Known for years as Lamb of God’s ripping axeman, Mark Morton has in the last couple of years ventured into the solo game and released a full solo record, Anesthetic in 2019. The record was packed to the rafters with stars, featuring the likes of the late Chester Bennington, Jacoby Shaddix from Papa Roach, Josh Todd from Buckcherry and none other than Lamb’s lead screamer/growler/destroyer of worlds Randy Blythe.
Venturing into the 2020s and celebrating 20 years since the band put out their debut New American Gospel (unless one counts Burn The Priest as their official debut), Morton is continuing to expand his solo career with a new 5-song EP, Ether, perhaps a prelude of things to come. Anesthetic guest star and Sons of Texas vocalist Mark Morales makes a couple of appearances, as do Moon Tooth vocalist John Carbone and, notably, Howard Jones from Killswitch Engage and Lzzy Hale from Halestorm. With a lineup like this for a mere 5 songs, Ether is nothing if not promising on the surface.
Morales opens up the festivities on “All I Had To Lose”, his raspy, gritty approach fitting lock and key with Morton’s textured acoustic melodies and a chorus of strings well blended in in the back. Morales oscillates appropriately between soothingly riding the song and intensely belting over it, jammed full of emotion but nevertheless effectively contained. These key words certainly stick out as well: “Everything I lost wasn’t much compared to all I had to lose.”
The acoustic windings continue on with “The Fight”, bringing John Carbone up to the microphone for a shift. Whether there should’ve even been drums up until the explosive burst of electric guitar two thirds of the way through is questionable; the percussion in the song’s first quarter or so shifting from lo-fi drums to electronic drums in the chorus and then to rimknocking authentic drums in verse 2. The electric drums on the chorus admittedly do fit pretty well by the time the last chorus rolls around, but the constant switching early on make it seem a little more crowded than necessary.
Lzzy Hale steps up to the plate on “She Talks To Angels”, the track sounding somewhat folky at first until Lzzy enters grandly in her ever-so-rock-and-roll tone and leaves no mystery as to what direction the song is taking. A chronicle, originally by The Black Crowes of a woman’s struggle with addiction and depression (or just Gothiness), the tune is undeniably catchy and a knockout performance from Hale; her attitude-drenched vocals evolving into a powerful wail as the song goes on. Out of any song on the EP, this wee nod to the Crowes has to be the best.
Next to sing is Howard Jones on “Love Your Enemy”, the most prolific blend of acoustic and electric Ether has to offer. Initially, Jones’ vocals seem like an awkward fit against Morton’s composition, but come the chorus the collaboration starts to make sense with a heavy dose of energetic vigour. The only song on the EP to have a guitar solo, Morton gives his signature all if only for a short blip of the track itself, lacing up some of the end chorus as well.
The final track ventures once more back to the early ‘90s- a cover of “Black” by Pearl Jam, featuring Mark Morales once more as a substitute Vedder. Coming full circle from “All I Had To Lose”, the strictly acoustic approach is not only a perfect way to close but the best possible approach that could’ve been taken to cover this song, or perhaps even perform it originally as a grunge/alternative artist (see Shinedown’s acoustic rendering of “45” for that). In short, the two MM’s make an excellent rendering of the PJ staple and end on a high note, leaving the question lingering in the air of why in God’s name this EP had to be so short.
Given the caricature (not always unfounded) that metal players face of being soulless shredders and little else, it’s refreshing beyond belief to see a project such as this come out from one of the most popular guitar players in modern metal that shows such “shredders” can be capability of far more versatility and depth than is otherwise assumed. Ether is a plainly excellent release, and whatever full-length release Mark Morton cooks up in the foreseeable future should, given this precedent be equally as tasteful and expertly put together.