Anyone who has enjoyed Gordon Giltrap’s previous work – especially that which he has done along with Ward – is sure to enjoy this lovingly assembled collection. But it could reach a wider audience than that by virtue of the way it touches so many stylistic bases while still managing to retain its own singular identity.
Gordon Giltrap and Paul Ward have been making up something of a regular creative team of late, and one has to say that it has paid significant dividends already, with the pair’s collaboration making the album The Last Of England one of the strongest Giltrap releases of recent times. They are here again with this new album, taking equal billing as artists, and deservedly so as they complement each other so perfectly. Paul Ward’s keyboards and beautifully judged arrangements manage to give Gordon’s guitar just the right backing to frame and accentuate his playing without ever seeking to overwhelm it. Indeed, one of the key strengths of this 18-track release is the sympathetic and restrained performances, not only of the two main players but also a crew of guest musicians, with everything performed in the service of the piece itself and without any hint of self-serving overplaying. The respect for the music shines through every note on here, and is splendid to hear.
The album is actually just half of a multimedia project which also includes a book of short stories by acclaimed writer and musician Nicholas Hooper (together with a series of imaginative illustrations) which is designed to accompany and complement the pieces of music themselves. It’s a very nice idea, with the book and CD matching in terms of design, but in this case we are concentrating on the music, so we will stick to the contents of the CD.
Having as many as 18 tracks could have been a risky move, as we are all aware of the danger of ‘listener fatigue’ when filling a CD with too much music, but this is something which has almost entirely been sidestepped on this release by the clever sequencing of the tracks. An unaccompanied guitar instrumental will be followed by a more arranged piece, while the more grandiose or melodically emotional pieces will be leavened by a shorter, sprightly ‘palate cleanser’ such as the joyous The Kissing Gate, which conjures up a sepia-tinged 19th century image of lusty farmhands and village maidens racing each other to said gate on perpetually sunny afternoons! If there is one thing which Gordon Giltrap has always been adept at, it is the art of writing a piece of music to conjure an impression, thought or half-formed memory in this way, and there are examples of this throughout. The mysterious A Cottingley Secret, for example, sets the mind instantly down a path towards imagining just what that secret might be, and the enigmatic Through Braden’s Door manages the same trick.
This album is about much more than typically Giltrap-esque acoustic guitar vignettes, however, with several longer and more fully arranged pieces displaying the skill of Ward front and centre, with Giltrap himself playing more electric guitar than he has done for some time and to great effect. Chief among these more textured and nuanced arrangements might be the glorious opener Starfield, its six minutes displaying an absolutely wonderful tapestry of keyboards and guitar, at times floating and nebulous and at others cutting through the background radiation with a chiming theme as if being contacted by one of those very stars. This is most definitely a piece which can easily be described as ‘ambient progressive rock’ without a shadow of a doubt, and bears some comparison to the likes of Mike Oldfield in its meticulous structure.
Nordkapp (meaning ‘North Cape’, and actually a location in Norway) is another piece with a very full arrangement, including synthesised drums and an overall bleakly glacial splendour which is entirely fitting to its title. The longest piece on the album, The Melody Weaver’s Son, at first puzzles as to how it will justify its seven-minute-plus length without the admittedly pleasant melody overreaching itself. This becomes obvious as it is built up gradually with first Ward’s subtle keyboard tones lifting things, before the climax of the piece again has a full arrangement making the piece something of an ‘epic’ – worthy of a place in any progressive rock fan’s collection just as much as any acoustic guitar lover’s, and a clear high point of the disc.
There are more influences at play here though, with John Devine supplying pipes which give a distinctly Celtic air to a couple of the tracks. The Wounded Healer is the most overt example of this, a superb tune which is only enhanced by that Celtic ‘skirl’ of the pipes putting it front and centre in the Highlands of your mind’s eye. The other Devine contribution is to a reworking of the classic Heartsong which closes the album, the pipes adding that extra Celtic element, like a twist of lemon to an already well-savoured gin and tonic. There have been several reworkings of this track of course, but this is one of the more successful for sure.
There is the occasional look back to a previously released work, such as One For Billie, written for Gordon’s wife Hilary, and of course the redone Heartsong, but there is also a track which predated the album’s release, Turning Earth, which was released as a single around Christmas time in 2021 – and I for one am thankful that it was included here, as it is another high point. With Ian Mosley of Marillion – and an ex-member of Gordon’s band predating even that – providing the drums, the track is the closest that we could get to a successor to Heartsong’s title, with its instantly hummable melody and superb arrangement combining to make it something of an instant classic very much in the mould of the late-’70s Giltrap of the ‘Triumvirate Trilogy’ of albums. Another old face from the band at that time, keyboard player Rod Edwards, also pops up here providing the keys arrangement on Through Braden’s Door, and there is even room for one track featuring vocals, with Precious consisting of a poem recited with some feeling by Jenny Hanley (familiar to a whole generation from her time on the iconic TV show Magpie of course) over a tasteful musical backing.
Anyone who has enjoyed Gordon Giltrap’s previous work – especially that which he has done along with Ward – is sure to enjoy this lovingly assembled collection. But it could reach a wider audience than that by virtue of the way it touches so many stylistic bases while still managing to retain its own singular identity. Listened to in one sitting is is also a tremendously relaxing experience as well – take my advice: if you are planning a stressful car journey fearing roadworks and heavy traffic, just put this record on for the duration of the journey. I can almost guarantee that it will soothe your frustrations and drive away that simmering road rage! So there you go, an album full of excellent music which can also save you from getting a speeding ticket – if that isn’t something worth having I don’t know what is!