Yes, here we are one again folks with a look at some of the stuff that keeps your editor company as he sweats blood putting TWR together for you. This time we have something a little different, as we not only have reviews but also interviews with some of the artists in question about their work, hope you enjoy the end result!
First off this time round is the second album by The Gift, brainchild of Mike Morton who also does a sterling job in the Genesis tribute band The Book of Genesis - but more of that in the interview. TWR featured the first album by The Gift a while ago now and I am delighted that Mike has finally put together a follow up. The new album: Land Of Shadows is a delight from start to finish.
I Sing Of Change, a haunting poem by Niyi Osundare, set to music by the band gets things off to a suitably impressive start which is continued in The Willows, a truly remarkable effort with some truly remarkably descriptive and thought provoking lyrics especially the line “we mistook affluence for joy” which certainly has resonance these recession damned days!
Another thought provoking track comes next with Feast Of Fools which for me has echoes of vintage early Marillion both in terms of the poetic drama of the lyrics and the equally dramatic musical performance, but this is no slavish copy but a brilliantly observed look at today’s selfie obsessed culture. Let Us Go Then continues the theme of wistful regret but this one is much more optimistic especially the soaring guitar work which runs throughout it making this a favourite of mine.
The rest of the album combines a healthy mix of modern day prog with some passing nods to the progenitors of the genre but the underlying feel is of an album written by musicians with something to say and the means and ability to do so in ways that make the end result one of the most satisfying albums I have heard so far this year.
The Gift: Land of Shadows. Bad Elephant Music BEM004
We managed to catch up with the elusive Mr Morton for a quick chat about his musical career and how he got involved in both a Genesis tribute band, and The Gift. Over to you Mike…
TWR: So, Mike what were your earliest musical influence…?
MM: The music I first fell in love with was T Rex at the age of nine. I thought Marc Bolan was a god. It helped that my big sister had all his stuff, and I practiced singing in front of my bedroom mirror quite often! Then I saw Roxy Music on Top Of The Pops and knew, even as a young lad, that this was something special. Brian Ferry’s odd delivery, Eno’s feathers and synths, the whole unhinged drama of it and I suppose a vague boyish sense that this was ‘art’. the first two albums I bought were Roxy’s second and Jesus Christ Superstar. They inspire me to this day, the latter with its passion and huge tunes, and Roxy for their lyrics and Britishness.
I came to classic Progressive Rock a bit later when I was thirteen. All in one gulp I got into Floyd, Tull, Yes, and Focus, mainly. But a year later I discovered Genesis and they almost blew my head off! My older cousing played me A Trick Of The Tail and that was it. Then I rewound to all the Gabriel stuff and a deep love started which lasts to this day. Genesis are the single biggest musical influence on my writing, but I don’t consciously strive to sound like them. The musical world I have lived in for almost forty years just naturally leaks into what The Gift do.
Also as a young Scot who grew up in Glasgow, Celtic folk is a big but I think unconscious influence. Dave (Gift guitarist and co-writer) often notices it when I don’t. Hymns play their part too. I adore organ themes, and sacred music creeps in. Blame Protestant upbringing! Hard rock was a big favourite when I got older, so I guess the ‘70’s masters like Zeppelin, Sabbath, Purple and Lizzy turn up, especially in our more riffy moments.
TWR: How did you become a musician yourself? Tell us a bit about your earliest endeavours…
MM: I went to a fairly musical school, but struggled through recorder and piano lessons as a youngster. The teachers were spinster types who always told me off for not practising enough between lessons. You know the drill, so like a lot of kids, I drifted from it.
Then in my early teens, my best mate got an electric guitar and was making good noises with it. I asked him who taught him and he referred me to one “Frank Genoire”. he was a really cool dude. About thirty years old, I guess. French, a fan of Mahavishnu Orchestra and well into meditation. He also had a stunning girlfriend! Which distracted me from my lessons somewhat! After one lesson fumbling on a cheap nylon string acoustic, I went to Woolworths and bought one of their naff Strat copies for about £25! He taught me all the rock scales, chords and hen how to improvise. I took albums to him and he taught me Yes and Genesis licks. It was amazing. Then I embarked on weekly evening piano lessons with a guy called Rob Porter who was a music therapist by day, working with autistic children. He got through to them with music in a way that words didn’t. that really inspired me (I still have little time for background music or cheap stuff, because I think I’ve always felt that music is important and meaningful not just something to be consumed). Frank noticed that I was memorising sheet music I was supposed to be reading and he said: ‘you can play by ear, go with that’. To this day I thank him for liberating me but I also sometimes regret how slow a reader I am. It seldom matters in a rock band though, as most of us are the same.
