Monthly Archives: September 2012

For your aMusement

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Bit late to the party, but the new Muse record, ‘The 2nd Law’ is now officially streaming. Point your browser toward the following URL:

http://muse.mu/news,listen-to-the-2nd-law-online_1411.htm?loc=&currency=gbp

where you’ll be given directions to the sites streaming the songs, depending on your geographic region.

First impressions here are that the band are further developing the eclectic approach that erupted on 2006’s ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ (my personal favourite from Muse‘s catalog to date) and was explored – to arguably less-consistent effect – on 2009’s ‘The Resistance’. I’ve long enjoyed the fact that Muse embraced the chest-beating bombast and inherent silliness that characterises rock’n’roll (and certain exponents of Prog in particular) but what realy set them apart from other world-beating acts of their stature is their ability to juxtapose this with a knowing wink, whilst remaining – at their best – genuinely affecting.

On Madness and Survival, the band expose their inner Queen to a hereforeto unprecedented degree (how Brian May is the solo on the former?), and recent single release ‘The 2nd Law: Unsustainable‘ is the latest instalment in Matt Bellamy‘s documentation of the Apocalypse; segueing from glitchy, doom-laden news broadcasts to explosive bro-step, pinned down by thrilling, cinematic string orchestrations. This could be the best thing Muse have ever recorded, a mash up of styles pulled off with a verve and ambition that recalls Bowie’s excursions into DnB/Industrial territory a decade ago.

Despite being at least as all-encompassing as The Resistance, this feels at first impression to be a far more cohesive, better-paced piece of work. If you miss the more metal-infused Muse of old then this is maybe not the album you want to hear; but for Prog-heads who have long regarded this band as the – legitimate and credible – second coming of that early ’70s explosion this is going to blow your mind. There’s surprisingly little ROCK in the accepted sense, by why should there be? Prog married the virtuosity and ambition of Classical and Jazz musos with the pop music OF THE DAY. Yes, Genesis, Zappa et al might sound retro today but at the time they were cutting edge shit. Muse get this, and at their best manage to sound both classic and contemporary. Like other exponents of modern-day ‘progressiveness’ – Radiohead, Tool, Pure Reason Revolution, Von Hertzen Brothers, Flying Colors etc – they balance their sonic exploration with hooks and melody. There’s more bombast, more ambition, more atmosphere, more soul and, well, just more. How they’re ever gonna top this is anybody’s guess.

p.s.

If you enjoy the bigness and high camp of Muse, Queen, Sparks et al but have a ken for something a bit more ‘balls out’, head on over here for a stream of the new Devin Townsend album:

http://ametalstateofmind.com/?s=devin+townsend

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The Release

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Okay, this post will be the culmination of my series of Marillion-related missives, following the progress of  the recording and pre-order campaign for their latest album, Sounds That Can’t Be Made this last few months.

(See also:  Gaza, Sounds that have been made, The ‘Power’ of Marillion, Sounds That Can’t Be Made)

To recap…

A new Marillion album is a bit special and here’s why: I – and over 13000 others – stumped up our hard-earned cash back in May of this year – £31.37 to be precise – for an as-yet-unwritten album. Not all of us have been entirely enamoured with Marillion‘s output over the years but like any pro(g)tagonist in a long-term relationship we’re prepared to take the rough of the creative process along with the smooth. Crucially, we agree that the latter tends to outweigh the former, even if no two of us can entirely concur on which songs/albums fall into which category. We like to be involved and appreciate the band and its organisation’s efforts to reach out and engage us in a dialogue.  Their customer service and marketing is second-to-none because they get us; they realise that the fans’ love affair with music is as crucial a component of the band’s lifeblood as the band’s love affair with music. We’re dubbed ‘Freaks’ for good reason 🙂

They’ve been working like this for years; long before it was recognised by industry commentators like Bob Lefsetz as the hot new business model; before Kickstarter. It’s why they’re not only still around but positively thriving whilst many acts of low-to-middling popularity have fallen by the wayside.

But, you may ask; is it any good? I’m gonna play devil’s advocate for a minute and say that the answer is that it’s not as simple as that. Do I like it? Yes. A lot. What does it sound like? It’s the sound of artists let off the corporate leash; answerable only to themselves and with a clear sense of their creative direction, with all the positives and negatives that entails. If you’ve been following the band over the course of their last few albums then it’s very much of a piece with their recent output. If you’ve liked that then I see no reason why this shouldn’t, in the main, appeal as much if not more: detractors on the other hand are unlikely to be converted.

In a recent interview, guitarist Steve Rothery posited the album title as ‘throwing down the gauntlet’, a statement of intent: and likewise opening a record with a 17 minute suite suite of music (Gaza) openly sympathising with the plight of Arabs in the Middle East surely counts as audacious; at least when a not inconsiderable portion of your worldwide fanbase resides in the broadly pro-Israel USA. Such audacity is echoed in the music, which on first hearing did present as a Pro Tools cut and paste job; its numerous movements seemingly heterogenous. Further listening reveals a clever – if occasionally unsubtle – marriage of mood to lyrical content and sentiment. This is what the long-form mode so beloved of ‘art’ rockers does well, and patience with this piece is well rewarded. Singer Steve Hogarth agonised over his lyrical contribution, communicating with both Israeli and Palestinian citizens, academics and NGO workers before committing his thoughts to paper; and whilst the finished story is nakedly imagined through Palestian eyes it reads – from my liberal, European, non-partisan viewpoint – as a tribute to human endurance rather than polemic.

