I have a theory about why I think Marillion is one of the best bands in the world.
It goes like this:
Taking together all the disparate styles of music one can make, and not being a guy who likes genre labels very much, there are really only a couple of kinds of great music: those songs that blow your mind, and those that touch your soul. Musical impulses hail from two different regions, most commonly called head and heart, and it’s easy to tell from which one a song emerged. It’s the difference between hearing one song and saying, “Wow, that was well done, what a difficult and original thing to pull off, I think I’ll have to study that,” and hearing another and saying, “I love that, and I want to hear it all the time, because it gives me a big wide grin and brings tears to my eyes.”
The thing is, skill and emotion cannot often coexist. The more complicated and difficult a song is to play, the less likely there will be room within its passages to really connect with the listener in a straightforward manner. No one will disagree that the guys in King Crimson can play, but then I doubt many would say that “Larks Tongues in Aspic” really touched them, or made them cry.
At the far end of the skill spectrum, at least as far as this column’s purview is concerned, is progressive rock. Here are songs written for the express purpose of flaunting one’s musical skill, songs that stretch to 30 or 45 minutes, songs full of dazzling instrumental prowess and, it must be said, very little heart. And at the other end is simple folk music, a singer and his or her guitar strumming a few simple chords and bleeding all over them with emotion. And yet the songs, when broken down, are almost laughably easy to compose and play. Neither skill nor emotion can withstand the other’s scrutiny.
This is not an argument for one over the other. To the contrary, I would say that the best artists are the ones who can combine the two impulses, creating music that challenges the brain and moves the heart. Examples of this are few and far between, of course, and like everything else, entirely subjective. Most of my favorite bands choose emotion over everything, and my heart sways my head. I have found a few that can deliver for me on both levels without having to switch back and forth, but even they can only do it sporadically.
Marillion has been doing it consistently for more than 20 years. If one were to use crap industry terms to describe their sound, it would probably come out as progressive-ambient-pop-rock, but they’ve also done blues, acoustic folk, techno, island music, dub, you name it. Basically, if there’s a style of music that can be played by five English guys, Marillion have ingested it and spit it back out with their own distinctive stamp. They gleefully jump from genre to genre. Their songs can last the better part of 20 minutes, or less than three. Their catalog contains three full-fledged concept albums, one of them more than 70 minutes long. They are a thinking person’s band.
And yet, everything they do is simply loaded with heart, bursting with emotion. There are moments in Marillion songs that have literally made me weepy. I get chills listening to Steve Rothery’s glorious guitar tone, whether dripping with sadness or soaring with delight. He out-Gilmours David Gilmour, and he can play rings around him, too. Marillion makes music you feel, on a strong gut level, and it’s only afterwards, when you’re really examining it, that you realize how meticulous and well-arranged their work is, how purely musical. To pinch an old title of theirs, they are the best of both worlds.
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The first Marillion album I heard was Clutching at Straws, during my freshman year of college in 1992. It was thanks to Jess Quinn, a former student who had returned to direct a play I was acting in called You Were Born on a Rotten Day. (The actors ended up renaming it You Were Cast in a Rotten Play.) Jess lent me both Clutching and a compilation called Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other, celebrating both men – Fish and Steve Hogarth – who have fronted Marillion through the years.
I loved Clutching at Straws. I bought it on cassette almost immediately. But I will admit that the more recent material on the compilation didn’t pique my interest, so I lost track of the band for years. In 2001, I found them again, and bought the whole catalog on CD. The stuff I didn’t like on Six of One turned out to be not so bad in retrospect, and not at all representative of the albums. And the records I hadn’t heard between 1992 and 2001, well… wow. Some of them I now consider among my all-time favorites.
I have been ludicrously lax concerning Marillion and this column, a fact I hope to rectify over the next few weeks. For a band that sits so highly on my list to have received almost no analysis on this site is just plain silly. Both Marillion and their former frontman Fish have released career-defining albums this year – Marillion with the mammoth two-disc Marbles and Fish with the powerful Field of Crows – and this is the perfect time to explore their work in depth.