Anyway, one day I played Frank Genesis’ The Musical Box and the crescendo of ‘touch me now, now, now’ etc which stopped him dead. He asked to borrow it. Next week he told me that he had played the track to a severely autistic boy who no longer even responded to his parents. The lad had jumped up, cried and punched the air. Rob said there was something very profound in that climax. I agreed, and still do.
When I turned 17 I joined a metal/prog hybrid called Marquis De sade as the keyboard player. The band played original stuff, which was a rather naïve version of the heavy rock of the day, with added fiddly keyboard bits courtesy of yours truly. But they wanted to be more like Black Sabbath and I wanted to be more like Genesis, so we parted ways. After that I was in a whole bunch of bands throughout and after my student days and left the prog/classical rock genre for Goth, indie and more commercial bands. That remained so for ages.
TWR: We have had the pleasure of reviewing both albums by your band, the Gift, tell us how the band came into being…
MM: The Gift started life as a studio project. I was working on commercial songs with my then musical partner, Leroy James, struggling in vain to score a hit! One day back in 2003 I was farting about during a tea break, playing a classical style piece on a synth. Leroy said, ‘Mike, you love prog. Admit it. Why don’t we do something in that vein?’ Thus started a three year project in which all my long years of suppressed prog love came rushing out. I had long imagined creating a big epic like Suppers’ Ready. What we in fact produced together was a forty five minute uber-epic in twelve parts called Awake & Dreaming. It was a fiercely felt hymn to pacifism and a cry of protest against the current invasion of Iraq. Slowly and steadily we both realised that this might be quite good. I think if you play from the heart and resist formulae it normally works out OK. There is an irony in the fact that the only time I have ever been signed is when I wrote something unfashionable. I think people feel the sincerity.
We released that album as a two piece … then disbanded almost immediately without ever playing it live. The album caused a mini stir amongst those who knew their prog back then, but there was no one to expose it onstage so the momentum faltered. Leroy and I had different goals. I wanted to stage a multi media show a-la Floyd (but lower budget!). He felt that there was no future or money in the genre so we parted ways. I idled for ages, unsure of what to do. Then recession hit hard so I put my head into providing for my young family and did very little musically for a few years. Although I love being a dad, I am also in love with music, and laying off making it turned out to be a bad idea. I became quite depressed. In the midst of those dark doldrums I forced myself to write again which was in fact tremendously therapeutic. I came out of the ’tunnel’ as it were, and eventually found a new collaborator in David Lloyd (a pal of Leroy’s)! We spent three years slowly piecing together the follow up to A & D and that became Land of Shadows (people ask me a lot about the apparently ’glacial’ work rate. It’s simple. When you have kids, a wife, a demanding job and all of life’s usual pressures, music making has to be slotted in to the spare gaps… and they are few and far between). A lot of the songs on Land Of Shadows have dark themes. I suppose, as they came from a shadowy mental place. But we got a lot of feedback that The Gift moves out of such darkness into hope. That pleases me a lot, as it is our intention. The album was finally finished in early 2013, although its release was delayed by the hunt first for a sympathetic label, and then for the right mix engineer. It eventually emerged in the spring of last year (2014). We then set about putting together a permanent five man line up which we now have, and it works well. We are gigging regularly and starting to build a decent following.
TWR: Tell us a bit about the ideas behind the tracks on the new album…
MM: The album mainly is a reflection on impermanence. The fact that nothing lasts. We lose loved ones, we get old, we go in and out of happiness and we have brushes with the dark. But like Buddhist philosophy teaches, impermanence doesn’t need to mean despair. Nothing may last but equally nothing is ever lost. Specifically ’Walk Into The Water’ on the album is a rumination on dying. It has no answers to the ultimate question of where we go, but it accept that that mystery and is at peace with it. Memories live on. I wrote it for a friend who died but then my own mother passed away before the album was fully mixed and mastered in 2013 , so it has a special resonance for me now.
