It’s constantly amazing and amusing to me that even after 17 years and 13 albums with Marillion, Steve Hogarth is still considered by many to be “the new guy.”
Hogarth had the unenviable task of replacing Fish, the man who for seven years defined Marillion with his voice and outsize personality. And rather than enlist a Fish clone, the band ingeniously went with someone nearly Fish’s opposite in voice, temperament, and even height. Hogarth is a small, spry man with a high, airy voice of often surprising power, and a typically English sense of humor – dry and reserved.
Though it may have seemed an odd choice at the time, Hogarth has proven to be a perfect fit with the band, moreso even than his predecessor. The second phase of the band has produced nine albums ranging from very good to spectacular, and has tackled an almost mindboggling array of styles. They have, of course, remained Marillion through it all – a phenomenally talented progressive pop band – but with Hogarth, they have opened up their sound, allowing those prog tendencies to sit next to dozens of other influences. It doesn’t always cohere, but it’s always surprising, exciting and rewarding listening.
Yet still people ask when Fish is coming back. It’s incredible. One of the least charitable reviews of the new single, “You’re Gone,” began like this: “So’s Fish. Some Bono wannabe sings instead.” For many, the Hogarth era of Marillion has been one diminishing return after another, with Fish fans waiting in vain for the band to make another Misplaced Childhood. It’s never going to happen. Nor should it. The band has moved past the limited sound they exhibited on their first four releases, and as reviewer John Hotten once famously put it, “[Hogarth] may be no Fish, but then, Fish is no Steve Hogarth.”
Seasons End (1989)
Hogarth came to Marillion after stints in radio pop acts the Europeans and How We Live. He almost immediately became known simply as H, to avoid confusion with guitarist Steve Rothery. Along with his MTV-ready good looks and charm, H brought a musicianship to the table that Fish couldn’t have matched. He’s a terrific songwriter (as a perusal of his solo album, Ice Cream Genius, will reveal), and a fantastic singer. Where Fish got by on emotion and strength, H has a rich, technically proficient voice with a perfect, soaring falsetto at his command. Plus, the guy can sing pretty much anything.
The quality of H’s voice must have been the first thing fans noticed when playing Seasons End, the new model Marillion’s maiden voyage. Rather than call attention to itself as the focus, Hogarth’s voice is like another instrument, perfectly complementing the ringing guitars and keyboards on “King of Sunset Town,” the album opener. That song, with its two-minute fade-in and ambient sound, set the tone for this largely quiet and atmospheric record.
Seasons End is the very antithesis of the maxim about making a splashy first impression. It’s a grower, a thoughtful record that deepens with each play. It slowly seeps into your consciousness on waves of clean guitar and sustained synth lines. It is, above all, a powerfully emotional recording – the band hadn’t lost a note from the Clutching sessions, and H took the melodies to new heights. How anyone could listen to Hogarth’s vocals on the second half of “Berlin,” for example, or the incredible climax of “The Space,” and wish for Fish’s return is beyond me.
As the legend goes, H arrived for his first rehearsals with a red plastic bucket full of demo recordings on cassette. Much of the music for Seasons End was constructed from aborted sessions for the band’s fifth album with Fish, and whenever those bits weren’t working, someone would ask H if he had anything in the bucket worth trying. As fate would have it, one of the songs in the bucket was named “Easter,” and it became the enduring classic of this album. A gorgeous acoustic guitar and keyboard backing, a superb vocal melody, a soaring 90-second guitar solo, and a final third that shifts into the stratosphere – “Easter” is one of Marillion’s best songs, and they’ve played it at nearly every show since its release.
Unfortunately, they did make one colossal blunder on Seasons End, and it’s called “Hooks in You.” It’s a straight ‘80s rock song, one that’s almost crying out for a sleazy video. It’s full of guitar heroics and stupid lyrics, it sounds completely out of place on this contemplative record, and inexplicably, it was the first single. So the first taste many fans had of Hogarth came in the form of a glam-metal throwaway, and many just walked away, assuming Marillion had pulled a Phil Collins-years Genesis. And sadly, the band would only compound that problem next time out.
Holidays in Eden (1991)
If anyone wished to accuse Marillion of selling out, this album would be the evidence. Holidays is the most pop-based, compressed, radio-ready album the band has ever released. It has not one, but two Phil Collins-style ballads, a couple of unimaginative rockers, and an overall hit single vibe that was the last straw for fans of the old progressive style. It’s the weakest album they’ve made, by a mile.
