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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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Old 04-01-2022, 12:14 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Nowhere is this shown better than in “The Web”, which runs for almost nine minutes, and starts powerfully, with blasting guitar chords, then settles into a sort of introspective passage, as the protagonist hides in her apartment, trying to figure out what has gone wrong with her life, afraid to move on. ”Faded photos exposing pain/ Celluloid leeches bleeding my mind” - such lyrical genius was something I had seldom encountered before, and even then, in bands who had been doing this for years, maybe decades. Here was a band only starting out, and already showing such tremendous promise. With a clear and almost unique understanding of the human condition in one so young, Fish painted nightmare dreamscapes and lurid pictures of addiction, isolation, fear, panic and despair that just cut right to the heart, his bitter claim ”I only laughed away your tears/ But even jesters cry!” a nod back to the title track, and indeed the figure of the jester was one that would characterise Marillion for years, appearing on the cover of their first three albums.

Another powerful section where keys and guitar join to great effect, then Rothery is off on another solo, and as the song reaches its six minute mark, the character realises things must change, and after a brief laidback guitar piece as Fish declares ”Now I leave you/ The past has had its say” there's a huge upsurge and a big instrumental piece as the tempo jumps, and for the next nearly two minutes we get a keyboard solo from Mark Kelly that is a delight to the ears. Then, just when you think it's going to fade out on the keys, Fish blasts back in with a final coda and the song ends powerfully on hard guitar and swooping keys.

There's little joyful about this album, in terms of lyrical content - though it's a true joy to listen to it - with themes from broken love affairs, loneliness and addiction to war and suicide, but if there's a light-hearted song on it, it's “Garden Party”, where Fish pokes not-so-gentle fun at the glitterati, the high society, those who live for rubbing shoulders with the rich, the famous, and the royal. Starting with a hard guitar and swirling keys intro, Fish gleefully describes the scene as ”Champagne corks are firing at the sun again/ Swooping swallows chased by violin again” and those who believe themselves the cream of society “have a really jolly time”.

“Garden Party” rocks along on a really upbeat, happy melody, which mirrors the insincerity of these people who declare ”Punting on the “cam” is jolly fun!” and live their lives in a constant state of vying for position and prestige among their fellows, always trying to prove themselves better than everyone else. Great keyboard solo from Mark Kelly, and a hilarious change of lyric from Fish, where he originally grins ”I'm wining, reclining/ I'm rucking, I'm ****ing” but the word had to be changed when this too was released as a single. Great fun, and Fish's savage satire comes across really well when he replaces the word with "miming".

Bringing everything back to earth then with a jolt is the dour, bitter “Chelsea Monday”, which tells the tale of a young girl desperate to be an actress but who is afraid to take the steps she needs to make her dream come true. Carried on a beautiful bassline from Peter Trewavas, the song conjures up images of dark, grey streets, rain-lashed bus-stops and yellowed windows, smoke from factories curling up into the ash-choked sky. Rothery's guitar whines in the background as Fish relates the tale of the ”Catalogue princess, apprentice seductress/ Hiding in her cellophane world in glittertown” who waits for fame to find her. The first part of the song is carried on Trewavas' silky bass rhythm, with splashes of colour thrown in by Kelly on the keys, and Fish's keening voice presiding over all like a dark storyteller who knows how this will end.

This is also a long song (as most of the six tracks on the album are), over eight minutes, and at the two minute mark Steve Rothery pulls off a beautiful and agonising solo which takes us really into what would again be categorised as part two of the song. This is carried on a more restrained guitar part, sparkling keys and Fish tells of how the girl would ”Perform to scattered shadows/ On the shattered cobbled aisles”, Pointer's drums pealing out like the march of Fate. Another powerful solo by Rothery takes the song to its climax, as the parent promises ”Patience my tinsel angel/ Patience my perfumed child/ One day they'll really love you/ You'll charm them with your smile/ But for now/ It's just another Chelsea Monday.”

As the song comes to its end, Fish speaks as if to a mate, not singing, talking about the tragedy of the young girl's death at such a young age. ”What a waste!” he sighs. And Rothery's guitar takes the song to its sad conclusion, cutting off suddenly as we hit the closer, and indeed standout of the album.

Fast, powerful, savagely satirical, angry, brilliant, “Forgotten Sons” must surely go down as one of the best anti-war songs to have come out in the last few decades. Expressly addressing the conflict in Northern Ireland (”He'll maim you, he'll wound you/ He'll kill you for a long-forgotten cause/ On not-so-foreign shores”) it became one of Marillion's best-known and loved songs, with its acid rejection of war and hatred, its graphic depiction of life on the streets of Belfast and other Northern Irish cities, and humanising the conflict through the eyes of those who suffered through it.

Mostly carried on Kelly's deceptively upbeat keyboard melody, it's peppered throughout with stabs of sharp and angry guitar from Rothery, and a great solo about a third of the way through, where his guitar seems to be crying with the massed voices of all those who have lost loved ones over the thirty-odd years of "The Troubles". Then, everything drops away to leave only Trewavas' lonely, insistent bass, standing like a sentry on duty, for a few seconds as the tension builds. Then Rothery and Pointer hammer the point home as Fish spits out his modified Lord's Prayer, which really needs to be reproduced in full. And here it is:

”Minister, minister, care for your children!/ Order them not into damnation/ To eliminate those who / Would trespass against you/ For whose is the kingdom, the power, the glory/ For ever and ever amen!” Just to underline the point, all instrumentation stops then, and we hear a voice cry shakily ”Halt! Who goes there?” to which the creepy, hissing reply comes, ”Death!” and the soldier then breathes ”Approach, friend.” Hard-hitting is not the word. But that's nothing compared to the litany Fish unleashes as Rothery and Pointer smash back in, the song reaching its powerful climax with Kelly's organ blasting out like the accusing voices of the dead, and Fish sings ”From the dole queue to the regiment/ A profession in a flash/ But remember Monday signings/ When from door to door you dash!”

Having been so impressed with the lead single (which isn't on this album) “Market Square Heroes”, I was eager to see if the album could live up to its promise. I remember having listened to it the first time, and I was so gobsmacked, my breath was literally robbed from me and I lay on my bed, just completely dumbfounded, unable to speak or breathe, just static in time. I was frozen like an insect in amber, and it actually took me several long minutes before I could move or do anything. What I ended up doing was flipping the record over, putting the needle down and playing the whole album through again, the entire thing. And then a third time. I have never done that with any album, before or since.

It might seem facetious to be saying this now, in a world where such opuses are perhaps a little commonplace, where people can record their own music in their bedrooms today and be on YouTube tomorrow, perhaps seeing a successful music career in a very short time. But back then, and even now, I think such genius - and yes, it was genius, and nothing less - was and is in short supply. There are of course great prog rock bands now, new and old, but I still believe no one album has ever truly affected me the way “Script for a jester's tear” did, that day in March 1983, when I realised for the first time that there was the pop chart stuff I had been listening to mostly up to then, and then there was real music.

