My adopted home town of Aurora lost one of its most creative souls this week.
I barely knew Jack Schultz, but man, I knew of him. He and his darling wife Sherry own the Riverfront Playhouse in downtown A-Town, and they’re all the evidence I need that every city should have its own community theater. The Riverfront is exactly what you’d hope it would be – small and intimate and fun, a place where artistic risks can be taken and a good time can be had by all.
For years, I’ve made the Riverfront production of Night of the Living Dead: The Musical a Halloween tradition. The show is a Jack Schultz original, and every year, while his wife, his son Jackson and his daughter Heidi would perform on stage, Jack would be in the back, playing the music he had written. Such a fun show. I even got to be a guest zombie one year, dripping blood and lunging for fresh brains. (And dying horribly at the end.) It was a blast.
Jack’s whole life looked like a blast to me. Writing plays, writing songs, acting, appearing in films, and hanging out with his tremendously creative family. That life was cut short by a sudden heart attack this past weekend. Jack Schultz was only 58. But if his family had any doubt of the impact Jack made on the Aurora community, all they had to do was look out at the hundreds upon hundreds of people who lined up to pay their respects at his wake. It was a true testament to the man, his talent, and his character.
We’ll miss you, Jack. Rest in peace.
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So I’m sitting here for what feels like the dozenth time, trying to put into words why I love Marillion.
The thing is, I’m not sure it matters at this point what I say. Marillion is one of my favorite bands, and I’ve waxed positively ecstatic about them in this column before. It probably surprises no one that I’m about to do that again. But lately I’ve been wondering whether my rhapsodizing makes any difference. My fondest wish, as I’ve said before, is for people to listen to music I love and hear what I hear in it. When it comes to Marillion, though, people simply aren’t hearing the same things I am.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m coming to understand that Marillion’s music isn’t for everyone, even if I don’t quite understand that. It’s confusing to me, because they bring together almost everything I love about music. They have an astonishing level of technical ability, but they never show off. They’re deeply committed to melody, and can write three-minute pop songs and 20-minute ever-changing epics with equal skill. They draw from a deep reservoir of emotion, and pay attention to atmosphere and ambience. They’re remarkably ambitious, but never pretentious. And they just plain make music that moves me, like few other bands can.
I do understand that I’m not alone in my love for this band. Marillion has attracted and nurtured a dedicated global fanbase that most bands would envy. Thousands turn out for their semi-annual conventions in Europe and Canada, and they practically invented the Kickstarter model – they’ve sustained themselves for years by asking fans to preorder their albums before they’re even recorded, and every time, thousands upon thousands of people do. The band has a rich, strong and vast group of supporters, and I have no doubt they all hear what I hear when they immerse themselves in Marillion’s music.
I just wish I knew more of them. It’s been a lonely sort of fandom for me, and even seeing the packed house at Park West in Chicago this summer for the band’s first U.S. tour in seven years didn’t help much. I live to share what I love, and I feel stymied when I love something others don’t. Marillion means a lot to me, and their new album, Sounds That Can’t Be Made, has been the non-stop soundtrack to my last couple of weeks. It’s one of my favorite records they’ve made, and is sure to place highly in the 2012 top 10 list. More than that, it has already made my life better. These songs have already taken up residence in my head and my heart. Little bits of them will float through my mind at all hours of the day, and when I sing lately – at home, alone, where no one can hear – it’s these songs I’m belting out.
What makes this one special? I think it’s a renewed sense of focus. Sounds That Can’t Be Made is still all over the place, as is Marillion’s modus operandi – the first three tracks, for example, are a 17-minute metal-tinged progressive epic, an ‘80s-inspired keyboard fantasia, and a soulful Todd Rundgren-esque pop ditty. There’s bits of ambient cloud music, southern rock, orchestrated balladry, and Beatles-inspired poptopia. It all sits next to each other without jarring once – perhaps Marillion’s greatest strength is a seeming ignorance of musical boundaries, or even of any sense that all bands don’t draw from the same deep pool of influences.
But there’s a real feeling of coming to the top of the mountain on this one, in a way that the band hasn’t delivered since 2004’s brilliant Marbles. They sound fully engaged, committed to each one of these ideas, and everyone brought their A game. (Particularly producer Mike Hunter, who has finally made his Marillion masterpiece. The density and complexity of sound on this thing is breathtaking.) This is why I love this band, in 74 brisk minutes, and if you listen to this whole thing and aren’t moved by it once, then Marillion simply isn’t for you.
So that said, let me tell you a little about it.
Sounds That Can’t Be Made is Marillion’s 17th album, and the third one they have financed with fan preorders. The beautiful deluxe edition comes in a hardcover book that features more than 100 pages of artwork and the names of the first 5,000 people who pitched it to fund it. (There were about 13,000 preorders in total.) Its eight songs range from five-minute pop tunes to that aforementioned 17-minute epic, and because they are Marillion and they don’t worry about people losing interest quickly, they’ve put that epic right up front.
