Marillion’s new single, “You’re Gone,” just hit number seven in the UK charts. It’s their first top 10 single since 1987.
And I just can’t stop grinning whenever I think about it.
The single’s extraordinary success is the big payoff of a concentrated long-term campaign designed to show the music business a thing or two about independent creativity. The band stated at the start of this journey that they wanted to take the established idea of fan power and “blow it through the sky.” And that’s just what they’ve done.
There are hundreds of little tricks record companies use to get their singles in the top 10, including arranging playlistings at radio stations, bargaining for prime shelf space at record stores and expending huge marketing budgets. Marillion did none of that. They got their single to number seven by doing two very simple, yet deceptively difficult things.
They told their fans when it was coming out, and they asked them to buy it.
The fans listened and bought because this is a band that means something to them. Marillion has cultivated this relationship for years through their website, which should become the model on which band sites are patterned before long. The band is able to call on its fanbase for support because for many, many years, the Marillion camp has prided itself on keeping every promise to come from its ranks. If you get the small things right, like great customer service (through their own label, Racket Records, and online store), they lead to bonds of trust and great leaps of faith.
The current campaign has centered around an album called Marbles. Eight months ago, Marillion tapped their sizeable fanbase with an idea: complete and total independence. They asked the fans to pre-order Marbles, just as they had done with Anoraknophobia in 2001, only this time, they weren’t looking for a record deal. They were looking for the funds to record, mix, master, manufacture, release and promote Marbles all on their own.
They got 13,500 leaps of faith this time, at roughly $55 each (depending on exchange rates). And they followed through. Marbles is out May 3, on the band’s own label, and thanks to a dedicated group of promoters and pluggers, Marillion’s music is receiving more press and attention now than it has since leaving EMI in 1995. New interviews appear every day, the band has done numerous radio appearances, and will be on the Dutch version of Top of the Pops this week.
Most impressively (and importantly), though, everyone who tuned in to the chart show on BBC Radio 1 this past weekend heard “You’re Gone.” If you have any doubts that charting a single this way is a revolutionary act, check this: as a direct result of “You’re Gone” appearing in the Dutch Top 10 (at number eight), the overlords have decided to change the way the chart is compiled. Now it will be based on sales and airplay, instead of just sales, so the big record companies can retain control.
They wouldn’t pull things like this if they weren’t scared. For the first time in recent memory, good music has pulled off a significant coup against bad music. Hell, “You’re Gone” even out-charted the new Franz Ferdinand single, “Matinee,” and that one had a major record label, several important music magazines and every radio and video station on its side. This is huge.
It gets better, though. In addition to financial independence, the Marbles pre-order also bought Marillion something more precious to a musician: complete creative control. And they used it to make the album of their lives. Marbles is a massive work – 100 minutes long, wildly diverse and challenging. It comes packaged in a gorgeous slipcased hardcover book, which includes the names of all 13,500 fans who pre-ordered it. The album contains three songs that zoom past the 10-minute mark, and it follows no trends and caters to no radio markets whatsoever. No record label on Earth would have paid for this album, especially considering that it took two full years to make.
You can hear, in virtually every minute of this record, why the fanbase is so emphatic in its support of this band. This is a labor of love, a deeply emotional piece of music that involves, astounds, inspires and amazes. The band again worked with producer Dave Meegan, who brought a clarity and depth to this recording that you just don’t hear very often. After two years of intensive work, the sound of Marbles is naturally dense and meticulously constructed, and yet there isn’t a moment of this album that sounds labored or fussed over. It is direct, it has heart, and listening to all 100 minutes end to end is a remarkably moving experience.
Marbles may be separated into two discs, but it is absolutely one complete journey, broken up into five distinct trips, if you will. Most of Marbles bears out the idea that the band has been heading toward this record since leaving EMI. All of the tricks they’ve picked up through their relentless experimentation have been incorporated here, and grafted onto the classic Marillion sound. It’s the first time since Afraid of Sunlight that all of the experiments work. The album contains not one bad track, and I cannot imagine the album working as well without any of them. (This despite the existence of a one-CD retail version that omits four songs…)
Marbles opens with its darkest and trickiest track, the 13-minute “The Invisible Man.” It’s a bold choice for an opener – pop radio fans who pick up the album on the strength of “You’re Gone” will be greeted by this monstrosity right up front, and they may not know what to do with it. Here Marillion picks up the ball dropped by Radiohead during their electronic ambient phase and scores a touchdown. Multiple sections, multiple time shifts, an amazing bass performance by Pete Trewavas, creepy synth beats and textures, and one of the best vocal performances Steve Hogarth has ever given. When he pushes the final shoutings of the title phrase right up and out of his range, it’s one of the bravest things I’ve heard in a long time.
The song is about disappearing, about becoming immaterial, and it sets the theme. Marbles is about losing it, in a nutshell – losing one’s youth, one’s sanity, one’s love. And it’s also about the difficult yet rewarding struggle to get all of that back. The main metaphor of a child literally losing his marbles is stated in the four linking sections, each about two minutes, that divide and yet connect the record. These bits are sad and sweet, with hints of Paul McCartney’s solo work.