What follows is an attempt to define what makes this band so magical to me. I’m hoping in the process to turn a few people on to Marillion as well, considering that they’re largely ignored in the United States and only marginally better regarded in Europe. The band’s fans are mobilizing to take the new single, “You’re Gone,” straight to number one in the UK charts next week, and it would be great to see them get more exposure. Anything I can do to help that effort out would be my pleasure.
We’re going to start this week by exploring the early days of the band and the solo career of Fish, but we’ll catch up with Hogarth Marillion next week, and hopefully cap it all off with a review of Marbles. (I still don’t have my pre-ordered copy…) Buckle up, boys and girls.
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Script for a Jester’s Tear (1983)
Marillion formed in Aylesbury, England, in 1981, and right from the start, the focus was on Fish. His real name is Derek William Dick, he’s an impressively tall Scotsman, and his theatrical delivery on stage became the focal point of the group’s buzz. Fish would dress up in war paint and prance about, always holding an audience’s attention in the palm of his hand. His voice was, and still is, unique and captivating. And his lyrics, though sometimes wordy, were literate and cutting.
But behind Fish was a band, and in the rush to create a legend from its lead singer, the press would often overlook the skill of the musicians who provided the lifeblood. Guitarist Steve Rothery, bassist Pete Trewavas and keyboardist Mark Kelly (drummer Mick Pointer would be replaced by Ian Mosley after Script) attacked epic tracks with aplomb. Marillion was heavily influenced by early Genesis at this point, with Fish in full Peter Gabriel mode and Kelly running through a full array of Tony Banks synth sounds, but in the early ‘80s, there weren’t many people playing this sort of thing. And Rothery really showed his stuff with his extended solos.
As you may expect, Script for a Jester’s Tear, the band’s debut, is full of progressive epics and sounds very 1970s. It contains a mere six songs, five of which run more than seven minutes each. It’s dressed up in a cover painting by Mark Wilkinson that puts it squarely in the Genesis camp. There’s no mistaking this for anything other than what it is. And it’s an image that has haunted Marillion to this day, with many in the British press accusing them of writing about goblins and dragons. Which, by the way, they never did.
No, there’s no mistaking this for anything but a progressive rock record, and in that vein, it’s a very good one. It opens with Fish crooning a sad lament (“So here I am once more, in the playground of the broken hearts…”), which instantly sets Marillion’s brand of prog apart – it’s autobiographical, from Fish’s point of view, with an undercurrent of deep feeling. In contrast, “Garden Party” is a bit of a romp, and the band still plays it live sometimes. Fish only steps into the ludicrous once – “Forgotten Sons” is difficult to take seriously, with its chanted amens. But overall, Script is an enduring, if derivative, album.
By the Fugazi sessions, Pointer was out and Mosley was in, and the core of the band was in place. The primary lineup (Rothery, Trewavas, Kelly and Mosley) hasn’t changed in 20 years. And with the new group in place, Marillion rushed into the studio to record their second album. In retrospect, even the band members agree that they may have taken it too quickly.
It’s hard to overstate what a sometimes difficult and angular album Fugazi is. It’s still heavily Genesis-influenced, only this time some of the early Collins material seems to squeak in, especially on “Jigsaw.” And there’s a keyboard moment on “Emerald Lies” that sounds like vintage Banks. Lyrically, it’s angry and depressing – Fish really lays it all out there on this one, especially in the latter half of the record. His voice shakes and trembles throughout “Emerald Lies” and “She Chameleon,” and it’s hard not to admire him for being so fearless.
But when I say this record is difficult, I mean it. More than any other Marillion record, this one took some time to get into. There are three catchy songs, and they’re all up front, leaving the remainder of the album to lengthy, shifting, meandering pieces dripping with bile. Hearing “She Chameleon,” “Incubus” and the first half of the title track all in a row might be a bit much for anyone the first time. It’s a slow, creeping record, but it turns about for the final section of the title track. Fugazi, by the way, means “all fucked up,” an apt description of the mental state of the lyricist.
This is a good album, upon repeated listens, but not as good as its predecessor. These songs only live on in Fish’s live sets, and even then only occasionally. Hogarth steadfastly refuses to sing anything from this one, and given the personal nature of the lyrics, I don’t blame him a bit.
