Masterminded by Mustapha Khetty, the Morpheus Project involves a revolving cast of musicians helping to bring his songs to life. This seven track release follows 2021’s ‘Mosaick’ and brings another concept album into the world, and its songs happily shift between classic rock, AOR and melodic metal, showcasing the fact that Khetty’s compositional skills – although shamelessly retro – straddle a broad spectrum of rock styles. That freewheeling approach means that ‘On The Edge’ could be the kind of album that’ll strike a chord with lovers of the pompier elements of bands like Asia at times, but those fans are unlikely to enjoy the more metallic output, whilst those who like a big helping of proggy metal are unlikely to gravitate towards the more 80s aspects of the album. In trying to please both camps, Khetty risks pleasing no-one in the long term – and that’s a pity, as there’s some fine musicianship and a few strong melodies here.

The title cut opens the album with a busy guitar riff that dances above a solid rhythm. The tone immediately calls back to something from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but unfortunately, nothing quite that energetic or exciting emerges beyond that. A chunky hard rock guitar riff augmented by old fashioned organ owes more to a Swedish prog metal band paying tribute to 80s Deep Purple, and is all very well intentioned, but beyond a few well placed harmonies and a busy bass line, it’s incredibly dull. The tune wavers between stodgy hard rock and light prog metal flourishes, but never seems truly committed to either. Also, without a chorus, there’s little to latch onto. Based on this, Khetty knows a lot about complex moods – as evidenced by a neo-classical coda that threatens to turn everything into a Rick Wakeman-esque flight of fancy – but very little about the importance of actual musical hooks. In this respect, it becomes obvious that although he has some good ideas, his status as a non-musician often means he doesn’t really understand how to bring the best out of his work.

Sounding like a completely different band, the slow blues melody that opens ‘Just Moments In Time’ sounds like something from deep within the Dire Straits canon fused with a track from Pink Floyd’s ‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’. The slow burning instrumental sound showcases some great guitar work from Alex Hutchings, but just as you think it’s leading to something, the mellow blues vibe stops dead and is replaced by a workmanlike piece of prog that blends buoyant rhythms with harmony vocals, sounding like a busier version of Jadis. In fairness, this is quite good, although far from original. It shows off some strong vocals from Mitchel Emms, who does his best to sell a few decent melodies whilst being hampered by music that’s more complex than need be. By the time the listener starts to enjoy this, it’s all change once more and some self-indulgent piano work takes centre stage. Much like the intro, this would’ve been better served as a stand alone piece; obviously Khetty has other ideas, and really could have done with some outside help in terms of editing/arranging the work. What the listener ends up with are three half decent tunes moulded into one; never strong enough to cling onto one identity, but fleetingly entertaining. It should’ve been better, and with a little more focus on any one of these ideas, it really would have been.

In another hugely dramatic shift, ‘Cry For What’ presents some very gentle acoustic sounds, and the arrangement takes the jazz of Al de Miola, adds a touch of flamenco, and ultimately becomes a great showcase for the featured guitarist. In terms of style, it’s perfect, and flowing into the similarly arranged ‘Steal For What’, a track that takes the flamenco influences into more of a new age vein, adding elements of classic Mike Oldfield once the drums and bass arrive, it gives the album a very strong centrepiece. After a while, it branches out a little further to include an AOR tinged vocal, setting up a light prog rock mood that isn’t always a million miles away from the heart of ‘Just Moments In Time’. This helps it sit more naturally next to the hard rock/AOR tunes elsewhere, but never stops the music feeling a little unsettled as a whole. As before, Khetty’s kitchen sink approach can be frustrating, but those willing to spend time absorbed by the different musical strands will find it all enjoyable.

A highlight in terms of accessible melodies, ‘Finding You Finding Me’ takes a proggy approach to bigger AOR sounds, and gives the assembled band more of an actual song to work with. For an understated intro, pianist Rossano Capriotti offers some lovely flowing notes, worthy of a grand rock ballad, and Alex finds his bluesy tone to compliment the piano with more Gilmour-esque notes. Even when a rockier riff comes in, the band cling on to a strong melody for once, the song is allowed to breathe without too many extra twists and turns, and even a more metal-edged chorus sounds like a natural progression from the AOR verse. Best of all, though, is the featured guitar solo, where Alex loses himself in some flowing blues rock passages, shifting with ease between longer, flowing notes and swift arpeggios more akin to the proggier aspects elsewhere. In terms of the whole album, this solo is easily the highlight, and the track – when viewed as a whole – shows how the musicians’ talents are without question. It’s just a shame they don’t get to flow quite so naturally more often.

Something this album never really needed was a nine minute rendition of Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’, complete with a hugely extended intro where droning organ sounds mix the pomp sounds with a hint of new age/proggy indulgence. As covers go, its fine – and Emms puts in a more than credible vocal performance – but throwing in such a well known piece runs the risk of drawing attention away from the original compositions. Still, if you want to hear Hutchings giving his all in the guitar stakes, clearly putting his own stamp on a tune he loves, it’s fine – but it doesn’t especially belong here. Likewise, the instrumental ‘250 Synchronicity’ feels tacked on, to bring the album up to forty minutes. The first half of the number explores some Malmsteen-esque bombast – which, as you’d expect, Alex takes in his stride – before descending into a boring piece of prog metal that values arrangement over melody. For those who like grandiosity and pomp, there might be something of interest here, but you’ll certainly have heard better material, and despite some tight playing, Khetty’s insistence on gluing together two incomplete ideas (again) might feel a little annoying to some listeners.

Put together with the best of intentions, ‘On The Edge’ can seem fine for what it is, but it needs a stronger identity. The Morpheus Project are at their most appealing when scaling everything back for a big AOR melody – as per ‘Finding You…’ – or perhaps tackling a few unexpected jazz and world music moods that won’t necessarily connect with a rock crowd, but even then, you’ll find bands who’ll do it with a little more conviction and a lot more focus. The best advice is to try and listen to this album on its own terms, and then you’ll have a much better chance of coming away having felt satisfied by bits of it. In terms of presenting a retro sound in the present, this musical collective certainly has potential, but in an overcrowded world of digitally available albums, “potential” isn’t quite enough. An album to approach with a cautious ear and a very old musical soul.

September/October 2023