The chances are that until recently most of us might not have heard of John Greenwood, but it’s a pretty safe bet that most modern progressive rock fans would have heard of the legendary Australian band Unitopia. John is Unitopia’s new guitarist, and Dark Blue is his first solo album, instantly marking him out as a talented and fascinating artist in his own right.
Just who is John Greenwood and what is his pedigree as a musician?
Strangely, Greenwood has virtually no pedigree at all in progressive rock bands before joining Unitopia, but he is undoubtedly a very impressive gentleman with some highly notable achievements outside the world of music. This English born doctor was an eminent burns specialist in the UK, emigrating to Australia after being head-hunted by a hospital in Adelaide. Soon afterwards he provided lifesaving burns treatment to the victims of the 2002 terrorist bombing in Bali, as a result becoming an Honorary Member of the Order of Australia in 2003. In 2016 he was named ‘Australian of the Year’ for his continuing innovations in burns treatment. So how do you go from being a renowned doctor and leader in your field to joining one of the leading modern progressive rock bands?
John Greenwood has always had an interest in music and is a self-taught guitarist, but he never really played in bands or recorded material for release. His recruitment into Unitopia appears to have been rather fortuitous to an extent. A guitarist friend of his met Sean Timms and Mark Trueack at a Steve Hackett gig in Australia, and they asked him to play with them at one of their UPF Acoustic gigs. However, due to an injury the friend could not play with them, and he suggested John in his place, leading to Greenwood becoming part of UPF Acoustic. Out of that relationship, John was eventually asked to join Unitopia, which he has admitted was the gig he really wanted all along! Whatever he did, he must have truly impressed Trueack and Timms as the musicianship in Unitopia has always been of a very high standard. In addition to his skills with the guitar, Greenwood also brought his songwriting ability to Unitopia, as his great contributions to their recent outstanding Seven Chambers album illustrates.
Putting aside Unitopia, what do we find with his own Dark Blue album?
Greenwood has shared for this review that the album’s title comes from it being made up of two halves – the first half comprises songs focused on ‘Dark’ subjects, such as man’s inhumanity or indifference to man, or the state of the environment. The second half of the album is much more melancholic and ‘Blue’ in nature, with songs largely about subjects that have caused him sadness, whether it is personal loss or physical affliction. Greenwood decided to virtually conclude the album with a cover of the Genesis classic Afterglow, which he has described as the ‘ultimate song of loss.’ This is rather hallowed ground, but he really does it justice with a sensitive rendition, transposing Tony Banks’ keyboard parts into skilfully played guitar. His rather mellifluous voice also conveys a tangible sense of regret. It is also doubtful that Greenwood could have found a better drummer for this song than Craig Blundell, who has played with Steven Wilson, Frost*, Lonely Robot and, more recently, Steve Hackett, touring the world playing Genesis classics. Greenwood finishes the piece with a tasteful guitar solo before it suitably fades away – if you’re going to cover a classic, make sure you do it this well!
The darker first half of the album commences with one of the darkest subjects of recent times. The cryptic crossword enthusiasts amongst you may spot the hidden clue to the subject of opening song A Little Piece of Rosco Vidal (‘Ros CO VID al’ for those less adept at crosswords!). Whilst the subject may be hidden in the title, when it comes to the song it is blindingly obvious that this expansive piece of musical theatre is a bitter reflection upon the governmental handling of the Covid pandemic. For anyone allergic to ‘politics in music’ (the sort of listeners who believe Pink Floyd’s Animals was probably based on Peppa Pig, or maybe Bambi!), they should perhaps take a tea break for this piece! In the sleeve notes Greenwood pulls no punches when he states that ‘Rosco Vidal’ was “facilitated by weak, corrupt, grasping and ignorant governments…”.