Misplaced Childhood (1985)
For most older fans, this was their introduction to Marillion. “Kayleigh” was a huge hit everywhere but here in the U.S., and in fact U.K. fans of the band are really sick of hearing about it. That’s partially because it’s a really sappy song, with pretty standard love song lyrics and an insidious chorus that grabs hold of your brain and won’t let go. It was Marillion’s first pop song, and while it was a decent, even lovely attempt, it wasn’t at all representative of the band or their third album. It does win you over, though, especially Rothery’s simply wonderful solo after the first chorus.
The album, now, that’s another story entirely. The band took it upon themselves to write their first concept album, a 41-minute piece of music only separated by record sides. Fish took some mushrooms and came up with the concept: a man who has just lost the love of his life is visited by his boyhood self for some introspection. Fish used his own dissolving relationship with his own Kayleigh as inspiration, and Misplaced Childhood is a remarkably moving album because of it.
Since the theme of the album dealt with childhood and innocence, many of the musical themes became, of necessity, simple and small. Misplaced is a 41-minute song made up of dozens of little movements, very few of which can stand on their own. But it retains a musical and thematic consistency throughout. It collapses by the end – “White Feather” really doesn’t seem to belong, and it’s too simple a song – but as a single piece, it succeeds. This was Marillion’s first stab at extended song forms, and they learned lessons from it that they incorporated into every lengthy piece they wrote from here out.
Many consider Misplaced Childhood to be the band’s masterpiece, and it’s certainly the one for which they are best remembered. Sections of the album, like the great breakdown in “Blind Curve” and the guitar intro to “Childhood’s End,” are full of deep feeling, and while it would be out of character for me to call this album a classic, it would be an easily forgivable leap. Fish still plays most of this album live, and in fact has recently started performing it in its entirety at special shows. And even Hogarth is known to bust out “Kayleigh” now and then.
Clutching at Straws (1987)
Anyone who gave the lyrics to Marillion’s fourth album a close read couldn’t have been surprised when Fish exited the band in 1989. Clutching is a concept album about drinking your life away, and it finds Fish examining the “drinks like a…” connotation of his stage name to its fullest. It is also the band’s most fully realized effort with their original lead singer, a perfectly paced collection of lovely, sad songs that aim for the heart.
It opens with a trilogy about hanging out in bars, the middle part of which, “Warm Wet Circles,” is simply devastating. Its simple metaphor hides an ocean of pain and regret. This is an album that flows so brilliantly that by the time you realize how long you’ve been listening to it, you’re done. Rothery is at his finest here – his solo sections are beautiful, restrained and heartfelt. But the band truly gels on this album, with each member contributing to the whole. There aren’t any bad songs here, and there are some terrific ones, including the epic “White Russian” and the hopelessly sad “Sugar Mice.” If the band made a masterpiece with Fish, then this is it.
Fish has called parts of Clutching his resignation letter to the band, and it’s true. It’s an album full of self-loathing and recrimination, but it’s all wrapped up in such soul-wringing pain, and covered in a misty fog of half-awaken memory. Fish had said all he could with Marillion, and he left on the highest of high notes. Needless to say, I could listen to this album all day and not be bored with it, and if this column convinces you to buy any of Marillion’s albums with Fish, I think you should choose this one.
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It’s constantly amusing to me that fans of early Marillion assumed that the band would fall apart without Fish, and that the singer would go on to a successful solo career. It’s a testament to Fish’s charisma that many thought the band was all about him, when in fact Fish would have to build a career with one-fifth of the Marillion sound, while the band still retained four-fifths. I would have given Marillion the better shot, provided they chose the right singer.
Fish, on the other hand, will always be at the mercy of his collaborators, since he plays no instruments. Hence his solo career is a spotty one, sliding from peaks to valleys and back again. Some of Fish’s solo work is downright embarrassing, but some is excellent. Along the way, both his voice and his lyrical ability seem to have atrophied, and his later material finds him singing in a much lower register, often with female backing vocalists to aid him.