There's no way I could ever deny that this album changed my life, in ways I could never even have begun to imagine. If it wasn't for Marillion and the discovery through them of progressive rock and other genres outside that, I might never have developed the true love for music that I have to this day, and I truly believe I would be a very different person in many ways. I owe those five guys a huge debt of gratitude, one which I will never be properly ever able to repay. I hope that in some way, this review will go a little of the way towards giving them back what they gave to me, the priceless gift of appreciation of true music.

TRACK LISTING

1. Script for a Jester's Tear
2. He Knows You Know
3. The Web
4. Garden Party
5. Chelsea Monday
6. Forgotten Sons

Rating: 10/10
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Old 04-10-2022, 05:22 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Fugazi (1984)

Although their debut had hardly set the music world alight (and with only six tracks in total I don't think it was ever intended to) Marillion did seem to take into account this time out that their songs were perhaps just a little too long to lend themselves even to radio airplay, everything on the debut being over seven minutes long, with the exception of “He Knows You Know”, which in fact became one of the two singles taken from the album. But it was clear that shorter, snappier, more accessible songs were required if Marillion were to make any sort of inroads on the charts, and while many musicians will tell you they write purely for the pleasure and for the integrity of the albums they make, who honestly does not want chart success? If nothing else, it can lead to new revenue streams, new fans and higher sales for your albums.

Which is not to say that Fugazi was written with singles in mind, because it was not; as dark as the debut had been, this was just as bleak, containing such lyrical themes as desertion, jealousy, revenge and social alienation, to say nothing of a strong strain of seeming misogynism that seemed to run through at least their early albums, as women were cast in the roles of temptresses (“She Chameleon”, “Emerald Lies”), objects of revenge (“Incubus”) or destroyers of marriage (“Jigsaw”, and again to an extent “Emerald Lies”). I never quite noticed before how badly women are treated in Fish's lyrics, right up to his final album with Marillion. So in terms of singles, this album looked on the face of it to be as unlikely a candidate for chart success as had its predecessor.

But it did have them, although proper chart success would elude Marillion until the release of their third album. This album is also a very angry one, punctuated by Fish's scathing, acerbic lyrics against which a backdrop of often sharp guitar and thumping drumming is laid down. Unlike its predecessor, Fugazi opens with a low rising synth and guitar in a kind of almost eastern chant phrasing with attendant moans from Fish, the music building very slowly, gradually bringing in the percussion, perhaps intentionally given the subject, and finally Fish yells a sort of unintelligible roar like “Sha!” or something before Steve Rothery takes off on a kind of funky guitar intro as “Assassing” begins.

I'm not quite sure of the circumstances surrounding the departure of original drummer and founder Mick Pointer, but it's clear it was not an amicable parting, as this song is “dedicated” to him, and it's very clear from the lyric that Fish (and presumably the rest of Marillion) are not impressed. When Fish sings (or rather, spits) ”On the sacrificial altar to success my friend/ Unleash a strange from a kiss my friend/ No incantations of remorse my friend/ Unsheath the blade within the voice, my friend?” you can get an idea of the depth of anger there is against the former drummer. There's a screeching solo from Rothery before it all settles down into a sort of low hum and builds slowly behind Fish as he goes all-out on the alliteration: “Venomous verbs”, "Adjectives of annihilation", “Apocalyptic alphabet”, “Syllables of slaughter”, they're all here and if Fish goes a little overboard making his point perhaps we can forgive him. It's a powerful opener though, and when compared to the more laidback, sombre tone of the opener of the previous album, something of a shock. Kind of like reaching out to pet a bunny rabbit who snaps off your finger.

Of course, at this point we've known that Marillion are capable of punching it up and injecting venom into their music: “Market Square Heroes”, although no ton the debut, was a searing indictment of unemployment and the policies of the Thatcher government, something Fish would revisit partially on his second solo album, Internal Exile, and “Garden Party” dripped sarcastic satire and revulsion at the upper classes, while “He knows you know” was a stark warning against the misuse of drugs, perhaps a little two-faced given that Fish wrote the next album while “on a trip”, but the passion and simmering resentment in those songs can't be overlooked. This however was a totally different kind of anger, born of betrayal and disillusion. The last person you want to stab you in the back is one you believed your friend, and the constant, ironic use of this phrase throughout “Assassing” shows how deeply wounded Fish was by this treachery.

Another theme, as I say, that runs, perhaps worryingly, through this and subsequent albums is that of misogyny. There aren't that often females in the lyrics written by Fish, at least with Marillion, but when they're there they're almost invariably a negative influence, often blamed for the hero's woes, as the woman in the next track, which was actually selected as a single, oddly enough, has all the responsibility for a failed marriage and broken dreams thrust upon her. Kicking off on a sprightly arpeggio on the keys by Mark Kelly, “Punch and Judy” is a deceptively upbeat song which actually catalogues - as do other songs on this album - the breakdown of a relationship, in this case a marriage. I don't believe Fish was married at this point (not sure he even had a serious relationship going) so I doubt he's writing here from experience, but the venom in this track, and the one-sideness of the story, is cause for concern.

With his life now hopelessly in a rut, his chances of ever making anything of himself, the hero immediately blames his wife, Judy, as he sings ”Washing machine, pinstripe dream/ Strip the gloss from a beauty queen.” It's clear there that he's blaming Judy for losing her looks, as he plaintively asks ”What ever happened to pillow fights?/ What ever happened to jeans so tight, Friday nights?/ What ever happened to Lover's Lane?” Well, how can I put this? Life happened, mate. Everyone gets older and more boring and loses their looks and their sex drive. It happens. But “Punch” does not want to face that he might have some blame to shoulder here, and complains as he goes along about his wife's behaviour in the bedroom: ”Curling tongs, Mogadon/ Got a headache baby/ Don't take too long.” It's also obvious, reading between the lines just a little, that this is a story of domestic abuse, as Punch and Judy soon becomes Punches Judy, the anger and rage behind those words (”Punch! Punch! Punches Judy!”) giving them their own dark rhythm and power.

Even more disturbing is not just the idea that the hero is contemplating murdering his wife - ”Just slip her these pills/ And I'll be free!” - but that we, as the listeners, are being tricked into believing he is right; she deserves it. She has ruined his life, now if he kills her he can go on and make a new one for himself. I'm hesitant to call Fish a woman-hater, but if there's a clearer example of pure misogyny in his lyrics I don't know what it is. Of course, he may not believe any of these things and this may and probably is just a depiction of suburban life and how marriages fail, and yet, considering not only the subject matter of the next few tracks, but also the perspective from which they're viewed, it's hard to think that he's just making a point or playing Devil's Advocate.

“Punch and Judy” is one of the only, perhaps the only Marillion song I know of that has no discernible solo in it, other than the arpeggios that open and close it. There is no bridge, no real pause between verses and chorus - indeed, no real chorus other than the title sung three or four times. It's a bit of an enigma: on the surface it's an almost poppy, breezy song that you could see playing on the radio, but what lies beneath is dark, twisted and very very distressing. Even the names of the two protagonists are carefully chosen, so as to reflect the undercurrent of marital violence running through the song. Definitely my least favourite on the album; I hated it when I first heard it, and while now, I can appreciate it more, mostly for its clever lyric, I still find it very repulsive in tone and content. The music, while good, is almost as offputting, like someone singing “Everything is beautiful” while kicking a child to death.

