Gerard Smith freely reigns in the court of prog rock on Lullabies in an Ancient Tongue.
The Detroit vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and founding member of Bill Grogan’s Goat fuses noble elements of Celtic music, hard rock, jazz and folk with political and mythological themes on his latest album.
“I love that line, ‘Lullabies in an Ancient Tongue,’ it’s from King Crimson’s song, ‘The Court of the Crimson King,’” said Smith, who plays guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, bodhrán, tin whistle and concertina. “I also had an idea for a lullaby rolling around in my head for a long time; it’s ‘Sweet Dreams and Soft Mornings.’”
Throughout Lullabies in an Ancient Tongue, Smith embarks on a prog-rock odyssey filled with pursuits for justice, courage and truth. The album’s storyline seamlessly shifts from fantasy to reality alongside melodic instrumentation, complex time signatures and world soundscapes.
“This album is a collection of songs, but these are all themes that I think about a lot. It’s the idea of the stress of living your life with political dissent,” he said. “It’s especially true with the way the lyrics fall out in ‘Standing Stones’ and the whole idea of propaganda and how people cannot think critically when they want to be part of a [group].”
Lullabies in an Ancient Tongue
Devoted to his cause, Smith challenges groupthink from the George W. Bush era and encourages allies to unite against lingering oppression on the steadfast opener, “Standing Stones.”
Determined electric guitar, bass, drums and uillean pipes rally behind Smith as he sings, “Division tears our people asunder / The vortex of lies pulls us under / Let’s put an end to this nightmare reign / And lift our land to the light again.”
“The way intellectually that I’ve always approached thinking about what goes on in this country and the absolute bullshit that his entire administration was throwing around … it’s like how would anybody believe this crap?” he said.
“That was back when people started this [idea] of … ‘We’re gonna take our country back.’ Well, it’s not your country; it’s our country. You gotta get on the stick and work with everybody else because it’s not [just] your country.”
Next, Smith shifts his resolve inward on the 10-minute anti-stress anthem, “Breathe,” which charges alongside fiery electric guitar, bass, organ and drums. It’s akin to Jethro Tull, Rush and Porcupine Tree uniting for an epic prog-rock track that urges releasing past troubles.
Smith sings, “Remember just to laugh, when you feel like you might cry / Don’t forget to live, when the script says you should die / Remember you must save, resist the urge to buy / Continue to speak truth, stand up to those who lie.”
“It originally started out as two separate ideas, and then I realized that those two ideas belonged together. For the beginning half, I tried to make it so that it gets more and more stressful to listen to it,” said Smith about the longest track from Lullabies in an Ancient Tongue.
“The whole concept of the song is about the stress of your life, and if you breathe, it will calm your stress down … and that’s also what the second half of the song is about. I’m pretty sure lyrically the back half mirrors the front half.”
Smith continues to destress on the summery acoustic ballad, “Sweet Dreams and Soft Mornings,” as serene acoustic guitar, viola, cello, harmonium, percussion and a chirping cricket provide peaceful sounds for a welcome night’s slumber.
The atmospheric, Steve Hackett-esque track also soars into the heavens, thanks to the backing vocals of Maggie McCabe, the viola and cello of V. Rose Cieri and the harmonium of Curvey.
Smith sings, “When the leaves rustle in the breeze / And Luna starts to make her rise / Moonbeams filter through the trees / And cotton clouds march through the skies.”
“I wasn’t thinking that it could have been influenced by [being a parent], but it could have been because it has the same kind of feel to it of ‘I hope my children are good to go,’” said Smith, who also included a single edit of the track on the album.
“That was supposed to be the simplest song on the album … we thought it would end up being acoustic guitar and voice for the whole thing. As we started working on it, it probably used more inputs than anything else. There’s so much going on in there.”
Finally, Smith journeys from the reassuring comforts of “Sweet Dreams and Soft Mornings” to the bold adventures of “The Nest,” which was originally recorded by the late Jimmie Spheeris.
Intrepid electric guitar, bass and drums rise into the skies as he sings, “Come to me now, dove on your shoulder / White flame of love burns on your breath / Oh I am ready for flight / Oh my wings are so ripe / Come wake me / Take me from the nest.”
“One day my brother and I were at this market in Capac called Jolly Jim’s, and they had a little rack with cut-out records on it. There was this cut-out of a compilation from Columbia called The Music People,” said Smith about discovering Spheeris’ 1971 track.
“I dug into some stuff just from listening to this three-album set, and that was one of the songs. It sounds so mystical and everything; I was just totally enthralled by that song. I had always wanted to do a cover of this song to see how it would sound in a rock form.”
Studio and Stage
To shape the majestic sound of Lullabies in an Ancient Tongue, Smith co-produced the album with Paco Higdon at Roseville’s Tuxedo Avenue Recording Studio. The two started working remotely during the pandemic to record the album’s eight multifaceted tracks.
“Paco had just started opening the studio, so we started to get together to go through some stuff and then the pandemic hit. We did it over Zoom and exchanged ideas over email,” said Smith, who’s inspired by Jethro Tull, Blue Öyster Cult and Rory Gallagher.
“We went back into the studio later and did the drums and the bass stuff together. Working with Paco was fantastic … I would just kinda say, ‘You know what, do you know what I’m thinking right now?’ and he would say, ‘Weirdly enough, I think I do.’”
The duo assembled a talented cast of collaborators to solidify the prog-rock sensibilities of Lullabies in an Ancient Tongue. Musicians included Tom Phillips (bass), Timothy Seisser (bass), Justin Velic (drums), Simen Sandnes (drums) V. Rose Cieri (viola, cello), Curvey (harmonium), Patrick Grant (synth), Ryan Yunck (organ), Alex Kane (guitar), Colleen Shanks (uilleann pipes) Maggie McCabe (vocals).
“V. did her stuff in the studio and then Tom and Justin were there … we did all that stuff together [with them]. Maggie also came in to do that vocal part, which I thought turned out beautiful because it’s so angelic,” Smith said.
“Alex never left Arizona when he was doing that; he’s been the touring guitar player for Stars. He totally brought something that neither myself nor Paco would have thought of on ‘Standing Stones.’”
While Lullabies in an Ancient Tongue is currently satisfying the musical appetites of prog-rock fans, Smith is already considering his next release. He has a bunch of lyrics and music coming together for a concept album about growing up in the country.
“I want it to be like [Jethro Tull’s] Thick as a Brick where it’s all one song or like Porcupine Tree’s The Incident,” Smith said. “That’s a great piece of work right there.”
Outside of songwriting, Smith performs live regularly in metro Detroit at venues like Sullivan’s Public House in Oxford and The Celtic Knot in Leonard, including a St. Patrick’s Day weekend show on March 18.