Right, let’s get something out of the way.
Surgens is a rose by any other name.
You probably have to be as mashed as they were when they came up with their name to get the joke. A band’s identity revolves around its name. Gandalf must revolve around his fist. But Gandalf has made his fist and now he must sleep in it.
It is a tricky thing, using humour when you’re involved in “prog rock”. Prog is serious music played seriously by serious musicians and listened to by serious appreciators of seriously serious music. We like to take it seriously. Seriously. Except when it is escapism. Then it is serious escapism.
Where’s the fun, though?
Gandalf’s Fist’s own press release for The Clockwork Fable starts off asking you to imagine a Doctor Who episode written by Monty Python so that we are in no doubt about their sense of humour. So should you not take the band seriously because of this? Hands up who is guilty of judging a band’s musical credibility by how silly they are?! It’s not my place to get answers to these questions, just, perhaps, to get you to ask them of yourself [Wink].
Some bands have tried to inject fun into their records and the tracks are somehow sidelined. How many times, once the novelty of tracks like Harold The Barrel wore off, did you skip it and go on to Harlequin (and possibly skip that too because you wanted to get to The Fountain Of Salmacis)? Ever done that? No? Never skipped Robbery, Assault and Battery to get to Ripples? No? Just me then!
I first discovered the music of Gandalf’s Fist when they released A Forest Of Fey. Back then Tony described Gandalf’s Fist as “Borrowers” ( I don’t think he meant that they were tiny people living in skirting boards). Well, who isn’t? I don’t even know who I’m ripping off any more with my attempts at humour! This borrowing continues with The Clockwork Fable. I singled out Iron Maiden as a big influence on the band, possibly as a template for the overall sound.
I must confess, I lean more toward Nine Inch Nails in my taste than I do to Iron Maiden. Even so, tracks from A Forest Of Fey often show up on my playlist in the car.
Consider this: The Clockwork Fable has contributions from very special guest musicians and whopping dollops of Thespian talent. Some of these people already have Wikipedia pages which means they are famous and their involvement with fisting is now well documented out there on the Intrawebnet. Perhaps we probably should take Gandalf’s Fist’s latest album more seriously than we should take their name. Perhaps it is just a bit of fun. *Serious* fun.
I have foibles. The doctor says they may clear up. One is that I would no more stop an album in mid-flow than I would go to the toilet during a film. I don’t even want to do that with a single song. I do a lot of car journeys of less than 40 minutes. Not long enough for an album. This means that I have adopted a strategy of playing whole songs randomly in the car from my collection of MP3s. So Tales From Topographic Oceans (which I love) is right out. This means I can have listened to a wide variety of bands by the time I get to work and an equally wide variety by the time I get home. I don’t listen to music (much) in work and there are too many people sharing my space at home. So I cherry pick when I can.
To listen to The Clockwork Fable in one uninterrupted hit I checked my tyre pressures and fluids and drove from Kent to my home town of Newport in South Wales, ignoring comfort breaks at Reading, Chieveley, Heston, Membury…
Another foible is my mild annoyance and what I deem incorrect use of the term “progressive rock” which is in this album’s MP3 metadata as the genre. Anyone who has read any of my reviews knows by now that I try to avoid genre labelling (without much success) and I make a clear distinction between music that is progressive and music that is not progress*ing*. I’m afraid I find that the term “prog” is to music as ants are to cable-stayed bridges.
But I do like ants.
And cable-stayed bridges.
Even if they have prog trolls living under them.
Check your tyre pressures and fluid levels before setting off. Make no mistake, this is a long trip. Gandalf’s Fist is asking you to invest quite a bit of yourself in listening to it. That’s an extremely big ask! We are all so busy! It is one thing to put aside an hour but quite another to put aside over three hours!
Musicianship is good. It is not composed of a barrage of inhumanly technical shreds, though my Sticky Senses detected some tapping here and there. There’s no slightly jarring mixes of songs with eleventy-one beats to the bar. There are a few tempo changes. I felt myself looking for labels to help describe what is going on more than I ever normally do. With a three hour journey I think you need to know what you are letting yourself in for. So, as it felt more like Iron Maiden than Genesis, is it even prog?
Probably not. So what is it? Despite my temporary lapse in concentration I would even tentatively postulate that this is easy listening! You need that on a long trip. Tiredness kills. No, I mean easy to listen to (I think I accidentally used another genre there), as I pretty much listened to it in one hit as far as Act II, track 7 – In The Name Of The Spy – on my first sitting. I stopped when I realised that I’d flake out if I didn’t eat something. I made it to The Severn Bridge (the old suspension bridge, not the new cable stayed bridge). Then I needed the loo because I am a “man of a certain age”. At that point the completest in me was disappointed that my listening experience had been interrupted by simple biological imperatives.
