Cogtopolis – The city beneath the surface, no daylight has been seen by the inhabitants in living memory. The Sun: a whisper, a legend.
For two hundred years tales have been passed down from father to son. Tales of mankind’s folly and technical abominations. Tales of the day clouds engulfed the sun.
Tales of the twenty year winter and the slow, agonising death of “The Surface”. But the greatest tale of all was of mankind’s ultimate salvation within the warm, safe, belly of the earth……..
“There is hope in dreams, imagination, and in the courage of those who wish to make those dreams a reality.”
― Jonas Salk
Ambition is something that should be encouraged, lauded even, especially if what it produces is something quite remarkable and unique. However, there is a small proviso, ambition is no good if it isn’t backed up with the necessary skill and intelligence, for what is ambition without intelligence but a bird without wings ( I sort of borrowed that last bit from Walter H. Cottingham but, if you don’t tell him, neither will I…).
When Gandalf’s Fist announced that they were going to release a 3 CD Steampunk Concept album based in a world of their own creation I think quite a few people thought that they’d moved on from ambition into sheer madness and lunacy.
Would ‘The Clockwork Fable’ end up being a huge undertaking that could prove to be their undoing?, when I was sent this behemoth of musical enterprise I approached it with a lot of caution, not knowing what to expect and wondering if my friends had bitten off more than they could chew….
To be fair, three albums, thirty three tracks and over three hours long, it would tax even the most dedicated listener and, for me as a reviewer, would mean a complete sea change in how I would actually review this release. Normally, I do a track-by-track review which generally leads to something quite lengthy.
How would I write about this complex undertaking so as not to leave my readers comatose and in a world of TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read – you can thank David Elliott for that acronym) and yet be able to really encompass the whole musical endeavour and give people a flavour of what it is all about? That conundrum has taxed me for the last couple of weeks while I have spent the time to immerse myself completely in the wonders of Cogtopolis and its many and varied residents.
I think I’ve come up with an answer but, first, some background on Gandalf’s Fist and ‘The Clockwork Fable’
Imagine, if you will, the parallel universe whereby Monty Python were commissioned to write a Doctor Who-style period drama which was subsequently scored by an imaginary supergroup formed by members of Maiden and ELP and you’d get somewhere close to what Gandalf’s Fist have created with “The Clockwork Fable”.
Originally formed in 2005 by Multi-Instrumentalist Dean Marsh and lyricist Luke Severn, Gandalf’s Fist draw on their mutual love for the ‘Golden Era’ of Progressive Rock, The New Wave of British Heavy Metal and even Renaissance Folk to create concept albums that are both nostalgically engaging and experimentally innovative in nature.
Following the addition of drummer Stefan Hepe and bassist Chris Ewen for their last album, the acclaimed ‘Forest of Fey’, ‘The Clockwork Fable’ is their second release as a four piece.
Let’s start with my thoughts about what ‘The Clockwork Fable’ actually is. It is a huge project to get your head around, in no way a mere CD or album, it is progressive rock as musical theatre. Imagine, if you will, the sinister, yet childlike, humour of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ set in steampunk universe that has come straight from the mind of ‘His Dark Materials’ author Philip Pullman and you are still only scratching the surface of this epic labour of love.
It almost feels like it was written for the stage or screen with a darkly humerous script provided by the likes of Neil Gaiman or the recently departed Sir Terry Pratchett and then delivered in a kind of ‘War Of The Worlds’ fashion.
The band’s imagination holds no bounds as they have meticulously created the world of Cogtopolis, its residents going about their daily business in the three huge, interconnecting caverns of this subterranean city, Ardel, Cartoe and Porfan with their unique cultures and denizens.
It is a world that has been conceived down to the minutest detail, hierarchy of the society, religions and even their own ‘alphabet of the underworld’. With Braille and Morse Code among the many strands of knowledge and learning lost amidst theobliterated libraries of the surface, the industrious scholars of Cogtopolis devised Cypheridia. A new, basic way of writing that could be scratched into metal surfaces with ease, or – for the brass-bound worker – etched into the mud of the cavern floor at the very least.
