The debut disc from Gandalf’s Fist, this isn’t the masterpiece the 2011 release is, but it is a fine album that shows a lot of promise. It’s not as focused as The Road to Darkness, but so many of the musical elements presented on that disc are hinted at and foreshadowed here. This still holds up very well and serves as a great example of the type of killer space rock meets prog that these guys create.
Track by Track Review
The Master and the Monkey (Pt I)
Ambient textures lead this off, and as it climbs it feels a bit like Pink Floyd, but there are also hints of Hawkwind and Kraftwerk. Then, around the thirty second mark, a searing guitar line brings in some fusion sounds. There’s a dramatic building in the under layers as that continues. It rises up gradually and the guitar almost turns to metal as this works onward. Then, a bit before the two minute mark, acoustic elements begin to dominate. The guitar work gets quite intricate as it continues. Then it turns out to a Latin sounding movement. As it works through from there it becomes more classical meets progressive rock in nature. Then it shifts to a keyboard dominated, mellower section. From there a dramatic progressive rock movement takes it in new directions. They turn it towards a rather soaring sound from there. Some vocals appear, but nearly buried in the mix, more as another instrument. Those vocals become more prominent after a time and there’s some crunchy guitar introduced later. In a lot of ways this segment calls to mind the Space Bandits era of Hawkwind.
Stakes at Low Tide
There’s a real Celtic air to this. It builds out in melodic progressive rock format. They take it through a few variants. The vocals are dramatic and theatrical. There’s a real old world air to this, but with modern elements on display, too. It has a lot of intricacies built into it.
The Siren's Kiss
A bouncing kind of introduction leads this off. As it continues the number becomes sort of a melodic prog meets alternative rock and space kind of arrangement. There’s some tastefully screaming guitar soloing later in the number.
Maurice the Bat (Instrumental)
Acoustic guitar opens this in fine fashion and builds it upwards as it continues. Other musical elements are added to the mix, but the acoustic guitar is the driving factor here. In some ways it calls to mind early Genesis. It’s quite pretty and intricate.
The Life and Crimes of Pierre du Gâteau
There’s an almost playful nature to the energized melodic prog that makes up this number. It’s a fairly dynamic and fun ride. A tasty guitar solo soars over the top later.
Dance of Umbra
This comes in with a fairly bouncy melody progressive rock sound, but shifts to a intricate classically tinged sound. As the vocals come in this resembles a more modern progressive rock mixed with alternative sounds. It’s perhaps akin to a harder rocking No-Man. An intricate acoustic guitar solo is heard mid-song. After a climax, it moves to some almost creepy keyboard sounds to take it out.
Zavier the Troll (Instrumental)
Weird sounds, space rock based and sound rather like a voice, lead this off. Then an acoustic guitar with echoes of Queensryche’s “Silent Lucidity” takes over. As that element continues it works out to more classically oriented territory and moves further away from the Ryche comparisons. In some ways this sounds a lot like early Genesis. It’s a short cut that shares a lot of territory with the earlier “Maurice the Bat.”
The Master and the Monkey (Pt II)
The mellow introduction here makes me think of Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants…” Then a soaring guitar line brings in hints of Satriani. It becomes quite expressive as it keeps soloing. It works out from there into a cool, rather slow moving and very melodic prog jam that combines elements of Yes-like music with fusion. It works through quite a few changes as they continue. At times it reminds me a bit of Nektar. There’s a cool jam later that feels a lot like Pink Floyd, particularly in respect to the guitar sounds. That bit doesn’t stay around long, though, as earlier musical themes return and the guitar continues soloing. There’s even a little funk introduced later and that guitar just keeps driving it forward.
