Steps Retraced is a very special number, performed on what sounds like a mando guitar, because of the pitch, but it could be a 12-string with a high capo. It is in fact a revisitation of an early pop song he recorded in the early 80s, called Traces (from the Invisible Men album), which is perhaps one of the prettiest, most moving pop ballads written by anyone outside of Peter Gabriel in the 80s. Here on twinned 12-strings, in Ant’s classic metier, you catch a glimpse of what it might have been, before it shifts through the chorus section, and then takes a downward turn into a minor key passage not in the original tune, which adds a layer of depth the original might have been missing. It’s an oddly affecting piece in this form, and is one of my favourites from this album.

Field Day is a bouyant, jaunty little piece that roams over the hillside on horseback as the trees and hedges whizz past. Lovely number, and a very appropriate title track, as it gives you a great idea of what this album has to offer.

Nocturne is a slow, plaintive classical guitar piece, which I believe I remember reading is related to one of his older pieces, but I can’t place it this morning, and frankly, when you listen to a track like this, you don’t spend too much time trying to analyze its pedigree. He does a very nice little flourish in the middle, where he uses a classic bridging arpeggio before making his way to a refrain section that shifts the tone to a very romantic ballad feel, and then utilizes harmonics to finish the piece.

Tryst is a moody acoustic number that opens in the dark and takes you down and down on the classical guitar before settling into a riff vaguely reminiscent of that bit of acoustic playing in Pink Floyd’s the Wall, but then veers into a quiet meditation that seems to sink deeper into despair as the piece goes. More harmonics here to accent and pierce the darkness as he goes into another section of the cavern and explores a theme that seems to bring us back upward a bit. The opening motif returns as the song ends, essentially stating that, whatever this place is that we find ourselves in, we’re not getting out. [or perhaps, as the title implies, that we end as lonely as we began. ~Ed.]

Girl In the Gallery is a plaintive classical guitar piece with a bit of lift to it, while some soft instrumentation is effected in the background. It sounds like movie soundtrack music to me. Would very much work in a film, I think.

Bel Ami is a jaunty little mandolin piece, very happy and slightly Mediterranean-sounding, while still fitting in with Ant’s music. I’ve played some stuff on mandolin, and it always sounds best when you get it to right about where this piece is. A fine, fun piece.

Concerto de Alvarez opens very much in the classic Genesis dual 12-string vein. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it would have sounded perfectly appropriate on Trespass or Nursery Cryme, had Ant remained long enough to record it. Very effective display of light and shadow, and as it’s one of the few extended tracks on this album (8:28), a very welcome throwback to Ant’s prog rock days. I find myself listening to see if I can work out where rock instrumentation would take this piece. Maybe some day I’ll work out a prog rock arrangement for it…

Lifer is a pretty classical guitar number, melancholic, a piece that sounds like an older man or woman sitting by a window in a tavern, sipping wine and looking out over the sea for a boat that never returns. It’s a beautiful piece that asks more questions than it answers. It cries out for lyrics, but Ant writes blessed few of those, these days. It also feels shorter than it really is.

Chasing The Light is another 12-string variation on the 12-string melody from the opening track (The Voyage Out), this time surrounded by a wall of ambient sound in the background, as if someone cranked up the gain and reverb on a mellotron recording and then stripped out the notes themselves. As it is, it’s probably just some keyboard lines reversed, but it makes one think of Strawberry Fields.

Parlour Suite (parts I – VIII) is a series of short pieces in another of Ant’s thankfully endless series of suites. It opens on what sounds to these ears like a pair of acoustic six strings playing in tandem. The second piece returns to the theme of the first, but elaborates on it in a more melodic vein, as if he had thought of a second, more romantic way to deliver his theme. The third piece takes a snippet of that theme and renders it in a more cheerful, bucolic fashion, the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from a bard walking a medieval road. The fourth piece is more what you’d expect to hear from the same bard after setting up in the garden of a lady, playing by moonlight. Very romantic. The fifth piece seems to climb higher and higher, cycling and making its way up the neck, sounding reminiscent of something off of Selling England By The Pound; you can almost hear the further adventures of Romeo and Juliet play out to this melody. The sixth theme is a continuation of the previous, and moves in a stately fashion, as if dancing some sort of folksy variation on a minuet. Lovely and jubilant. The seventh theme is a minor key twist on the opening theme, as if death has come to take one of the lovers away. Consumption or some such. That’s how these things go, right? And then the final theme is introduced, and though sadness still pervades, it finds a way to pick itself up, dust itself off, and move on, remembering loss, but taking the lesson with it. What I’m saying is, this suite tells a story very easily. It’s a nice piece of work, and one of his better suites, in my book.

Swoon is a pretty little acoustic meditation that would fit perfectly in some other song, but here, Ant demonstrates how nicely it serves as a bridge piece away from the suite to the next song.

River of Life is a fairly cheerful if slightly meditative melody on 12-string, once again crying out for vocals, like something from Wise After The Event. It shifts around to a slightly minor key theme before leaving on a series of broken chords.

