So as I’m working with Bad Elephant, I thought I’d amuse myself by having a proper listen to some of their artist’s work with my ‘nerdy muso’ hat on. #iamanerdymuso
The Willows – The Gift.
The Willows is the opening track from The Gift’s Land of Shadows‘. Its progressive rock that clearly owes a debt to the 70s stuff – I can hear echoes of Genesis and early Marillion here – but it’s also dramatic in an almost musical theatre fashion. In fact I found myself thinking about the opening track from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars album 5 years. Both tracks give us a smorgasbord of lyrical images and an apocalyptic the-modern-world-is-dying attitude. Both make disapproving reference to (at the time) modern technologies, whether irons or TVs or youtube. Both songs also make use of rock music elements – drum beats, electric guitars and so on – without being straight up rock tracks. They’re both about drama, theatre, story telling with rock music as a means to that end.
I wouldn’t want to push that comparison too far however. The Willows is a progressive rock track and has a little more to it than the Bowie track.
The opening section is all about Mike Morton’s baritone. The keyboards and guitars mark out some chords in G major with tasteful understatement, the drums join in to mark out the ‘marching band’, but everything here is about the vocal. Scenes of myth and fairytale gone wrong – Rapunzel letting her virtue down, Magdalene with blood on her gown – are contrasted with scenes of modern life. We’ve lost out way, ‘weatherbound in our dormitory towns’ and Mr Morton lets us know in the most melodic fashion over descending G major chords.
And the chord choices are worth mentioning here, because they spell out the simplicity that the lyrics yearn for. There are actual IV V I transitions here, almost pastoral cadences the belie the despair of this opening elegy. Throughout the track the choice of key is clearly not random, instead following the narrative through the elegy to the darker middle section and the final major key redemption of the ending refrain.
Feast of Fools
A flurry of electronics and distortion leads to a lovely descending G minor riff over a G pedal note and then we’re off. The Feast of Fools gives us Sinewy guitars, synths and driving bass over a proper rock beat showing exactly what the rest of the band can do. Which is rock.
Except, they do it in a way a straight rock band wouldn’t. The band stops for gestural moments like a short guitar passage that breaks up the beat. They change frequently from full to half time and give us extended passages from guitar and synth. It’s a middle section that gives us drama and impressive solo work, but never the abandon or showiness that you’d expect from a hard rock or metal band.
A build up under a spoken word section leads to the most strat-ahead rocky section at the end of the feast. Here were also find some of the best vocal moments of the track, mocking us for putting ‘your heartache on youtube’ as we’re damned for our modern conceits. Here it’s Icarus staring at the moon in his navel and Lazarus tempting us back to the comforting cold at the climax.
‘Let us go then’
A calmer passage then takes us through some arpeggios to a recap of the mood from the opening section. Now we’re in C and spoken words from a child take us finally to the innocence and simplicity that the lyrics have been yearning for. A sing-along refrain that deserves a concert hall full of people joining in leads to a melodic guitar solo. In this final section Morton’s hoping to lie amongst the willows, natural imagery replacing the trappings of modern life he clearly disdains.
The emptiness of modernity contrasted with a more natural, purer life is a theme that’s turned up in fiction plenty of times, but here we have it in musical form. The lyrics tell us the story, but unlike that Bowie track, there’s redemption rather than a five year wait for the end. And unlike the Bowie track, we’ve been on a harmonic journey. We started in G, then moved to Gminor then finally ended in C major. Do you get a more simple key than C? It’s like the whole track is an extended cadence, bringing us back home to the willows to ‘wait for miracles again’.
So that’s what I thought listening to The Willows. I rather like it.
Right, what shall I listen to next?