‘The Willows’ is about the emptiness of modern British culture, but it too expects the ’age of the selfie’ to eventually end. And hopes for it. So, impermanence is good if it sees the back of all things shallow! ’Too Many Hands’ is an interesting track, as it sounds very jaunty, but it is about suffering from depression. Again, the protagonist moves out it. It doesn’t last,. But we poured most of our creative energies into ’The Comforting Cold’ which, at twenty minutes, is the biggest beast and it asks the question: ’what if Lazarus didn’t want to be resurrected?’ it was originally named after the biblical figure, but I discovered that Porcupine Tree had already used the name for a track on their Deadwing album, so we updated the idea to the modern day and renamed it. It concerns a middle aged commuter who is bored. Then he has a cardiac arrest. Far from boring… He glimpses eternity and is brought back by the medics only to yearn for the ’comforting cold’ he experienced. I guess that fit’s the theme too. Life doesn’t last but sometimes neither does death!
TWR: There has been quite a gap between albums by The Gift, are you taking the Peter Gabriel method to music making or…
MM: Ha! I answered that one already.
TWR: In addition to being part of The Gift, you are also involved with Genesis tribute band, The Book Of Genesis. How did that come about?
MM: Since my teens I have wanted to sing the timeless brilliance of songs like Supper’s Ready, Firth of Fifth, the Musical Box etc, on stage. Back in 2005 I took the plunge and auditioned for Los Endos, another Genesis tribute band you know well. It didn’t work out, mainly because I was so stretched by the Gift MK1’ s label deadline to finish Awake & Dreaming, so I couldn’t commit. But I had unfinished business. This man still wanted to wear batwings and an old man mask! So, in early 2010 whilst I was searching for people to create The Gift’s second album with me (before I met David Lloyd) I advertised on a muso’s web site asking for ‘prog’ people. One of the respondents was Bob Arnold, guitarist and head man in The Book Of Genesis. He said he wasn’t looking for an original band but that he liked my vocals saying they were suited to a Genesis tribute. I was well out of my depressed ‘no’ phase, so in the spirit of ‘yes’ I decided to do both. Five years on and both seem to be thriving. Some people tell me to slow down, to do less. Sometimes my wife worries about me overstretching myself as well as wanting to see more of me. As long as I can keep the balance right I intend to carry on with both. The Gift is extremely rewarding because it is our stuff. The Book Of Genesis is enormously fin and rewarding too, and with its (so far) bigger audiences, it effectively funds The Gift.
TWR: The Gift recently appeared at the Summer’s End Festival and went down very well. Does this mean that we may be seeing The Gift at a venue near us soon?
MM: Oh you will be seeing a lot of us in 2016. First, we are heads down to finish the third album. But from spring next year onwards we will be performing at festivals, as support to some big prog names (I’m sworn to secrecy for now!) and at a few headlining gigs, in London, the Midlands and the North West. Your home town of Liverpool will be one of those.
TWR: You have mentioned the prospect of a third album by the band next year, what other projects do you have in the pipeline?
MM: Well, just on that third album for a moment, some Genesis men will be adding their talents to it. So will some contemporary prog players and a wonderful chap called Robert Webb. He was the keyboard player in a terrific album called England who released a masterpiece in 1977 called ‘Garden Shed’. it was the wrong year for a melodic symphonic album influenced by Genesis, Yes and Gentle Giant to emerge as punk was having its puerile way with the music business at the time. It got submerged in that wave… But he and I are good pals and he is a masterful Mellotron player, so his talents will be evident on album three. Robert Webb has also approached The Gift about forming a new ‘England’ in 2016 and staging a handful of comeback shows, in which that classic album will be played in its entirety, along with other strong England numbers. His old colleagues are either unwell or indisposed to this, so we may be backing the maestro!
There is also the plan to re-release Awake & Dreaming as 2016 will be its tenth anniversary. Our current label considers it ‘buried treasure’. They intend to issue a re-mastered version with completely new artwork and bonus tracks, so watch this space!
Watch this space indeed! Thanks again Mike for talking to us at TWR. Good luck
with the projects!
The name Martin Levac will be known to many of those of you who have followed Canadian Genesis tribute band, The Musical Box over the years. Martin is the brave soul who stepped in to Mr Collins’s shoes as both singer AND drummer in the band for a few years to great effect as anyone who saw the shows can testify. There is more to Martin’s music however than love of Genesis as this album proves.
