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Old 04-01-2022, 12:00 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Trollheart's Album Discography Reviews: Marillion

Ah come on now! You knew this was coming!

If anyone asked me what my favourite band was, I'd have no hesitation in saying Genesis. If they asked what my second-favourite was, it's these guys. I've followed them since their debut single in 1982 followed by their debut album in 1983, and never once missed a single album. Apart from one, I've always been enthralled by their output and it's always been consistently good. Even after a major lineup change in 1988, when it looked like the band could go under, they survived, recruited a new singer and frontman and continued on where they had left off, becoming even more popular and often a little more mainstream, though never losing the progressive rock edge which had made them into what they were.

Formed in 1979 in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Marillion began life as Silmarillion, taking their name from the JRR Tolkien book that preceded both The Hobbit and of course The Lord of the Rings, but soon dropped the first three letters rather than face a copyright lawsuit. They built their initial following on frontman Derek Dick, known by his stagename and ever afterwards as Fish, and his engaging, often jarring Peter Gabrielesque theatrics. Fish wore greasepaint makeup and did things like using the microphone to machinegun down the audience during performances of one of their best loved songs, “Forgotten Sons”. But Marillion was not just Fish; he wrote the lyrics and sang, but the rest of the band played and wrote the music, and together they formed a real powerhouse that brought the thought-dead subgenre of progressive rock right back into the musical consciousness and into the clubs and halls of Britain.

Initially, Marillion's lineup was
Fish on vocals
Steve Rothery on guitar
Mark Kelly on keyboards
Pete Trewavas on bass
Mick Pointer on drums

With the single exception of Pointer departing after the debut album, to be replaced by Ian Mosley, and the highly-publicised exit of Fish after their fourth album, his shoes stepped into by Steve Hogarth, Marillion has remained pretty much the same throughout their long career. Even now they are as popular as ever, though of course mainstream success pretty much eludes them, as it did most of their contemporaries in the seventies. But to those who know and care, Marillion are still a major force in a subgenre which has grown well beyond the boundaries that were established in the early eighties, and beyond the borders of its home country, England. Now prog rock is in America, Poland, Finland, Argentina .... but Marillion still come very high in the pecking order. Why? If you don't know, then come with me on a journey through the world of the Jester, and beyond.

Vanguards of the neo-prog revival of the eighties, Marillion first came to the notice of EMI in 1982 after recording a three-track demo,and the label signed them, releasing their first single, which oddly would not feature on their debut album the following year. For many people, they turned the clock back to the seventies with their intricate melodies, lyrics and epic songs that often lasted over eight or nine minutes at a time. For certain people this was seen as bad, a regression in music and a step backwards to the “bad old days” of the overblown, pretentious prog rock gods like ELP, Yes and Genesis, but to others it was a breath of fresh air in a world stifled with hair metal, pop and the remnants of the punk era. Over the course of their, to date, forty year career, Marillion would go through lineup changes, pioneer a new way of doing business and move from progressive rock to rock, to almost pop and back. They would have an almost-number one single and several top ten singles, but their strength would always remain in their albums, of which they have so far released sixteen, and in their fanbase, who remained staunchly loyal, even when frontman and driving force Fish left the band in 1988.

So let's go back to where it all began.

Maybe it's an overstatement, a simplification or a claim that can't really be supported, but I really do believe that there have been albums down through my life which have, if not actually changed that life, certainly provided important cornerstones and turning points along the path of development for me, both musically and personally. It's that point where, as a youth, you realised that there was more to music than what came out of Top of the Pops, or what they played on the radio. You began to see that the fact that certain music may not have been widely popular was not necessarily an indication that it was not worth listening to; in fact, as your awareness of the huge diversity of often unrecognised music out there grew, you began to understand that sometimes it's the music that isn't generally accepted, that wasn't played on the radio, that didn't get on the telly, that was more worth listening to than the latest chart-topper.

For me, as I would say maybe a lot of people, though this is a personal account so I can only speak for myself, this realisation and diversification into certain genres or sub-genres of music around my late teens informed my later choices in music, and set me on a road towards appreciating, and for a long time, concentrating only on one genre. Well, two really: for several years I would listen to nothing else than heavy metal and progressive rock, even though before I encountered this album I was not even aware of what prog rock was. I was into Maiden, Saxon, Motorhead, Sabbath: anything loud and anything that was outside the accepted norms. I scoffed at my brother's interest in Madness, The Specials, Spandau Ballet, and my sister's often slavish devotion to the charts. I could not understand how my best friend, may he rest in peace, could be into artists like ABBA and Barry Manilow! Ah, with age comes wisdom, eh?