Fish is still an extraordinary live performer, however. He’s bald, paunchy and aging at this point, but he still commands a crowd like few can. He’s amazing to watch. And when he gets the right group of musicians behind him, he can still make a great record. Fish has also made some disastrous business decisions that have cost him label support, and he’s taken his dedicated fanbase online, distributing his records himself. His Chocolate Frog Records has released his last two studio albums and a slew of live records and re-releases.
Fish’s solo catalog is littered with live albums, acoustic records, re-recordings and best-ofs. He’s released 29 solo CDs, and only eight of them are new studio recordings. Sifting through the mountain of material is daunting, but the good stuff is worth it.
Universally respected as his best work, Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors came out in 1990. The definition of “best” in this case means “sounds the most like Marillion,” of course, and this one does. The nearly nine-minute title track is one of Fish’s finest songs, and though he loses points for a pair of catchy dance numbers, he gets them back for the beautiful piano number “A Gentleman’s Excuse Me” and the concluding trilogy of solid songs. “Cliché” is a great love song, as well, and this album also includes “The Company,” which has become a Fish anthem, appearing at the end of virtually every concert he’s performed as a solo artist.
He rushed the follow-up, 1991’s Internal Exile, and it shows. He dips into adult pop balladry on “Just Good Friends” and “Dear Friend,” although both have their moments, and stumbles entirely with “Favourite Stranger.” Still, the album includes “Credo” and “Lucky,” two tunes that became staples of the live show, and the title track, which finds the big man embracing Scottish nationalism.
The less said about Songs From the Mirror, the better. Contractually bound for one more record, Fish delivered a covers disc in 1992, and the high points (Pink Floyd’s “Fearless,” Sandy Denny’s “Solo”) are practically drowned in embarrassing takes on Argent, Yes and Genesis songs. Between that and the six double live albums he subsequently released, Fish tried the patience of a lot of fans. The Mirror tour, however, produced the excellent live record Sushi, so it wasn’t all a loss.
Suits, released in 1994 on Fish’s own Dick Bros. label, was supposed to be a comeback, but its loping dance grooves and ultra-long songs put people off. It’s not a bad album, but it’s not a great one either, and good tunes like “Lady Let it Lie” and “Raw Meat” share disc space with lousy bits like “No Dummy” and “Bandwagon.” Fish seemed to be on a downward slide, and his insistence on releasing more live albums and a two-disc re-recordings project (Yin and Yang) only served to confirm this.
If you’re going to make a comeback, make it a big one, I always say, and Fish did so with Sunsets on Empire in 1997. It’s a big, loud, angry record full of guitars and snarling vocals, and featuring some of the best songs the Fishy One can claim under his own name. “The Perception of Johnny Punter” is an eight-minute Led Zeppelin workout, “Goldfish and Clowns” is catchy and well-written, and “Brother 52” sets its anti-government polemic to rollicking guitars and organs. Bring it home with a seven-minute title track that sounds like the best of Roger Waters’ stuff, and you have the best Fish record since Vigil, easily.
Sunsets seemed to kick off a modern Fish renaissance, as 1999’s Raingods With Zippos was also quite good. The first half pales in comparison to the side-long epic “Plague of Ghosts,” a techno-influenced suite that runs for 25 minutes and still feels too short. Raingods also began Fish’s short time with Roadrunner Records, who re-released all the older albums and some of the live discs.
That relationship was short-lived, and Fish returned to his own label for Fellini Days, a collaboration with Floridian guitarist John Wesley, in 2001. Fellini proved to be another valley, for while it had a couple of good tracks, all of them dragged on too long, and some were well below par. The production also drowned everything in Wesley’s guitar, even quieter pieces like “Obligatory Ballad.” And Fish’s voice showed obvious signs of wear on nearly every track. As with every less-than-great album he makes, Fish’s fans wondered whether he’d finally lost it.
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Which brings us to 2004.
And would you believe Fish has just put out the best album of his solo career?
Field of Crows doesn’t officially hit shops until April 19, but Fish has been selling it from his website since December. I’ve had it since early January. Often Fish albums take time to worm their way into my brain, and assessing them after one or two listens often results in an incomplete picture. I can usually tell, however, which songs will be growers and which will sit and fester, and Fish has done his fair share of both.