1985 does exactly what it says on the label. It is a homage to the year of its title and indeed to the 1980’s in general. Now, before you all run off screaming, let’s just remind ourselves here that the 1980’s were not all bad - were they???
The album gets off to a funky start with its title track, 1985, a bona fide homage to the likes of Prince et al. Now, I freely admit that as a rule this kind of stuff leaves me cold and I can’t dance (where have I heard that before…?) to save my life but even so, I found myself tapping my feet to the rhythm of this one. And in fact I did so throughout just about all of this record it is that infectious and catchy and without doubt Martin has achieved his goal of making you wonder what if Phil Collins had written these songs. Martin’s voice sounds uncannily like his hero throughout and his musicianship is impeccable as you would expect. Now, where did I put my disco suit????
Martin Levac: 1985. LEVA003
TWR also managed to have a brief chat with Martin about his new album and his musical career thus far. Here is what he had to say…
TWR: How did you become a musician? Was it something you had always considered?
ML: I had my first drum set when I was eight years old, a toy kit and my first proper kit at thirteen. Most of the time I was playing over my dad’s records, Elvis, The Beach Boys, rock and roll hits of the Fifties and Sixties. Then over The Rolling Stones (which was my favourite band at the time) then over contemporary music of the 1980’s. I discovered Phil Collins and Genesis in 1985 at age 14 and bought the single of You Can’t Hurry Love and In The Air Tonight. Then Throwing It All Away in 1986, along with Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes. Then I started working as a grocery wrapper and earned some money and within six months I had bought every Genesis and Collins LP going backwards from 1986 to 1970.
My first band was called Chester-Phil at age fifteen (guess what we were playing?!) Then, The Bobs in 1987 which was original song s and covers of The Beatles and the likes of Billy Joel, U2, Crowded House and REM.
TWR: What were your earliest musical influences?
ML: I guess I have answered that one already!
TWR: You have been involved with The Musical Box for quite some time, how did you get involved with the band and how much does being part of a tribute band differ from working on your own material?
ML: I was the drummer with TMB from November 2002 until May 2007 and all in all it was a great experience and I got to meet Phil a couple of times during that period. Of course, musically it was a big challenge for me to play note for note what a young Mr Collins had played on those early Genesis albums and I really enjoyed it. We played great venues and people were crazy about the show and I got to meet my best friend for life, David Myers!
Before TMB called, I was a full-time drummer with a club band every weekend and working on my own career as a singer song-writer. I released my first album in 2000. Being a PC clone was not my main career plan! But then I began to tour a lot and compose less. Though I released another original album called Influences in 2006. I wrote all of that during the Musical Box’s Lamb… tour of 2005.
TWR: How did it feel being on stage with Phil Collins during a Musical Box gig?
ML: I was not on stage, unfortunately! He was playing on my drums and I was standing in the audience! But spending the whole day with him was a real privilege, he is so generous and humble.
TWR: When did you begin working on the 1985 album?
ML: In October 2014 I started to write songs and in five weeks I had fifteen songs to choose from. Kickstarters backers made it possible for the album to be fully professionally recorded.
TWR: You state in the sleeve notes to the album that it was a ‘what if’ imagining that the songs had been written by Phil. How easy/difficult was it to try and write in the same way he does?
ML: The thing is I did NOT try to compose like him! I just realised that after cloning PC live for more than thirteen years it had left some serious scars! I actually wrote a bunch of songs that I feel I needed to write and I had to admit afterwards that they were quite like what Phil was writing back in the 1980’s so I decided to go for it and do a 2015 album with a lot of retro ‘80’s elements in it.
TWR: Tell us a little about each of the songs on the album…
ML: OK, 1985 on this one I wanted to make a song similar to Sussudio but the basic groove was more influenced by Thriller! The horns too but I am quite happy with the result - just apop song that makes you want to dance! ‘Don’t Let Go’ the words and music came together and the song was made to encourage my youngest daughter to keep up her dance lessons!
‘As Long As You Stay’ the riff to this one was composed during a jam with my sax player, Sebastien Cloutier. I put the chords over it, composed verses and the lyrics came simply within the overall mood of the song. It’s all about having fears and finding comfort in he arms of someone you love.