Oh, and did I mention it’s the most politically controversial track the band has ever released? It’s called “Gaza,” and it’s written from the point of view of a young child living in the Gaza strip. Singer Steve Hogarth uses this voice to describe the hellish conditions there, and offer up a plea for compassion and justice. But it’s a simple voice he’s chosen, and simple words he’s using, and some have accused him of naivety, of attempting to reduce a complex situation to this single perspective, and failing. Some have written off “Gaza” as anti-Israeli, simply because its main character is a Palestinian child.
And some have pointed to a section in which Hogarth attempts to understand the motivations of suicide bombers, and accused him of condoning terrorism. “When their hopes and dreams are broken, and they feel they might as well be dead, as they go, will we forgive them if they take us with them?” For my part, I see the vast chasm between understanding and condoning, and would not doubt that these would be the thoughts of someone living through this every day. (Many of the lyrics in “Gaza” come directly from conversations Hogarth had with Palestinians and Israelis living in that part of the world.)
Having lived with it for a few weeks, I think Hogarth tried to do something noble here, and was largely successful. “Gaza” is not a song about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It could be set in any war-torn region of the world, and remain almost the same. The song does what Hogarth has always done – it tries to give a voice to the voiceless, and cries out for peace. The key lines come in a later section: “Nothing’s ever simple, that’s for sure, there are grieving mothers on both sides of the wire, and everyone deserves the chance to feel the future just might be bright, but any way you look at this, whichever point of view, for us to have to live like this, it just ain’t right, it just ain’t right…”
This is not a complicated (or, let’s face it, well-informed) dissection of a centuries-old conflict. But it is a deeply human response to suffering, and for that, I applaud Hogarth and the rest of the band. This could have been more carefully rendered, but it might have lost some of its passion and power, and that would be a shame.
And the music! “Gaza” is unlike anything Marillion has ever tried. Its opening minutes are a cavalcade of Nine Inch Nails guitars and Kashmir synth strings, and parts of it are louder and more chaotic than this band has ever been. But as its 17 minutes unfold, they take you on a journey, through ambient sections, ray-of-sunlight melodic bursts, and the most achingly beautiful piano-and-vocal moment on this album. (It corresponds with those key lyrics up there.) Guitarist Steve Rothery lets loose with a lyrical, liquid solo, before plunging into the dark, lumbering final section, over which Hogarth conjures Yeats: “It’s like a nightmare rose up from this small strip of land, slouching towards Bethlehem…”
“Gaza” is such a monster that placing it first almost does a disservice to the rest of the album. There’s a significant amount of silence between tracks one and two, as if the band understands this. And in some ways, the title track starts things over again. The rest of Sounds That Can’t Be Made is, in the main, surprisingly hopeful and optimistic – it’s the sound of Hogarth regaining his footing and enjoying his life again, and not just in the self-help-book way he did on 2008’s Happiness Is the Road. When he’s happy here, he feels it, and you feel it too.
That title track may be my favorite thing here. It floats along on Mark Kelly’s thick keyboards, as Hogarth sings of the vibrations that connect us, the sounds that can’t be made. And it’s wonderful for about five minutes, until the swirling synths begin climbing upward, skyward, finally bursting through the clouds on a stunning Rothery guitar line. Then it becomes exquisite. “Only love can stop you from merely existing,” Hogarth sings, and every time, I sing along at the top of my lungs. This is a patented Marillion moment, the kind of thing no other band can do this well.
After all that, the lightness of “Pour My Love” is a surprise. I mentioned Todd Rundgren earlier, and he’s the best touchstone – this tune drips with blue-eyed soul. It feels like a love song, but it’s clearly about death, about crying over a departed loved one. Hogarth sings beautifully over an electric piano and some subtle drumming by Ian Mosley. This is, again, like nothing they’ve ever tried, and they pull it off brilliantly. The big wide grin appears at the killer bridge section (“In a place where flowers rot and die, in a place where truth lies down and shacks up with the lie, there is still you, there is still you…”) and never leaves.
“Power” is another relatively simple song, but this one crawls along on sheer menace. While bassist Pete Trewavas lays down pulsing lines beneath him, Rothery spins supple webs during the verses, and explodes on the choruses. In some ways, this is Marillion by numbers, falling back and then building up to a crushing climax, Hogarth showing off his (ahem) power. But Marillion by numbers is fine with me. No one else sounds like this, so they may as well. I don’t want to sell this short – “Power” is a great song, just not as stylistically experimental as some of the others here.
“Montreal,” now, this one’s a trip. On first listen, it sounds like a 14-minute ambient meander, one chilled-out section leading into the next while Hogarth sings passages from his diary. This one takes a few spins to reveal just how clever the words are, and how beautiful and well-considered the music is. The lyrics are an account of the band’s first day in Montreal in 2009, for their first Canadian convention. More specifically, they’re about an event that has gone down in fan lore – a disastrous, equipment failure-laden performance of epic “This Strange Engine,” which ended with a frustrated Hogarth throwing himself onto the hands of the audience and crowd-surfing the length of the hall and back again. It was an amazing moment of reciprocal love, one that has clearly stayed with him.
