Morpheus Rising Waking The Sleeper

2014 has been an important year for Morpheus Rising, with their second album being released in the first half of the year, and a tour support slot with Graham Bonnet rounding things off in December. Frontman Si Wright and founding guitarist Pete Harwood spoke to RS about life in the Realms of Morpheus…

WORDS: Graeme Stroud
PHOTOS (in original article): Marc McGarraghy / Stephen Turner (colour shots)

In January 2014, Yorkshire-based metallers Morpheus Rising released their second album, the 10-track Eximius Humanus, which is apparently Latin for super human. For old-school heavy metal fans, who don’t get on with death-grunt vocals and profanity-heavy lyrics, this should come as very good news indeed – Morpheus Rising proudly confess to being heavily influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that started off as an underground movement in the wake of punk in the late seventies but burst into the mainstream with the release of 1980 compilation Metal for Muthas, showcasing the talents of such emerging bands as Samson, Iron Maiden and the woefully underrated Praying Mantis.

With a dual guitar attack and a lyrical palette that speaks loudly of fantasy and science fiction themes, Eximius Humanus takes up where their first album left off two years previously. I caught up with front man Si Wright and founding guitarist Pete Harwood at the end of November, a few days before they were due to tour in support of rock veteral Graham Bonnet.

The band’s lineup stays the same for the second album, except for the substitution of erstwhile Saxon drummer Nigel Durham for original sticks man Paul ‘Gibbo’ Gibbons. Gibbo left the band in May 2013, which meant they toured with a stand-in drummer in support of Panic Room in July, but Pete Harwood is keen to play down any negative appearance this might have given.

“Yes, we had a change of personnel, but we’d had some warning, it wasn’t perhaps as last minute as it might have looked. To be fair, he did honour the existing dates before he moved on after the decision to go was taken.”

In fact, Gibbo stood in for an injured Nigel at a gig in July, so there are evidently no hard feelings. The band has seen a number of temps behind the kit and, as it happens, Nigel has been nursing a damaged shoulder for several months. Harwood continues: “Sadly, Nigel is still ‘off games’, and still trying to get to the bottom of what’s wrong, but he’s seen several specialists so it’s all in hand. Gibbo stepped in thankfully at the very last moment when we discovered how poorly Nige was. In fact we started a rehearsal with Nige, and finished it with Gibbo!”

Attention in any band tends to settle on the front man of course, and Si has handled vocal duties on both albums, but he only just squeezed in as the first album was being recorded, with a lot of the groundwork being laid by original vocalist Grae Tennick, who wrong most go the lyrics as well. A career soldier, Tennick announced his retirement from the band in February 2011 after a tour of duty in Afghanistan, when plans for the debut album were already well along. There is an underlying imagery of conflict in Grae’s lyrics, most overtly in the song Fighting Man, arguably the most ‘Maiden-esque’ song on the first album, and a lot of the band’s early exposure was at Forces Festivals. I wonder whether the military was a big thing with the band, but Pete intimates that it was more-or-less inevitable “due to Grae’s day job”.

Grae performed two final appearances, at the last of which, Si Wright was announced as his replacement ‘at the front’, to use an obvious parallel. Si’s first major appearance was a the Cambridge Rock Festival, sponsored by this very magazine, and the first album was released in December, being composed mainly of Tennick-penned lyrics. One of the few that Si contributed at that late stage, though was the title track Let The Sleeper Awake. (Morpheus = Greek god of dreams, therefore Morpheus Rising = Let The Sleeper Awake. See what they did there?)

It’s a nice touch that the sleeve notes on the first album name check several relatives of band members, including ‘Grae Tennick and family’, and Ally Tennick. Pete is generous with his appreciation for the former front man’s clan: “It’s a big family and they were all very supportive! Ally drove us for several shows and his own band supported us a couple of times too.”