‘One Side Of You’ I had the melody to this in my mind for a long time and I improvised the chords to it and found it interesting to have the same chord minor and major - sad- happy and that is how the lyrics came too. I am trying my best Paul Ccarrack impression on this one and the arrangement is very much in the style of Mike & The Mechanics. ‘World Gone Mad’ began with just the chorus and I sang that into my mini recorder and then I built the arrangement around it. The lyrics came from the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and it is a song about accepting differences.
‘True Blue’ well if I wanted to make a cover of an ‘80’s female pop song just like PC did with The Supremes then this was the one that could be interpreted and arranged in a Motown feel. ‘Just Keep Going’ I wanted the arrangement to be like the Tears For Fears song Woman in Chains and the drums had to be f*cking BIG!
‘I’m Coming Home’ is a cheesy love song that I had written to pitch to a Chinese pop singer. It didn’t work out so I kept it and had the idea of making it a duet and in a similar vein to Separate Lives so I invited the great Marie - Christine to sing on it. ‘I’m Sorry’ Refers to when the relationship is over and the feelings of guilt. The music came very naturally and it was at the last minute that I thought it could be something similar to Something Happened On The Way To Heaven and that it would be great to have Daryl Stuermer play on it and in the end he played seven guitars on it!
‘I Can Go, Go Go’ an even time song that I turned into a ‘shuffle’ and which ended up with another Motown vibe to it. I think the Horn arrangement is pretty cool and I recorded it with my little Gretsch kit at home. ‘Calling You’ has a moody big drum sound that is very much Depeche Mode meets In The Air Tonight. ‘Still Holding On’ is all about getting older and continue to do what you enjoy doing in life. I love the African groove. I was crazy about Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes and tried to recreate Manu Katche’s drumming on this one.
TWR: Has Phil heard the album and if so what were his thoughts on it?
ML: I sent him a copy but as yet I have had no feedback from him… yet!
TWR: What are your future plans?
ML: To keep doing the Dance Into The Light show for the next ten years, the jazz show too. Try to book me a 1985 tour and work on the next original album. I also have a crazy dream … it would be awesome to play the role of Phil on the big screen if somebody would do a film about his life and career. Maybe after his biography is released, somebody will!
Great idea Martin. If anyone can do that then you are definitely the guy to take the role on! Thanks again for taking the time to talk to us here at TWR.
Bringing up the rear this time is a collection of material by former Pavilionite, Paul Wassall. Curated One Quiet Water is a selection of music that Paul and his former collaborator Robert Lake have put together over the years. Opening with the fanfare-like Richard’s Legs, an epic in the style of Gentle Giant’s For Nobody this leads into the slightly elegiac Dark Secrets and Quiet Winter both of which are more serene, almost stately in feel but are excellent example of Paul’s evident skill with the piano.
Dragonflies would not be out of place in one of those suspense thrillers we see so much of on TV these days, a brittle shimmering synth piece, just like its subject. Nightingales meanwhile owes something to the music of Anthony Phillips being another slightly melancholy but beautifully played piano piece.
The rest of the album is a healthy mix of musical styles and I particularly loved A Cowboy Song which I could easily imagine accompanying some grainy old silent film whilst Secrets is a truly majestic piece of composition which would not be out of place in a concert hall. All in all, a completely satisfying compilation of work by an extremely talented musician - more please!
And here are a few words from Paul himself about himself and his music…
“I was born and still live in the Midlands. I began writing music at the age of ten on the piano, writing mainly songs and instrumentals up until and throughout studying music at York University. I played in several bands during the early 1980’s with sets largely written by myself, the style gradually being more influenced by Genesis and Anthony Phillips. In 1984 I met the vocalist Robert Lake, beginning a musical relationship which continued until his death in 2007. We recorded our first project, ‘Crusades’ in 1985. Ant Phillips listened to a copy at the time and said the voice reminded him of Peter Gabriel - he was very complimentary about the music and urged us to continue. Further projects saw us experimenting with song writing form though very much staying within the Prog sphere.
It is now time for a wider audience to hear our efforts, past and present. New recordings have been made by myself of material originally recorded during the 1980’s and ‘90’s as well as remastered original recordings of Robert and myself.
Well Paul, I for one would definitely like to hear more!
Our thanks to Mike, Martin and Paul for not only creating such excellent music but for taking the time out to speak to us here at TWR.