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…