…and honestly, how far can you trust a man with a 50-year history of rockin’ it live as an arbiter of sound quality? If your nose is twitching to the pulse of marketing BS, there’s probably a reason for that…
Unless you’re a pop megastar or an outspoken feminist, sifting and junking unedifying email isn’t really that big a deal.
So sign up for a bunch of stuff; just dive in. Sure, you might find yourself deluged with bunch of crap stuff, but then once in a while you’ll stumble across something that just blows you away, like this did me:
Aaron o’Keefe‘s just a regular guy: a music tutor. But when his students are tackling tunes like this – and with such applomb – he’s obviously doing something right. I think I actually prefer this to the original. I went straight back to Ӕnima after hearing this and it’s ok – good actually – but Tool never really happened for me until it put out Lateralus. Maynard Keenan is an amazing singer (see below) and it takes some balls (or maybe just childish fearlessness) to step into his shoes. This little girl is just fantastic, and the young guy on drums ain’t no slouch, either (check out those drum signatures [4.31-5.06]). Don’t let X-Factor/BGT get you down: not everyone’s chasing the money and/or vacuous adulation. For many it’s all about the art…
I likely wouldn’t have come across this if not for Jason Hirshhorn’s Media ReDEFined, along with Upworthy, GenderTrender and The Lefsetz Letter they’re my top go-to sites for current affairs stuff. Like I said up top, trawl the net and if something clicks, click: there are enough diamonds in the rough for everyone.
For Tool newbies, here’s the original recording from Ӕnima:
…and my favourite Keenan vocal performance, Wings For Marie Pts 1 and 2:
Having spent most of my working life in the professional kitchen, I can attest that ‘compliments to the chef’ are all too rare. This may not be the case in high-end establishments run by the Gordon Ramsays and Raymond Blancs of this world, but in the fair-to-middling hotels, pubs and contract catering establishments I’ve mostly devoted myself to, customer feedback has all too often been of the ‘Steak underdone’, ‘Where are our starters? It’s been half an hour’ or (my personal favourite) ‘Yuck! Is this Chantilly cream on my potato skins?’ (it was – that’ll teach me to label better!) variety. If it seems I’m not selling my culinary skills too well, I might point out in my defence that the general public is as often as parsimonious with its compliments as it is vociferous with its complaints; and even when generous with respect to the former, underpaid, harassed waiting staff aren’t necessarily minded to pass them on: they’ve got too many other things on their mind, like the thought of a cold one at the bar, or getting home in time to kiss their significant other goodnight for once, WHEN THIS FUCKING SHIFT ACTUALLY ENDS!
Thankfully I’m in a better position now. As Head Chef for a local charity, I’m face to face with my clientele on a daily basis; on generally, if not friendly then familiar, terms and know their likes and dislikes. The workload is light by catering standards and because lining my boss’s pockets isn’t a consideration, I have pretty much a free hand as long as I don’t blow my budget.
Musical artists are increasingly finding themselves in a similar position: wary of the old-school major label merry-go-round and ever more internet-savvy, many are choosing to focus their energies on building closer relationships with their now easily-accessible niche of aficionados.
So it was that within 24 hours of receiving my copy of Speak I was firing off an email to i-and-thou.com expressing my admiration for the music therein, and just a few more hours later received a reply from I and Thou mainman, Jason Hart thanking me for my comments. It’s a small thing in a way, and yet it exemplifies the appeal of the ‘new’ music industry – oft-trumpeted by Bob Lefsetz – in all its multivarious permutations, from Marillion to Amanda Palmer; the feeling of being ‘all in it together’. Marketing, selling and receiving ‘compliments to the chef’ in a direct manner heretofore impossible.
So, then; onto the music itself…
By and large, I’m not much of a fan of the kind of ‘retro-Prog’ that seems to be, if not en-vogue, then certainly a popular niche market at present. Several qualities set this album apart from the neo-Prog crowd. Hart‘s voice, whilst far from ‘strong’ in the kind of quasi-operatic sense typical of many a pomp/prog act – say a Matt Bellamy or a James LaBrie – has a quiet expressiveness to die for: Stevens Wilson and Drozd might be helpful reference points. The music too is in its way, understated. There’s complexity and depth, for sure, but nothing that might fairly be described as showboating: rhythmic and harmonic choices serve the music; flirtatious figures, tantalizing turns that invite the listener to surrender to the ebb and flow. The emphasis is firmly on melody and dynamics that drive the songs forward. It’s a very ‘up’ album, suffused with a positive vibe even in its superficially melancholy moments. Hart demonstrates skill and soul in equal measure, a balance all too rarely achieved at a time when ‘Prog’ is undergoing something of a mini revival.
Four of its five tracks clock in at over ten minutes but there’s never a sense of ideas being stretched thin. Rather, each mini symphony unfolds organically, introducing and exploring variations on – often simple – melodic motifs to create an interesting dynamic. It’s in some ways truer to the idea of a symphony than recognised standards such as Genesis’ Supper’s Ready or Dream Theater‘s A Change of Seasons, in the sense that there’s a single song underpinning each extended workout, rather than an Abbey Road-style ‘medley’ feel. Opening – and title – track, Speak exemplifies this perfectly: its tasteful, yet compellingly-dynamic instrumental break is anchored at either end by a touching piano ballad; Hart‘s plaintive tones matched by some decidedly Banksian chords (evoking for me the opening of One For the Vine, without really sounding too much like it).
Hide and Seek‘s chamber-styled orchestrations give way to a section which recall’s Genesis‘ Entangled; …And I Awaken (click on Soundcloud player, below) is guaranteed to delight and confound Prog-heads as Airplane surely pleases and tests movie buffs, with its frequent, fleeting allusions to Prog’s old masters: blink and you might miss those – artfully re-imagined – melodic tips of the hat to, amongst others Warm Wet Circles, Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats and The Great Gig in the Sky, not to mention Awaken itself.
The final track is a cover of Go Or Go Ahead by Rufus Wainwright – Hart incidentally, having been a member of his touring band – and features a duet with – fellow Wainwright aficianado and Marillion singer – Steve Hogarth. It’s a departure from the symphonic prog sound that characterizes the rest of the album. So characteristic is Hogarth‘s vocal it teeters on the edge of becoming ‘Marillionized‘: he has an uncany ability to make other artists’ material his own (check out his [solo] performance of Jeff Buckley’s Dream Brother or [with Marillion] Radiohead‘s Fake Plastic Trees). That said, it’s a fitting coda to the album, a moment of quiet – albeit pained – introspection that brings both band and listeners back home after a many-splendoured musical and emotional journey.
The accident that (eventually) led me to discover this wonderful album actually happened back in the spring of 2007, when I caught a short solo spot by Hart at Marillion‘s biennial Weekend convention in Port Zelande, Netherlands. He was an impressive presence even alone with his piano; delighting the afternoon crowd with, in particular, a rendition of (Marillion‘s) ’80s hit Lavender. Dramatic flourishes aside, this is a songwriter’s album, which ought to appeal to today’s neo-prog heads; fans of, for example Spock’s Beard, Von Hertzen Brothers or Flying Colours. Whilst never approaching the more rocking moments of these bands, it shares their ability to leaven sophisticated playing and arrangement with a strong sense of melody.
Whether I and Thou turns out to be long-term prospect of simply a one-off for Hart remains to be seen; though I for one, won’t be waiting another five years to investigate his music further.
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.
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…
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