The Gift are a symphonic progressive rock band based in London. They formed in 2003 when Mike Morton (writer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist) hooked up with Leroy James (guitarist, writer and producer). They had both been working throughout the 80s and 90s in mainstream rock projects, but discovered a shared love for prog (which they had suppressed due to its supposed stigma). The Gift started as a duo, with the two partners sharing all instrumental and vocal duties. Their goal was simply to record a 45 minute epic called ‘Awake And Dreaming’, which Mike had written in response to the then current invasion of Iraq.
As Mike explains: “I was incandescent with anger about Bush and Blair’s ‘foreign adventure’. The story and music poured out in a matter of weeks”. For him, the piece was the offspring of two strong beliefs. One, that progressive music was a much maligned piece of beauty. Two, that Iraq was post 9/11 madness. “What started out as a straight anti-war message slowly morphed into an extended fantasy about an outbreak of mass pacifism which totally disarms the military.”
The music grew and grew, so Mike and Leroy brought in other musicians to realize its scope. They recruited session musicians Jim Thomas and Rod Haverhill on bass and keyboards respectively, and eventually appointed David Storey (The Enid) on drums, much to their delight. (In fact, the album was finally mastered at Robert John Godfrey’s studio in Northampton. For Mike particularly this was a thrill. Godfrey had been a teenage hero of his).
The Gift was now a fully-fledged five piece.
‘Awake And Dreaming’ was completed by summer 2005, after 2 years of reworking, refining and recording. Mike sent a demo to Classic Rock’s Nick Shilton and he really liked it, comparing the piece to Roger Waters’ solo work in a short article. This amused the band, since they had never really listened to Roger Waters outside of Pink Floyd.
Nick Shilton’s brief mention caught the attention of Malcolm Parker, owner of Cyclops Records. After one spin of the demo he signed the band, claiming the CD was the best piece of contemporary prog he had heard since Spocks’ Beard debut ‘The Light’ in 1993. However, Cyclops felt that prog fans expected more than 45 minutes of music on a disc, so they asked the band to extend the piece. Feeling it was complete as it was, the five musicians refused. Instead, they wrote and recorded another epic called ‘Fountains Of Ash’. Cyclops released their debut album in late 2006, and it now contained over an hour of music but just two tracks! Since ‘Fountains Of Ash’ told a tale of domestic abuse and recovery, the CD was quite a heavy listening experience, at least lyrically. Musically, however, it was as uplifting and emotional as prime Gabriel-era Genesis, but with a decidedly modern twist.
The Gift’s eclectic approach encompasses Golden Era prog, hard rock, ambient, Celtic and folk elements, all supported by lyrics which refuse to dabble in cosmic nothings or sub Tolkein. The music might invoke the sounds of the ’70s, but the words are firmly rooted in the now.
The Dutch loved ‘Awake And Dreaming upon its release, as did the Belgians. They warmed to its complex time signatures, key changes and ambitious ideas, voting it number 13 in the Dutch 2007 progressive chart, higher than both IQ and Frost*.
Dave Ling called the album a ‘really great record’ and Martin Hudson of The Classic Rock Society said it was ‘beautiful’. France’s premier prog fanzine ‘Prog-Resiste’ claimed that The Gift had: “…distilled the very essence of symphonic progressive….right at the top of the ladder alongside Genesis and Yes.” In actual fact, the band’s influences are very broad. Whilst they have clear echoes of the usual suspects they also display hints of Zeppelin, Lizzy, Nick Drake and The Waterboys, to name but a few. There is always a British feel to their music, but it is distinctly rural and often Celtic, not an urban sound.
With a quiet but persistent buzz building, 2007 looked set to be their time.
Alas, it was not to be. Although the best of friends, Mike and Leroy had different ambitions. Mike wanted to tour the whole of ‘Awake And Dreaming’. Leroy did not. Mike had a vision for a stage show which would make full use of multi-media resources, and present the 2 tales in a theatrical fashion not seen since the 70’s. Leroy loved what they had created but wanted to stop at the recorded product. He was motivated to earn a solid living out of music and was not convinced that prog was the way to do so. Added to this, the other musicians had been session players whose commitments elsewhere drew them away from the band.
