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(58:01, GEP Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. Grand Designs 9:58 2. Power & Speed 5:58 3. Ray of Hope 3:53 4. Take It to the Sun 5:26 5. Prelude 1:36 6. The Old Road 8:37 7. Out in the Darkness 6:27 8. The Time & the Season 10:46 9. Endgame 5:20 LINEUP: Martin Orford – keyboards; vocals; el. & ac. guitars; flutes Nick D’Virgilio – drums Dave Meros – bass With: John Mitchell – lead guitar (1, 3, 4, 9) Steve Thorne – acoustic guitar (1, 2, 6, 7) Gary Chandler – rhythm guitar (2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9) John Wetton – lead vocals; bass (4, 8) David Longdon – lead vocals (3, 9) Colm Murphy – fiddle (6)
Prolusion. “The Old Road” is the second solo album released by former IQ (click here) keyboardist and founder member Martin ORFORD. The album, which marks Orford’s farewell to the music industry after 30 years of activity (citing disillusionment with internet piracy and the download culture as the main reason), sees the participation of many renowned protagonists of the prog scene, such as Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Meros, John Wetton and John Mitchell.
Analysis. In the notes at the end of the stylish booklet accompanying the CD, Martin Orford clearly states that “The Old Road” is not a progressive rock album. The artist’s admission that his album is ‘unashamedly retro’ is refreshingly honest in a world where blatant rip-offs are often touted as the best thing since sliced bread. Indeed, even if it has nothing ground-breaking or exploratory about it, “The Old Road” nonetheless has a lot to offer to the discerning listener – outstanding musicianship and songwriting in a lavish packaging, complete with lyrics and other detailed information, as well as stunningly beautiful photography. There is nothing quirky or idiosyncratic about “The Old Road”, on the contrary – ‘old-fashioned’ is the word that comes to mind, though the excellent production values are definitely modern. For his farewell album, Martin Orford has taken the best of both worlds, which makes his decision even more poignant. One criticism that can be levelled at “The Old Road” concerns not so much its lack of authentic progressiveness (something it shares with hundreds and hundreds of albums released every year, most of them nowhere near the same level of accomplishment), but rather the fact that it often sounds closer to AOR or pomp-rock than to ‘real’ progressive rock. Among the chief culprits are the two songs interpreted by John Wetton (with whom Orford had been working regularly for a number of years), which have a distinct resemblance to Asia’s best output. Now, while I have never been a fan of the more radio-friendly varieties of rock, I believe we should distinguish between blatantly commercial productions with very little interest value, and those instead that manage to achieve that fine balance between accessibility and high quality – in my view, “The Old Road” (though by no means a perfect album) does. It is indeed accessible, in a way that makes it the ideal listen when one needs to relax, music that flows smoothly and does not sound too intellectually taxing, but that at the same time offers something more challenging than your average background music. The album opens with the stately keyboard and guitar strains of Grand Designs, a song dedicated to those people who love to invent new objects without getting any recognition. The lyrics are delivered by Orford himself, who does a more than adequate job of it. Not surprisingly, the song is very much keyboard-driven, with Orford doubling up on electric guitar as well (his solo in the second half of the song is particularly tasty). Though the second longest track on the album, it manages to sound epic without coming across as overblown. Power and Speed follows, a finely-crafted instrumental celebrating the glory days of the steam engine; the synth passage in the middle section has a definite Canterbury feel, and neo-prog stalwart John Mitchell provides some noteworthy lead guitar work. The ballady Ray of Hope, with its uplifting lyrics sung by David Longdon (Big-Big Train’s new vocalist, is a bit of an anticlimax after the punch of the two previous tracks; while Take It to the Sun, masterfully interpreted by John Wetton, would not be out of place on an Asia album. One cannot help wonder at the effortless power and warmth of Wetton’s voice, which seems to have improved over the years, in spite of all the abuse the artist has heaped upon himself. I was so lucky as to see him perform live a few days ago, and was extremely impressed. The title track, preceded by a short piano Prelude, is an unabashed celebration of the bygone days of ‘old England’, also evoked by the magnificent picture on the album cover. The song’s strong Celtic vibe is reinforced by the flute (played by Orford himself) and lively fiddle in the middle and at the end. Orford’s voice sounds appropriately wistful, and the lavish, richly melodic instrumentation makes this track the album’s undisputed highlight. Out of the Darkness, a virulent attack on organised religion written and interpreted by singer-songwriter Steve Thorne, has a somewhat darker feel – obviously on account of the subject matter. On the other hand, The Time & the Season, the album’s longest track at over 10 minutes, a majestic, sweeping creation with a lush background of keyboards, sees another commanding vocal performance by John Wetton, and ends with a rousing, evocative synth and guitar coda. The final track, Endgame, sung again by David Longdon, closes the album on a suitably melancholy note, mourning ‘the day the music died’. The instrumental section at the end has again a vague Celtic feel, with John Mitchell’s guitar sounding a bit like bagpipes. Even if the simple song structures and occasional radio-friendly vibe may (at least initially) put off dedicated prog listeners, this album oozes class, as well as warmth and passion. We cannot but hope that in the near future Orford will reconsider his decision and start producing music again.
Conclusion. Because of its AOR and pomp-rock overtones, “The Old Road” will very probably disappoint die-hard fans of classic symphonic prog, and devotees of the more experimental branches of the genre will not want to touch it with the proverbial ten-foot pole. In spite of that, this is undeniably a superbly crafted album, and a very rewarding (though not demanding) listen – the swan song of a gifted, dedicated musician who will surely be a loss to the progressive rock world.
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