The marriage breakdown theme continues unabated as we hit the first ballad, and while “Jigsaw” is mostly driven on Kelly's rippling piano and keyboards, the tone of it is far more defeated, tired, fatalistic than the previous. Whereas “Punch and Judy” was characterised by anger, recrimination and a thirst for revenge, (as indeed is the next song after this) “Jigsaw” takes a more pragmatic approach. It's almost as if the guy in the song, unlike our friend Punch, has given yup, realising this is never going to work, but again unlike Punch he does not blame his version of Judy. He speaks of the futility of it all as he sings ”We are pilots of passion/ Sweating the flight on course/ To another summit conference/ Another breakfast-time divorce.” The vocal from Fish, in direct contrast to the manic, almost maniacal fervour of the previous song, is low, quiet, almost disinterested. It's the tale of two people reaching the end of the road, knowing it, and preparing to separate.

There is of course some anger. When we reach the chorus Fish yells ”Stand straight!/ Look me in the eye/ And say goodbye/ Stand straight!/ We've drifted past the point/ Of reasons why.” The music swells with him as his patience boils over, then it all fades back down for the next verse. A searing solo from Rothery takes the midsection before it all drops back and Fish asks ”You must have known that I/ Was conceiving an escape?” Some of the lyric in this makes no sense to me, as I must admit is a failing in much of Fish's work. He uses very high concepts and esoteric themes, so that most of the time you don't know what the hell he's saying, but it sure sounds good. I mean, ”We are Renaissance children/ Becalmed beneath the Bridge of Sighs/ Forever throwing firebrands at the stonework”? What does that mean? And how about ”Are we trigger happy?/ Russian Roulette in a waiting room?/ Empty chambers embracing the end?” Lyrical nonsense aside though, it's a great song and it fades out as it began, with Fish's voice whispering almost as if he's disappearing into the darkness ”I'll be seeing you again/On the ricochet...”

After that, things explode with at first just a few little taps on the drum from new man (and still Marillion drummer to this day) Ian Mosley, then a full blown run on the skins as Rothery joins in on the guitar, before it all softens down on the harpsichord-like keys of Kelly and Fish comes in with a quiet, but bitter vocal, dropping to a sibilant whisper at one point. Even given the vitriol spewed out in “Punch and Judy”, this is the first time Marillion use the word “whore”, and it will be used again, sadly reinforcing the view I have of this album's slant against women in general. Fish does however put in a showstopping performance here as he grins and salivates and prances about, declaring ”Plundering your diaries/ I'll steal your thoughts/ Ravaging your letters/ Unearth your plots!”

It's actually one of my favourite, if not my absolute favourite tracks on the album, not because it's also the second-shortest, but really because it captures Marillion at their very best. We get the feeling that the wrong end of the stick has been taken here, that something written in private has been aired in public and a serious rift, an irreparable rift, has opened in this relationship. When Fish growls ”I trust you/ Trust in me/ To mistrust you!” he is almost echoing Francis Urquhart in Michael Dobbs's House of Cards when the Prime Minister tells us “She trusts me. And I trust her, to be absolutely human.” In the end of course, the marriage is over - ”And the coffee stains gather/ Till the pale kimono/ Sets the wedding rings dancing/ On the cold linoleum” - though we can perhaps feel it is the man who leaves - ”You pack your world within a suitcase/ Hot tears melt this icy palace” - but either way, the relationship has been destroyed, perhaps by outside interfering forces with their own dark agenda.

There is however nothing mysterious about the intentions of the “She Chameleon”, as Kelly's winding, snaking, writhing keyboard lines undulate through the entire song, almost completely carrying it with a smoky, sensual and yet ultimately empty sense of promise, as Fish derides the groupies whom he also refers to as “vinyl whores”. Again, it's the women who are blamed for tempting him into sin, as he bemoans his lack of control: ”They know what you want/ They sing your name/ And glide between the sheets/ I never say no/ In chemical glow we let our bodies meet” but then wonders, and at the same time ensures this song would never get any airplay by mentioning the word six times as he wonders ”Was it just a fuck?” There is to be fair some semblance of responsibility taken here for his actions, and it's a dark and depressing song with a squalid, nasty ending as he cavorts in his bed of sin, recalling Matt Johnson who wrote "Our bed is empty/ The fire is out/ And all the love we had to give/ Has all squirted out.”

He has his revenge though in the next track, when “Incubus” apparently warns of the dangers of doing things in your youth that you may regret, and can be blackmailed for in later life, and of refusing to give others credit for putting you where you are. I would never have figured this out, other than that Fish told everyone onstage when I went to see Marillion for this tour exactly what the meaning of the song was. It opens with a sort of grunt and growl from Fish, with a loud, ringing guitar and powerful keys, and he grins ”You've played this scene before” to his aghast victim. A great solo from Kelly and then about midway he takes the tune in a kind of waltz direction, linking up with Rothery who performs a fine, evocative guitar line and solo. Fish references his own, at the time, predilection for wearing makeup on stage when he moans ”You who wiped me from your memory/ Like a greasepaint mask.”

His anger and bitterness, and his dark desire for revenge comes very strongly to the fore as the song reaches its climax, and then we move into the final act with the closing, and title track. Ushered in on a gentle, rolling piano from Mark Kelly, which would crop up again on future Marillion albums, “Fugazi” begins with a rather tired vocal from Fish, before it all stops for a few seconds and then comes back in on Rothery's chiming guitar. With sudden percussion underlining the change, the melody becomes a marching, romping uptempo number somewhat in the vein of “Market Square Heroes”, with such clever lines as ”Sheathed within the Walkman/ Wear the halo of distortion/ Aural contraceptive aborting/ Pregnant conversation.” In fact, there are two vocal lines, as the backing vocals (also sung by Fish) sing a separate part of the verse within the pauses as he reaches the end of a line, then fading back out as he comes back in.

With a general message, I think, of the world is completely fucked up, or fugazi as they used to say in Vietnam apparently, the closer pounds along listing the woes of the world: ”A Vietnamese flower, a docklands union/ A mistress of release from a magazine's thighs/ Magdalene contracts more than favours/ The feeding hands of western promise/ Hold her by the throat” and with racism and fascism raising its head, as it will again and again in Marillion's early music: ”A son of the swastika of '45/ Parading a peroxide standard/ Grafitti disciples conjure/ Testaments of hatred/ Aerosol wands whisper where the searchlights/ Trim the barbed-wire hedges/ This is Brixton chess!”

It all slows down then on a sort of bubbling synth and a stark guitar and bass, the tempo dropping as Fish declares ”Son watches father scan obituary columns/ In search of absent schoolfriends/ While his generation digests/ High fibre ignorance” and has a stark warning for humanity of its impending doom: ”The penultimate migration!/ Radioactive perfumes/ For the fashionably/ For the terminally insane.” There is some hope though, as he asks ”Where are the prophets// Where are the visionaries?/ Where are the poets/ To preach the dawn of the sentimental mercenary?” The song then rides out on an almost triumphant, Celtic-tinged stomp, with whistles and flutes, something that would be revisited to a degree in the closing of the next album.