Field of Crows is immediate. It takes hold right away, and only gets better each time you play it. It is the most straightforward rock album he has made, and yet it contains passages of great intensity, quiet moments that move unlike anything he’s made since Vigil. This is, finally, an album that shows Fish at the top of his game, one in which every song contributes to the whole. There are no bad tracks, and there are some songs here that are better than anything Fish has ever done.
It’s worth pointing out that my definition of “best” does not mean “sounds most like Marillion.” Fish has evolved throughout his solo career into an earthy, rootsy singer. His voice has dropped and decayed, much like Bob Dylan’s, so his natural timbre now is low, rumbly and full of menace. There is more weight, more gravity to his voice now, and he wrings passion from it in completely different ways than he did with Marillion.
The music is decidedly different as well, and those searching for a sequel to Clutching at Straws will be disappointed. Fish has reunited most of the musicians who helped him make Vigil for this album, but Crows is guitar-fueled rock and roll for much of its running time. Songs like “Moving Targets,” “The Rookie,” “Old Crow” and “Numbers” groove along on nasty, tasty guitar riffs, Fish spitting and snarling his way through them like a wolverine. Above all, Field of Crows is loud, but catchy as a flu virus.
I don’t want to give the impression that Crows is, musically speaking, like an AC/DC album, all rock and no heart, though. Opener “The Field” is an eight-minute folksy dirge, which consistently builds to a repeated refrain, complete with horn section. “The Lost Plot” is perhaps the most Marillion-like song here, carried along by sweet repeated keyboards. “Exit Wound” is a bluesy ballad. And halfway through the epic “Innocent Party,” the whole album changes.
That song, a jackhammer attack for four of its seven minutes, blossoms into a piano-driven wonder. And from that point on, the character Fish is playing sees the light. “Shot the Craw” is one of the big man’s best ballads, this one in 7/4 time and full of beautiful guitar sounds, courtesy of longtime collaborator Frank Usher. “Scattering Crows,” the closer, starts off weakly, but quickly becomes the most emotional piece here, and it concludes on a surprising yet resonant note. Field of Crows starts on top of the world and ends gently (yet mercilessly) back on the ground. It is entirely emotionally satisfying.
It’s also Fish’s first genuine concept album since Clutching. It’s about selling out one’s principles, about the moment when one realizes, with intense regret, just what one has given up to attain a position one no longer wants. It’s also about a body in a field, and how that body got there. During the journey, the album references 9/11 and takes aim at American foreign policies, and everything works toward the theme. Animal metaphors also abound, particularly in “Zoo Class” and “Old Crow.” This is the most complete set of lyrics Fish has composed in more than a decade.
His is also one of the most coherent responses to 9/11 I have heard. “Innocent Party” is the song that most directly addresses the tragedy, using America as a metaphor for his character’s fall:
“You once had the world at your feet, but your conscience wandered in clouds,
You lost sight of your goals, your vision was blurred when the towers one day disappeared,
Everyone stared, no one believed as the images burned on our screens,
That a world had just changed, the dream evaporates, no more innocent parties…”
The album, as a whole, is about finally remembering what is important, and Fish’s use of the world situation emphasizes his point with stunning clarity. I am slightly uncomfortable with the final destination of the plotline in relation to the imagery, but you can’t say Fish hasn’t carefully considered this album. He obviously worked intensely on Field of Crows, both on the solid music and the even more solid lyrics, and it’s the crown jewel of his solo career.
It’s also probably his last. Fish has expressed a desire to get out of recording and touring, and he’s said that he can’t imagine topping Field of Crows next time out. Fish turns 46 on April 25 (or 25 April, as he would say), and he’s had a good long run, both with Marillion and as a solo artist. If it turns out that Crows is his final record, well, it’s a good way to go out, but it would be a shame. His work still feels vital and invigorating, and his voice is singular and unique. It would be unfortunate to lose such a voice to the financial realities of independent music-making, especially since he’s still capable of making records like Field of Crows.
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Wow, this column is huge, and it’s only part one. I guess I just need to get this obsession off my back, so thanks for coming along.
See you in line Tuesday morning.