This is a piece with multiple voices, and it does sound a little bizarre initially, but trust me, it’s worth going on the whole journey. In a video call with TPA, Greenwood revealed that this song had originally been intended for Unitopia, but Mark Trueack felt that he could not do justice to the differing characters… although apparently he has since changed his mind, presumably after hearing just how well the song turned out on this album. To be fair, it is difficult to imagine just one singer handling this ‘mini-opera’ with multiple characters, including ‘Rosco Vidal’ himself, a hard working nurse, ‘Emma Lovely’, a resident in an old people’s home, ‘Mathilda Grey’ (and we know what happened to many in those homes with numerous infected Covid patients recklessly discharged into them with fatal consequences) and most satirically the Prime Minister or ‘clown in Residence’ at Number 10, ‘Boris Buffoon’. This is a sweeping piece of musical theatre, commencing with atmospheric keyboards and a very Hackett-esque guitar line before Greenwood sinisterly recites the dark words of Rosco Vidal and casts a light on the whole disgraceful period of mismanagement and irresponsibility:
Your leaders abuse autonomy… you’re sacrificed for the economy…
Trump endorses wild prescriptions… Boris’ chums ignore restrictions…”
John Greenwood’s daughter Emma Bartsch plays the young nurse, providing a beautiful vocal to portray the desperation faced as she tries to care for very sick people whilst being avoided on the bus by the fearful public. She also reflects that being clapped on the street does not feed her kids. This section is backed with a gentle melodic setting, Greenwood on 12-string guitar and some lovely harmony vocals. The older people’s home resident Mathilda Grey is voiced by the vocally adept John Greenwood. Apart from his guitar skills it appears he can handle the keyboards which flow along smoothly, underpinning some more fluid guitar work.
Greenwood shared with TPA that A Little Piece of Rosco Vidal is his take on social commentary in the style of Get ’em Out by Friday by his much beloved Genesis. It is certainly a fascinating and very bitter melange of styles, most of all halfway through when the song slips into music hall with Greenwood bumptiously voicing ‘Boris Buffoon’ and aptly spinning off into clown music from a circus. Greenwood calls this section the ‘Tory Tango’ with tuba and trombone, and he credits Sean Timms with taking this part to another level. It’s bizarre to think that none of this comical satire is that far from the truth as these self-interested idiots and charlatans were indeed in charge through this crisis. The scene suddenly changes back to Mathilda Grey, lying in her room, knowing the peril besetting the residential home as the infection spreads amongst the old and vulnerable:
A doom-laden bell and a sombre nylon string classical guitar bring us back to Earth as this really was far from funny at the time. Emma Bartsch’s lovely voice finally takes us back to the nurse still working desperately in the ICU as “cancer care goes by the way” and she bitterly concludes:
I guess the businessmen preferred to make… no sacrifice?”
This powerful mini-opera fades away on a wave of softly melodic and melancholic music. A Little Piece of Rosco Vidal must count as one of the most remarkable and ambitious songs of 2023, casting a searingly bright light in very dark places. It reminds us just what an awful time it was as we now gradually learn about scandals like ‘Partygate’ and the scandal of useless PPE equipment dubiously sold by friends of the government, now happily floating in their expensive yachts somewhere. There is a danger that such acerbic feelings may just result in an incoherent howl of rage, but importantly, Greenwood has very skilfully and poetically portrayed those events with great emotional intensity. Greenwood has stated that his favourite lyricist is Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, and there is definitely a taste of Anderson’s sharp tongue and wit as Greenwood’s satirical eye exposes these charlatans and con artists, within an engaging and diverse musical landscape – it is a truly outstanding and very dark song.
Greenwood next turns his focus to the climate crisis in the lament Too Late! (the ‘No politics in music’ types had better look away… again… or better still stay and learn). Greenwood has shared with TPA his rather bitter thoughts about the indifference of the Australian government to the dangers of climate change. The subject may be relatively new, but the origins of this song date right back to a previous song called Circus Song, which he wrote when he was 16 years age. Long in gestation, Greenwood clearly feels deeply about this subject as he frames the piece in emotive, grief-laden orchestration. His plaintive voice sadly relates, over a delicately played violin solo from his daughter-in-law Sarah Greenwood:
Fire and flood the hefty price for the comfort we sought.”
Greenwood adds more pathos to this deeply felt piece with the inclusion of a touching soliloquy by a child (Kirstin Damkat) about her father’s view regarding the apparent futility of leaving a time capsule for the future. Too Late! is then reprised with rich orchestration, acting as an overture to the sweep of The Ocean. This is another extended piece which focuses on the desperate plight of refugees trying to flee to safer, more prosperous countries. It is perhaps very apt that it follows the previous reflection on the effects of climate change as these issues are often connected (by now I suspect the ‘no politics in music’ types have long since left the room, but anyone prone to parroting the moronic, insidious and inciteful slogan ‘Stop the Boats’ may well want to jump right overboard at this point!).
