It is true that many artists don’t get the recognition they somewhat deserve. It’s the unwanted bi-product of those artists desire to produce something that pleases them and not something for the unwashed masses. Whether this is fair or not is, unfortunately, a moot point, while ever there are millions of people that will listen to them, and buy their music, there will be a One Direction or something of a similar ilk. Thankfully and, despite the many obstacles put in their way, there are bands and solo artists out there in the ether that compose music of the highest lyrical content and musical integrity that has weight and quality and is neither bland nor vacuous.
To me, progressive rock music has always been produced by artists who have a higher plan than just making money, although that helps!, the music is emotive and often comes from personal experience, to garner the praise and accolades of their contemporaries is just as important as wider fame and success, if that happens it is generally a happy coincidence.
British progressive rock group, The Gift formed in 2003, original a duo with Mike Morton and Leroy James sharing all instrumental duties but, as the music grew, they brought in other musicians to realise its scope and became a fully fledged five piece band. The Gift released their critically acclaimed album ‘Awake and Dreaming’ in 2006 and the world looked to be at their feet, well the world of progressive rock anyway. Unfortunately, Leroy was not committed to touring the album and did not believe that prog rock was the best way to make a living out of music, add in the fact that the other musicians were session musicians whose commitments were elsewhere and The Gift remained an enigma, a one man enigma in stasis. Fast forward to 2010 and a number of life changing events that drew Mike out of the doldrums and convinced him to write again, joining forces with David Lloyd and conceive the new record Land of Shadows, The Gift have produced an album that deals with loneliness, lost love and mortality. Joining Mike (vocals, flute) and David (guitars) to make up The Gift’s current line up are Dave Leak (bass), Samuele Matteucci (keyboards) and Scott Tipler (drums).
To quote Mike himself “We’re still telling tales and mixing up vintage with modern sounds, but this time round things are more ‘imminent’; more ‘live’. We’ve striped back the layers and focused more on the song. But, as card carrying proggers we still couldn’t resist throwing in a 20 minute beast about a near death experience….For those who like their music emotional, complex and occasionally grandiose, it will be right up your street.” Grand words indeed but, does the music live up to those lofty ambitions? Well my friend, let us dive in at the deep end and find out.
I Sing of Change introduces the album with a soft Scottish burr narrating a gripping and emotive tale over a gentle flute, to say it is only a minute long it draws you in and holds your attention rigidly before fading away having set the scene for The Willows which is lead in peacefully like a slow rolling mist, an ethereal piano note shepherding in Mike Morton’s elegant vocal which, accompanied by a delicate acoustic guitar, has a bard like quality, narrating the storyline. The music is utilised just as much as the voice in telling this tale, drums and bugle called up to echo the vocals. There is a pared back quality to the sound as if it has been deliberately left raw rather than over-produced and it works brilliantly giving the vocal an emotional feel that burrows into your psyche. The first part of the song is more like a minstrel’s ode with Mike taking the lead recounting the tale then it’s all change with what can only be described as the ‘Bond theme’ section, it is utterly brilliant as the guitar becomes the main focal point in a ‘Live and Let Die’ style instrumental passage, this is progressive music at its most incisive, stretching the boundaries of what you expect and, it works a treat. There is another shift in tempo as the track becomes more downbeat and solemn, slowing right down until the vocal begins a lengthy run to the end, ratcheting up the anticipation, soulful and poignant and then the final act begins, a guitar solo that almost becomes sentient, heart-wrenching and rousing, rounding off a superb track.
Mike takes another turn as a balladeer as his distinctive vocal opens Road Runs on ‘Til Morning, an introduction with a hint of the theatrical paves the way and then his mournful and meaningful voice immediately grabs you as he begins another involving tale. The song runs at a steady pace, a tick tock percussive beat and laid back guitar laying a smooth foundation for the catchy chorus, the return of that ever so expressive guitar to give us another solo that threatens to take form is an additional delight. You know you are listening to music that has meaning and expresses itself to the full becoming a modern homage to the great bards and minstrels of the past years, the songwriting is out of the top draw and it is a pleasure to listen to every note and word.
