Phil Collins: Safe Pop Vocalist or Prescient Funeral Doom Innovator?
by: Dan Lake
"It sounds like lonely, dreary music of the dead", says my six-year-old son. "Like with skeletons."

We're driving to his midsummer, midmorning swimming lesson with his four-year-old sister in tow when this uncharacteristically terse and well articulated nugget pops up from the back seat of the car. And I know what you're thinking: whatever grotesque horrors you pour through your own much maligned ears during your spare time, Mr. Lake, you have no business forcing it on your children! Children crave safety, security, and assurances of love from their adult caregivers. Metal's bleak nihilism can't possibly nurture healthy parent-child attachment or social adjustment. Those kids deserve an affectionate father who can at least provide music that is simple, melodic, and age fucking appropriate!

Thing is, he wasn't listening to my psychotic choice of music when he said it. He formed this rather erudite description (my boy used "dreary" in a sentence... correctly!) to express his thoughts about Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight". On the former prog drummer's live recording, _Serious Hits_, the song opens with a low, spare drum beat followed by a drawn-out, feedback-drenched, distorted guitar chord and a flight of spirit-conjuring synth tones. These elements repeat under the paranoid lyrics while a series of erratic guitar noises haunts the edges of the performance. Jaded adult ears, having experienced the popular song dozens of times, hear not the individual components but the well-worn whole, anticipating with no great amazement the now obvious/iconic percussive catharsis that splits the track about two-thirds of the way through. But a young, attentive mind, navigating the eerie details of the song's gradual crescendo for the first time, tunes in with keen awareness and sudden thrilling insight.

At first I laughed. Then I wondered. A large segment of the middle class mainstream would identify Phil Collins as the musical voice of Disney's _Tarzan_ and purveyor of crowd-pleasing Motown covers. I myself had dismissed him as a recurring character on my town's beloved adult contemporary radio station (boasting programming "from the '70s, '80s, and today!" when "today" meant the early 1990s), a beloved singer from my past and no more. But what if I was ignoring a looming but long obscured truth? What if Phil Collins secretly, insidiously ushered me toward the dark wasteland of funeral doom, all the while masking my choice as an apparently natural affinity? The possibilities were perplexing, the implications frightening.

I began to notice the similarly dismal intro to "Another Day in Paradise". A subaudible grumbling opens the song before being overtaken by an organ drone and an aggressive bass drum beat. Sure, the mood suits the socially conscious depression woven through the lyric, but isn't that precisely the point? Exploring wrenching sorrow through a commonplace story of neglect and abject misery is a rare path for pop music. Doesn't the whole image fit more comfortably into the doom milieu? I became unsettled, uncertain of everything. The firm order and calm that I had imposed upon the memories of my youth began to crumble beneath me.

The final cold nail slammed home when, for the first time in years, I again encountered "I Wish It Would Rain Down". What well-bred American families believe to be a clear-cut sad love song, now any funeral doom fanatic can hear as a high-sheen, jangle-injected burrow through the darkness of the human psyche. Witness the atmospheric keys, mournful guitar runs, and the refrain's crushing chords held for measure after disheartening measure. And in an age when towering doom monoliths are occasionally supported by haunting death choirs (thanks, Virgin Black and Mournful Congregation), even the "ooh"-ing back-up vocalists can't be ignored as pure pop confection. Lined up like this, the evidence is staggering. A trusted singer, long considered harmless and precious, had lured millions all unknowing to stare into the swirling abyss, where the formless fingers of funeral doom may pluck from the masses at will.

"If you told me you were drowning I would not lend a hand." "You can wipe off that grin, I know where you've been, it's all been a pack of lies." "I know the reason why you keep your silence up -- no you don't fool me -- the hurt doesn't show, but the pain still grows, it's no stranger to you and me..."

Turn a blind eye if you dare. But don't be surprised if something happens to -you- on the way to heaven.

(article submitted 29/7/2012)

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