The second section is made up of a trio of atmospheric ballads, which almost blend together into one terrific 18-minute piece. “Genie” is the closest this album comes to a weak track, with its simple chorus, but it takes flight halfway through with a decidedly Neil Finn-style bridge. “Fantastic Place” may be the album’s emotional high point – a deeply felt ballad with a great vocal and a full “Bridge Over Troubled Water” string arrangement from Mark Kelly. And “The Only Unforgivable Thing” unfolds slowly over its seven minutes, gloriously ending where it began. The song, and in fact the entire trilogy, is about guilt and regret, and you feel every second.
“Ocean Cloud” is the album’s centerpiece and masterpiece. It’s an 18-minute progressive epic, full of atmosphere, but it has a chorus, and its phenomenal arrangement carries you along. I can’t even put into words how stunning this track is. Hogarth sings with desperate sadness, Rothery turns in a pair of heartfelt solos, and Kelly is note-perfect throughout, especially in sections designed to sound like storms and choppy waters. This is not, however, some technical exercise, as if Marillion has ever made one of those. “Ocean Cloud” is as personal and deeply moving as anything they’ve done – more so, in fact. It’s a draining, powerful song, and when it’s over, you feel as if you’ve really been somewhere. And you really want to go back, and soon.
After the hugeness of “Ocean Cloud,” you need the relative catchiness of the five pop songs that make up the fourth section. Marillion is one of the few bands on Earth that is equally superb at the 20-minute epic and the five-minute radio single. And this time out, they’re as good as they’ve ever been at both. “The Damage” is the album’s one electrified rocker, with a pounding Beatlesque piano part and a swooping, cracking vocal that’s just outstanding. (This song connects lyrically with “Genie,” further solidifying the album’s themes.) “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is the album’s most infectious tune, with some wonderful slide guitar from Rothery and a soaring falsetto chorus from Hogarth.
And then there’s “You’re Gone,” here in its full six-minute glory. Putting this into the top 10 so that everyone could hear it would mean nothing if it weren’t a good song. “You’re Gone” is fantastic, a perfect single – it catches hold immediately and grows deeper from there. It is very much like the pop song version of Anorak’s “This Is the 21st Century.” It pulses forward on a trippy breakbeat, and features some marvelous processed guitar work and another (yes, another) great vocal from Hogarth. I said it before, but this song is what Pop-era U2 should have sounded like.
“Angelina” brings the blues back in for the smoothest seven minutes this band has ever delivered. It’s a new entry in an old genre – the ode to late-night DJs. But man, listen to Rothery on this song. He just glides, playing perfect subdued lines that no other guitarist, no matter how revered, could improve. The section wraps up with “Drilling Holes,” a crazy slab of psychedelia with a Beatles vibe, complete with a harpsichord breakdown. It’s a great conclusion to the lighter part of the record, and it leads in (after the fourth “Marbles” bit) to the grand conclusion.
Marbles concludes with “Neverland,” a return to the intensity of the first disc. It sounds to these ears like Pink Floyd’s take on “Hey Jude” – a nearly gospel-inspired four minute powerhouse with a joyous, ecstatic eight-minute playout, Hogarth’s voice echoing over and under Kelly’s analog synth lines and Rothery’s melodic guitar. It’s an enormous explosion of a finish, but it’s never bombastic, and where you’d expect a huge finale, you get a mesmerizing bed of windchimes. “Neverland” is about letting go of childhood dreams, and it gently deposits you back into the real world after 100 minutes of wonder. It also contains Hogarth’s best line this time out: “I want to be someone someone would want to be.”
It is too early to call Marbles the best Marillion album, since there are so many over so many years with which it must be compared. It’s fighting an uphill battle against emotional connections forged with earlier records, but it’s largely winning – only Brave and Clutching at Straws stand in its way, and that is a high watermark indeed. It is perhaps the finest proof to date of my theory – this is an album full of intense, complex music, played with extraordinary skill, and yet it has an emotional core that runs deep and true. It’s head music that you feel.
It’s also a testament to creativity unfettered by the suffocating music business. Marbles is the sound of a band in love with music, in love with the transformative power and beauty of what can be created when the heart is there. It’s not about success – this album was a success, financially speaking, before the band ever hit the record button. It’s about a band making the best music it can, and then getting that music directly to those who will love it as much as the band does.
It may be optimistic to think that Marbles sounds like the future. But if I ever need a reminder of what faith in and working for a better way can produce, I can always pop on this album and reflect on the fact that by every music business rule, Marbles should not exist, and Marillion should never have had a top 10 hit 25 years into their career. Marbles exists. “You’re Gone” is in the charts. These things are true because we made them so. In a way, despite all the lyrical darkness, this is Marillion’s most optimistic album, because it’s predicated on the belief that things can change, if we only work to change them.
So, to sum up. The album is a work of genius. The band is in the best position, creatively and financially, that it has ever been in. And the future looks bright. It’s a great time to be a Marillion fan, and an even better time to become one. The one-CD version of Marbles comes out in the UK on May 3, but the two-CD version is available now at www.marillion.com, as is all of their back catalog, including some inexpensive sampler discs. There aren’t a lot of bands I would pimp this heavily for, but then, there aren’t a lot of bands like Marillion. For even attempting what they do, they deserve respect, but for pulling it off time after time, they deserve to be treasured.
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Next week, some CDs that weren’t made by Marillion…
See you in line Tuesday morning.