Point is, The Clockwork Fable isn’t difficult to get on with. It doesn’t challenge you to try and understand the music. I got a long way into the journey on my first listen before I was at risk of fainting or soiling my Fiesta.
Album artwork is still important to many people, especially to those who enjoy prog. I have to admit that in my youth I would sit there with Roger Dean album covers and stare at them for hours. I even had posters on the wall. These days I tend not to do this, the practice has become an anachronism for me. Gandalf’s Fist hark back to simpler days, when our biggest worry was whether Julie Griffiths in the upper sixth might possibly like me and allow me some fumbling, bumbling physical contact at the next 18th birthday party celebration. It never happened. Julie Griffiths openly laughed at me because there were prog fans there who successfully hijacked the stereo and I sang along to I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe). I would wake the next morning, alone, hung over and paranoid that I was unpopular. I was never happy as a child.
Anyhow. Great artwork by Thomas Huth!
We still make targets of ourselves for liking Prog. There’s an image people have of Tolkien fanatics and whilst there’s a generation of people who have grown up with Peter Jackson’s movies and see it as cool somehow, this cool hasn’t rubbed off onto fans of the bands who were likely to choose mythology over love-me-do as their subject matter. These seventies bands might have been experimenting with Lucy in the sky, swimming in the wake of Poseidon, busy turning into sunflowers, flying too close to a hobbit or running around with the Sun. Some of them were riddled with mythology. Gandalf’s Fist have not once mentioned dragons or elves on this album and the graphics reflect the content. I think. They have invented a whole subterranean post-apocalyptic World based on technology awash with clockwork, steam and plasma (isn’t that Steam Punk? I don’t know – bloody genres again!). But the human condition persists. A World in which Northerners are still the good guys and cockneys are evil. They’ve adopted a science fantasy, allegorical dark versus light theme that runs through the narrative and the art.
There is no other way to say this so I’ll be blunt: Gandalf’s Fist are asking an awful lot of their audience.
The Clockwork Fable starts more like a radio play than a musical album. There’s nothing wrong with that, even if this is actually more of a musical or a rock opera than it is a straight Prog Rock album (whatever that is) this is just a matter of changing your expectations. I think it works better to listen to this as you might a radio play. Indeed, some of the tracks are pure acting. The first track starts with some whistling and coughing and a weird noise that I just couldn’t really identify…flanged retching?
On some tracks the music seems purely incidental and this incidental stuff hinted to me as the most progressive elements of this prog album. Tracks of this type are plentiful and frequent but if you are to follow the plot I dare say they are essential. Because I expected more music and I didn’t have my radio play hat on, however, I found them a little intrusive. With successive listenings I started to find the music radio play element quite engaging. It became a war of Thespians versus musicians.
The album starts with an unhurried approach. Musically it really clicks off from the fourth track, The Lamplighter Parts I – IV. Over the next three hours there is some variety, with occasional proggy organ and Moogish synthesiser, heavy rock guitar riffs, power ballads, folk-rock or symphonic passages whenever the story demands it. In places it made me wonder if this is what music would sound like if Jethro Tull, Iron Maiden and Starship went back in time and joined forces to make a concept album influenced by Black Sabbath.
Putting aside the musical theatre element and concentrating on the music put me in mind of Jesus Christ Superstar, Meat Loaf or even that Pink Floyd’s Wall. In other words, I couldn’t put aside the musical theatre element and concentrate on the music. I must stress, this doesn’t sound much like Meat or Floyd or Rice/Webber. It’s more a feel thing, and not a little bit “Eddie”. OK – there’s a few tiny bits during The Climb in the third act that are a bit on the “Pink” side. You’ll know when you hear it. But that’s more of a cheeky nod than a rip-off. This is not a Floyd wannabe band.
So is it worthy of the big ask?
It is a brave gamble producing such a long album in one hit. Many bands would have released this three act show in two or three separate albums. Having said that, there’s nothing stopping anyone listening to it episodically! I’m sure that this album will find an audience. It could be that The Fist have harnessed the power of Social Media (an essential tool for bands these days) and are well able to judge the attention spans of their existing fanbase. It is still a big gamble if you’re looking to add to that fanbase. If you can’t get enough of some of the bands who are no longer producing the music from which Gandalf’s Fist clearly derives its inspiration then this is a positive gift from the benign God of Traffic Management, Apollo. (I just wasn’t up to doing it all in one go.)