TRACK LISTING


1. Assassing
2. Punch and Judy
3. Jigsaw
4. Emerald Lies
5. She Chameleon
6. Incubus
7. Fugazi

There are certainly parallels to be drawn between this album and Script for a Jester's Tear: both are dark, moody, morose and with little real hope that the problems within their songs will be sorted. Both albums begin with an accusatory song, though in the case of the debut it is a jilted lover while here it is a former bandmate seen to be treacherous. Both close on songs bemoaning the state of the world, though again “Forgotten Sons” concentrates on the situation that existed at the time in Northern Ireland. Rearrange the lyric though, change a few words and it could refer to any conflict really. Both albums had two singles taken from them, none of which did terribly well. But whereas Script tends to focus, in the main, on one character, Fugazi widens that into couples, relationships, even to the point of taking in the world's ills in the closer.

The songs on this album are shorter, though not that much: we're still looking at three songs at seven minutes long and two over eight, give or take a few seconds, out of seven tracks in total. While Marillion were learning to hone and perfect their craft, they were still a long way from any real chart success, and it is perhaps ironic that their next album, a concept with most of its tracks in the double digits in terms of length, was to give them their two biggest ever hit singles.

This album however, shows a band growing, maturing and expanding their talent somewhat, while still retaining that which had made them, at this point, the darlings of the neo-prog movement. Their next effort, though, would establish them as true living legends, and go down in the annals of prog rock as a true classic, and paradoxically begin to lead to their breakup with lead singer Fish.

Rating: 9.8/10
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Old 04-27-2022, 12:27 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Ah, the concept album: staple of seventies progressive rock bands like Yes, Genesis and ELP, but by the time Marillion had come to release their third album, the idea of the concept album had lost much of its traction. In a world where people bought singles more than albums and where chart success was, and mostly still is even today, the barometer of success, concept albums were seen as a poisoned chalice. Most concept albums tended, if not to actually flow track to track like much of Pink Floyd's The Wall or Dark Side of the Moon, to have each track refer back to the previous and on to the next, linking each song or piece of music so often inextricably that it was hard to take one out of context and still understand and appreciate it. Of course, the aforementioned Floyd did it with singles taken from both those albums, but in general the songs work better within the structure of the album proper, becoming part of the narrative and fitting into the storyline.

So record labels tended to frown, as the eighties hit their mid period, on any album proposed as being a concept. Which makes it perhaps the more odd that not only did Marillion make their third offering exactly that, but that it also yielded them their highest chart placing and almost got them a number one single, a feat they would never again even come close to achieving. For many people now, the only Marillion song they know, if any, is “Kayleigh”, though few if any could tell you what album it was off. This would have to then be seen as the pinnacle of early Marillion, and certainly their best and most complete work with Fish. It would also be quite a personal album, concentrating on or at least signposting and referring to events in the singer's life, sometimes obliquely, sometimes blatantly.

Misplaced Childhood (1985)

As a vinyl album, this runs as two single tracks, with neither side one nor side two containing any gaps or stops, and on CD there is a small pause after what would be the end of side one of the album, then taken back up on side two. The story behind the album concerns mostly, as you might expect, childhood, experiences, lives lived and loves lost, regrets, promises, dreams, the future and the past. As you would also expect at this stage, much of the lyrical material is couched in the sort of poetic, flowery language and rhetoric that often made Fish's work so hard to comprehend or translate. But you can certainly get the basic idea.

The album opens on “The Psuedo-silk Kimono”, with a big booming synth from Mark Kelly, a squealing guitar from Steve Rothery and a soft, almost muttered vocal from Fish. It seems to describe the beginning of an acid trip, under the influence of which Fish is said to have composed this opus. It's a short piece and really serves as an introduction to the album, the storyteller setting the scene as he intones ”The spirit of a misplaced childhood/ Is rising to speak his mind/ To this orphan of heartbreak/ Disillusioned and torn/ A refugee...” The swirling synth slides directly into the guitar notes that open “Kayleigh”, a song of love and regret which was to become their biggest ever hit. Perhaps because it is, on the surface, a jaunty, upbeat song and quite a short one, it somehow fired the attention and caught the interest of those outside of the Marillion/prog rock camp, and scaled to the dizzy heights of number two in the UK charts, only falling at the final fence because a charity record held on to the top spot.

“Kayleigh” uses much of that descriptive imagery so beloved of the Marillion wordsmith - ”Chalk hearts melting on a playground wall”, ”Barefoot on the lawn with shooting stars” and so on, and as has been mentioned in its Wiki page, the entire album borrows freely from what we can only assume are some of the big Scot's musical influences - Clifford T. Ward, The Doors, The Who and of course Van der Graaf Generator, and he even has no compunction in stealing a line from his own earlier work when he mentions ”Kayleigh, I'm still trying/ To write that love song”. But at its heart (and I guess again this is why it sold so well and was so popular) it's a love song, as well as an apology and a wish that things had turned out better. It's quite a frank and honest exposure of some very personal stuff here, as Fish did have a girlfriend called Kay Lee, so you have to give him props, whether he's embellishing and over-romanticising their relationship or not. The song features a super little solo by Rothery which is sadly truncated in the single version.

It flows directly then into a lovely piano from Kelly, nodding back to the title track on the previous album (and this will not be the last time he uses such a motif) as at the time Marillion's shortest ever song at only two minutes and twenty-eight seconds slides in. Also the first ballad, “Lavender” is based on the old folk song/nursery rhyme “Lavender Blue”, and is perhaps unique in that it is the only album track that I know of where, to make it a single, the band actually had to make it longer! With an added verse and a longer guitar solo (which must have pleased Rothery after the hatchet job performed on the other single) and a full piano stop, the song was lengthened to three minutes and forty seconds. Almost entirely riding on the solo piano of Kelly until the chorus kicks in, it's a simple little song and I have a small personal anecdote about it, if you'll bear with me.

Having reached the heady heights of number five (their second best ever chart placing), “Lavender” was slated for a play on BBC TV pop show Top of the Pops and the band were due to play “live”. Suffering from laryngitis, and perhaps as something of a cutting comment on the fact that at the time, performers were not allowed play live for contractual and legal reasons and had to mime to their records, Fish appeared onstage with the lyric written out, and as the song progressed he pointed out the words, with the studio audience doing their best to sing them. Yeah I know, it's not that funny nor original but it's something I remember and if it was a silent commentary on the BBC policy of the time, a wordless protest, well he couldn't have chosen a better time or manner to make it. At any rate, the song recalls childhood infatuation, and does contain what I believe to be a clever line: ”A penny for your thoughts, my dear/ IOU for your love.”