And you know what? It’s still really good.
It’s easy to blame Hogarth for the poppy direction of Holidays. After years of being defined by their lead singer, it’s possible (and many have assumed) that the band took direction from their former pop idol frontman, especially since both “Dry Land” and “Cover My Eyes” date back to H’s days with How We Live. Even the liner notes seem to suggest this – Hogarth’s essay is the only one that feels completely positive about the album and its direction.
But it’s just not a fair assessment. First, Hogarth’s solo stuff is almost anti-pop. Second, the rest of the band is all over Holidays, in a good way. Listen to Rothery’s solo spots in the creepy opener “Splintering Heart,” or even on mid-tempo ballad “Dry Land,” and you’ll hear just as much emotion as he’s ever poured out. Listen to how the band clicks into a groove on “This Town,” or the title track. They’re having fun, and Chris Neil’s echoey production can’t mask that.
That said, though, Hogarth owns this album. Impressive as he was on Seasons End, he cuts right to the heart of it here. His powerful vocals on “The Party” will haunt you, especially in the unadorned opening and closing sections. His falsetto is flawless on “Cover My Eyes,” which was, before “You’re Gone,” Marillion’s most perfect radio single. Even “No One Can,” the album’s most top-40-sounding track, benefits greatly from H’s delivery. (Of course, it being the weakest and most typical track here, “No One Can” was the disastrous first single…)
A lot of people who bought Holidays only listened one or two times before giving up, which is a shame. This album is as much a grower as Seasons End, even if it doesn’t share that record’s meditative qualities. You need a few listens to hear past the production sheen and get to the songs, because there are some gems here. Still, if you’re only going to buy one H-era Marillion album, it shouldn’t be this one.
It should probably be this one.
You’ll find a lot of disagreement amongst Marillion fans regarding songs and albums, which is to be expected when a band jumps genres like this one does, but most will agree that Brave is a masterpiece. The band worked on this album like they’d never worked on anything before. Holidays in Eden was a disappointment on many levels, and vowing not to repeat that process, they took EMI’s money, holed up in a castle in France, and made a 70-minute concept album that plays like a single devastating song. The guys in Marillion still chafe against the prog-rock label they’re often tagged with, but how can they argue when they make albums as progressive as this one?
Brave was inspired by a news story about a girl found wandering the Severn Bridge in Bristol, an apparent suicide risk who refused to talk to police about her identity. The album tells the story of how she may have ended up there, and about what happens to her in the end. It’s a difficult, complex and brilliant album, one of the finest conceptual works I have heard. The opening draws you in, from the haunting guitar foghorn noises to the hushed piano and vocals of “Bridge,” and the grand finale – the ambient stunner of a title track, the dramatic “The Great Escape” and the delicate “Made Again” – is shattering. It breaks you apart and puts you back together again, all in 20 minutes.
Brave is also notable for its sound. This is an old-fashioned concept record, one in which every second was sculpted and labored over. The sonic quality of Brave is pretty much perfect, and credit must go to Dave Meegan, in his first production effort for the band. Meegan is now unofficially the sixth member of Marillion, and his amazing contributions to Marbles were so essential that he’s pictured with the band in their only liner note photo. Meegan painted Brave like a classical artist, bringing the best out of Marillion. The result is perhaps their finest work.
And of course, it tanked. No one makes a 70-minute concept album and expects it to sell millions, but Marillion were kind enough to EMI to provide them with a catchy hit single, “Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury.” But just as they fumbled the ball with Holidays (an album just screaming for radio play it never got), they wrote off Brave quickly. It was becoming obvious that the band was no longer welcome at their label.
Afraid of Sunlight (1995)
They decided to bang one more record out for EMI, and the label warned them against doing anything like taking two years to make an expensive concept album in France again. Afraid of Sunlight was knocked out, as the back cover says, in a few months, and it examined the pitfalls of fame, particularly the sudden kind, from many different angles. It was almost like the band’s farewell to their major label, a cautionary tale warning against what Radiohead would later term “the bends.”
Sunlight may have been made quickly and cheaply, but it certainly doesn’t sound like it. The band worked with Meegan again, and the sonic layers of Brave are in (slightly diminished) evidence. The songs on Sunlight are tighter than those on Brave, with fewer sprawling sections, but no less depth and power. It’s a very American album, with nods to the Beach Boys on the hilarious “Cannibal Surf Babe,” Phil Spector on the mono-mixed “Beyond You,” and several American figures that serve as lyrical metaphors. It’s a deep, atmospheric record, almost a sequel to Seasons End.
