This is The Gift in their third incarnation on their third album. Why the Sea is Salt is both exhilarating and challenging as the band, and audience to a degree, step out of their respective comfort zones. The writing team has expanded, the band play as a far tighter unit and, from the evidence of live performances, they appear happy. In version one, singer Mike Morton and guitarist Leroy James wrote together. After a couple of hiatuses, Leroy has returned to join Stef Dickers (bass), David Lloyd (guitars) and latest recruits Neil Hayman (drums & percussion) from Konchordat and Gabrielle Baldocci (keyboards). For a band that sometimes describe themselves as Symphonic Melodic Rock there is a lot of power in their stage performance.
Six tracks make up the album, just under an hour in total with the longest, All These Things, clocking in at just over twenty minutes; an epic piece, select the beverage of choice, or even take a picnic for that one, but there is much to enjoy. Challenging? The band still acknowledge their roots in seventies progressive music, some give clear nods to that heritage, but overall their efforts are fresh and contemporary. All These Things is almost like a musical history lesson, opening with a simple guitar melody it is almost medieval in structure, simple, and beautiful as Mike Morton sings in choral tones. His voice is pure, the first couple of times I expected the phrase “And a hey, nonny, nonny” but to my relief this did not occur (one for the live act Mike?). With each change the ensemble players address little fragments of musical history to my ears; the keyboards channelling, Banks, Kaye, Wakeman, Lord, Emerson and I suspect many others, a tribute in the best sense of that word rather than a direct copy. The twin guitars complimenting and competing with each other would work as well without the additions, more Hotel Chocolat than Thornton’s. It moves through many changes, and looking at it with a critical eye I do wonder if it could have been more elementally defined, like the passages for Alan Parsons’ Turn of a Friendly Card and the repeating refrain. It is a long piece, it requires your concentration, but I do find the time given is justly rewarded.
The opening motif could have served as a repeating refrain throughout, but, like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects…there are hand claps which will make some wince, however they work for me. The church organ adds to the historical feel of a track that seems to reflect on our environment and the human impact, and then again about the passage through life and the changes that come upon us. Complicated? Yes, probably. The Gift’s Supper’s Ready? Yes and no. There is some Led Zeppelin, a pinch of Jon Lord from Deep Purple’s Book of Taliesyn, ELP, Neil Hayman providing Phil Collins-like fills – so many reference points. I cannot make a direct comparison, it has its own strengths, melodrama and pathos. I sit back and enjoy listening to the Hackett-isms and Pink Floyd undertones. This is my fifth listen; abandon hope, I am going down with the ship of fools. Fools? Well, it is daring to produce something this long and involving in the attention deficit 21st Century. Is it self-indulgent? No. Is it clever? Ultimately your choice, but I say yes. Does it require toilet breaks? I shall cross my legs so as not to miss anything. Played back through four Tannoy Revolution 1’s and a hefty KEF centre at volume, it works for me. It is a sort of Genesis/Yes/Queen mash up with a touch of the Fab Four plus a smidgen of When the Sour Turns to Sweet. But I have rambled enough and there are five more tracks!
So from Genesis to revelation, At Sea is unusual and daring, from the first keys of Gabriele’s piano, mimicking the sea and its moods, you know this is a different album from The Gift. With hints of Debussy, Ravel, Grieg and others, it shows Signor Baldocci’s classical training and influences from the likes of Firth of Fifth, the fade out of Life On Mars and perhaps Rick Wakeman’s Elgin Mansions. I close my eyes and reflect on the various beaches where I have sat just listening to the sea and I am transported back to my youth towards the end of this instrumental passage. Leroy, David, Stef and Neil join in; it is sublime. The last man at the table joins after about six minutes, Mr Morton’s soulful voice, almost a lament, brings the words. Like All These Things they have labelled the parts, I acknowledge their names, evocative of the music each part portrays, but my thoughts differ. There is no right or wrong.