Emma Bartsch returns with the opening sonorous cello passage under Greenwood’s finely played acoustic guitar. She really stands out on this track with some beautiful vocals, evoking a sense of hope as a young mother tries to find a better way of life with her children. She desperately takes to a small boat, naively believing that wherever they land the people will understand and help them. Nicola Chadbourne adds a wistful French horn under Bartsch’s fine voice. Inevitably disaster looms as a storm approaches their fragile vessel, and Greenwood’s electric guitar and keyboards subtly convey the peril ahead. Greenwood’s Unitopia bandmate Sean Timms provides the storm effects, but it is Greenwood who most conveys the tumult of the sea with his own ‘guitar orchestra’ of about a dozen guitars. Lyricist John Greenwood (with Andrew Fanning on this song) does not spare the listener any of the tragic details as the distorted, ghostly voice of his daughter Emma sings:
Helpless, blind, my son and daughter, slide into the foaming water…”
They are all lost at sea, as has happened so many times in the world’s oceans in recent years, whether it is in the English Channel, the Mediterranean or other perilous stretches of water. These heart-breaking lines are followed by John Greenwood’s son, Sam, playing a suitably sad and fragile grand piano passage. A mournful orchestrated section follows with Timms sombrely tolling a buoy bell, a lament for the lost refugees.
The Ocean moves on to a skilfully played acoustic guitar that underpins Greenwood’s rather pointed reflections on the issue of a refugee crisis which seems to incite stunning indifference and even hate in some, particularly those Greenwood calls the “Experts of the Daily Fury”. A gradually building electric guitar passage and ‘choir keyboards’ add to the overwhelming sense of tragedy – Greenwood really does know how to extract such a range of sounds from his instrument. The Ocean finishes with a touching duet from John and Emma conveying the refugees ‘dream of hope’. Greenwood states that his biggest influence was early Genesis, and it is clear that Steve Hackett is also a massive influence upon him with his sweeping symphonic and melodic playing and songwriting, very reminiscent of Hackett and particularly exemplified in the impressive and impactful The Ocean. It is no surprise to see that Steve Hackett has written a generous ‘foreword’ for this album, recommending it to “all curious and adventurous listeners”.
This is an outstanding piece of music which humanises the lives of one refugee and her children, who are no longer just statistics or unknown bodies floating in the sea on the TV news. It is a powerful and brave piece, saying important things and reminding ourselves of our shared humanity. Next time you hear the mindless inciteful chant of ‘Stop the Boats’, perhaps just play this in response.
This is indeed a very ‘dark’ album, and after that moving musical journey the first half is appropriately concluded with the instrumental Requiem, in which Greenwood deftly uses a tremolo guitar, smoothly transitioning to a fluid electric. Greenwood shared with TPA that he originally wrote this to mark the passing of his grandmother when he was 19 or 20 years old. You can certainly feel very real emotion in the sympathetic orchestration. He has also shared that he developed this emotive music to be a requiem for the decline of the North of England (from where he originates), and includes brass instruments to evoke that region. Later in the album, Greenwood similarly harks back to works from his earlier years in The Kiss, a delightful short and regal classical piece, written when he was about 17. Nick Magnus, who previously played keyboards with Steve Hackett, took The Kiss and enhanced it beautifully with intuitive orchestration, which so impressed Greenwood that he used it for the album, relegating his own orchestrated version to the bonus material.
The second half of Dark Blue takes us in a much more personal direction. It is quite a left-turn in atmosphere and theme, showing an ambition for exploring a range of styles in one album. Heartless thrusts in as a relentless rock number, borne on some relentless drumming from Mike Giuffreda, Greenwood reeling out some splendid Satriani-esque fretwork late on. There is a double meaning to the lyrics, which appear to be straightforward about a broken relationship. Greenwood has shared that it’s actually based on a broken business relationship which appears to have ended rather bitterly… (and that’s probably enough said!). In contrast, the emotionally laden Inside presents Greenwood’s soft vocals in a much lusher melodic setting over gentle piano from Sean Timms. Craig Blundell adds subtle drums as the song develops. However, just like Heartless, there is another hidden meaning to the story behind this song, which sounds like a classic melodic rock tear jerker but is actually what Greenwood terms ‘a creepy love song’. Why is that you may ask?
Well, this song is actually about one of Greenwood’s previous burns patients, who suffered grievous 95% burns and was kept alive by a new polymer skin that John himself invented. When you know that story then lines such as “The morning you awakened, Your agony sketched sorrow in the air” means so much more, but eventually the person is “free of chains”, which are obviously the tubes that kept them alive but also confined them. This is a multi-layered song, the lyrics also expressing Greenwood’s regret that he was so busy pursuing his career that he missed much of his children’s upbringing, and it is perhaps significant that the lyrics to this song are co-credited to Greenwood’s wife, Helen.