Smack in the middle of the album is a trilogy that stands with the best work the band has produced. It starts with the lilting “Afraid of Sunrise,” but soon moves into the stunning epic “Out of This World,” which contains more than one magical moment. And the title track, which caps it off, is goosebump-raising. Hogarth shines throughout, and Mark Kelly delivers the goods with swirling keyboards in all the right places. And Rothery soars, as usual.
The album ends abruptly, much like the band’s relationship with EMI Records did after Sunlight’s release. Marillion gave the label one last stab at a hit single with the defiantly simple “Beautiful,” and called it a day. They headed off towards the minor leagues, ready to explode into the future.
This Strange Engine (1997)
The band’s debut for Castle Records is the first installment in what some fans call the “unholy trinity,” three albums for which Marillion took the production reins themselves and began restlessly experimenting. Engine is so radically different from what came before that it left many long-time fans scratching their heads, especially in the wake of prog-heavy albums like Brave and Sunlight. That not all of these experiments worked only added to the confusion.
Marillion began their reinvention by stripping away almost everything definably Marillion in their sound. Engine is acoustic-based, for the most part, and comparatively sparse. “Memory of Water,” for example, is strictly voice and keyboard strings. Opener “Man of a Thousand Faces” is so simple and folksy it defies belief, and then it switches halfway through into a vocally layered crescendo. “One Fine Day” opens like an Aerosmith ballad, but takes it down a notch to end up with a subtle, emotional pop song.
Engine is largely hit or miss. Highlights include the gorgeous, Celtic-flavored “Estonia” and the pulsing electric tune “An Accidental Man,” the only one of its kind on the album. Lowlights, though, include “80 Days,” with its overpowering and cheesy synth trumpet lines, and “Hope for the Future,” a foray into island music that’s fun, but not worth revisiting too often.
And then, on the final track, they sucker-punch you. “This Strange Engine” is a 15-minute masterwork, one of their finest pieces. It glides from section to section with a flow so perfect that it feels like five minutes. H sings his little heart out, especially on the propulsive closing section, and Rothery takes a solo (right after “on the horizon…,” and those who have heard it are nodding their heads right now) that approaches perfection. It’s a superb song, perhaps the best example of Marillion combining their trademark emotional connection and musical skill.
Too bad the album doesn’t hold up as well. This Strange Engine catches Marillion at the cusp of an evolution, one which they’ve only just completed (or so it seems) on Marbles. It’s still an enjoyable record, but in the canon, it doesn’t rank very high.
The second independently produced record finds the band replacing everything they stripped away last time with dirty, growling guitars. Radiation contains the band’s heaviest material to that point, especially “The Answering Machine” and “Cathedral Wall,” and yet continues their genre-hopping experimental streak.
Many fans objected to the production on this record, since most of the subtlety seems drowned in furious noise upon first listen. Radiation is a loose, fun album, a brief dive into spontaneity and loudness. Opener “Under the Sun” is a soaring rocker, with a high melody that makes room for an unconventional theremin part. “The Answering Machine” sounds like the loudest folk song ever written, with torrents of electric guitar and distorted keyboards raining down upon it.
But elsewhere, the band leapfrogs styles again with abandon. “Born to Run” is an understated blues jam with no chorus, “These Chains” is a delightful Beatlesque pop song (and the single), and “Cathedral Wall” is almost goth-metal, complete with some of Hogarth’s most unnerving screams. The band quiets down to an almost ridiculous degree for “Now She’ll Never Know,” sung so high that H’s voice always seems on the verge of breaking. And closer “A Few Words for the Dead” is a 10-minute wonder – it almost serves as its own dance mix for its first half, and then abruptly shifts into a joyous pop finale.
There’s nothing really wrong with Radiation, but like Engine, it doesn’t coalesce into more than the sum of its parts. It’s certainly fun and surprising, but it doesn’t hold up to repeat listens the way that Brave does. Still, they continued to evolve while making this record, and considering where they’ve ended up, Radiation was a necessary step.
Marillion is not a band that works quickly. So when they burned off their Castle Records contract with three quick albums, one a year, one might have expected at least one of them to be lousy. Marillion.com, named after the website that has become their main connection with the world, proved that to be false. It’s just as good as, if not better than, Radiation and Engine, even if it still fails to reach the heights of Brave and Sunlight.