Seeing as the band had no back catalogue to worry about, and with possible uncertainty about how closely Si’s style would align with Grae’s, I wondered whether there was any talk of starting from scratch with a new band name when Si joined. Neither member would hear of it though. Pete says, “I’d have to say that the rest of us didn’t consider stopping and starting again; we had some momentum going, and the date at the Cambridge Rock Festival for the Classic Rock Society to honour too. It was a question of finding someone to take the band further. We looked at it as an opportunity.”

Si Agrees: “There was no question of having to do a rethink – it was seamless. I had the tracks pre-studio to attack, and was also told to put my own stamp on it. Also in rehearsal, because MR are very disciplined in performance, we all knew where we were in each song, so there were no big scary moments, it just sounded different – like a new pair of boots.”

As it happens, the general feel of the music with it’s dark, heavy themes, is remarkably consistent across both albums. I wonder of the whole band leans in this direction, or whether Pete (as the originator of the band) or Si (as the lyricist) drag it by the scruff of the neck. Having Pete as the main music writer probably explains the consistency, as he says “Personally it’s not deliberate, but I think that may be partly down to me in terms of the music I write. It’s good to know there’s continuity. I think that’s important. Sometimes it’s difficult to know if it’s there as it’s very hard to know how it’s sounds from the audience perspective.”

Si wrote all the lyrics on the new album, and adds, “I can’t quite remember which track came first lyrically, but I think it was Mega City One. I was getting a sci-fi feel, and was thumbing through a 2000AD Judge Dredd annual from way back, and that started the theme for me – but not just any style of super human or hero, bad guys as well – and all things to do with special powers or abilities. The theme just expanded from there lyrically for me.”

Si’s talk of a lyrical theme to the album crystallises the realisation that the super human idea permeates every song – from the reluctant superhero of the opening track to the aforementioned dystopian fantasy of Mega City 1, to the wishful thinking of Superpower, every track deals with the ideas of humans contemplating extraordinary feats. Now, confessing adherence to the golden era of heavy metal is one thing, but dare I apply a well known descriptive phrase to the album at hand, or is that a step too far? I ask the question, but Pete’s reply is open to some interpretation:

“I’ve never really thought of it as a concept album, more an album with a common thread running loosely though it lyrically. It wasn’t a deliberate thing. I’d say much the same with the first album too, not so much a concept album, but an album with a common concept in its content. Maybe that depends on your definition of what constitutes a concept album?”

It’s a phrase that scares a lot of people off – but not everyone, thankfullly. Of course, every band represents a compromise of some kind; unless every member has exactly the same musical taste and vision, then it’s likely that someone will be playing music they’re not really into. Pete acknowledges the possibility with a confession from his past, along with an assurance that is no longer the case at least for him.

“I discovered some years after a previous band that none of us actually liked all of it, as we’d all compromised in the writing process perhaps further than we should have, so MR was definitely set up to have a tighter focus which seems to work for us! I think it is safe to say that, whilst some of us are big fans of very varied genres, we all meet at the heavy metal crossroads. So no-one feels a compromise is being made.”

This strikes a chord with me, as I remember thinking in one of my previous bands that, if we were ever to cut a record, it probably wouldn’t be the kind of record i would bother buying. Si has a good chuckle at the very notion, which leads me to believe that he, at least, is in a band he likes. Pete too, as he explains: “One of my yardsticks with MR is that this has to be a band I would want to be in if I was seeing it for the first time.”

Riding as it does on Andy Smith’s tight, thumping bass work, the sound is much chunkier and slicker than anything from the early days of metal, but the band have evidently resisted any peer-pressure to get into death growl vocals or pepper the songs with bad language in a quest for street red. It adheres to the unwritten code of classic 70s and 80s heavy rock. Again, is that a conscious policy decision, or did it just come out that way? Pete’s answer is simple, affirming that he is simply “not a big fan of shouty metal.”

