April 7, 2021

Now, a little context and historical placement before we launch into this strange and wonderful conceptual beast, being as it is neither entirely remaster nor new recording, but a rather unique hybrid of the two. Around a decade ago, when Gandalf’s Fist were still essentially two men with a hobby and an oddball band name, this set of songs came into being following some drunken discussions – as so many great ideas seem to, of course. The songs were recorded as The Master And The Monkey, essentially as a demo, in a cheap and cheerful way, with more intent given to showcasing the songs and giving the hitherto ‘is it a real band or not?’ project some proper validity. There was some traction, the files were shared around those with an interest, and a very few actual physical CD copies were burned and printed. It proved the stepping stone for Gandalf’s Fist to become a very real entity, and has since been thought of as bridge allowing ‘the Fist’, as some still call them, to cross over from ‘amusing hobby’ to ‘proper prog band’. With the band having gained much more in the way of reputation in recent years, following the outstanding – and supremely ambitious – The Clockwork Fable release, it was decided to exhume this half-forgotten demo / debut album beast and give it the full official release treatment, with re-recordings by the current line-up. It’s utterly, barking mad – yet it conceals a real truth within. Let’s have a look…

The first thing to deal with is the story told by this conceptual work. You know how you used to talk about how such flights of the imagination as The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Joe’s Garage, SF Sorrow or maybe Thick As A Brick were the most bizarre and off-the-wall storylines you’d ever heard on an album? Well, those days are gone. Can’t say that no more, no how. Because we now have (fanfare) the allegorical tale of a particularly unsavoury frog named Pierre Du Gateau, who lost his legs escaping from the circus and has spent the ten years since then riding around on the head of a monkey called Francois. Yes, yes we do. And just in case that doesn’t float your boat enough, our amphibian anti-hero also summons a quantum-bat from the tenth dimension to serve as guide in his grandiose quest for domination. This bat is called Maurice. Of course he is.

If that was where the interest stopped, of course, this would merely be a curio to file away as a good pub quiz question, or something to laugh about over a beer or ten deep into the night. But in actual fact this tale is told with the aid of some quite splendid music. The bookends of the album are the two ten-minute halves of the title track The Master And The Monkey, big, grand, sweeping prog epics with enough pomp-tastic moments to satisfy those with a taste for great, soaring pieces full of dynamics. Elsewhere it’s all, of course, wall-to-wall unashamed prog rock, but other influences come in to play, such as the Celtic folk feel of Stakes At Low Tide (sea serpents, aka ‘dragons’ in that one, fantasy fans!), and the crunching metal riffs contributing to Dance Of Umbra, so that it never feels samey, even in an insane way! There is also a new narration added to this new version, between each track – provided superbly by Alicia Marsh, wife of leading Fist man Dean Marsh – which puts the whole thing into a charming storytelling context. This also highlights the serious message contained within the madness, to the effect that things should never be accepted, or believed in, based on their face value – including that of a dark-hearted frog proclaimed as king with a shiny crown. It’s hard to be thought-provoking at the end of a roller-coaster ride of madness such as this tale, but somehow it manages to achieve it.

Far from just being a remaster, the music on here has been practically rebuilt from the ground up – entirely so on the two halves of the epic title track, the original tapes of which were lost, meaning it had to be completely reconstructed. The result is an album which sounds every inch the work of a vibrant, contemporary band, with nary a hint of its creaky, demo-quality genesis. If you’re an admirer of the whole ‘Clockwork’ era of GF, this one will be right up your street, as not only does the music have a similar sonic quality, but the narrative elements place it right within that familiar wheelhouse. A triumphant reworking, to say the least.

Oh, and if you grab the vinyl version (limited pressings in black or red vinyl) you get a special extended, secret ending, unavailable to the CD or digital versions (so I haven’t heard it either!). The mind, as they say, boggles…