But that’s largely down to the experiments, which continue here apace. This album contains some of their poppiest material since Holidays in Eden, but with some of the sheen wiped off. “Rich” is an exceptionally catchy tune that was also the only single, and its vocal line is incredibly hard to sing, which H has proved with numerous gasping live versions. “Deserve” bops along uncomplicatedly, with a sax solo thrown in. And “Tumble Down the Years” steps into Neil Finn territory, which the band pulls off well.
As interesting as the first seven tracks are, though, they’re merely prelude for the last two. “Interior Lulu” is another 15-minute epic that plays like five, with its quirky bassline and sweet melody exploding into a lightning-quick keyboard solo. The extended playout, with its mesmerizing bass workouts courtesy of Pete Trewavas, is worth the whole song. The album ends with “House,” a 10-minute leap into dub-style pop with trumpet solos and a great chorus.
There are very few bands who would include “Tumble Down,” “Lulu” and “House” on the same album, let alone sequence them all in a row. For that type of musical surprise, Marillion is practically unbeatable. Marillion.com is another album that doesn’t gel completely, but when it’s on, it’s the best of the trilogy it concludes.
As a side note, this album contains the first interactive moment between the band and their online fanbase. Marillion asked their fans to send in pictures of themselves, and dozens of these photographs adorn the liner notes of the album. It was an interesting trick for a record largely about human contact through technological means, and it led to the amazing preorder stunt they pulled for the next one.
This is the album that blew the doors off.
In 2000, Marillion found themselves without a record contract, and with a dissatisfied feeling towards labels in general. So they took it to the fanbase, asking them whether they would pre-order an album that hadn’t been finished yet, just based on the band’s word. Pre-ordering, they said, would finance the recording of the album, thus freeing them to secure a distribution deal for a finished product that sounded exactly the way the band wanted. According to the band, they expected only a few thousand responses.
They got 12. Thousand, that is. And hundreds more besides.
Anoraknophobia reunited Marillion with Dave Meegan, and it’s not exaggerating to say that together they completely reinvented the band. The experimentalism of the last three albums wove its way into the writing process, and the album incorporates drum loops, dub sounds and computer effects all over the place. But it’s not trendy-sounding in any way. Anoraknophobia takes hold of the trip-hop electronic thing and uses it to enhance a terrific set of songs, ones that are at once more pop and more prog than anything they had done since Brave.
Many bands, when they reach the 20-year mark, slow down and start making quieter records about growing old. Marillion went the opposite direction – Anoraknophobia is the loudest, most alive-sounding record they had yet made. Just listen to Ian Mosley’s thundering drums on “If My Heart Were a Ball It Would Roll Uphill,” or Rothery’s explosive guitar on “Separated Out,” or Trewavas’ stunning bassline on “Quartz.” Hogarth pulls out all the stops, too, shouting sections of “Quartz” at the top of his lungs and building “This Is the 21st Century” to an extraordinary climax.
It’s hard not to equate the band’s revitalization with their newfound financial freedom. They felt no need to deliver a single, so when they came up with two (“Between You and Me” and “Map of the World”) it was obvious that they were included because they’re both great songs. Anorak is an immediate stunner that still manages to be a grower as well. Songs like “21st Century,” a modern classic, are great on first listen and get better with repeat plays. Anorak is not easy – four of the eight songs hover around the 10-minute mark, and most have multiple sections – but it’s apparent on first go-round that this album is worth investing time in.
And what of that financial gamble? Did it work? Glad you asked. Those who pre-ordered Anorak through the band got a special hardbound book with their names in it, and a bonus disc of demos. They also helped the band set up their organization, and paved the way for Marbles. It’s become clear that Anorak was, both in its creative direction and its business plan, a dry run for Marbles, and we’ll explore next week just how fruitful that direction and that plan have been this year.
But here’s a snippet of the revolutionary way they’re doing things now, straight from their own email list: “By selling our album straight to you, we become completely free to take the decisions which affect the future of the band and we can also remove the middle-men who stand between you – our listeners – and us. For the first time we’ll OWN our own music. We’re going to kick out as many of the cynics and the businessmen as we can, and replace them with our own team of accomplished professionals who are driven as much by faith as we are.”
Viva la revolution, I say, especially when the creative rewards sound like Anoraknophobia.
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Next week, Marbles. Is it any surprise that I love it?
Again, all Marillion albums are available at www.marillion.com.
See you in line Tuesday morning.