I don’t know whether they are emulating bands that they think their audience want to hear or whether this is the sound they are cultivating. I’d like to hear what they do with their next album. I’d like to think they are experimenting and looking at ways to change… progressing. I enjoyed listening to the album because occasional little weird pieces popped up, like the end of Lamplighter, and uncredited cameo appearances – often in the incidental accompaniments to the acting bits – and these caught my attention. It is as if the mission to tell the story has enhanced The Fist’s approach to songwriting and they have found their niche.
As to my question about where the fun is: perhaps if you experience Gandalf’s Fist, put your tongue firmly in your cheek and give it a listen, you’ll find the answer. If you can get through this review then you can probably get through The Clockwork Fable!
Take a long car journey. But check your fluids first.
[You can find an album sampler HERE.]
Act I: The Day The Great Cog Failed
01. The Traveller and the Lighter (4:13)
02. Shadowborn (6:51)
03. The Unminable Zone (2:32)
04. The Lamplighter (Parts I-VIII) (15:58)
– Part I: The Lamps Of Ardel
– Part II: Haul Away The Fusee Chain
– Part III: Pauper’s Jig
– Part IV: Ebbing Of The Ember
– Part V: The Lamps Of Cartoe
– Part VI: A Prance Through A Nebulous Steam Garden
– Part VII: Nightkeeper’s Garrison
– Part VIII: Teller Of Fortunes
05. In the Cavern of the Great Cog (3:52)
06. The Great Cog (5:15)
07. The Shadow rises… (5:52)
08. The Capture (including The Song for a Fallen Nightkeeper) (6:51)
09. Waiting for Exile (7:06)
10. Eve’s Song (8:27)
Act II: Of Men And Worms
01. A Sermon for Shadowmas (1:18)
02. Victims of the Light (9:10)
– Part I: The Sermon On The Steps
– Part II: Congregation’s Retort
– Part III: Affirmation
03. Old Friends, new Enemies (4:23)
04. Ditchwater Daisies (7:22)
05. De-ranged (3:30)
06. The Lamplighter (Parts IX-XIII) (12:13)
– Part IX: Passing Of The Flame
– Part X: From Armistead’s Lamp
– Part XI: Dream Flight
– Part XII: Eyes From The Shadows
– Part XIII: The Flame Grows
07. In The Name Of The Spy
08. The Bewildering Conscience of a Clockwork Child (10:21)
09. Escape! (3:25)
10. A Solemn Toast for the Steam Ranger Reborn (10:21)
Act III: From Burrows We Came
01. The Oldest Flame (1:58)
02. The Lamplighter (Parts XIV-XV) (2:58)
– Part XIV: The First Lamplighter
– Part XV: Memories Of Nuclear Snow
03. Flight for the Surface (2:10)
04. The Climb (12:24)
– Part I: The Airship Ascends
– Part II: The Tinker’s Climbing Machines Spring To Life
– Part III: By The Path Of The Watcher
– Part IV: The Perseverance Of An Escaping Pensioner And His Mechanical Offspring
– Part V: A Hike Through The Steam Burrows
– Part VI: A Chance Encounter With Wing Commander Seamus McSausage, Lord Of The Vapour Buccaneers
– Part VII: Glancing Blow
– Part VIII: The Longest Shadow
– Part IX: The Dirigible Emerges From The Smog
05. At the Summit (8:05)
06. Fight for the Light (8:08)
07. Quest for Power (1:12)
– Part I: To Rule For Eternity
– Part II: Visions In The Clouds
– Part III: One Hand On The Mechanism
– Part IV: A Shudder From Below
– Part V: Fool’s Mate
08. At the Sign of the Aperture (12:33)
09. A Machine Serves His Purpose (1:30)
10. The Clockwork Fable (5:13)
11. Escape from Cogtopolis (1:14)
12. Through the Lens (3:25)
13. Epilogue – Oh Bugger! (1:02)
Total Time – 3:10:52
Dean Marsh – Vocals, Guitar, Synths, Mandolin, Octave Mandola, Bass
Luke Severn – Lead & Backing Vocals
Chris Ewen – Bass
Stefan Hepe – Drums, Percussion
Melissa Hollick – Female Vocals
Dying Seed – Backing Vocals
~ featuring very special guest musicians:
Blaze Bayley (ex-Iron Maiden) – Vocals
Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon) – Vocals
Dave Oberlé (Gryphon) – Vocals & Percussion
Matt Stevens (The Fierce and the Dead) – Ambient Guitars & SoundFX
~ voice talent:
Mark Benton as ‘The Lamplighter’
Zach Galligan as ‘The Steamranger’
Bill Fellows as ‘Armistead’
Paul Kavanagh as ‘The Primarch’
Tim Munro as ‘The Tinker’
Paul Barnhill as ‘Pastor Simon’
Alicia Marsh as ‘Eve’
Chris Ewen as ‘The Boy’
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Release Date: 1st May 2016