Fresh from the vault (9) Brave

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Since the Jimmy Savile revelations hit the headlines and catapulted the issue of sex crime to the front pages – and not before time, it must be said – it’s become belatedly-apparent how long the issues and consequences of widespread child abuse have lingered in the collective subconscious . The recent offering-up of Steve Messham as a media ‘sacrificial lamb’ promted me to select Marillion‘s Paper Lies as my Youtube upload of the day – dealing as it does with tabloid exploitation of crime victims; the twin themes of sensationalism and profit underlying the media’s purported humanitarian sympathies. Quickly, though, I got thinking about its parent album, Brave (1994) and how it addressed the wider themes of child abuse and its consequences at a time when such things weren’t the media trope that they’ve latterly become, especially in the light of the Savile scandal and the subsequent tabloid snowball.

And it provides me with another opportunity to big up this most underrated of bands – no chore for me at the best of times – and deservedly so.

Brave lived up to its name, musically-speaking. After a deliberate stab at a more commercial rock sound – in the shape of their previous album, Holidays In Eden (1991) – this record marked a dramatic swerve back in the direction of the kind of long-form, moody and emotionally-charged, symphonic prog rock with which they achieved unlikely mainstream success in the mid ’80s. At a time when Oasis‘s brand of back to basics, good-time  Rock’n’Roll was the popular paradigm it was a given that if the record was a hit it could only be so by dint of standing out spectacularly from the crowd, as Kayleigh, and its parent album, Misplaced Childhood had done back in ’85/’86.  It would be nice to say that the gamble paid off but in fact Brave turned out, despite critical acclaim, to be something of a commercial nadir for the band. Artistically, though, it still stands as one of the high-points in their chequered history; albeit one that divides devotees to this day.

The album had – to utilise a popular cliche – a difficult and protracted gestation and labour. EMI, understandably keen to release another hit record were pressing the band for a quick recording and release, and with that in mind recruited Irish Indie producer, Dave Meegan to oversee the sessions. Meegan, counter to their (EMI’s) intuitions, enthusiastically indulged the band’s artistic inclinations, beginning an association that would eventually span four albums, notably fan-favourite, Marbles (2004). A spell at Miles Copeland‘s Chateau Marouatte laid the foundations for what would turn out to Marillion’s longest recording sessions to date – unsurpassed until 2012 and the sessions for their latest Sounds That Can’t Be Made opus. Beginning with lyrical sketches faxed by sometime contributor, John Helmer and the band’s long established practice of generating music by way of extended jam sessions, augmented by a few glasses of red ‘…and a bit of a smoke, to be honest…’ singer Steve (h) Hogarth soon brought in the nugget that would provide the conceptual glue for the finished piece. In his own words…

‘…the song ideas took me back to an intriguing radio broadcast from the Bristol police some years ago on GWR Radio. The police had picked up a young woman wandering on the Severn Bridge who refused or was unable to speak to them … I thought it was a great first page to a mystery story…’. The mystery story – a fictional backstory to said real-life incident – evolved into the tale of a girl living rough after fleeing a home life scarred by domestic violence – a sexually-abusive father and distant mother – which, turning on listener interpretation might end in tragedy or redemption. The original double-vinyl release accentuated the suspense of the story by way of side four being double-grooved: the girl’s fate – falling into the icy waters of the Severn or into the arms of a new lover – depending on how – or how carefully – one dropped the needle. In the interim, songs touch on the realities and consequences of growing up in an abusive family. the insidious influence of the media, peer pressure to conform, love, escape and the search for identity.

As an album that blew me away at the time of release, it’s gone thru phases of not weathering too well – sonically, at any rate – and the accompanying movie by cult director Richard Stanley (Hardware) remains a missed opportunity, a travesty of its rich source material in flagrant contrast to Alan Parker‘s transcendental treatment of The Wall. Nonetheless, there’s some beautiful music contained therein; and in the light of current events it feels eerily prescient and relavent. Being a rock opera it’s conceived to be listened to wholesale rather than piecemeal but to give you a taster, here’s a couple of sections that stand alone in their own right and hopefully capture the flavour of this ambitious project:

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