it's prog jim but not as we know it

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A somewhat awkward, taciturn character, Martin Grech has steadfastly remained in the shadows since this was released.

As such, he’s never considered to be one of the most fundamentally intriguing artists of the 21st century. But this album, his debut, should be regarded as an imperious collection of musical ideas and ideals.

It came out just as Grech was getting attention, with the title track being used on a major TV advertising campaign. This sort of attention, though, didn’t seem to phase Grech. Nor did it lead to him attempting to finesse any commercial momentum he might have gained from such exposure. So, the Open Heart Zoo album is untainted, individual, and never compromises on the man’s overall vision.

It’s not easy to access. From opening song Here It Comes, Grech’s high pitched vocals are organically soothing yet also slightly distant. Not a singer who wears his soul on his sleeve, Grech is almost reluctant to bare inner emotions, preferring instead to document dispassionately. However, there’s an intimacy and warmth about the music he simply cannot deny. It’s this clash between logic and instinct that makes the song work, and this is true of everything as the album progresses.

Grech pulls in influences from 70s, 80s and 90s, straddling Anathema, Radiohead, Camel and Nine Inch Nails. In the process he builds layers of sounds, within which are weaved clever and concise lyrical imagery. Everything also interconnects. So, as Dali follows on from Open Heart Zoo, before leading into Tonight, you feel like you’re being taken on a diffuse journey through the alien landscape of Grech’s mind. Without perhaps realising it, he exposes a lot of agitation, loneliness and despair, yet never makes anything sound like a plea for sympathy.

And he becomes surreal, even pretentious on Death Of A Loved One. This lasts for over 20 minutes, but half of it is unbroken silence leading into the final four minutes of music, which is actually titled Ill. Oddly, the hypnotic resolve of the early part of this track makes the subsequent silence appear creative and the ideal resolution of the album, before Ill jumps you back to a reality of sound.

Grech also has a flair for building up a track to make a full dramatic impact. On Penicillin, he starts with a gloomy loan piano, before escalating the mood to a crescendo, and then taking it back down to a gliding outro. It’s all enhanced by Andy Ross’ sympathetic production.

Open Heart Zoo deserved to be an album feted and acclaimed for its unique twist on the more ambient side of progressive music. Grech, though, was probably relieved it got overlooked, as it’s allowed him to be artistically unyielding.