The diversity of this album is extraordinary. On the short but sweet Packin’ My Suitcase, Greenwood delves into blues territory, which he says dates right back to when he was about 17. Like most blues songs, it’s a love song about the loss of a woman, complete with an atmospheric gypsy violin from Julian Ferraretto. Greenwood includes a ‘retro mix’ in the bonus material, making it sound ‘scratchy’, as if heard on an old radio – it wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers 2000 film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
Following the aforementioned cover of Afterglow, Greenwood adds one more ‘coda’ song to the album, which underlines him as an artist who does not take himself too seriously. In the video call with TPA, Greenwood revealed that whilst he was working on the sweeping epic The Ocean, his wife came in and said to him, “Why don’t you write a proper song?” He decided to take up that challenge and wrote a straightforward 3-minute rock/pop song with lyrics based on some of the comments his wife had used about his music – indeed John gave her full credit for the lyrics! There are some subtle in-jokes in the song, which commences with a very Clapton-esque riff, followed by chords from The Wall and Shine On You Crazy Diamond, and then a chord from Led Zeppelin’s Over the Hills and Far Away as Greenwood echoes his wife’s complaint:
This simple song makes you smile as you can just hear John’s wife saying these things, and after all the darkness and sadness of most of the album it is perhaps not a bad thing that it finishes with a bit of a smile and a wink.
Dark Blue makes it very clear that John Greenwood is a talented guitarist, seemingly adept at Steve Hackett-style passages of melodic guitar or flashes of more metallic fretwork. Alongside that, Greenwood is also evidently a talented multi-instrumentalist as he carries much of the musical baggage throughout the album. Additionally, he also demonstrates great skill in the orchestration which gives this album such a sense of musical richness. Not content with playing and writing on one of the best progressive rock albums of 2023 in Unitopia’s Seven Chambers, he has somehow produced his own excellent debut album, seemingly from out of nowhere.
From right out of the blue, with Dark Blue John Greenwood has produced a remarkably rich, diverse and excellently played album that has to be regarded as one of the best debut progressive rock albums of the year – it really is that good. I just wish he would write a ‘Proper Song’ though! 😉
01. A Little Piece of Rosco Vidal (12:08)
02. Too Late! (6:43)
03. Too Late! Reprise (Introducing The Ocean) (2:42)
04. The Ocean (16:00)
05. Requiem (3:54)
06. Heartless (3:32)
07. Inside (7:15)
08. Packin’ my Suitcase (2:06)
09. The Kiss (Nick Magnus Orchestration) (1:27)
10. Afterglow (Genesis Cover) (6:34)
11. A Proper Song (3:16)
~ Bonus Material:
12. Packin’ my Suitcase (retro mix) (2:11)
13. The Kiss (John Greenwood Orchestration) (1:17)
Total Time – 69:59
John Greenwood – Lead Vocals, 6- & 12-string Guitars, Electric Guitars, Nylon String Classical Guitars, Keyboards, Bass Guitar, Programmed Orchestration, Choir Keyboards (tracks 4,10 & 11), ‘Guitar Orchestra’ (4), Backing Vocals
Sean Timms – Keyboards, ‘Tory Tango’ & Crowd Noises (track 1), Buoy Bell (3 & 4), Thunder (4), Programmed Tympani (4), Gong (5), Programmed Percussion (5), Piano (7 & 10), Organ (11)
Craig Blundell – Drums (tracks 10 & 11)
Nick Magnus – Orchestration & Keyboards (track 9)
Steve Unruh – Flutes (track 13)
Emma Bartsch – Lead Vocals (tracks 1 & 4), Backing Vocals (4), Opening Cello (4)
Sarah Greenwood – Violins (tracks 2,3,4 & 13)
Sam Greenwood – Grand Piano (track 4)
Kirstin Damkat – Child’s Soliloquy (track 2)
Nicola Black – Flute (tracks 3 & 4)
Nicola Chadbourne – French Horn (tracks 3 & 4)
Thomas Martin – Cello (track 3 & 4)
Julian Ferraretto – Gypsy Violin (tracks 8 & 12)
Nick Sinclair – Bass (track 1)
Ben Todd – Drums (tracks 1 & 2)
Mike Giuffreda – Drums (track 6)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K./Australia
Date of Release: 1st July 2023