So The Gift remained an enigma, and a one man one at that. The debut may have raised expectations but it was never consummated live. In fact, The Gift weren’t even seen in photos!
Just as Mike began the lengthy process of writing a follow up, the recession hit, and hard… The need to earn a secure living in suddenly harsher times, combined with the pressures of raising a young family kept him from music until 2010. The long layoff took its toll. Mike lived in ‘dark doldrums’ which he now knows were mostly caused by ‘not doing what I was put on this planet to do.’ In the midst of this unhappy episode he forced himself to write again. The music which emerged was both more musically complex and lyrically intimate. The outward themes of war and spousal abuse which had driven ‘Awake And Dreaming’ were replaced with more inner themes of loneliness, lost love and mortality. As he wrote again, so Mike recovered.
One day, whilst contemplating the Lazarus myth, he asked himself whether the man in question would really have chosen resurrection. This thought inspired a 21 minute, 5 part epic which was simply titled ‘Lazarus’ at first. On learning that Porcupine Tree had already used the name on their ‘Deadwing’ album, he retitled it ‘The Comforting Cold’. The story was updated from its Biblical setting to the present. It now concerned a bored middle aged commuter who suffers a cardiac arrest on a train, has a near death experience and is brought back by medics, only to yearn for the eternity he has glimpsed before coming back. It is a provocative idea: “Would the near dead want to return?” Nonetheless, the piece is involving and hopeful. It is far from a horror story. It is also the backbone of the new album: ‘Land Of Shadows’.
More darkness ? Well…yes and no. As Mike says:
“I just lost my optimism and couldn’t see the point. Looking back, it was a combination of a mid-life crisis combined with a lot of financial anxiety. I had a huge ‘5 O’Clock Shadow’ upon me, to quote from ‘The Comforting Cold’.”
He also lost his father-in-law, a man he was extremely close to. “The vicar conducting his funeral stated that (my father-in-law) came to see this world as a ‘land of shadows’ towards the end. That was not nihilism, just his belief that the next world would be more filled with light. This moved me greatly, and I wrote a bunch of songs exploring darkness and its opposite. In every case there is the move back to light, to hope. One song, The Willows ( a 12 minute, 3 part piece) refers to the UK today. It so often seems a grey, shadowy place, both climatically and culturally.
This last year has seen a massive turnaround for The Gift. They are making music again. They are a proper band, with 5 permanent members, one of whom is only 18. (Joseph Morton, both drummer and Mike’s son.) Another pivotal person is David Lloyd (guitars and production). Mike describes him as one of the wisest, gentlest people he knows, as well as a phenomenal guitarist. Keyboards come courtesy of Howard Boder and Kirk Watson provides bass. Both have the chops for it. When they are not playing with The Gift they are onstage with The Book Of Genesis, the most exciting Genesis tribute band since The Musical Box. An open secret – Mike fronts the same band!
“It’s a great laugh, and allows us to play the music of ‘the world’s other greatest band!’
Land Of Shadows is released in May. In autumn, The Gift will be touring the album nationwide, and finally airing ‘Awake And Dreaming’ at the same time.
“It feels like we’re coming home at last”, he smiles.
It is seven years since ‘Awake And Dreaming’ was launched into an unsuspecting prog scene. The Gift’s debut album was created by a line-up which disbanded almost as soon as it formed. For Mike Morton in particular, this was profoundly frustrating, as he always had a vision for a full, concept-driven live show. In 2010, Mike joined forces with David Lloyd, and together they created The Gift’s second album, ‘Land Of Shadows’. In order to fully realize both albums onstage, the band is now a 5-man live unit.
Antenna sees The Gift consciously moving away from the longer symphonic pieces that characterized their previous two albums, whilst still retaining their trademark musical style.