But among the first albums I owned were most of the Genesis catalogue; the very first introduction I had to what I would later realise was characterised as progressive rock was their Seconds Out live album, and though it certainly blew my mind and had me quickly collecting the rest of their albums, up until this album came along, and I began to read a little publication called Kerrang!, I thought the music Genesis made was in the past, great as it was. I believed I was listening to music that would in all likelihood never again be made - Genesis had by now already shattered my illusions of them by releasing the dreadfully pop Abacab - and had no idea that there was a whole new revival of British progressive rock about to be born.

Script for a Jester's Tear (1983)

Preface: I have to be extremely careful reviewing this album. It may seem silly to some people, but this is quite literally the album that changed my life, musically. I never, ever heard a better debut. It was hyped to the hilt and by god it lived up to that hype! It set me on a road to appreciation of progressive rock and more structured, epic and intricate songs, gave me an appreciation for melody and instrumentation that I had been lacking, and showed me how even the vocal chords could be an impressive and effective instrument in their own right. This was more than just someone singing the equivalent of “baby I love you” against guitars and keys or whatever: this was serious, deep music that meant something! These lyrics were to be read, listened to, discussed and if possible understood, and they were the delicate brushstrokes that completed the canvas masterpiece the music painted on my mind, heart and soul.

So it will be a gushing review, but that's not entirely because I don't want to recognise or admit any shortcomings on the album: it's because I truly believe it has none. Though it's short in terms of tracks, every single one is a gem; nothing is out of place, nothing is too long or too short, every song tells a story and every story paints a picture, mostly bitter and regretful as per the title of the album. I can't praise this album highly enough. It started a lifelong love affair with the work and music of Marillion, and pushed me towards other great prog rock bands like Pendragon, Jadis, Arena, Rush, Pink Floyd, Mostly Autumn, Twelfth Night and many others, and opened up whole new vistas of musical appreciation for me.

I therefore want to do the very best job I can, and so the review will also be probably longer than usual. As there are only six tracks to get through that should not really be the case, but I want to spend the proper amount of time on each that they deserve, give them the respect they have earned, and pay back a little to this wonderful album which quite literally, changed my life, forty years ago.

This groundbreaking album starts off so innocuously, so low-key it's incredible: a hushed voice declares ”So here I am once more/ In the playground of the broken hearts” while one note is sounded on the piano, a few more following it and then a short run, almost a fugue, before it stops and flute (on the synth, presumably) takes over, then bass makes its entrance before drums and guitar pound into the song, setting it finally on its way. We're now one and a half minutes into a song that runs for eight and a half, and will go through many changes before it comes to its end.

The voice, that of lead singer and frontman Derek Dick, otherwise known as Fish, gets more animated and angry now, as Mick Pointer's drums pound out the rhythm and Steve Rothery lets loose on the guitar, the whole thing charging along in a great solo until Fish comes back in and another solo, with the keyboards of Mark Kelly, who was the first musician to be heard on the album, bar Fish's almost sotto voce tones, adding to the melody and keeping everything together.

At the four minute mark, half way through, everything drops away to gentle acoustic guitar, flute and Fish's agonised vocal, bass coming in with just the barest hints of percussion and some whispering as Fish declares ”I never did write that love song/ The words just never seemed to flow”, drums thundering in as he shouts ”Promised wedding/ Now a wake!” The song then goes into what would be seen as the third part, with keys taking over the main melody, Rothery's guitar taking a little of a backseat, the faster tempo now slowing down to a dirge-like march, the guitar crying along with Fish as he sighs ”I'll hold my peace forever/ As you wear your bridal gown”, and the song drifts along sadly to its end as he asks, without any hope, ”Can you still say you love me?”

After this magnum opus, the phenomenon of Marillion well and truly launched onto my consciousness, and that of thousands of other record-buyers at the time, things get sharper and harder with “He Knows You Know”, opening on jangly guitar from Rothery, swirling keys from Kelly then punchy drums from Pointer as Fish lets go, giving his voice its full rein as he sings about drug addiction: ”You've got venom in your stomach/ You've got poison in your head!” Very much driven on Rothery's guitar, this song is both the antithesis of the opener and title, and could indeed be seen as a direct result or follow-on from it, as the heartbroken man turns to drugs to dull the pain.

“He Knows You Know” contains one of Steve Rothery's most powerful solos, as well as amazing work from Mark Kelley, and absolutely showcases in no uncertain style the often vicious, cutting, angry vocal work of Fish, as well as giving full pride of place to his incredible lyrical talent, he being the writer of all the songs, lyrics at least. It was chosen as a single, probably because it's the shortest track on the album - just under five and a half minutes - but though it made a decent showing in the charts it was never going to be a big hit, with its lyrical theme and its harsh vocal style. Couldn't see the sheep buying this! But then, Marillion were never about chart success, but about creating the very best music they could, for themselves and for their fans, and remaining true to their musical vision.
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