From this detailed and precisely constructed world emerge a cast of characters brought to life by a fantastic cast including Mark Benton, Zach Galligan, Bill Fellows and Alicia Marsh, to name a few. In fact, it was Mark himself who put the effort in to get the majority of the crew together.
Between them they bring the richly envisioned world of Cogtopolis and its inhabitants to life. At its heart, it is a story of the age long struggle between light and the dark. An utterly spellbinding tale brought to life by the fantastic cast of voice actors.
A suppressed populace labouring under a misheld belief that they will never see the light again. My fellow scribe Phil Lively, correctly, pointed out that it is the fight of the heroic northerners against the evil cockneys and Mark Benton’s jolly lamplighter is the first character we encounter. Living a lifetime among the bowels of Cogtopolis, scurrying tirelessly amidst the endless streets of derelict machinery, he has, man and boy, lit every lamp in the city beneath the surface.
It is a tale that we have heard many times before but we never grow tired of and, in this incarnation, you find yourself rapt as the establishment refuse to believe that the sun has returned to the surface, wanting to keep their citizens subjugated.
The Tinker and his assistant Eve are the hero and heroine of the tale, trying to repair the mechanism that will return sunlight to Cogtopolis and hounded by The Primarch and his cronies at every turn.
Woven perfectly between the voice acting is an incredible music backdrop that blends with the storyline to create an amazing musical experience. The talented Arjen Lucassen, Blaze Bayley and Matt Stevens all add their considerable musical weight to ‘The Clockwork Fable’ to create something fantastical.
Melissa Hollick returns for the third album in a row, this time as the singing voice of Eve and you can hear her dulcet tones lighting up Shadowborn with it’s ‘female-fronted metal’ feel. What you have here are accomplished musicians who can turn their skills to virtually any musical style with aplomb. On the three epic Lamplighter tracks (one for each disc) we get proper, intricate progressive rock delivered expertly, each track a musical journey in its own right.
Eve’s Song is a delicate track of ethereal beauty where Melissa gives a delightful vocal performance that just leaves you open mouthed with admiration. The acoustic guitar the is prevalent throughout Victims Of The Light gives it a real feel of Richie Blackmore in his folk mindset before exploding into something from Neal Morse era Spocks Beard.
A particular favourite is the brilliant Ditchwater Daisies, a complex and involving track that enthralls from beginning to end. There is a touch of Pink Floyd to this song, in my opinion, thoughtful and nostalgic. A touch of early Genesis? That will be The Bewildering Conscience Of A Clockwork Child and A Solemn Toast For The Steam Ranger Reborn.
What you do get is the thought that every note is there for a reason, to tell more of this extraordinary tale, none of it is superfluous or gratuitous. The music blends seamlessly with the voice acting to enhance the story and give it added layers of meaning.
The Climb is a song that mixes the intricate with the dreamlike leaving you hanging on every word and note. These guys have the ability to draw you into their tale and making you feel like you belong there and it is the incisive and intelligent songwriting and voice script that is primary in their ability to do this.
I’d been waiting for a bit of a metal track and Fight For The Light gives you that with its symphonic power and tasteful vocals. There is a guitar section in here which could come from an early Maiden album and it just put a huge grin on my face.
The final track that really stood out for me was the title track. The Clockwork Fable is a heartfelt, fervent and wistful song that just grabs at your heartstrings and leaves an indelible impression, just beautiful.
And, well, The Lens, is that a tear in my eye? I’m not saying – Oh Bugger!
So, do the citizens of Cogtopolis escape the dark underworld, do The Tinker and Eve repair the cog mechanism of The Aperture, despite the attentions of The Primarch and his allies, to finally return sunlight to the murky lives that they are forced to live? Don’t ask me, buy the album and find out what happens in this utterly captivating story yourselves.
Gandalf’s Fist have delivered a mesmerising musical masterpiece epic in scope and utterly breathtaking in its delivery. It’s length may deter you from listening but, believe me, you are missing something quite exceptional and utterly marvelous. This is not just piece of music, it is a wholly engrossing experience that will make your life richer for having taken part.
Released 1st May 2016