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Out Of The Shadows

Eight years after their promising debut, The Gift have returned from exile with a new album. But can frontman Mike Morton stop thinking he’s “the next Mike Oldfield”?

Those with good memories may recall that in 2006, before this publication came into existence, The Gift made a modest splash with their debut album, Awake & Dreaming. This year sees the reappearance of The Gift, back with a fulfilling second album, Land Of Shadows.

The band’s vocalist and driving force, Mike Morton – who also fronts Genesis tribute act The Book Of Genesis – explains that he and his original Gift collaborator Leroy James parted company almost as soon as they had finished recording that first album. Morton was keen to turn The Gift into a live project, but James’ ambitions never went any further than the studio. Then came the economic downturn and Morton decided that he needed to refocus his priorities.

“I didn’t suffer anything as romantic as writer’s block,” he recalls. “Quite simply, the need to earn money and raise my family took over. Between 2007 and 2010, I didn’t do music and it made me miserable.”

Morton emerged from musical exile in 2010, and by autumn 2012, he had completed Land Of Shadows. However, a series of misfires at the mixing stage, with no fewer than three engineers involved at different times, delayed the album’s release. The solution arrived when Morton’s new Gift partner, guitarist David Lloyd, remixed the album himself.

While Land Of Shadows’ gestation period has been lengthy to say the least, the album has been well worth the wait. And for all the charms of that debut, Land Of Shadows is deliberately different. 

Morton is adamant that The Gift were determined not to repeat themselves. “Awake & Dreaming was meant to be a concept album and a reaction to the Iraq War,” he explains. “It was an anti-war piece about the horrors of war and a concept in the traditional vein of a song cycle.”

In addition to the title track, the album’s other piece, Fountains Of Ash, took domestic abuse as its subject matter. 

By contrast, Land Of Shadows isn’t strictly a concept album. “Land Of Shadows is much more orientated towards separate songs,” Morton explains. “However, the songs are unified and a lot of them are to do with mortality, so it’s cheerful stuff!” 

Or, as David Lloyd explains, “While there’s no single narrative, there are a number of recurrent themes about longing, loss, regret and parting. That was one of the things that attracted me to the project.”

The Gift have arguably matured musically since their debut. “I got myself and Leroy James in a lot of trouble previously by throwing everything in, including the kitchen sink,” says Morton. 

His stated aim was to make Land Of Shadows sound more immediate. “There’s a great temptation for me in the studio to put layers upon layers on and think I’m the next Mike Oldfield,” he laughs, before crediting Lloyd for imposing some discipline and consequently ensuring that the new album is less dense.

“It became cleaner and more live sounding,” he explains. “Sometimes complexity is a virtue – sometimes more is more – but sonically, it’s never a good idea to have lots and lots of sound in there. Dave cleaned out a lot of my excesses.” 

Lloyd sees his contribution more modestly. “I just brought a different view. Mike and I had lots of things where we converged immediately. There were other things we discussed at length. I wasn’t necessarily a brake on anything that Mike had in mind but was rather a different kind of filter for those ideas than Leroy had been previously.”

Although it’s only July, the album deserves to feature in ‘Best of 2014’ polls come the end of the year. By his own admission, Morton’s love of 1970s Genesis and Camel is seldom far away from The Gift’s music, and restraint was required to avoid clichés.

“I’m very fond of Genesis-type climaxes, mellotrons, lots of strings and extended guitar solos,” he admits. “My music is very much rooted in that but combined with bands who I enjoy now and are perhaps more commercial,” he says, before citing the likes of Big Big Train and Porcupine Tree. 

As a lover of symphonic music, he also namechecks Änglagård, before making a caveat: “I made a conscious decision to write shorter songs after Awake & Dreaming.” 

That said, the album is bookended by two epics in The Willows and The Comforting Cold, although sandwiched between them area series of shorter tracks. “I had a fear that they were too poppy for the prog market,” he confesses, “until Dave told me to let the song be what it is – which is absolutely right. Otherwise it just becomes a formula. It was also my curiosity to see whether I could be prog in three minutes!”

“The songs turned out as long as they needed to be,” adds Lloyd. “Some of the original arrangements were chewed over extensively to try to achieve reasonable variety without duplicating things from track to track. All the ambition of the album has been achieved but possibly in different ways from how we thought it would turn out when we started.”

Now the task begins for The Gift to rebuild the momentum that ebbed away after Awake & Dreaming. Their gameplan involves signing with Bad Elephant and playing some live shows as a five-piece band. 

Those shows will include a performance at their own Resonance Festival in Balham, South London, from July 31 to August 3. The event will raise funds for the Macmillan cancer charity and sees The Gift playing alongside Änglagård, The Enid, Riverside, Lifesigns, Focus, Synaesthesia and Maschine. 

“We don’t really have any profile as such,” laughs Morton, “so we aren’t going to let our egos push us too high up the bill!”  

Land Of Shadows is out now on Bad Elephant.

See www.facebook.com/TheGiftMusicUk for information.

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