Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made – an album review

It doesn’t seem that long ago that we had a new Marillion album, but in truth, it’s been four years. I suppose it just seems like less time because they’ve had so many multi-disc live releases in the last few years, it’s hard to comprehend that they haven’t really recorded a new album together since 2008. I quite enjoyed Happiness Is The Road, and yet I never really quite fell in love with it the way I had Marbles (the Limited Deluxe Edition is superior to the official release; I’ve only ever heard it in ripped mp3 format—it’s good to make friends on the internet—and wish I’d been able to invest in the Limited Edition copy myself) and (to a lesser extent) Somewhere Else. Happiness has a number of great tracks, but taken as a whole, it doesn’t hang together as well as deluxe Marbles. So really, for me, it’s been a while since I’ve had a new Marillion album I really loved.

So here it is, the new album, and I’m hoping it proves to be the album I’ve been waiting for. Let’s see

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tl;dr Version: Marillion? Are they still recording? Is Fish back yet?

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Bastard. You know Derek Dick is never going to rejoin Marillion, and anyway, Steve Hogarth has been the singer for two decades and counting. When are you going to get over it? Meanwhile, yes, Marillion is still around, still recording, and still changing. This album is in fact their 12th with h, and 3x as many albums as FIsh recorded with them (although he DID just release his latest and perhaps strongest solo album, A Feast of Consequences, so he’s not doing too badly, either). For the record, I’m a fan of both singers, and I think h has brought something powerful and compelling to the band that they didn’t have with Fish, even if Derek was (and is) a first class lyricist.

Boring Version: Actually, talking about Fish IS the boring part of this discussion. What I should have mentioned is that Marillion without Fish have recorded some of the finest post-Prog albums of their—or anyone else’s—career. Brave and Afraid of Sunlight were fantastic concept albums, and Marbles is without a doubt one of the strongest double albums (if you get the Limited Edition version) recorded since Layla and Other Love Songs or Songs in the Key of Life.
Whether this album matches up with that is up for debate, but I aim to speak honestly about it, and perhaps even deliver my first not-so-positive in-depth review. I usually don’t do that because frankly, it’s not a paying gig, so why should I? I’m not a journalist or professional music critic, so I don’t have to pretend to be impartial. No pressure = more honest reviews.
But in this case, I think it might be important to shed some light on this album, as it IS the first Marillion studio album of the new decade, and could be an indicator of what we have to look forward to in the 2010’s.

THE REVIEW
Gaza is a slow building number, but it evokes a Middle Eastern feel, Zepplinesque synth strings and percussion, and a strangely disco pop chorus, followed shortly by a rocking riff to a broken vocal bridge, and then the verse returns with more force, followed by that chorus and bridge section, also stronger, also more insistent. The song settles into this slightly angry vibe for a bit, and then suddenly returns to the start, before the rock riff comes back with a vengeance in the instrumental section, an almost Adrian Belew squealing horsie guitar sound, which gives way to a pastoral section, like celestial music, Steve Hogarth (h) singing over top in that sweet balladeer voice of his. This gives way to a simple, persistent drum rhythm that pushes h into a moodier section, joined by synth brass and a grungy guitar tone. That eventually gives room to a long, meditative passage that eventually gives rise to a rather moving choral section, which I assume is the band singing along with at least two or three tracks of h, but I may not be hearing that properly. Another soft passage, piano and bluesy guitar. h goes for broke, and now we’re in familiar territory, as it turns into a gorgeous Marillion instrumental passage. When h starts singing over top of Steve Rothery’s wailing guitar solo, it just goes to another, passionately sadder realm. And then the track gives way to some ambient synth and a little guitar, before a new, heavy, moody variation of the chorus comes in, brooding bass, building walls of guitar and vocals. Hogarth sings both in low and high register, harmonizing an octave apart, and the effect is unsettling and powerful.

Sounds That Can’t Be Made opens with drums and synth strings vamping over a deliberately plodding bass line, while snippets of guitar and the occasional splash of piano or synth violin sting interrupt periodically. There’s a nice bit of bridge riff, which the first time around sounds like it’s a bit incomplete. The verse and chorus return, and the song goes into a strangely broken variation of that bridge theme I mentioned, this time with minimal drums and bass, h crooning softly, and then a true synth solo, like something off of a Yamaha CS-80 (think Blade Runner), cuts through, followed by drums, bass and then an extended guitar-and-vocal duet outro, complete with Ooo backing chorus. Kind of a Floydian outro, with an ascending scale moment reminiscent of A Day In The Life. Then it goes out on a Marillion outro moment, h singing earnestly about sounds that can’t be made, while Rothery wails away in the background.

Pour My Love starts with (presumably) Mark Kelly on an electric piano, probably CP-70 or RMI, because it reminds me of the sort of thing Tony Banks would play around 1979. Then the tune shifts to a bluesy Marillion vamp. A convincing 70s Jazzy AOR Pop vibe. Think Steely Dan or Carly Simon. It eventually gets an overhaul in a big Motownesque Marillion bridge key change, which then leads into a pretty Steve Rothery guitar solo over Hammond organ. It goes out on the AOR chorus, and then settles down to rest.

