Review Summary: A wonderful, mature piece of folky, choral, industrial music; here’s to not having to wait another 13 years for the follow-up.
Martin Grech, wunderkind and critics’ favourite at the time of his first album ‘Open Heart Zoo’ in 2002, has had a commercially downhill progression since then. The eponymous track included in a Lexus television ad gave the then 19-year-old artist a running start that resulted in him moving from Interscope to Universal for his second album ‘Unholy’. Whilst still garnering considerable critical acclaim, the even darker and heavier sophomore effort did not do as well, with Universal dropping him from their roster and effectively disappearing from circulation until his self-released ‘March Of The Lonely’ two years later.
His third album was recorded acoustically in a state of self-induced, solitary confinement and the end result had more in common with Nick Drake than Nine Inch Nails. However, unless you had managed to follow each of his increasingly rare news titbits, its distribution had no mediatic resonance at all and long-term fans themselves were often unaware of the album.
As a result, he has not been on the musical world’s radar for quite some time but certain projects in more recent years have seen him featuring on TesseracT’s track ‘Hexes’ and on ‘Aeolian’ for Guy Sigworth’s album Stet, released in 2018. Also during this time, two demo collections were available for download to his fan base (Meta and Meta 2), he was credited on two OST’s and his online communication channels have become more reliable.
Fast forward this period - that lasted 13 years! - and the long-time completed, fourth album has finally been released, again independently.
The first song ‘Maelstrom Spark’ lulls us into a delicate swirl of piano and chanting voices before rising rapidly into a beat driven crescendo. A bridge of a filtered voice mumbling about the relationships between space, time and life follows - reminiscent of The Nathan Adler Diaries on David Bowie’s ‘Outside’ and reprised along with its own jazzy trumpet solo in the closing track - conjuring the aura of paranoia that many of his pieces had evoked in the past, before blooming into a latter part of soaring strings.
This is followed by ‘Auras Awol’ whose opening is reminiscent of ‘March of the Lonely’ with its fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a softly menacing singing voice introducing the first appearance of metal type chugging. The track transforms into A Perfect Circle with Martin sounding much like James Maynard Keenan before dipping into a - dare I say it? - Deftones inspired transition that evolves into driving, distorted guitars and towering vocals taking the track to its conclusion.
The album follows this schizophrenic swinging from celestial tapestries to demonic angst with ease and aplomb and with a more coherent and cohesive approach, nevertheless listeners to his past work that had trouble with the edgy and angular approach he takes to his music are still going to find it difficult to tap their foot to this album too. Possibly ‘Psychobabble’, with its manically uplifting crescendo reaching for a lull before a driving, mid-tempo climax of piano, strings and vocalisations, is as close to an easy listening track we get but it is immediately followed by the crunching ‘Into The Sun’, one of the heavier tracks on the album. Or ‘Sadness Is A Story Of Beauty Only A Dancer Can Tell’ if one can consider a depressed Neil Young catchy; it is safe to say that ‘Hush Mortal Coil’ is not shortlisted for a slot on mainstream radio.
I am no expert but the production seems appropriate and well executed as always, albeit of a more organic, approach giving the classical instruments a prominent place in the mixes. The lyrics remain abstract and poetical as in his past work. What deserves, as always, a special note of merit, is his voice. Most often likened to a mix of Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley, it remains the beautiful instrument it has always been but his use of it is more refined, more balanced, to the needs of the song writing. He lets it take a more prominent role in the closing tracks ‘Ecstasy Astral Melancholia’ and ‘The Death Of All Logic’ but generally it is used to weave in and out of the instrumentation in order to give ambiance to each song.
Looking back at the musicians I have mentioned thus far brings to mind what Grech does so well : he represents the various artists referenced without aping them but rather blending aspects of this diverse mix to create his own sound, often within a single piece. It brings a range of high-calibre influences into his folky, choral, industrial sound that is deeply satisfying thanks to his capabilities as a multi-instrumentalist and distinctive voice.
With ‘Hush Mortal Coil’, Martin has returned to his more trademark sound but the ensemble feels far more mature compared to his first two efforts. It bridges the gap nicely between the Radiohead, ‘Ok Computer’ tinged ‘Open Heart Zoo’ and the darker, oppressive ‘The Fragile’ era NIN influenced ‘Unholy’, all the while introducing more orchestral elements such as strings, piano and trumpet. The heavier tracks have a clearly more progressive (‘Into The Sun’) or djent (‘Mothflower’) slant to their riffing as opposed to the industrial guitars of yore, whilst the more delicate tracks lean towards an almost choral (‘Nymphs In A Heliacal Rising’ and on the excellent ‘Enigmas’) or ambient (‘Hush Mortal Coil’) element. His live sessions with the Parallax Orchestra were a clear indication of his intent to integrate more classical, even ecclesiastical elements to his palette.
The album has been a long time coming, I truly hope he will have the chance to further develop his sound and release it to a larger audience since his sense of aesthetics are second to none and his voice is technically almost without rival. What is however lacking from ‘Hush Mortal Coil’ are those moments that make the average listener prick up their ears like the symphonic ‘Open Heart Zoo’, the frenzied ‘Dali’, the delicate pop-rock of ‘Push’ or ‘Penicillin’ or the vocal highs of ‘Holy Father Inferior’ but to name a few past highlights.
It is all graceful, beautiful, evocative and excellently crafted and it brings a criminally underrated musician back to the fore as he continues to forge his own path regardless of trends and popular success, I just still can’t shake the feeling that he can do even better…