As I say, on the album it doesn't stop but dovetails with the opening of the next track on a dark synth that drowns out the tinkling piano and takes us into one of the two multi-part suites that take up the bulk of the album. This first one is called “Bitter Suite”, with again typical fish wordplay which allows one phrase to mean three things, and is the shorter of the two at just under eight minutes in total. It opens on as already mentioned a dark synth which is quickly joined by a crying guitar and ominous, rolling drums from Mosley before Fish's voice comes in, speaking rather than singing the lines and really either betraying or displaying his thick Scottish accent. The opening section is called “Brief Encounter” and driven both by Mosley's thunderous drumming and Pete Trewavas's pulsing bass, lasting a mere two minutes before Fish changes to singing against the dark synth of Kelly as we move into “Lost weekend” and a train driver seems to want to forget he has an ugly daughter - ”She was a wallflower at sixteen/ She'll be a wallflower at thirty-four/ Her mother calls her beautiful/ Her daddy said, a whore” - and suddenly Mosley's drums crash all over the place with Rothery ripping off some fine solos as we move into “Blue Angel”, reprising the main melody from “Lavender”. This is just a guess, but when Fish sings ”It was bible black in Lyon/ When I met the Magdalene” I think he may be talking about the “wallflower” referred to in the previous section. He's likely also tipping his hat to King Crimson's album Starless and Bible Black. This piece contains the extra part added to the single version of “Lavender”: the guitar solo and the closing piano piece, which does in a way bring this three-part section to a close, if only for a moment.

“Misplaced Rendezvous” then opens on a guitar line very similar to “Script for a Jester's Tear”, a short, bleak piece that runs into the final section, “Windswept Thumb”, which opens on the piano riff from “Fugazi”, after which the tempo increases on a chanted “Don't stop the rain” and then piles directly into the final song on side one, “Heart of Lothian”, where the boys get to have fun as Rothery screeches away on the guitar, Fish sings about life growing up in Scotland and sprightly synth from Kelly. This song is in fact broken itself into two parts, the first being titled “Wide Boy” and I guess the “up” side of the song, slowing down into a sort of stately march before it slides down into the comedown, as “Curtain Call” winds things up on a droning synth line from Mark Kelly, mournful guitar and thick bass and Fish's hurt vocal, wanting nothing more than to sleep but having to record, as he reflects (hah) ”And the man in the mirror had sad eyes.”

From here things take an upswing tempo-wise, though the lyrics turn even more bitter as “Waterhole (Expresso Bongo)” gives Ian Mosley his chance to shine, directing the tune with his native rhythms while Fish declaims the downfalls of a rock star, snarling ”The heroes never show” and taking everything down a slight notch with “Lords of the backstage”, further depiction of the life of a rock star in all its depravity. Actually, a line from the previous song really underlines this: ”Funeral hearses court the death of virginity”. Indeed. “Lords of the backstage” gives a definite idea of building towards something, as if the singer is reaching the end of his tether, and in fact the second suite, “Blind Curve”, swinging in on wailing guitar, has Fish sitting deploring the state of his love life, eventually declaring ”I just want to be free/ I'm happy to be lonely/ Can't you stay away?/ Just leave me alone with my thoughts.” That's the first part, “Vocal Under a Bloodlight”, and Rothery's chiming guitar drives “Passing Strangers”, with a tired vocal from Fish and a rather sublime solo from Steve.

I must admit, I have no idea what the third section is about. It's titled “Mylo”, and seems to refer to some tragedy in Canada as Fish cries ”I remember Toronto when Mylo went down/ And we sat and we cried on the phone/ I never felt so alone/ He was the first of our own.” I don't know who Mylo is or if he even existed, and I have never been able to find out. The music is mostly driven on a soft chimy guitar from Rothery with some nice piano added in as Fish recalls one of the many interviews he had to suffer through while perhaps not being in the best of sobre health. ”Another Holiday Inn, another temporary home/ And an interviewer threatened me with a microphone/ 'Talk to me, won't you tell me your story?'”

Everything takes a much darker turn then as presumably Fish spirals down into addiction-fuelled visions, thinking about his childhood while Rothery leads “Perimeter Walk” in on a solo acoustic guitar, then muffled, sombre drums as Fish speaks the vocal again, in a distant voice, as if in a trance, Rothery shadowing him with his trusty guitar, crying for his friend's slowly-disappearing sanity. It's here that the title of the album is finally used, as Fish, getting more angry and direct as the piece goes on, growls ”There's a presence/ A child/ My childhood/ Misplaced childhood/ Give it back to me” and this swells and pours out into “Threshold”, where he deplores the state of the world, much as he did in “Fugazi”, growling about ”Priests, politicians/ Heroes in black plastic bodybags/ Under nation's flags” and ”Convoys kerbcrawling West German autobahns (remember, at the time this was recorded Germany was still two divided nations: the Wall had yet to fall) Trying to pick up a war/ They're gonna even the score” and the constant theme throughout this is “I can't take anymore”.

Finally, his trip (I assume) ends, he spins down, crashes and comes to his senses, with a new understanding dawning, as we ease into “Childhood's End?” on a sort of bubbling guitar from Rothery. This has always been one of my favourite tracks on the album. Separate in a sense from the main suites, it would in fact I believe have made a good single; it certainly has the hook in it and a great melody. Thematically, it's the “morning after the night before” as Fish realises what he has to do, what he has been missing all along, that you can't recapture your memories or change the past, and you have to move forward and do the best you can. Nice little keyboard line from Kelly helping to drive this, as Fish sings ”Do you realise/ That you could have gone back to her/ But that would only be retracing/ All the problems that you ever knew, so untrue/ For she's got to carry on with her life/ And you've got to carry on with yours.”

I would have preferred the album end there, to be honest, as I don't really feel “White Feather” adds much to the story, but I guess it then refers to Fish getting the band together and going out on the road to bring the gospel of prog and his own lyrical poetry to the world. ”I hit the streets back in '81” he sings ”I found a heart in the gutter and a poet's crown/ Felt barbed wire kisses/ And icicle tears/ Where had I been for all of these years?” The bridge between the two songs is very Genesis, a real Banksesque keyboard flurry, then it goes all marching and military as the album strides confidently to its conclusion. A final defiant promise from Fish: ”I can't walk away no more!” and we're out.

TRACK LISTING

1. The Pseduo-silk Kimono
2. Kayleigh
3. Lavender
4. Bitter Suite
(i) Brief Encounter
(ii) Lost Weekend
(iii) Blue Angel
(iv) Misplaced Rendezvous
(v) Windswept Thumb
5. Heart of Lothian
(i) Wide Boy
(ii) Curtain Call
6. Waterhole (Expresso Bongo)
7. Lords of the Backstage
8. Blind Curve
(i)Vocal Under a Bloodlight
(ii) Passing Strangers
(iii) Mylo
(iv) Perimeter Walk
(v) Threshold
9. Childhood's End?
10. White Feather

This is an intensely personal album. Of course, Fish put some of himself into Script for a Jester's Tear too, and what songwriter doesn't draw on his or her own experiences for their music, but Misplaced Childhood almost reads like a musical autobiography of Fish. He confirms on the Marillion website that much of it is indeed taken from his own life, though of course as is known it was almost all written under the influence of acid, so some of it may be more than a little embellished.

Written under the frowning shadow of the same dark barrier that had inspired Bowie to write Heroes, and which would fall less than five years later, there's quite a sense of impending doom and oppression about much of this album. A lot of that is the pressures of addictions, work, relationships and decisions pulling at the writer, but some of it is no doubt attributable to the realisation that, while Marillion were writing and singing lines like ”I just want to be free” thousands of people behind the Berlin Wall were crying and thinking the same thing in a very real way.

