Regular readers of this space will not be surprised to learn that I’ve anxiously awaited this album since the release of 2008’s Happiness Is the Road. That album chronicled a rough period in lead singer Steve Hogarth’s life that paralleled some tough times for me personally. Most people who have heard of Marillion will be surprised to know that they’re still around.
A quick recap. Marillion started out as a progressive rock band back in 1980, featuring the keyboard work of Mark Kelly, the virtuoso bass work of Welshman Pete Trewavas, the Gilmouresque guitar work of Steve Rothery, and an angry young Scottish vocalist named Fish. Their big attraction was their playful spin on a sound originally played by Genesis, right down to Fish’s Peter Gabriel-like vocals. A tour partnership with Rush brought them to the attention of American and Canadian audiences, and after their 1985 hit, “Kayleigh,” it looked like they would become permanent fixtures in rock music. Not bad for a band that played in a genre that went out of fashion in the mid-1970’s.
But then excessive touring and excessive partying took its toll. Fish quit to basically recover and to start sounding more like… Well… Fish. The band opted to go with Hogarth, the former lead singer of The Europeans. Hogarth, or h, as he’s called, had a different vocal style, but could write lyrics as well as Fish. Too bad the band hired a lyricist before settling on a lead singer. I firmly believe h’s first two albums with the band, Seasons End and Holidays in Eden would have been much stronger if h had written all the lyrics. Or they’d have kept Fish’s original lyrics for Seasons End. (Now that would have been fun, and a nice paycheck to tide Fish over while he rested up.)
Neither here nor there. When a band changes vocalists, they face an uphill battle to keep up their following. Alas, Marillion faded from the public mind. But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. They went independent. Their core following stayed with them, even as they shed any pretensions of progressive rock. US fans financed a tour when management decided to skip North America. After a lousy two-record stint with indie label Castle Records, they hit on the idea of an Internet campaign to fund their album, struck a deal with former label EMI to distribute, and hired their old A&R rep as their new manager.
Then they started charting again, despite a few idiot British music critics who haven’t listened to a note of Marillion since “Lavendre” in 1985. One keeps confusing them with Rainbow, an idea that horrifies Ritchie Blackmore as much as it does Steve Rothery.
OK, now you’re up to date. So what’s the album like?
In short, a mixed bag. They do revisit their progressive roots with three very long songs: “Gaza,” “Montreal,” and “The Sky Above the Rain.” It’s “Gaza” that the band is pushing hard right now, and the song h is the most proud of. Hogarth sings from the point of view of someone living in Gaza who cares not about Israel or Hamas’s stupid hardline stance. All he knows is “Once we had land” and “Bullets rained on our heads as our homes collapsed.” It’s an epic song and a difficult one to listen to, but very well done and thought out. Mr. h is angry, and he does take pains to take the Jewish viewpoint into account. If you’ve been paying attention to his lyrics over the past decade or so, you know he’s developed less and less patience with governments everywhere to the point of making his fiery predecessor Fish look almost apathetic.
“Gaza” is the creative breach in the dam for Hogarth. But like every Marillion album since 1992’s Brave, this one is nothing like the previous albums. Steve Rothery frequently says in interviews that each album is a deliberate attempt to be nothing like the last, although you hear flashes of what made their previous work so creatively successful. “Pour My Love” and “Power,” lyrically two very different songs, have an almost rainy day jazz feel to them. “Lucky Man” (not a cover of the ELP hit from 1972) is a tour-de-force for Rothery’s guitar playing. And really, it’s Hogarth’s vocals (the same as Fish before him) and Rothery’s guitar that makes Marillion’s sound. “Power” is almost a lyrical coda to “Gaza” while “Pour” is a love song that sounds almost American in its construction and execution – more piano and guitar than synthesizer. “Montreal” is a travelogue of sorts, the city a frequent stop for the band and for h during solo tours. One passage has him describing Skyping his wife in England and seeing the “little one” growing up so fast. Clearly, life has gotten better for h since the events that spawned Happiness Is the Road.
“The Sky Above the Rain” is the long end to the album, and is the one song that’s “typically” Marillion, if anything since 1984 can be called typical of this band. All the members are in balance here, and h’s vocal range is at its widest on the album. The song is structured similar to 1996’s “This Strange Engine,” only without h coming in at the end laughing drunkenly while Kelly plays the piano. (If you have This Strange Engine, it’s after a long pause at the end of the title track, something like ten minutes or so.) Quite enjoyable.
So what’s not to like? How about the title track? I heard the first monotone chords of “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” and thought, “Oh, no.” As I listened, it didn’t get any better. The song is reverb-heavy and overly synthesized. It’s just a mess. Too bad, because I really liked the rest of the album. For a band that has shunned its old progressive rock label, it made a song that sounds like a 1970’s prog band trying to find its way in the synthpop eighties. Who let Geoff Downes (Asia) into Racket Studios?
But “Gaza”? That stirred the alter-egos juices flowing (and the bombastic Arabic sound is pretty cool.) “Pour My Love” will go on a mix tape for Nita. (Yes, I do mix tapes for my wife. Deal with it.) “Lucky Man” and “The Sky Above the Rain” are simply pure enjoyment. It’s not the best Marillion album. Those would be Misplaced Childhood, Afraid of Sunlight, and Happiness Is the Road. But it’s up there with them. Plus it’s hard to top Happiness, which came 12 years after Afraid of Sunlight, which came eleven years after Misplaced Childhood. But it is a worthy successor.