Power creeps in through the back door, moody, but persistent. The bass carries the verses here. It sounds like an 80s action film closing credit theme. Shush, you. That’s not a bad thing here. The chorus is a Marillion chorus, which means the hook is too good for radio, more’s the pity. It’s probably the first time I’ve ever heard Marillion do what I consider to be a great Bond Movie theme. It sounds quite sturdy. Reminds me of the conciseness and punch of the first two albums with h on vocals (Season’s End and Holidays In Eden). There’s a nice, quiet, rainy section in the middle that just vamps quietly and gives h a chance to

Montréal is another extended piece, coming in at just over fourteen minutes, which opens with an atmospheric CS-80 sound fading into another electric piano (Wurlizter? Fender Rhodes? I always struggle with this one, don’t I?), h singing over a nice little ride figure on the drums, before the sun comes out and the vibe changes considerably, taking on a Vangelis feel (Blade Runner again). Here I am almost reminded of Yes from Relayer (Turn of the Century). Then it evolves into something reminiscent of Afraid of Sunlight, with h singing in falsetto, but this too is replaced by a nice bluesy bridge and chorus, somewhere near early 90s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (probably that Hammond). Then we find ourselves in an extended ambient section, like an outtake from Brave, and it seems to feel just right, the space very evocative, the bass line and tine keys waltzing about. This suddenly ends as they go into a section that sounds like early 70s Genesis playing a Men Without Hats song. This isn’t a bad thing. Acoustic 12-string and string box section, very Supper’s Ready bridge-like. And then a new riff, starting on keys but being taken up by the drums and h’s singing, Pete Trewavas vamping under Rothery’s guitar, which gets more and more passionate, until it suddenly gets washed away in a tide of bass and keys, h singing in chorus to himself. The riff gets washed away in a tsunami of sound and vocals, followed by a sudden shift to a pastoral section, something close to the early end of h’s Marillion career. Another instrumental passage, and then a closing section that is very, very reminiscent of Season’s End. Nice.

Invisible Ink Electric piano with some vox humana and h singing solo and harmonized in thirds, before a harpsichord starts to chime in, and then all of that is replaced by digital piano and bass, followed by a soft vocal close harmony with a bit of guitar keening high. Then the rock riff kicks in, drums and thudding bass, anthemic and melodic at once. Not their greatest chorus, but it has a nice Motown vibe, which gives way to another soft vocal section, guitar and keys chiming away softly. Rocking bridge returns, h singing his way into the Motown chorus again, a virtual children’s choir of little Hogarths backing him. The soft passage closes the tune.

Lucky Man starts with a vibraphone keyboard sound playing the lead riff, which is soon picked up by Rothery in guitar hero mode. This too gives way to a quiet, extended bluesy verse section that has a slightly Beatlesque Clavinet and Mellotron vamp leading to the chorus. It’s one of those choruses they’ve done before (either that or I’ve been listening to this song too much, and it’s starting to bleed into their discography, which might be a good thing, actually), but it’s the perfect rocking sound for this moment. The quiet bluesy section returns, this time accompanied on Hammond organ, and building to the rock chorus again. Wait, I know where I’ve heard that chorus before: early-to-mid 70s Elton John. Think Love Lies Bleeding. Very well played. Then the guitar solo kicks in. Close to early 70s Santana, minus the timbales. Gimme that chorus one more time. Yup. Elton John. Beautiful. Sudden stop.

The Sky Above The Rain closes the album with another extended piece—this one at about ten and a half minutes, this one coming in on two grand pianos and a little bit of telecaster. Pretty. Very, very pretty. There’s that Claptonesque strat style Rothery does so well, right out of Layla and Other Love Songs. The songs gains some strings and some heft, building slowly, minor to major, before retreating to another minor key segment, this time on guitar and vocals, before a low string section washes in, very theatrical, joined by the orchestra and piano, climbing back up to that elegiac chorus segment, like rain clouds parting to let sunlight through once more. We’re half way through, and it already feels like the song is over, but it hasn’t overstayed yet. Three fifths through, it suddenly gives way to a plaintive grand piano, which carries us to an explosively huge waltz-time riff that just wends on and on, h harmonizing and escalating, before a wall of voices rise up and carry the outro guitar solo over the surface of a musical ocean, heading straight for the setting sun. The guitar falls off the edge of the world, and all that’s left is that plaintive grand piano, chiming out the key riff until it too comes to a stop.

SUMMARY
There are too many things I’d like to say about this album. The first thing I’ll say is, I think this album was probably recorded and mixed through headphones more than monitor speakers, as the mix sounds good but not particularly grabby on my computer speakers, but through my cheap little Maxell ear buds, the album sounds magnificent. Second, I had read that the album was largely written and recorded in bits by the individual members one at a time, rather than as a band, and that the distance between the members during the making of the album lends to it feeling somehow less enjoyable; less band-like. You might not notice the lack of cohesive vibe through headphones, but I definitely detected a certain lack of energy/synergy while playing the album through computer speakers. I might yet put it up on the big stereo just to see if there’s something in the ambiance that stands out more on bigger speakers (I’m not an audiophile, but I know the value of good speakers, even if I don’t own any to speak of).

I will admit that, so far, none of the tracks has truly grabbed hold of me the way my favourite Marillion albums have, though Gaza really is a pretty impressive piece taken as a whole. They seem to have tried to reach back for some of that Strange Engine/Marbles magic, but came away with somewhat less-than-totally convincing performances (though still technically flawless; just not as gut-wrenching as past albums). All the elements are there. It just feels a wee bit too relaxed; too clinical. Like they didn’t really feel the need to make this album in particular.

It’s still a very good album. It is, for all that, a Marillion album, which even at their weakest moments trounces most commercial rock fair of the day. It has lots of good moments, and a few well-constructed songs, aside from the longer pieces which are very moving if a little incoherent in places. The album doesn’t quite reach my top floor, yet. But I’m getting there. We’ll see what the big speakers say later.

But believe me, it gets better with every listen. So don’t be afraid to give this one time to grow on you. I can definitely see it growing on me.

© 2013 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.

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