Of course Marillion didn't contribute in any way to the fall of that iconic, hated wall, but it must nevertheless have been gratifying to know that in less than half a decade, and as they set out to write an album that would return them to the dark prog of Script, the constant presence during these recording sessions would be no more, and Germany would be one nation, free and undivided, perhaps a metaphor for the spiritual healing undergone by Fish on this album.

Commercially, they would never have another successful album. After the initial euphoria of two hit singles and a number one album, Fish would begin to grow concerned about the direction the band was going in, and the rising expense of tours, and would eventually leave after the next album, bringing to a close one chapter in the life of Marillion, and opening another, quite different one.

But this album always would, and always will, have a special and treasured place in the hearts of all Marillion fans. It was the point at which the band reached their creative peak, and there would never be another album like it. Years later, Fish, now a solo artist, would return to record and perform the entire thing live, in his “Return to Childhood” tour. That's the power of this extraordinary album.

Rating: (duh) 10/10
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Old 05-11-2022, 07:45 PM   #5 (permalink)
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The problem with having a number one album is (anyone?) you have to follow it up. Not just musically but commercially. Despite the fact that Marillion just happened to catch the zeitgeist at the right time with Misplaced Childhood, despite the fact that nobody - certainly not me - could have predicted it would have the success it had, try telling the record label that. EMI were in some sort of denial, a fantasy land where they suddenly saw all the money and time they had invested in this prog rock band come back to them; hit singles, number one album, sellout tours: fuck yeah! THIS was why they had got into the business, not to push dowdy acoustic solo albums by has-beens that were likely to shift less than a few thousand units. Give them Gold, give them Platinum! Give them glory and prestige and chart placings, but above all give them financial returns the like of which had never been ....

Yeah. It was never going to happen. Not in anyone's wildest dreams. The band knew it, the producers knew it, hell, probably the sound engineers and the lady who brought in the tea and cakes knew it. You have an album like that once in your career, unless you're extremely lucky or a real sell-out. Steve Rothery had said at the time of writing that “EMI wanted another “Kayleigh”, but I knew it was never going to happen. Hell, the first time had been an accident!” And so it had. Explaining to his wife how he composed songs on his guitar, Rothery had hit upon the main riff for the single that would almost take them to number one, and while he was and is a great guitarist and songwriter, he knew in his heart of hearts that that kind of inspiration only really ever strikes once. He's written some phenomenal songs, certainly, but never anything again that was so commercially attractive to the non-Marillion audience. And he never will.

Add to this the fact that Fish was going through his own personal crisis, both with his new wife and with life on the road and battling his addictions (unsuccessfully, and he was well aware of that) and considering a departure from the band, and you can see why the magic that surrounded and suffused the recording of the previous album was going to be markedly absent from this one. Straining relationships, massive pressure from EMI to come up with basically Misplaced Childhood II, differences over how the music was to be written and far too many wild and drunken, drug-fuelled nights all meant that the chances of this new album even getting finished, never mind hitting the top of the charts again, a mere two years later, were remote to say the least.

Clutching at Straws (1987)

It's an appropriate title in several ways. Firstly of course, the band dynamic was such that there was almost two camps developing, one with Fish in it and one with everyone else. Fish was against the new manager who had been hired and wanted to dispense with his services, but the boys refused, thereby turning a loaded gun back on the frontman himself and leaving him staring down the barrel of an irreversible decision. Clutching at straws, indeed. The idea of recapturing the spirit of (a) Misplaced Childhood () for the new album was similarly desperate, and of course the whole thing revolved around an alcoholic, Fish thinly disguised, where straws poking out of his current drink would no doubt give him the feeling he was sinking, or as one of the tracks had it, going under.

They did try though. Misplaced Childhood had been such a success that it was almost a foregone conclusion that the new album would again be a concept. I love Clutching At Straws, but I think the reasoning here is flawed. Marillion had come out with a concept album in a time when such things were frowned upon, as I noted in the previous review, and while it had undoubtedly been wildly successful, the idea of the new album being a concept too was I think pushing it. I can't think of many bands who released concept album after concept album; I think it's an event when a band does release one, and after that it should be more or less back to basics for the next album, otherwise you risk either cheapening the original idea or trying to ride its coattails to another unlikely success. (Another summit conference, another breakfast time divorce?)

But the decision was made, and against major deadlines the band sat down to write, though it came slowly. In the end, they did manage another top ten hit single and the album went to number two (second comes right after first!) so they certainly did not write a flop, commercially or stylistically. In fact, if any album were to be Fish's swan song, then they could not have written a better epitaph.

In a move that would become something of a trademark after Fish had departed, the album opens low and muted, with the sounds very quiet and slowly swelling , though not as much as they would on later albums like Seasons End and Holidays in Eden, and to an extent, Afraid of Sunlight. We're introduced to Torch, the central figure in the concept. He's a failed writer, musician and poet, who drowns his sorrows in alcohol and meaningless sex, having left his wife and children behind him, as well as his responsibilities. “Hotel Hobbies” is a short song, opening with a low synth, quietly strummed guitar and a descending keyboard line that pays brief homage to Floyd on the opening bars of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, then a rippling synthy vibes line from Kelly and a muted vocal from Fish, before percussion from Mosley and Rothery punch through and the vocal gets sharper, more angry as Torch tries to write. ”The only sign of life is the ticking of the pen” he snarls ”Introducing characters to memory like old friends/ Frantic as a cardiograph/ Scratching out the lines”.

Note: you're probably going to notice more references to the lyrics in this album than I have up to now, or possibly will again. This is because I consider CAS to be Fish's finest moment lyrically, possibly because the subject matter was so close to his heart, and at times you really can hear his own voice and experience in the lines. It's therefore his most personal album, and considering that he was already entertaining thoughts of leaving, he may have, consciously or unconsciously, gone to great lengths to put as much of himself into this final effort than he had on previous albums, which despite their greatness never felt as personal as this one does. In many ways, I feel like this is Fish, looking in a mirror and not liking what he sees, as in the spoken part of “Torch Song” later, when he listens but doesn't listen to his doctor's advice, and also it's him staring out of the music and the lines of lyrics at us, with his bleary eyes and slurred voice, a shaking finger pointing and saying “This could be you!” He could also, of course, be saying this to himself, and making a further and almost undeniable case for his expedited departure before the hedonistic lifestyle coupled with his own problems dragged him under for the last time.

Nowhere does this come through more powerfully than in his descriptions of the boardwalk as we move into “Warm Wet Circles”, with a perfect segue from the previous track on yet another wonderfully evocative line in ”When the sunlight flares/ Through a curtain's tear/ Shuffling its beams as if in nervous anticipation/ Of another day”. With a very “Script” guitar line leading it, the metaphors just pile up here: ”On the promenade” sings Fish, ”Where drunks propose to/ Lonely arcade mannequins” - does any other phrase sum up more succinctly and, at once pathetic and sympathetic, the idea of the hopeless, homeless, futureless people who haunt the city's darker corners and hide from the light, as in the best of Waits's lyrics?