Momento sounds like the opener to something from the Genesis catalogue, but doesn’t go far enough. I like it. It’s just really short.

Open Road is a great little 12-string riff that desperately needs to be in something more extended. Perhaps it’s just that, at this point on the album, we’ve heard extended pieces, and the contrast shows these slighter pieces up for being the poor little orphans they are.

White Spider is another slightly extended 12-string-and-classical-guitar piece (6:39), which definitely takes us back to Selling England By The Pound (NOT, I remind you, one of his albums), before settling into a melody that probably belongs on The Geese and the Ghost. Very intriguing themes here, very evocative and strongly suggesting a classic Genesis number in needs of a Peter Gabriel lyric. And some Mellotron. And drums. 🙂

Half Way Out is another variation on the opening theme of the album, this time mainly the ambient wall of sound, with the guitars buried deep in the mix. Sounds like a vocoder. Nice.

Weeping Willow rings in at almost six minutes, and allows Ant to breathe a little bit and show off his composition skills in a different style, as he plays what sounds to me like a detuned classical guitar riff for a moment, which leads into a more structured classical guitar section that sounds like two classical guitars playing in a minor key. An evocative piece that again summons up possible stories to be told, though only perhaps lyrically, as the piece does stand as more of an instrumental statement, even as it reaches the middle point and investigates a second broken chorded theme, this time with harmonics, before going into the second major theme, which is a melancholic theme that suggests our hero(ine) has arrived only to find something saddening. But this too passes, as a third theme in a major key suggests light dawning, and perhaps a happy reunion. Nice piece. A little bit less diverse than the extended pieces of the first disc, but a great opener to the second disc.

The Love Not Shared is a very short little meditation on classical that sounds like it could have been an intro to something longer, though it doesn’t really go very far on its own. Very pretty and romantic-sounding, which suits the title (or vice versa).

Sojourn opens on a slightly tweezed, trebly 12-string motif that suggests an acoustic tweaked to sound a bit like a Rickenbacker. The song itself is short, but sounds like it could be written into a proper pop song with little effort. It’s a nice piece, and reminds us that, even when he plays around with minor key changes, Ant is a master songsmith, and could have kept on in a pop vein without seeming out of his element, if only the business had been kinder.

Dawn Over The Field Of Eternity is another acoustic 12-string piece, but it opens slowly, a gentle, plaintive passage that suggests a hesitance, as if someone is not merely waiting for the sun to rise, but is waiting for a momentous day to begin.

Fallen City opens moodily on 12-string, immediately evoking images of a noble state in decay. One can easily play images of Tudor splendour gone to seed over this soundtrack. There are foul deeds that have been done here, and yet to be done as well, and when the action starts, one can almost see swords flashing as our hero combats some Spanish assassins or something equally historical. The final passages are gentle and fraught with delicate sadness, as if some tragedy has befallen our hero, and the assassins recede into shadow.

Rain On Sag Harbour is a somewhat-pretty 12-string passage, soft and then bolder without losing the feel of a melancholic day.

Days Of Grace opens on classical guitar, playing a piece that could have come from a Steve Hackett album, though to be fair, it doesn’t sound at all derivative of Steve. I merely suggest that, like a very good Hackett classical composition, it moves through a number of modal themes without being too showy. Very pretty.

Timeline is another classical number, but much more in an Ant-vein, playing over a buoyant progression which ends before it gets where it might have gone.

Oubliette is a sad piece, not so much because of the classical guitar treatment as the fact that the progression seems to suggest a sad tale. It goes through a few minor key changes, which suggests the story of how the protagonist came to be stuck in the predicament they find themselves in. It ends with a quiet harmonic segment, not answering any questions; simply picking out a few details of where the listener is, with no way out.

Tania is, as the title would suggest, a pretty little love song, again on classical guitar, though who Tania is or what the nature of that love might be is not made clear. It could be a song for a child or a beloved pet, but even the minor key change in the middle eight is light and pleasant. Perhaps Tania is a beloved friend. The finale suggests a change in those feelings, perhaps a realisation that there is nothing more to it than friendship. Just musing aloud here.

Babbling Brook is one of those pretty 12-string variation themes Ant is famous for. A little reverb and perhaps a little compression, and voila.

Shimmering Sharon changes the tone of the album entirely, as it seems to be an oddly-tuned string ensemble that leads directly into…

The Room In Terra Del Fuego is a cheerful duelling mandolin number. Quite charming.

Mudlark is also a duelling mandolin number, playing around with an almost call and response feel that sounds like it could be performed in a
Celtic dancing circle. You can practically hear the clapping. Cute finish, too.

Tearaway takes us back to the 12-string and a melodic progression that again reminds us of early Genesis. This bit really sounds like it could have been in one of the extended numbers on Nursery Cryme or Foxtrot. Very cool.

Midnight Blue is a pretty acoustic guitar bit that sounds like it should go somewhere, and perhaps that place really is just before the next piece, but it probably could have been the start to any number of classic Ant pop ballads of the early 80s.