For me it’s Robinson Crusoe of long school holidays; classical, contemporary and emotional. You can see the sea shimmering, and as the first guitars appear, the wind takes sail and the voyage begins. Picking up, we are racing, ships in full sheet, waiting for battle. It’s elemental, my dear Morton. The bass line from the man in the cap, Stef Dickers, is tight and controlled; the keyboard passage preceding Yes, the Wakeman years. Homage not copy, and then he sings. Lyrical and artistic, reminding me of Le Radeau de la Méduse (The Raft of Medusa) by Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault, or the tale of Odysseus, avoiding the Sirens call. Myths placed from childhood. How many lines are referenced? Perhaps the music has fuelled my imagination, which has then leapt to further conclusions – Nursery Cryme, Procol Harum – if it is not my mind then it is very clever. I would say also that Trespass and Queen II are referenced, but not stolen – no plagiarism from these scurvy dogs.
Sweeper of Dreams is Misplaced Childhood in its drive, the Marillion of Fish, and though darkness is threaded through the vocal it has a different sort of menace from that of Mr Dick, and more of the roll of the sensation Alex Harvey. It is a bit of both. Sweeper… is gutsy, close to that raw energy The Gift have live, David and Leroy battling for space, Neil and Stef holding the rhythm, Gabriele’s keys flourishing; this track will really work well live.
The balance between noise and toys is right. Tuesday’s Child opens chorally, as if you are ever to meet such a bunch of unlikely choirboys – more Joseph Wambaugh than St Paul’s Cathedral! Gabriele’s piano and the guitar solo leave goosebumps, and when the singing begins, the intonation similar to Walk into the Water from Land of Shadows; well if you can’t steal from yourself…. It is as close as you will get to a sing-a-long on Why the Sea is Salt; this for me again is early Genesis, Trespass, Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot. There is one key change that takes them into dire straits. The sea metaphors still appear like a ghost ships from the mist. No one is really producing material like this, nostalgic but still original, and if anyone dare say ‘Genesis-lite’, well sod them.
And then there were two; The Tallest Tree is topped by Anthony Phillips and tailed by Steve Hackett – now there a trick. Not the first time they have appeared on the same track, Anthony plays on two tracks from Steve’s Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth. Combined with the Irish Whistle of Tiger Moth Tales’ Peter Jones, it starts a little bit like More Fool Me from Selling England by the Pound, the vocal angelic, choirboy (cough) rising, ethereal; it is simple, or at least appears so, almost folk-like, but then ‘only love remains’. The keys when they join at about two minutes in just add to the whole. With the inclusion of Anthony and Steve, if you cannot have that band, The Gift have at least delivered the dream in part.
Final track, a reprise of At Sea subtitled Ondine’s Song, strikes me as a lament. There is sadness and emotion in the vocal, sea metaphors, ancient and modern, combine as we take a little trip back. Neil is superb. There’s an afterglow, a warm and fuzzy end to a beautiful album, finishing with another great guitar solo – or is it solos – and I descend into peaceful, silent slumber, if that is wise. [According to French and German mythology, the nymph Ondine/Undine discovered that her husband had committed adultery. Because he had promised his every waking breath to her, she cursed him that so long as he was awake he could breathe, but if he ever fell asleep he would stop breathing and die. Nice girl…]
The artwork of Mark Buckingham is stunning, a painting worth hanging on my mythical walls. It adds to the delight, and is befitting of the album.
Purchase wise, it fits in my ‘Must Haves’ for 2016 and I have bought it. I would recommend it to you, particularly if you love melody. I think it is a massive step up for The Gift; you can feel the love in the music, the craftsmanship. The recording of Mike Morton’s voice is probably the best I’ve ever heard it. David and Leroy bring the best from each other, Neil and Stef quietly gluing it together, and finally Gabriele Baldocci bringing not so much resonance as renaissance. It is a triumph, I hope that it pleases them as much as I. In the end, gentle reader, your choice, but the quality cannot be denied.
01. At Sea (10:29)
02. Sweeper of Dreams (5:18)
03. Tuesday’s Child (9:45)
04. The Tallest Tree (6:14)
05. All These Things (20:43)
06. At Sea (Ondine’s Song) (5:16)
Total time – 57:45
Mike Morton – Vocals
David Lloyd – Guitars & Backing Vocals
Leroy James – Guitars & Backing Vocals
Stefan Dickers – Bass
Gabriele Baldocci – Piano & Keyboards
Neil Hayman – Drums & Percussion
Steve Hackett – Lead Guitar (track 4)
Anthony Phillips – 12-string guitar (track 4)
Peter Jones – Irish Whistle (but it sounds like a flute!) (track 4)
Record Label: Bad Elephant Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 28th October 2016