A slow contemplative track, Walk Into The Water has the qualities to become an anthem, the lazy smooth keyboard and acoustic guitar that accompany the vocal are dreamlike and sooth your fevered brow, the whole song is cathartic and leaves you at one with yourself, I don’t think I have ever felt at peace to this extent whilst listening to a song. Mikes hypnotic vocal is perfectly matched by the instrumental radiance on show as the song culminates with a moving guitar solo that echoes the peaceful, tranquil mood that this track engenders, pure class.
Intentional or not, Too Many Hands has a distinctive touch of fellow British rock act Divine Comedy about it. Upbeat and fast paced, the clipped and distinctive guitar riff takes you on an idiosyncratic ride, I can’t help myself smile as I listen to the track, although the subject matter is not as jolly as the tempo would have you believe. The Gift are supreme storytellers and, in Mike Morton they have a vocalist who is a modern bard, the off kilter, coruscating guitar solo echoing any hint of discord. An ode for a modern age? These songs are intellectual and thought provoking, none more so than this.
Sublime piano and ardent vocal are the mainstays of the beautiful You Are The Song, a love song of warmth and emotion that is sure to melt some hearts and make some knees go weak. Pared back and simple in construction it is compelling and potent in delivery, the keyboards are ethereal and the guitar speaks to you in hushed tones, not wanting to break the moment of reverie, an exquisite expression of the songwriting art.
Time to sit down in a quiet corner and spare 20 minutes of your life for a complex and utterly involving take on the Lazarus tale, The Comforting Cold explores themes of death and resurrection by updating the biblical story to the present day, it concerns a middle aged commuter who suffers a near fatal heart attack, having a near death experience before being resuscitated by medics, only to yearn for the eternity he has glimpsed. Sounds a bit morbid but it is more hopeful than you would imagine. Strings and keyboards introduce the track, celestial and spiritual, before the flute flows around and brought you. Mike’s vocals begin, backed by a gentle guitar and strings and the song takes on an uplifting feel, more authoritative and efficacious, this song has all the hallmarks of a prog epic, bombastic and overblown (in the best sense of the words), complicated and intricate instrumental sections that contain a keyboard section that has 70’s prog written all over it for every eye to see. A narrative interlude with distorted guitars and chaotic rhythms breaks the pace for a while and then an incredibly cool church organ sound just blows you away. A very calm, ambient interlude holds sway for a moment, dreamlike and gossamer thin, invoking the eternal peace that the commuter glimpsed before it was snatched away from him, the vocal measured and trancelike. The organ and vocal follow in a heavenly fashion as if delivered from a pulpit, the guitar that follows bleeds emotion, it is heartfelt and incredibly poignant before metamorphosing into a hard edge riff that is the complete opposite, harsh, even arrogant in execution. The instrumental story continues with a hectic guitar section that echoes confusion and discord with distorted licks and riffs and frenetic drumming. It is a maelstrom of music that threatens to overpower you as it powers along. The final part of the song is a complete sea change as the vocal gives a more dramatic performance, back by a gently strummed acoustic guitar and tender flute, the ending being harmonious and inspiring, what an emotional journey that was!
After the stirring roller coaster ride just concluded it is fitting that The Gift give you something to bring your blood pressure and heart beat back down to normal, As is a sentimental, touching finale to the album. A placid, genial acoustic guitar is the backbone for our last listen to the wonderful humane vocals of Mike Morton and life is happily back to normal.
Knock me down with a feather, it’s happened again, we are only into March and I find myself running out of superlatives to describe a new release. Land of Shadows contains the raw emotion of a dark period in Mike Morton’s life, that he and David Lloyd have taken those emotions and produced a release of sublime beauty and soul like this, that is uplifting and life confirming, is tantamount to genius. Hopefully it will garner the critical and commercial success it truly deserves.