I could go on for pages about the lyric just in this song: ”A honeymoon gambled on a ricochet/ She's staring at the brochures/ At the holidays” and the last farewell from two young, probably underage lovers as ”She faithfully traces his name/ With quick thin fingers/ Through the tears of condensation/ That'll cry through the night/ As the glancing headlights of the last bus/ Kiss adolescence goodbye.” I love, too, how Fish uses the title to mean so many different things: ”A mother's kiss on your first broken heart/ A bullet-hole in Central Park” and of course the rings left behind by the glasses on the bar, as well as more, um, sexual interpretations of the word. But let's leave the lyric for now and concentrate on the music, which is driven by a dour and then lighter piano from Mark Kelly, allied to the breezy guitar of Rothery, giving the song a somehow lighter feel than is betrayed by the lyric. There's a sense again of “Fugazi” in the piano here, harder but it's still there.

Great solo from Steve and then Fish's vocal becomes accordingly harsher and more bitter as the adolescent girl surrenders her virginity in the dark - ”Givin' it all away/ Before it's too late” and as the whole thing shudders to a halt on Kelly's piano it again merges seamlessly with the next song, led in by Fish singing in what sounds like a distant echo ”It was a wedding ring/ Destined to be found in a cheap hotel/ Lost in a kitchen sink/ Or thrown in a wishing well” and then taken in on a sublime little passage from Rothery before he changes up into a more upbeat, lighter tone and Kelly's piano joins him, Trewavas's dependable bass muttering away in the background, and Fish's lyric gets a little more political as he sings ”Paranoia roams where the shadows reign” and the chorus tells us a lot about Fish the man in reality. ”If you ask me” he admits ”How do I feel inside/ I could honestly tell you/ We've been taken on a very long ride/ And if my owners let me have/ Some free time some day/ With all good intentions/ I would probably run away.” Not hard to see that his “owners” would be seen as EMI, or even the band themselves, and that at its heart this song is a plea for release, for resolution, for breathing space and ultimately, as he says in the final line above, for escape.

It expectedly gets very harsh and angry in the closing section as, against pounding percussion and whirling piano he roars ”If some kind soul could please pick up my tab/ And while they're at it/ If they could pick up my broken heart” and the song then ends on a powerful repeat of the title of the previous song, eventually ending on female vocals from Tessa Niles, who has worked with such luminaries as Tina Turner, Gary Numan, Jaki Graham and ABC. The addition of the female vox is interesting, as it puts a very slight slant on the idea, but I'm not totally sure it works. Maybe it's meant to be the lamenting voice of the basically abandoned wife, I don't know. Odd.

Here's where I have something of a quandary. Being an old fart, I bought this album when it was new and on vinyl, and it did not have (nor will it ever have: the reissue on vinyl is the same) this next track. I only got to hear it as a B-side of a twelve-inch single (ask your parents or some old guy on the street) but apparently it is part of the story. It was included on the CD and it does fit in overall very well into the narrative. So, although I'm used to going from “That Time of the Night” right into “Just for the Record”, I'm going to break with tradition and feature this song, as I think it deserves to be included. “Going Under” begins on spacey, slow jangly guitar and dark brooding synth, and is the obvious thoughts of Torch/Fish as he contemplates what alcoholism is doing to him, the toll it is taking on his body, his mind and his soul. The lyric, for once, and considering the subject, is in fact one I consider one of the weakest, with lines like ”I ain't got no excuse/ And that's really the news/ Got nothing to say/ But it's my way, always my way/ Seem to be running away so often”, but it's really more the swirling, mesmerising, almost hypnotic nature of the music and the somewhat echoing fade of Fish's voice that really nails the song for me. You definitely get the idea of someone staring over a precipice, trying to hang on, or taking another breath before being dragged below the waves, and wondering if they'll even resurface. There's a lot of despair, fatalism and even a sense of loss and surrender in the song, especially when he asks at the end ”Am I so crazy?”

If that was Torch's long dark night of the soul, so to speak, he seems to face the next day with gleeful abandon and revel in his addiction, as “Just for the Record” is an exercise in denial. A much more uptempo, upbeat song with squealing synth and tripping percussion, the opening line really setting the tone: ”Many's the time I been thinking/ About changing my ways/ But when it comes right down to it/ It's the same drunken haze.” At this point it would seem Torch has realised he is never going to kick this addiction, knows it's destroying him but is equally aware (or believes at any rate) that he can do nothing to kick it and so decides to wallow in his crapulence, to quote Mister Burns. He makes many excuses for what he does - ”Just a revolutionary with a pseudonym/ Just a bar romancer on my final fling/ Just another writer paying off my dues/ Just finding inspiration, well, that's my excuse” - but they are all excuses, and he knows this.

There's a great line in the middle eighth, when he snarls ”Too late! I've fallen too far!/ I'm in two minds and both of them are out of it at the bar!” He realises his problem lies in the fact that ”I got no discipline/ Got no self-control” and if Fish were ever speaking in the voice of Torch on this album, it's here, and it's at his most honest and naked. Nevertheless, the song ends with the grinning claim ”Just for the record/ I can stop any day!” The cry of the alcoholic the world over.

The big epic is “White Russian”, and here Fish's lyrics turn back to the poliical bent we saw on Fugazi and in parts of Misplaced Childhood, particularly on the “Threshold” section of “Blind Curve”, as he ponders and worries about the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe, something he has seen first hand when recording and touring. With a cold wind blowing in (to blow away the cobwebs clinging to Torch's brain after “Just for the Record”?) and a wailing guitar, Fish mutters “Where do we go from here?” which will become the motif, perhaps not even for just the song (though it certainly is) or even for the remainder of the album, or even for Torch's future, but for the future of the man writing these lyrics as he agonises over where his own career, and life, is headed.

The rage against anti-semitism could not be plainer from the opening lines - ”They're burning down the synagogues/ Uzis on a street corner” with the plaintive cry of ”Where do we go from here?” permeating every verse and in fact becoming the chorus, such as it is. The music is angry and harsh to match Fish's vocals, but calms down in the middle with a very “Fugazi”-like soft piano from Mark Kelly as Fish revisits almost some of the lyric from that song when he sings ”We buy fresh bagels from the corner store/ Where swastikas are spat from aerosols”, the mood, though still angry, perhaps a little resigned now, a little tired, the music reflecting this until it swells again as Fish gets his second wind and begins singing about gulags and red tape, and unless he's just railing in general against the injustices in the world I'm not entirely sure what he's getting at here, but I get even more confused when the closing tag line is used.

