Review Summary: The wunderkind of paranoia returns with a rather fine self-released folk album.
Five years ago, Martin Grech's name was a big name. His ghostly "Open Heart Zoo", which became a sleeper hit after it featured in an advert for Lexus, propelled the album of the same name into the spotlight. Perhaps its time there was brief, but the album was easily good enough to stay in many people's minds long after the fact. His debt to Radiohead, and OK Computer
in particular, was unmissable, but Open Heart Zoo
scaled heights of paranoia and beauty impressive enough to make any comparison between the two records a fair one, as well as to earn further comparisons to Bjork's Vespertine
and Jeff Buckley's more experimental efforts. That, in itself, is a hell of an achievement, and many critics - Rock Sound and Kerrang! both spring to mind - hailed Martin Grech as the most exciting new British talent around, and his album as the finest debut of the decade so far.
Five years is a long time in music. It took Grech three years to follow up Open Heart Zoo
, and while 2005's Unholy
was a damn good album, a section of his fans felt that the new artistic direction had meant the music had lost the spark that made his debut so spectacular. Unholy
was almost unrelentingly dark, with punishing industrial crashes replacing the twinkling beauty of songs like "Penicillin" and "Only One Listening". Nine Inch Nails and V.A.S.T. were now more accurate reference points - in particular, the album's grim lyrical outlook and fondness for ambience made it a distant relative of Reznor's 1999 double album The Fragile
- although vocally he still sounded like an especially haunted Thom Yorke. Critical reaction was still good, but Unholy
didn't achieve the word-of-mouth success its predecessor had. Momentum had been lost.
Which means that now, March of the Lonely
has been released to an almost deafening silence. It's taken me over two months to even realise this album exists, and the only reason I stumbled across is because I was telling my housemate how excellent Open Heart Zoo
is. There's a good reason for this - Grech has had to release this on his own label, Genepool Records, after being dropped by Island. One might immediately suspect that this would lead Grech to abandon all sense of commercial expectation and disappear further into the bleak, mechanic territory he mapped out with Unholy
. The results are actually far more interesting than that, because after sounding like Radiohead, and sounding like Nine Inch Nails, he now sounds like.....Nick Drake?!
Well, not quite, but the one thing you can't possibly miss about March of the Lonely
is that it's almost entirely acoustic, and almost entirely free of percussion. In contrast to the pristine, faultless production and playing on his first two records, the first thing you hear on this album is Grech, acoustic guitar in hand, warming up for a recording. For a man who previously showed off a fondness for wild changes in dynamic ("Here It Comes"), driving electric guitars ("Dali"), and tricksy production ("Unholy"), this is a change to say the least. Having said that, it's a welcome one, because not only does Grech sound comfortable doing this, he's also managed to make a pastoral near-folk album sound like a natural continuation of what he's already been doing. Much of the power of the first listen derives from the fact that you never know when to expect a blast of metal that never comes, but once you've got past the shock of not having electric guitars (or even a drum kit), you realize that almost all of the key elements of Martin Grech's sound are still in place. There's his voice, obviously - still a thing of wonderous, haunted beauty, with a falsetto that sits somewhere in the territory between Jeff Buckley and Antony Hegarty, and a bass tone that sounds like a less gruff Chris Cornell (particularly on "Heritage"). The vocal harmonies are in still in place, too. The general atmosphere hasn't changed, either - it's still bleak, spooked, and awash with paranoia, although not necessarily aimed at the same sources as before. "The Giving Hands" is more sprightly, but even that could end up soundtracking a Hollywood break-up, or a TV death. It's that sort of album - even the brightest moments would be comparitively bleak on another artist's album. Impressively, though, it's never depressing, which is something else it shares with Grech's previous outings.
If this only reaches a tenth of the audience Open Heart Zoo
does, it'll be a real shame, because this is arguably a more accessible record, and it's certainly almost as enjoyable. Sadly, that seems to be a very real possibility - the mainstream critics seem to have stopped paying attention to what this ridiculously gifted young man is doing. Still, if he continues to make music as rewarding as this, he'll always have an audience. That's a certainty - songs this good won't remain unheard, no matter how little hype they generate.