The two-guitar attack also harks back to Iron Maiden, and Thin Lizzy before them, and Wishbone Ash earlier still. Originally at least, bands probably ended up with two guitarists simply because mates learned to play at the same time and ended up in bands together, but in the case of Morpheus Rising, pains were taken to seek out an appropriate six-string ally to complete the ideal lineup, a search that eventually turned up Damien ‘Daymo’ Sweeting. Were they really trying to emulate a particular sound from their past at that time? Pete is not coy about his influences. “It all comes back to Maiden and Lizzy for me! They are massive influences – you could probably say MR is their fault.”

Morpheus Rising mischievously refer to their style as NWoBHM-TNG (The Next Generation). NWoBHM is probably the worst mnemonic in history, as it is necessary to recall the phrase ‘New Wave of British Heavy Metal’ before anyone can remember the exact string of letters, which seems the wrong way round somehow. I wonder if the band should go with the snappier NWoNWoBHM. Work it out if you can.

That influence doesn’t end with the music, though. When I first saw the album cover, with its masked and muscular heroic figure posed against a post-apocalyptic backdrop, a vision of the Metal for Muthas album cover rose unbidden in my mind. It’s not really that similar, but those with long memories may remember the faceless and armour-plated guitar wielding horsewoman that adorned the cover, and the whole ethos seemed to originate from the same place. Justified or not, the comparison sparks a new line of discussion.

The stunning futuristic artwork on both albums is credited to a certain Dylan Thompson. Pete explains how he got involved. “Dylan was in The Reasoning when I first came across them and we supported them several times. Great guitar player too!” Now that simply doesn’t seem fair. Still I ask about the winged logo that appears on both albums – presumably that is a representation of Morpheus? Si explains:

“Well the figure, idealistically, can be the form of anything, but the winged man logo is our representation of Morpheus – almost like the sign or moniker of Morpheus, but the fantasy and mystery of the figure on the album artwork is always going to be open to play around with.”

Finally, I have to try to get a handle on the band’s two guitarists, as no clue is given on the albums as to who plays which solos, or whether one of the other takes seniority. Is there an easy way to tell them apart? Do they come out of different sides of the stereo mix? Pete gives a few clues, having established that the two or on an equal footing:

“We have different styles – Daymo’s is more of a technical approach. We tend to pan solos central in the mix, but as a couple of examples, Mega City One is Daymo, but Day Number One is me. That should give yo an idea!”

Well it’s a start, and it gives me an excuse to revisit the album with renewed vigour – but more is needed for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the band’s personnel. Their website contains an extensive photo gallery, but the pictures are not labelled. It’s pretty easy to work out who is who most of the time – the fellow sitting behind the kit is likely to be Gibbo the drummer, and the guy waving the bass around would be Andy Smith, who also plays bass for CRS favourites Mostly Autumn, by the way. Si is undoubtedly then with the microphone, but which guitarist is which? Pete explains candidly, “Daymo is the Teen Wolf, I’m the one who’s running out of hair.” Kudos on those wicked sideburns Daymo, the guitar playing is almost incidental compared to those…

To conclude, I ask if there is any more good stuff coming up for the band. The answer is “yes” apparently, but the guys are cagey about the details.

Pete: “There’s some exciting stuff in the works for next year but it has to remain under wraps for now sadly. After the Bonnet tour we’ll be working on plans for 2015.”

Si: “We have a lot of things rumbling below the hood at the mo. After our successful campaign to get the second album out, we have decided to stay in stealth mode! Once you tell everyone about a deadline, the pressure is on. We don’t mind pressure in most things, but we would like to make a fantastic album, and have every single element of it completed before we announce anything – it means we can focus on the project without ordering ourselves about!”

Ah – so a third album is apparently on the cards! Seriously, that is something to look forward to. Keep an eye out for the upcoming plans – it sounds like it could be an exciting time!

Rock Society Magazine issue 205 Jan/Feb 2015