But instead of being on-the-nose about it, Hogarth has written a song about that moment by not really writing about it. He describes the band’s plane landing, a Skype conversation with his family in his hotel room, a visit to Cirque du Soleil, the sports bar where the “ice hockey never ends” – all the little details that led up to their show, without ever getting there. He mentions the big moment once, while watching Leonard Cohen perform on TV in his hotel room: “It warmed the heart to watch him float around the hall, soaking up, reflecting, radiating, just as I would tomorrow night on the outstretched tender hands of Montreal.”
But in many ways, the entire song is about it – the words are full of falling imagery, particularly the bigbigBIG climax in the Cirque du Soleil section: “We watched the acrobat fall, he was quite safe, he was falling into Montreal…” Hogarth gives everything he has here, and it’s magical. The song ends up as a love letter to a city: “Je t’aime, my darling, Montreal.” And again, the music is just incredible. While the earlier sections all lead up to the big acrobat moment, the song never comes back down from there, and never loses its sense of atmosphere. It’s one of the best things Marillion has ever done.
After that, you’d think a five-minute number like “Invisible Ink” would have to work hard to make an impression. But this one’s a winner, starting at a whisper and blooming into a superb piano-pop song. The chorus has one of the most devilishly difficult vocal lines I’ve ever heard Hogarth sing, and he pulls it off while letting more and more desperation creep into his voice as the song progresses. “I’m hoping you don’t throw my little notes away, I wouldn’t blame you, after all, there is nothing they appear to say…” This one’s a little gem.
“Lucky Man” starts out like the Beatles and ends up like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Yes, seriously. It has an infectious, dirt-simple chorus that will get stuck in your head, and a ripping southern rock solo from Rothery. After nearly an hour of meticulous, often reserved music, it’s great to hear the band let loose. It’s also terrific to hear Hogarth embrace his own life, and celebrate it: “I truly am a lucky man, I have everything that I want…” This is the most conventional song on Sounds, but it’s terrific.
And finally, we have “The Sky Above the Rain.” I’ve been excited for this song ever since I heard the title, and I’ll admit the actual lyrics let me down at first. They’re almost as simplistic as the sentiments in “Gaza,” describing in plain language the dissolution of a relationship. “She loves him, but she doesn’t want him, she used to burn for him, but now that’s changed…” It’s sad and pretty, but I’m still not sure it’s deserving of the central metaphor, of a man trying to see (and flying through) the blue sky above the rain. That’s just gorgeous.
A couple of things work in this song’s favor, though. One is Hogarth, who sings the living hell out of it. He’s quite simply one of the best singers I’m aware of, digging deep into a seemingly boundless reserve of emotion, whispering when needed and belting it out when it’s called for. He’s amazing. The second is the band – they lay down a reserved, piano-based bed for these lyrics, and aside from some over-egging of the synth strings here and there, they play this simple song with subtlety and grace. Still, it would be a minor entry in their discography for me, if not for the last two minutes.
Man, those last two minutes. The band melts away, leaving just the piano, and then Hogarth enters at full voice: “Maybe they’ll talk…” And then you get Marillion at their most magnificent, playing the kind of epic, lush, wondrous soundscape that only they can. The hope simply radiates from Hogarth, as he dives headlong into his metaphor: “Heading west and climbing, in the place the sun never stops shining, the rain’s below us, the rain’s below us…” Rothery does what Rothery does, playing perfect lead lines over the huge wall of glorious sound the band conjures. The final two minutes of “The Sky Above the Rain” are perfect in every way, and reduce me to a teary-eyed mess.
And just like that, it’s over. Sounds That Can’t Be Made is a journey, eight unconnected songs that still play like a cohesive whole. It’s a poetic circle, in a way – it begins with two nations who can’t resolve their differences, and ends with two people with the same problem, which is why the soaring, hopeful conclusion packs so much punch. In between are love letters and joyous shouts and cries to the heavens. It’s everything I want in a Marillion album.
I don’t know if I’ve convinced you to give Sounds That Can’t Be Made a try. I’m sure many of you have already written this off as the ravings of a blinkered fanboy, and that’s fine. I was asked by a friend this week if Marillion had ever made an album I don’t like, and while I pointed to a few lesser efforts (Holidays in Eden, Radiation, Somewhere Else), the real answer is no. They never have. I’m a fan, and I don’t know how to be anything else.
But I’m a very happy fan right now. And if I’m ignored or shot down for trying to share that happiness, so be it. One of my favorite bands has just made one of their best records, more than 30 years into their career, and I’m unashamedly giddy about it. Your mileage may vary, but I’m enjoying this trip, and I hope it lasts forever. I truly am a lucky man.
See you in line Tuesday morning.