Worlds Apart is the debut release from Shadows on Mercury, a studio project based in West Yorkshire and the brainchild of Scott Owens, guitarist of Ghost of the Machine and ex-This Winter Machine. The writing style will appeal to a broad fan base, ranging from crossover prog to full blown progressive rock, and is always engaging, emotive and rich in memorable melodies. Although not strictly a concept album, the EP is stylistically cohesive and the lyrics share common themes relating to the problems and dangers of contemporary life. The standard of musicianship is superb throughout, both in composition and performance, and each song makes a strong emotional impact that will haunt your imagination long after the last note has sounded.
The gestation of the EP offers a fascinating insight into the ways in which musical collaboration can work these days, with band members never actually playing in a room together but trading ideas and files remotely. Rewind to Lockdown 2020: Scott has a bunch of musical ideas bubbling away in his head and decides to create some demos. After writing and recording the guitar and bass parts, together with the drum programming and sketches for synths, he needs a little help from his friends to drive the project forward, so he calls on Tim Lofthouse, ex-bandmate from The Lowells and local keyboard legend, inviting him to add synths and keyboards. Tim has been a huge fan of Yes, Genesis and Camel since his youth, and is delighted to unleash his inner Rick Wakeman, his contribution lifting the album to a whole new level. The final piece of the musical jigsaw is provided by Charlie Bramald, who as vocalist with Ghost of the Machine works regularly with Scott, and he creates the vocal melodies and lyrics. Both Tim and Charlie are given free rein to respond in their own way to the existing material. As Scott explains, “After being in a few other original music projects over the years, the one thing I have learned is, if you want to bring in other musicians, you have to let them put their own stamp on the music.”
Four years on, this collaboration has produced music that feels totally organic, with all three musicians sharing a similar vision. Scott’s guitar playing is excellent, with some memorable moments of glory, but his virtuosity is always used to enhance the overall impact of the music. The drum programming is top class and could easily be mistaken for the real thing. Tim Lofthouse deserves to be a more familiar name in the musical world as his stylishly delivered keyboard parts perfectly complement Scott’s guitars, creating atmosphere and adding richness, colour and a generous dash of progginess to the mix. Charlie Bramald is a very classy vocalist and his impassioned and lyrical singing style makes him the perfect choice for this project.
The Silence opens atmospherically with Tim’s synths creating a sense of mystery and menace. This is developed and enhanced by the addition of pulsing drums and Scott’s expressive guitar. Charlie’s vocals enter with a sense of quiet intensity, which becomes more impassioned as the song progresses, and the music and lyrics evoke a dystopian landscape of burning skies and cities tumbling to the ground as a result of humankind’s complacency and apathy. Musically, the track is built upon a repeating chord sequence lending an increasingly mesmerising and obsessive effect to the overall mood. In the powerful and exciting instrumental section that closes the track, keyboards and guitar seem to incite each other towards a state of panic and hysteria until the track ends with an eerie scream of despair.
A plaintive piano solo begins Calculate (Control), joined by a countermelody on synths featuring wide leaps, suggesting a sense of yearning. This calmer atmosphere is quickly shattered by the arrival of the insistent pounding of the rhythm section, representing the remorseless “drums of the algorithm” which threaten to submerge us under “seas of misinformation”. The programmed drums are vibrant and quite literally hard-hitting, adding real impact to the overall sonority. Charlie’s vocals assume a sinister quality as he predicts “submission on a global scale to a false reality”. The chorus sections feature an insidiously catchy melody which will bury itself in your subconscious, like the controlling algorithm itself. A standout moment for me is the instrumental interlude after the first chorus. Sparkling patterns on synths and sweeping guitar lines suggest hypnotic displays of numbers, graphs and equations flickering across our screens and invading our minds. This track is a perfect example of the synergy between music and lyrics which typifies this album and intensifies its impact.
With The Flood we are plunged into tragedy on a more human scale. This is a gorgeous, emotional ballad featuring warm keyboard and string sounds and lush, emotive harmonies. Charlie’s soaring vocals lend themselves perfectly to the expression of heartbreak, and in the second part he is ably assisted by a deeply expressive and intense guitar solo from Scott. The music is so entrancing that it is only too easy to give way and “succumb to the flood”.
After a wistful introduction from piano and heavily reverberated synths, The King of Broken Things is much more guitar-dominated than its predecessors. Scott weaves rhythmic and melodic patterns around the vocal line, both enhancing the lyrics and perhaps suggesting a more sinister subtext behind the king’s promise of “healing hearts from my golden halls”. For me, the crowning glory of this song is the richness of the multi-track vocal harmonies in the chorus sections, which give the music an extra dimension of depth and complexity.
All too soon we reach the final song, Worlds Apart. Shadows on Mercury (and Tim in particular) have a real knack for creating introductions that suck you straight into the track, and this is no exception. Against the mystical backdrop of a wordless choir, the synths produce a restless, perpetual motion of bell-like sounds, shimmering and sparkling like an infinite array of stars. The verse sections have something of an ’80s vibe, and are based around two alternating minor and major chords, while the fun and funky bass line and prominent drums give the track a strong rhythmic drive. Metrically the beats are grouped alternately in fours and threes, creating a subliminal sense of unease and restlessness. The lyrics draw together themes from previous tracks, using the imagery of space flight to explore ways in which our inability to communicate and compromise can drive us apart. The instrumental interlude between the second and third chorus sections has an improvisatory, almost jazzy feel, with synths and keyboard interweaving layers of melody over reiterations of the two chords upon which most of the track is based. There is a final burst of glory for Scott’s guitar as it draws to a close, fading into a return to the glittering stars of the opening.
From the first listen, Worlds Apart delights with its emotional impact, appealing melodies and excellent standards of musicianship. Repeated listening reveals more subtle pleasures, such as the rich imagery and thought-provoking relevance of the lyrics, the emotional range and innate musicality of Charlie’s vocals and the perfect balance and interplay between Scott’s guitars and Tim’s keyboards. This is a highly enjoyable debut from three musicians who clearly bring out the best in each other. My thanks to Scott, Tim and Charlie for sparing the time to answer my questions and deepen my insight into this beautiful release. Let us hope that this collaboration will be the first of many; I suspect I won’t be the only listener hoping to see at least one full-blown album in the not so distant future!
01. The Silence (4:56)
02. Calculate (Control) (5:54)
03. The Flood (4:36)
04. The King of Broken Things (5:05)
05. Worlds Apart (6:34)
Total Time – 26:55
Scott Owens – Guitars, Bass, Programming
Tim Lofthouse – Keyboards
Charlie Bramald – Vocals, Lyrics, Artwork
Record Label: GOTM Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 3rd February 2024