Evening Shroud is a much shorter acoustic 6-string piece than it seems. There’s a strange illusion here, because it feels like a complete passage that ought to be in a slow, sad song, but when the change comes, it proves to be the end. Surprising. Nice.

Rapscallion is a rich duelling acoustic 6-string number that ends before you can write what I just typed. Charming, but very short.

Beyond the Castle Walls is another acoustic six-string piece, this time in a minor key, and leading into…

Forgotten Pathway opens on six string and asserts itself quickly as a melody worth writing lyrics to. I can almost hear them now. It’s a good song. I wonder what it’s about.

Fairy Ring is also a twin acoustic number, this time in a high, somewhat cheerful mode with a little 7/8 lilt, before it disappears.

Largo D’Amour is a classical guitar piece which goes through a theme change, again suggesting it could have been a lyrical song. The original theme returns, and I’m already hearing words sung over top. Definitely a singing song, though not a happy one. Not sad, either. Just… there. Like a moment in time caught. A day in the cabin with your wife. Something of that nature.

Whippersnapper has a title that suggests something saucy and jubilant, but instead we have a tense little exercise, not showy, but with minor chords and keys. Someone was more of an irritant than an amusement, methinks.

Kissing Gate is exactly what it says on the tin: a romantic love ballad. Exceedingly up and pretty. This would have been a Genesis song to get Phil to sing.

To The Lighthouse is the last of the extended pieces, and as one would hope, it opens with a wall of 12-strings chiming over an oddly-tuned, broken open chord sequence, very reminiscent of something on Trespass. It’s a solid composition that fairly cries out for a lyric and some drums. The bridge to the theme change is a quiet passage, both figuratively and literally, as if passing down a darkened old brick corridor, before coming out the other side to a cloistered courtyard. If it is indeed about a lighthouse, I want to read those lyrics pronto, because the image I’ve got is completely different. Another bridge and another theme change, and then another, much prettier, chiming 12-string melodic progression, which itself is replaced with yet another progression that is one of the most evocative moments on the album, thumb-plucked bass notes and fast picked 12-strings, and then the change to the major theme, which is utterly victorious. The journey home is adventuresome, but despite some creeping darkness, the end is a good one, once more crying out for words. The final theme suggests the tale isn’t complete, but well-rounded, nevertheless.

Driftwood sounds to these ears like 12-string and classical guitar together, but it goes by so fast, leading directly into…

Festoons And Billows is another 12-string passage, playing boldly over the them of the previous number before fading out.

Flotsam And Jetsam seems to continue the 12-string adventure, as if we’re in the midst of an unnamed suite, though this passage is more thoughtful and gentle.

Sunfish Shallows is a hooky little 12-string progression that could easily have opened up a pop song outtake from Wise After The Event or side two of Sides. It desperately wants to be in a song that hasn’t arrived yet.

Smart Alec is a bubbly little classical guitar piece that has a nice little bridging bit back to the verse riff, and then has a really cool middle eight that fits perfectly with the rest. An acoustic pop song in miniature, just waiting to happen.

Prayer For Natalie is a lovely little classical guitar piece that I’m surprised doesn’t have any words, as by this point on the album, I would imagine Ant fairly itching to sing just one thing, and this sounds like it’s right in his key. It also sounds like it could be an outtake from New England. Nice.

Out And Beyond is a final reprise of the opening 12-string progression, still drenched in reverb and chiming away victoriously. A final bow, as it were, but here he extends it just enough that it feels like a song instead of a snippet, before it swirls away into the mist of ambient swell and fade.

This is a lovely album set. That’s right., Big surprise. Lee liked an Anthony Phillips album. Shocker. The thing about this album is, it’s both gorgeous and yet incomplete, even though at two hours and ten minutes, it’s the longest non-library collection he had recorded to date. It does take a little patience to get through, but it covers a fair bit of ground, making it perhaps the most appropriate album title he’s ever used (yes, even more so than Sides). I suggest getting up for a tea between changing discs. I went for coffee, but it’s the same deal. The two discs don’t precisely demand to be played in rapid succession, but they do rather sound like Ant’s portion of what could very well have been one of the finest Genesis albums of the 70s. If only.

I don’t like harkening back to past glories (or failures; your mileage may vary) when reviewing a (fairly) current album, as no artist wants to be told they haven’t progressed. The thing about this album is,it IS a progression. It’s merely a progression in what my ears keep telling me would have been a brilliant Genesis album, had he but collaborated with Mike and Tony on it. A shame really that such a team is highly unlikely ever to reconvene. Perhaps it was getting back together with the guys in 98-99 that spurred on this rather rich reexamination of his Genesis-styled 12-string roots. Or perhaps I’m living in the past. I still think this is a brilliant album, and only wish it could have been some kind of commercial band effort, even if not with Tony or Mike (or Phil, of course).

Although, if they ever do get together again… I’ll be first in line to hear that album. Until then, I’ve got this collection, and plenty more vintage Ant to dig into.

And the newest album, Seventh Heaven, which I’ll be reviewing soon.

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.


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