The Master and the Monkey Reviews:
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Gandalf’s Fist. The band formed in 2005 from the ashes of Mount Doom and the fiery spunk of a twelve headed ice-dragon (in Newcastle Upon Tyne) has released their first full length album, entitled “The Master and The Monkey”. The band, originally formed as a three piece metal outfit, was busy working on their first full length project in Brussels. During this time, they made a few personnel changes and realized their folk-progressive influences were taking them in a new direction. Fast forward about five years (today), and you have the release of this beautifully arranged and overall successful album. “The Master and The Monkey is a full length concept album based on the short story by L. Severn.” This progressive folk-rock journey chronicles the adventures of an amphibian named Pierre du Gâteau, and his simian companion Francois.
The intro track, “The Master and The Monkey (Pt I)” is an epic track at over 10 minutes. It could easily be two, or even three individual songs. Why did The Fist record it as one? Listen and see my friends…because it works! We begin our journey with an almost hypnotic synth bit (kinda Pink Floydesque) which gives way nearly immediately to a very aggressive, heavy rock (roots?) influenced section. This quickly changes to a banjo led acoustic bit. Then another fast transition…this time a flamenco inspired bit, before bringing me back to the banjo lines. I feel I have now been introduced to (in a musical sense) to our protagonists. (I also feel as if I’ve been “watching” a tennis match between Wapnar and Pinto, with the Admiral and Bopper cheering them on…this is going to be fun). After a few moments of rest and relaxing synths again, the music is accelerated into a very upbeat synth led drum and bass section. Then…finally! The ambient vocal style I’ve heard about. It works very well (here). More on this as I go. Wapnar’s voice sounds as great as his strings, and I can feel myself in Pierre’s shoes (or hopefully not…read the story, please. I am not going to spoil it here), riding along in Francois’ hat as he gracefully swings amongst the trees. Yes, I am on my way to the Clearing to win some groats and catch some tail. After a quick visit to the hard rock guitars, their riffs reminding us of the impending dangers in the jungle below, the adventure here ends and we fade into…
“Stakes at Low Tide” with its majestic, Scottish mood and Celtic intonation (I don’t know about you, but I adore the bagpipes) was influenced by early Jethro Tull records and film soundtracks, with a little local lore thrown in. This one takes me, immediately, over the hills and far away, to the place where the Highlanders dwell. Glorious! Musically, you could hear this song in any fantasy/action/ adventure RPG, from old lore to sci-fi, I believe it would work. Vocally, this is one of the instances I do not agree with the band’s approach. The ambient vocal style was superb on TMaTM(PtI) mixed with the environmental feel of the song, but I feel the wonderful lyrics are suppressed, or even muddled in this track at times. The lilt here incorporates quite a bit of whispering. This works great… after you enhance it at home and can actually hear what is being sung. Unfortunately, this is not the only time we encounter this issue. It will happen again, all too soon in…
“The Siren’s Kiss”. A little bit of keys, some beautiful acoustics, a nicely tempo’d drum lines, smoooooth bass…and the muddled vocals. This lil gem will take you through the market and past the Stump for a much anticipated rumble in the bushes. You WILL sing along, I guarantee it, once you can figure out the lyrics. Quite possibly one of the best tracks on the album. This is the money maker (or one of the first for Gandalf’s Fist), as soon as the vocal issues are cleared up. The lyrics are fantastic and Pinto’s voice shines, just not loudly enough. Although it is a marked improvement in vocal quality over “Stakes”, there is still room for even more. Did I mention how absolutely beautiful this song is? Really, it is! It would only be better with a minor amount of adjustment. I’m really hoping The Fist consider a re-mix and re-release of this album in the future.
