Album Reviews

Anthony Phillips: Invisible Men (Esoteric Recordings)

The sudden international pop success of Genesis must have irked former Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips. When he left the band in the late 70s, their future wasn’t assured; enigmatic front man Peter Gabriel had left the band and drummer Phil Collins took the lead, but it was a rough transition. Phillips departed shortly thereafter, embarking on his own solo career, exploring sounds that blended pastoral folk, progressive rock, and the burgeoning ambient/New Age scene. Yet by the early 80s, both Genesis and Phil Collins were certified rock superstars who had made an unprecedented successful pop crossover. Phillips—nearing 40 with only a cult following and a need to feed the kids and pay the mortgage—surely must have seen this development and said, “Me too!” Thus was borne the strange and peculiar Invisible Men, a pop crossover attempt and collaboration with vocalist Richard Scott that found him out of his comfort zone—and, truth be told, somewhat out of his depth.

But Phillips didn’t need to rival Genesis; though he may have contributed his DNA to them, by this point, they were on two divergent paths. Invisible Men doesn’t sound like anything Phillips had released since leaving the band, and more than a little too much like what his bands were doing at the moment. Nothing sounds worse than an artist trying too hard to sound contemporary, and most of the songs here certainly suffer from that malady; forgettable rock with a pop twist—aka New Wave synths and a tinny-sounding drum machine programmed with generic 80s beats. Nothing here is particularly bad, but some of the productions aren’t particularly good. “I Want Your Heart” is an excellent case in point; the arrangement is messy, and the tempo is rushed. The same problem befits “It’s Not Easy,” and “Sally,” but interestingly, these songs sound as if Phillips was taking inspiration from XTC, a band who specialized in the nervous, caffeine-addled jittery style attempted here. “Love In A Hot Air Balloon” fares a bit better than those numbers, and also reminds of Messers Partridge and Molding.

Yet Invisible Men isn’t completely dire. On the ballad “Traces,” the gentle drum beat and sweet crooning work quite well, and it isn’t unlike what former bandmate Peter Gabriel was doing at the time. “Falling For Love” and “My Time Has Come” are the best of the lot; they’re heartfelt love songs that are quite enjoyable, in spite of underwhelming productions that undersell their quality. Excellent too are two songs left off the original album but added to the CD release; “The Battle of Penlee” is stark, plaintive, and vulnerable, while “Alex” is a chiming instrumental number that features a wonderful blues guitar solo.

Surprisingly, the second disc, consisting of demos, unreleased recordings, and alternate versions, proves to be a much more interesting, rewarding affair, a surprise, considering the lackluster final product. Many of the songs are instrumental, and are the better for it. “Holding You Again” and “Over And Over Again” are beautiful, instrumental ballads that are perfect in this rough state. The alternate versions of “Falling For Love” and “My Time Has Come” are instrumental takes, and in these stripped-down versions, the songs are much more poignant. “Mysterious Constitutions of Comets” is a moody, atmospheric instrumental that recalls the soundtrack work of Tangerine Dream, “Over and Over Again” and “Holding You Again” are beautiful piano compositions, while “Something Blue” is a delicate folk-minded ballad that blends Phillips’ delicate guitar work with a drum machine beat that is surprisingly effective; had it been included on Invisible Men, it would have upped the album’s quality. “Gimme Love” is a pure pop number; written as a demo for Sheena Easton, it feels like a lost opportunity, as it’s a catchy, delightful number.

Invisible Men was a commercial misstep from an artist who had matured far beyond the fare he was attempting. Phillips knew it, too; thanks to label hassles, production woes, and distribution problems, he understandably distanced himself from the whole affair, and he wasn’t happy when his labels decided to push this as a band—The Anthony Phillips Group—instead of as a solo project. Thus, the album came and went with very little fanfare, and a year long delayed release in his native England didn’t help, either. But by that time Phillips was back to making the music he excelled at: gorgeous progressive, instrumental ambient rock. Invisible Men stands as a document of what happens when an artist tries too hard to conform to the trends of the era.

Invisible Men is out now on Esoteric Recordings.

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