The Old Road

Martin Orford

Giant Electric Pea, 2008

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Martin Orford begins the liner notes to his 2008 solo album The Old Road by declaring “[t]his is not a progressive rock album.”

It’s an interesting assertion coming from a musician who had spent the previous 27 years as the founding keyboardist and backing vocalist for second-wave progressive rock icons IQ, and populated this, his second solo album, with prog luminaries Gary Chandler (Jadis), Nick D’Virgilio (Big Big Train, Spock’s Beard), Andy Edwards (IQ, Frost*), David Longdon (Big Big Train), Dave Meros (Spock’s Beard), John Mitchell (It Bites, Arena, Frost*) and John Wetton (King Crimson, UK, Asia). Ahem. Methinks Messr. Orford doth protest too much.

And indeed, ten-minute opener “Grand Designs” kicks off with a nimble, melodic instrumental that powers through a full two and a half minutes before the vocals kick in, full of ringing guitar and synthesizer figures that fairly shout ’80s British prog. Besides prog bona fides, “Grand Designs” also serves to establish that Orford’s talents extend beyond his stacks of electric keyboards to some impressive electric guitar work and respectable lead vocals. There’s sharp, entertaining guitar-keyboard interplay in the eighth minute and it all sounds, frankly, a lot like IQ, meaning it’s sometimes a bit too clean and overdramatic for my tastes, but quite well done.

The Old Road isn’t a concept album per se, but there’s a distinct thread running through it around the idea of doing things the old way and preserving the simplicity of life. So: an almost-concept album with long tracks featuring multiple themes, dynamic, extended instrumental passages, and rather grand music in places, played by an ensemble cast of prog veterans. Hmm. If it riffs like prog, and rambles like prog, and occasionally pontificates like prog… seems like it might just be prog.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The aptly-named “Power And Speed” is probably my favorite on the album, a six-minute instrumental with a muscular, at times genuinely majestic feel that nicely sets up the gentler, middle-period Genesis-influenced “Ray Of Hope.” The latter features a virtual prog all-star team consisting of D’Virgilio on drums, Meros on bass, Orford on keys and guitar, and Longdon on vocals, and is a highlight.

It’s unfortunately followed by the one real dud on this album. “Take It To The Sun” features John Wetton on bass and vocals, and the nicest thing I can say about the track is it feels like a good fit for the lead singer of Asia—which is to say it’s overblown and marred by cheesy melodrama, traits that Wetton’s bellowing lead vocals only serve to amplify.

Things get back on track immediately, though, as Orford’s sprightly, rather Wakeman-esque solo piano “Prelude” leads into the title track. “The Old Road” is where another classic influence became clear, as the album’s main theme played out in the words of yet another vocalist (this time Orford himself again) over clean, crisp guitar chords that inevitably took me back to the Alan Parsons Project. This assertive, suitably epic eight-minute cut also features guest Colin Murphy in on fiddle, playing off of the chorus’ power chords and giving the proceedings a hint of a Kansas feel.

“Out In The Darkness” takes a somewhat unexpected detour into social commentary, a bitter anti-religious screed with rather heavy-handed lyrics by lead vocalist/guitarist Steve Thorne. Instrumentally, the track again has a clean, airy Alan Parsons Project vibe, with some especially fine bass work by the talented Meros. (The televangelist sound effects over the fade also somewhat inevitably take you back to Genesis’ “Jesus He Knows Me.”)

With “The Time And The Season,” Orford again dabbles in arena rock, and again tabs Wetton to sing lead, thankfully with better results this time. The first segment feels rather predictable, but when the song falls back to a quieter sequence around 3:40, Wetton’s vocals take on a welcome warmth. The closing sequence is again highlighted by Meros’ galloping, Chris Squire-like bass line.

Closer “Endgame” has an appropriately elegiac feel, with the supple-voiced Longdon the perfect choice to handle lead vocals on this well-executed denouement.

Seven years later, this album remains the last we’ve heard from Orford, apparently the final statement he wished to make before retiring from both IQ and the music industry itself. Other than a handful of guest shots (including on Big Big Train’s stellar 2010 EP Far Skies Deep Time), he’s been largely silent since. In one sense it’s a shame, as he’d long since established himself as a very talented player; on the other hand, if you’re going to walk away, why not end things on a high note? Orford surely achieved the latter goal with The Old Road.

Rating: B+

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