A very gentle, acoustic piece follows. “Maurice the Bat” is a beautiful and musically great follow-up to “Siren”. As the first of the three “inspiration” pieces, this track is inspired by Pierre’s antagonist, a dodgy little flying rodent named, well, Maurice. After spending a spot of time reading up on our little trouble maker, I would have expected a more notorious sounding bit as a “tribute” piece. Then I go and hear that it is inspired from his moonlit flights, gliding the jungle’s canopy with the greatest of ease…it all makes sense to me now. It is a very relaxed and flowing piece, with an almost “freestyle” feel, if you will. Quite a contrast to the direction (I thought) the journey was taking. As one of the recording’s shortest tracks, it soon became apparent that this was a kind gesture from the band, giving us the chance to catch our breath. For, next is to come…
“The Life and Crimes of Pierre du Gâteau”. Is this Rick Wakeman or Admiral Poon here? Or BOTH of them?!? The synths explode in your face as the track opens, and stay there for the next four minutes or so. We are pretty sure Pierre is a YES fan, and the Admiral must be a disciple. This song really works, expressing the vibe which follows our hero on his nights of drinking, gambling, and discepti…err, winning! You can feel yourself sitting at his table, with the badgers and pelicans, enjoying this night in the forest as if it were your last. You WILL stand and dance to this one! Arguably, so far, one of the top tracks here. Admiral Poon is banging away like a monkey jumping on his gear, synths DOMINATING everything…including, unfortunately, the vocals again. This track was moving along nicely, great beat, nice sound, would have should have remained an instrumental. The strings, bass and drums all contributed to and accented the keyboards (who obviously had center stage here…nice touch!), but the vocals did nothing, save detract from the musical talent. Had they been a bit more audible they would have added more depth and richness here, possibly bringing this song over the top. The vocals from these lads are well written and nicely sung. I cannot understand why they continue to try to hide them. The one exception to this is found in the next track,
“Dance of Umbra”, almost my personal favorite on the album…almost. Yep! You guessed it…vocal issues again. Another of the songs inspired by one of our protagonists, this one belongs to Francois. One of the fullest sounding, richest, most progressive tracks on “Master”. It starts with an almost “victorious” sounding ensemble of instruments and ambient effects, quickly moving into a seemingly out of place break into some double bass runs in which the worst vocal mixes on the album can be found. Remove the verse sections (lyrics and instruments) and you have a wonderful song. It rings in about forty-five seconds shorter, but infinitely better! Or just replace it with better instrumental sections. The Fist have the talent, don’t understand this bit. Maybe beyond me, I don’t know. We are told that this is inspired by our simian friend’s habit of over-indulgence in fermented vegetable drinks, whilst dancing the night away, and then his spending of the morns contemplating his own existence. I get the dancing and good times, as this track is so FUN musically. Even the chorus vocals sound good and are not out of place here…keep them, just lose the two verse sections. Unless, we are meant to feel the screeching pain in our ears that is a monkey hangover. I would rather just imagine it and enjoy the music. C’mon Wapnar, this isn’t your best, and we know it.
Our adventure starts to wind down, with a short and gentle instrumental entitled “Zavier the Troll”. A one and one-half minute acoustic piece, it serves as a small bridge, setting the mood for the introduction into the final stop on our journey, “The Master and The Monkey (Pt II). Another of the longer tracks, at just under eight minutes, should have been eighteen! This song is another great one. And, the vocals (almost) work here. For the most part, you can hear and understand what Wapnar has to say, but it is muddled at several points. Still, better applied here than in a few other spots. Musically, this song is a masterpiece, reminiscent of late 60’s to mid-70’s Pink Floyd. Not what I expected from a self-proclaimed “progressive folk/rock” band. Very bluesy, very smooth. Oh yes, it is also, very good! From the introductory ambient synths, into the Vai influenced guitar distortions, the clean channeled strings. All the bright cymbals and hats and bells, oh my! This song carries itself beautifully. And, if all this didn’t show the influences of classic rock on Gandalf’s Fist, wait until around 4:50 of this gem. As the band sets into a more “free jam” type feel. When the bass line starts, you’ll be sure Mr. Waters jumped on for a second to lend a line or two, joined shortly by Gilmour and Barrett. Great way to end an album.