Cleverly he asks ”Are we sitting on a barbed-wire fence?” which really gives the impression of staring across into No-Man's Land, deploring the slaughter but unwilling to actually get up off your arse and do anything about it, then he uses that tagline: ”Racing the clouds home”. Maybe he means running to try to outdistance the terror and horror that is to come down upon us all, or maybe it's a metaphor for a pointless exercise - running to stand still? I honestly don't know, but it brings the whole thing to a powerful close and his warning ”You can shut your eyes/ You can hide away/ It's gonna come back another day” is telling in the extreme, and when taken out of context and used for his own situation works just as well. You can get drunk, high or both, but when you sober up or come down you still have to face the world around you. Just to underline the motif then, Kelly finishes off the song with single-note runs on the piano that traces the phrase and stops midway, a clear indication if ever there was one that nobody in Marillion had really any idea where they were going from here.
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Old 05-11-2022, 07:56 PM   #6 (permalink)
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From here the album goes into something of a Jeckyll and Hyde format, with the next track an uptempo, boppy song followed by a real comedown, another attempt at rocking out and growling into the wind before the final track has everything collapse in despair and defeat. “Incommunicado”, the only single from the album that could reasonably be said to have made any sort of headway in the charts, hitting the number six spot, recalls the exuberant keyboard arpeggios and joyful guitar runs of the likes of “Market Square Heroes” and parts of “The Web”, but it was never going to be another “Kayleigh”. It's fast, powerful, upbeat and catchy, but with a lyric that, if examined, shows a man drowning in the trappings of fame as he admits ”I'd be really pleased to meet you/ If only I could remember your name/ But I got problems with my memory/ Ever since I got a winner in the fame game.”

The idea of being pulled to this gig and that gig, this signing and that session, from pub to club to party, from concert to lig to interview, comes through very strongly in this and you really get the idea of everything spinning out of control and the singer being unable to do anything to stop it. Talk about events taking on a life of their own! It's abundantly clear from this that Fish is fed-up of the constant grind, the push to get a hit single, the treadmill of recording and touring, touring and recording, and somewhere in the middle of all this his marriage is slowly breaking apart under the immense pressure, like a paper cup in a spin dryer. But if any track on the album can be said to be a poppy prog song, this is it and it recalls the best of mid-eighties Genesis as it hammers along, blindly charging ahead regardless of the consequences.

Those consequences, though, are exactly what Torch is worried about, as he declares ”I don't want to be the back page interview/ Currently residing in the “Where are they now?” file” and it pushes him into a spiral of depression and despair as we slide from the somewhat simplistic joy of “Incommunicado” into the dark, dismal, dreary world of reality. “Torch Song” rides on an expressive little guitar line from Rothery, almost ringing, as Torch examines his life and wonders if there is any way out? His doctor warns him ”If you don't stop this lifestyle/ You won't reach thirty.” to which the inebriated Torch philosophically grins ”Christ! Still, it's a kinda romantic way to go, innit?/ It's part of the heritage.” then coughing and archly adding, ”It's your round, isn't it?”

Torch takes his inspiration from Jack Kerouac here as he says he has ”Found a strange infatuation/ With a liquid fixation/ Alcohol can thrill me now” and admits "It's getting late in the game/ To show any pride or shame”. There is however time to rage, and this comes next as we move into “Slainte Mhath” (slawn-cha vaw - good health) with a big guitar intro that turns into a rippling guitar line as Fish sings about, again, all the ills in the world, and how life lies to us. ”They promised us miracles!” he bellows, shaking his head. There's a lot of reference to World War I here, and when he screams ”Take me away!” you can feel his pain and his panic almost.

There is one ballad on the album, and again it was a single but again it did very poorly, which is odd because I regard “Sugar Mice” to be one of, not only the best tracks on the album, but one of Marillion's best songs. Stuck in a hotel in Wisconsin, far from his home, far from his family, Torch reflects on the last conversation he had with his wife by phone while on the road, groaning "The toughest thing I ever did/ Was talk to the kids on the phone/ When I heard them asking questions/ I knew that you were all alone.” He does at least take responsibility finally for his life when he admits ”When it comes right down to it/ There's no use trying to pretend/ When it gets right down to it/ There's only me that's left to blame/ Blame it on me.”

It's a soft, sad song with a really emotional guitar solo in the middle leading into an impassioned plea from Torch to his kids - ”Daddy took a raincheck” - which finally breaks down, literally, to show us the man slumped over a drink, quite possibly with his hand on the telephone, wanting to call his wife, but too afraid or too drunk, or both, to complete the call, and finally and unremittingly totally alone in his alcohol-hazed world. He realises with mounting despair that this is where he belongs; there is no home for him and there never will be. He sadly tells his wife ”If you want my address/ It's Number One at the End of the Bar/ Where I sit with the broken angels/ Clutching at straws and nursing our scars.” Everything has been taken from him, and he knows he has let this happen, and there is now no other solution for his life as we head into the final track.

With a big, booming percussion and an almost defiant finger to fate, “The Last Straw” opens with an almost reprise of the first track as Fish sings again about hotel hobbies, but with an acerbic, angry and almost mocking flavour now. A powerful marching beat drives the song, punctuated by little soft keyboard flurries from Kelly, perhaps representative of possible hope quickly snatched away. He sings ”We're terminal cases that keep taking medicine/ Pretending the end isn't quite that near.” There's no question as to where this song is going, and where Torch's future lies, and after an evocative guitar passage from Rothery which then builds back up he moans ”Just when you thought it was safe/ To go back to the water/ Those problems seemed to arise/ The ones you never really thought of.”

Though the previous song mentions the album title and there is no actual title track, this is as close as it really gets, both in terms of lyrics and meaning, as Torch finally surrenders to the inevitable, unable to turn his life around and believing the world, his family would be better off without him. ”Clutching at straws, but still drowning” he moans, as Tessa Niles, again for some unknown reason, comes in with a backing vocal which makes no sense.

There is a final coda, shown as a track called “Happy Ending”, but all it is is the voice of Torch yelling “NO!” and then dark laughter fading away. Has Torch ended up in Hell? Was he in Hell all along?

TRACK LISTING

1. Hotel Hobbies
2. Warm Wet Circles
3. That Time of the Night (The Short Straw)
4. Going Under
5. Just for the Record
6. White Russian
7. Incommunicado
8. Torch Song
9. Slainte Mhath
10. Sugar Mice
11. The Last Straw
12. Happy Ending

If Script for a Jester's Tear was a dark album - and it was - then this is probably even darker, perhaps the darkest Marillion would produce before the unnerving Brave, recorded seven years later and with a new frontman. But thought that later album probably beats Clutching at Straws out in terms of darkness and horror, Hogarth writes that based on a true story but essentially about someone else, nothing personal. CAS is rife with the personal demons of Fish, his fears about leaving the band, his fears about staying. His fears about his addictions and his fears for his marriage. His worry that if he goes out solo he might not make it, and his concern that he may be losing the friendship of these four other people with whom he has lived for so long now they seem like family.

It's an incredibly revealing album, and one that does not seek to excuse his alcoholism, or even explain it. It has no (despite the ironic title of the last track) happy ending, and could possibly stand as a cautionary tale for anyone in a similar situation. But at its heart, it marks very clearly the point where Fish has decided enough is enough: this merry-go-round must stop, at least for him, before he is thrown from it or trampled by the horses.

During the recording of the album many tempers flared, and in some ways it's a wonder it was ever even completed. The band seem to have had more fun and been more creatively inspired while labouring under the looming presence of the Berlin Wall than they had while writing this in the various locations at which they recorded and wrote.

But in the end they did manage to achieve, if not what the record label wanted, ie another smash album with a hit single (though they came damn close), at least a definitely worthy successor to their most successful effort, and an album that stands as a fitting tribute to, and swansong for, their charismatic frontman.

Rating: 10/10
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