For those about to prog, we salute you! Well, not really, but it’s a cool idea isn’t it? Artist and master-of-qall-musical-trades Tony Arnold has decided to welcome and entice potential and veteran progressive rock fans with a comprehensive new sampler released on his own label Gray Mortuary. Originally starting the label as a vehicle to circumvent the tyranny of the major label system and enable him to release his myriad of music projects on his own terms and his own timetable, one of the first releases on Gray Mortuary was music from Arnold’s duo project Menage ‘A Twang.
Upon the dissolution of that project, the label has been used as a vehicle to release music from Arnold’s many other musical endeavors (he has released almost a dozen albums in the past few years alone) such as Macular Degenerates, The Pachinko Allahs, and Musaphonic. The name of the label originates from a song on Arnold’s first solo collection, Ophidian Lullabies, which became a sort of blueprint for his later projects of which this is Arnold’s most recent. Arnold’s Gray Mortuary work is distinguished from most of his other projects by the copious use of electronic soundscapes to anchor the compositions and Arnold’s projects are essentially solo efforts, as is this effort, which means every sound is played by Arnold. Quite awe inspiring, to be honest, as the textures and arrangements used are often quite inventive. While the album is definitely a sampler, there seems to be a thread running through Arnold’s work making each of these songs sound like they have come from the same project, which is also quite uncanny.
The song “Trotline Recumbent” leads off this sampler disc with some cascading piano arpeggios and then slowly glides into synth washes and some legato electric guitar lines building towards a crescendo where some drums and, finally, a bagpipe-sounding guitar line enter, the guitar carrying the melodic weight. Unfortunately, what strikes me immediately is how poorly the drums sound, seemingly akin to beating on cardboard boxes with a slight echo added afterwards. It’s hard to imagine this sound was done on purpose, but it seems like a drum machine/programming so it’s obviously the sound chosen by the programmer, probably Arnold himself. It’s very amatuerish sounding, to be honest, and it weakens the whole cut which has a decent melody line but suffers from production issues including the horrible-sounding drums. And “In Arcadia” is the next song and leads off with acoustic guitar and some synth, very Pink Floyd sounding, at least at first. Some recorder/flute-sounding synth leads the melody as all sorts of percussion and layered synths work in the background. The legato guitar returns for more of a drige-like melody this time, played very controlled and stately then fades into a drumbeat swoundiong a little like that chant hit from a few years ago, at least as far as the beat goes. Some synth sitar-effect carries the melody as some vocals come in, mixed far in the back but sounding like Dave Gilmour all the same.
The fourth song, “Not What I Had In Mind”, is the closest thing to a traditional pop song with a hook heard so far on this album. Arnold’s vocals on this cut sound reminiscent of Lou Gramm, the one-time lead singer of Foreigner. Towards the end of the song things seem to get a bit histrionic, but when it gets back to the fadeout, it is back to catchy rock tune mode, sounding somewhat like Golden Earring’s 80’s hit “Twilight Zone”. And as long as “Twilight Zone” is, this song seems to go ten times as long. Definitely a little case of overdoing it by beating the listener’s head in with fade-out twaddle but the melodic line is easy to like, so all’s forgiven. The fifth song “On The Embankment” chugs along at a medium tempo, a simple slashing chordal guitar figure forms the basis of the tune while synth washes and drum tracks fill out the rest. Not bad as a mood piece, but pretty much every song has sounded the same in tone and I am starting to get a little ear fatigue from hearing the same general sounds over and over again. A sprightly folkish number is next entitled “Victory” and gives the CD a little bit of welcome variation. The song sounds like a souped-up version of something you would hear the lute players jamming on at a Renaissance Faire with Arnold’s deep vocals carrying the song. Not a bad tune and maybe Arnolds’s catchiest melody on this set so far. There’s a little breakdown in the middle where some church organ and synth do the heavy lifting with some acoustic guitar until the rest come back in to reprise the second verse and go to the chorus and the fadeout.
“Haunted Airstream” is next and not surprisingly opens with some spooky synth followed by some fingerpicked acoustic guitar lines. The drums and percussion sound great on this song, meshing with the sound and the mood perfectly and helping the song breathe. A breakdown is featured with only acoustic guitar and synth washes and the effects are mesmerizing and more than a little disconcerting. Arnold is a master at creating the right mood for his melodies. “Gwenhwyfar” is next and the synth-laden opening sounds something out of Chariots of Fire combined with the pop of ’80’s rock band Survivor. This cut was taken from Arnold’s Ophidian Lullabies album from 2007 and was recorded as an tribute to Arnold’s wife. Arnold’s dry vocals add an interesting aspect to the song as they don’t really fit the music timbre-wise but still sort of works for the track. There is a great sense of dynamics on this track, from the beginning to the intricate, hushed musical tapestry at the end of the song – another treat for fans of well-creafted music.
“Custom Interior” follows and begins with a mix of acoustic guitar, electric transistor-psyche-fuzz-tornado guitar wail and dense African percussion. Most impressive while listening to this CD is listening to Arnold’s ability to blend different instruments and textures to achieve his desired result. Though the production does sound a little wan at times, probably due to budge,.Arnold’s ideas are very strong and his mix of instruments inspired and often brilliant. It would be interesting to see what Arnold could do in a top-flight studio with a large budget. One of the best song titles ever, “High Road To Hell”, adorns Arnold’s next musical foray and the composition first seems to spoof the George Lucas’ THX theme heard in movie theatres before heading abruptly into relative-pop-song mode in which Arnold sounds like Gordon Lightfoot. While not quite the barn-burner the title impied, the song is quite enjoyable and one of the most accessible on the disc. The final cut on this disc is entitled Owltown Reprise and is the perfect track to close the disc as it seems to have a “finality” to it and possesses a strong melody line.
Those who are not into or have been apprehensive of exposing themselves to prog rock need not fear this CD at all. Not only is the music very accessible and melodic, but the more “complicated” passages and solos are not overindulgent and do not venture into territory too unfamiliar, which are usually some of the complaints from those not into progressive rock music. That is not to say this CD is boring or derivative. Not in the least. What it does mean is Arnold has enough self-awareness of his craft to have chosen his most accessible work to shoiwcase on this sampler. As such, it has accomplished what it has set out to do: give the listener enough quality music to make them hunger for more. There are some things Arnold could improve. The production is an issue that no doubt comes from probably having a smallish budget and the drum sound needs to be tweaked. Arnold’s songs also may benefit from having a better vocalist than Arnold himself, but I can understand his choices as this is a one-man project with Arnold handling all the musical duties. All in all, this is a very pleasing progressive rock release from an artist with vision and the talent to carry it out properly. As his music eveolves we will no doubt see many refinements and I am looking forward to hearing more of Arnold’s work as time goes on as this album’s scope is vast yet Arnold acquits himself very well. A great sampler indeed and one which hopefully will get the attention it deserves.