All said and done, “The Master and The Monkey” is a great effort from a fantastic band. As with any emerging talent, I would expect that Gandalf’s Fist will continue to evolve and polish their sound. I am all for their unique vocal approach, I find it very appropriate at times. I just want those times to be more frequent. That being considered, and the few production issues encountered, do yourself a favor and get your hands on this recording, quickly! “The Master and the Monkey” is fun from start to finish. Read the story. The music becomes more fun! Read the story whilst listening to the music…you get what I mean. Have a friend? Let them listen too, and all enjoy the fun. This is good stuff, and I know you’ll be hearing lots from these guys soon. There are a couple of three-track demos out there from The Fist, “The Nazgul Blade” and “Balrog Burger”, both are pretty tasty. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to tell you about them, soon.
Share my opinion? Disagree? Want to discuss opinions of different bands and albums. Drop me a line. Vehirob@TheDunedain.net
Artist: Gandalf’s Fist
Album: The Master and the Monkey
Review by Michael Morgan
Progressive rock has always been one of those very fuzzy music categories that span multiple genres, applying to bands like Yes and Rush with lots of synths and guitars whose melodies tell “wond’rous stories” filled with folk-like tendencies and occasional heavier romps or psychedelic echoes. Then there are bands like Jethro Tull whose mystical flutes and soundscapes usually tell epic tales of bizarre characters, like “Cross-Eyed Mary” or “Aqualung.” It’s the kind of music that is missing in action from today’s music landscape. Enter Gandalf’s Fist. Originally founded in 2005 as a metal band, they made some personnel changes a year later and found themselves heading into a more folk and progressive direction. Fortunately, this turned out to be a wise move. The Master and the Monkey is based on a short story written by L. Severn, telling the story of a frog named Piere du Gataux. The album’s opener, “The Master and the Monkey (Part 1)” is a ten minute-long epic containing a colorful set of musical changes, shifting from folk to Flamenco to heavy rock, creating a glorious musical deluge of sound.
The song starts off with shimmering and mysterious synths and a twisty, scaling but equally compelling melody. The electronics then progress into a series of volleying acoustic guitars and banjos. The acoustic progression during certain portions loses some of the tempo and control seized during the first part of the song, but the sagging tempo quickly evolves into a more energetic, Flamenco-like rhythm with transitions that are clever and engaging. The guitar harmonies add a shimmering light to the music. Halfway through the epic, the synths revolt, morphing into an entirely different rhythmic disguise, accompanied by a larger rock tempo with electric guitar harmonics formulating the entry of synth reverb in a Rush-like fashion.
“Stakes at Low Tide” could serve as a musical backdrop in a fantasy film, with its cinematic and Scottish folk hues, festive bagpipes and rollicking rhythm. At times, the whispering vocals are faint and fall to the background. The song would be more engaging with the vocals mixed upfront in the production, and this is especially noticeable on “The Siren’s Kiss” where the vocals take a backseat to the guitars. In fact, they are barely audible throughout the song. It’s a beautiful arrangement with a catchy melody that warrants vocal adjustments within the production to add more punch to the song.
“The Life and Crimes of Pierre du Geteau” plays out like a reprise to a Broadway show. Its banged-on organs and flourishing keyboards would make for a great live show. Similar to songs like “The Siren’s Kiss,” this song’s vocals get buried in great piano and guitar licks. The vocals crave to unearth themselves from the puddles of instruments so that they can match the power and ferocity of the musical arrangement. This is a song that fans of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s virtuosic keyboard arrangements would really appreciate. Minus the vocal drowning, this song is one of the best on the album. “Dance of Umbra” has hymnal features and a religious tone expressed through a series of deliberate and progressive acoustic guitar lines. The vocals have a storytelling-Spinal Tap quality to them. Like many of the other songs, though, the vocals are inaudible. The last song, “The Master and The Monkey (Part 2)” takes a page out of Pink Floyd’s 1975 epic masterpiece, Wish You Were Here. It’s an ambitious array of blues and progressive guitars that build throughout the song and carry it to its end.
Lovers of early Rush like Fly By Night with its huge theatrical musical shifts, or, fans of Jethro Tull á la Thick As A Brick and 70’ss Pink Floyd will enjoy the progressive flavors of The Master and the Monkey, but might be distracted by the demo-like production quality of the record.
Review by Michael Morgan
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)