Montreal is a love letter to a city that has long taken Marillion under its collective wing, with words lifted straight from Hogarth’s tour diary. The stream-of-consciousness lyrical style marries well with the shifting feel of this extended composition: like Gaza it’s a kind of medley/song cycle under one nominative umbrella, albeit much more smoothly-flowing than the former.

By contrast Pour My Love and Invisible Ink adopt a more metaphorical approach, lyrically; and at only 6 minutes apiece err on the concise side (in prog rock terms, anyway). The former has has echoes of Prince‘s Money Don’t Matter Tonight and Todd Rundgren‘s Hello It’s Me, and like Montreal it has a cool, laid back feel.

As the first trailer for the album, Power is the track I’m most familiar with now. It’s a brooding number featuring atmospheric keyboard embellishments from Mark Kelly and underpinned by Pete Trewavas‘ confident, propulsive four string figures; the payoff doesn’t quite match up to the build-up. The same could be said for The Sky Above The Rain which feels as if it has run its (musical) course after 7 minutes, yet rumbles on for a further 3 in order to accomodate a coda which, as much as it provides a sense of closure to the narrative feels extraneous.

Given that TSATR is the final track I have to resist my inclination to be forgiving: the concluding track on any album ought to offer the listener a sense of catharsis after the tension and release emotional adventure and in the past Marillion have managed this so much more deftly (The Last Straw, House and Neverland spring to mind). In this respect, Sounds That Can’t Be Made (as in the title track) would have been a more fitting closer, with its bouyant, pumping synth strings and Rothery’s triumphant, repeating solo motif, ending on a more confident, memorable note.

It’s a shame, but far from catastrophic: in the main this is an album that stands up well against both the band”s back catalog, and against the mass of contemporary rock releases. If you’re in the minority of listeners who still appreciate the virtues of the physical format replete with artwork and bonus gubbins then the ‘Campaign edition’ is sumptuously-presented and well worth the additional outlay. But in the end it’s all about the music and downloads are available in 320mbps and 44.1khz 16bit stereo FLAC download.

If you thought music like this couldn’t be made any more, give it a listen; you may be pleasantly surprised…

Gaza

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Yesterday saw the release of the final ‘teaser’ for ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’, Marillion’s soon to be released 17th studio album. It’s a BIG tease: 17’24” of  Leviathan, proglodyte complexitude in the vein of previous Marillion extended set-pieces such as ‘The Invisible Man’, ‘Ocean Cloud’, ‘Interior Lulu’ and ‘This Strange Engine’.

As the title of this post suggests, the song – which opens STCBM and according to sources within The Racket Club will also kick off the tour set – is inspired by events in the Middle East. This is a kind of ‘social commentary’ songwriting that the band have rarely ventured into before: the only examples that spring to mind are ‘White Russian’ (words penned by previous frontman, Fish) and ‘Berlin’ (lyrics by sometime Marillion collaborator, John Helmer) both inspired by events in the old Eastern Bloc. By contrast singer/lyricist Steve (h) Hogarth prefers (for the most part) to plumb the depths of his own emotional and experiential well for inspiration. Ok, ‘Easter’ – which became something of a band and fan anthem ever since its 1989 debut – was inspired by ‘The Troubles’ but is, in Hogarth’s own words ‘my love song to Ireland’ rather than any kind of strictly political statement. If he tentatively began to channel his inner Bono for a couple tracks on 2007’s ‘Somewhere Else’ record, then this track takes that to a whole new level.

Here’s what Hogarth had to say about the inspiration for ‘Gaza’ in a recent interview with Prog magazine:

‘We were on the guest list [for] Massive Attack and when you picked up your tickets they wanted a donation for the Hoping Foundation [which] raises money to provide materials and arts education … for children who live in refugee camps. I started reading about the history of  that part of the world from before the last war through to the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel… Skyping quite a lot of people within the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to try and get a sense and feeling of what life is like there. I didn’t want to write a piece of naive, romantic nonsense [or] a song just bashing Israel. You’ve got to keep coming back to … the perspective of a child growing up there’.

Marillion‘s online forum, YouTube and Facebook accounts are already buzzing with heated musical (and political) exchanges around the new song. With less than a week to go before the commencement of the UK leg of the tour this is a timely opportunity to digest a sizeable and complex chunk of fresh material. It’s also (re)opened the perennial ‘can of worms’ with regard to whether ‘pop artists’ ought to use their position to raise awareness of social/political situations from which they are arguably distanced by geography and – relative – financial security. Personally, it’s gonna take a while and a few more listens for me to make up my mind how successful they’ve been in either musical or lyrical terms. As a long-time fan of progressive rock I’ve come to enjoy unravelling the threads of Marillion’s (and others’) more sophisticated compositions; and to me it seems only apposite that such musical depth and complexity is echoed in provocative and dense lyricism. But have they bitten off more than they can chew this time? Will STCBM go down as a TDSotM or a 6DOIT? Let’s see…

You can follow developments in the album campaign as they unfolded in my previous blog posts by following these links  Sounds That Have Been Made , The Power of Marillion and Sounds That Can’t Be Made.