Marillion is a band of long standing associated with progressive rock, or “neo-prog” as eighties and post-eighties progressive rock is often called by people who like to categorize things. The band’s career has taken place in two stages, the first a short but productive one in the eighties in which the music was definitely heavily influenced by seventies progressive rock. At that time the band’s main presence was eccentric, large-living Scottish intellectual Fish, possessed of a voice half Peter Gabriel, half David Cousins (Strawbs). Marillion’s music was focused on storytelling at that time, concept albums and dark memories from the depths of Fish’s psyche. Other hallmarks of the band’s sound are Steve Rothery’s tasteful Gilmour-esque guitar leads, Mark Kelly’s ever-expanding keyboard textures, and a rock-solid rhythm section.
After Fish’s departure, a new singer, Steve Hogarth, was drafted, and the band’s direction changed. While lengthy progressive excursions still took place, the sound was streamlined and modernized and the band was more willing to adopt contemporary styles to their own ends. While this has not always been 100% successful, the Hogarth era of Marillion has generated some truly great, creative albums, particularly Brave (1994) and Marbles (2004), as well as the band’s finest effort, Afraid of Sunlight.
All this doesn’t really give proper clues as to why the band has generated such a devoted cult of admirers, but the album I’m discussing may well do so. Hogarth is a grandiose presence, unafraid to let it all hang out and stretch his voice. His lyrics range from the personal to the grandly conceptual, which means when he succeeds, he really succeeds. By 1995, the band’s sound had become very adult, by which I mean grown-up, not AOR. Marillion was putting out classy, intelligent rock for the thinking person, making them contemporaries of later-period Rush more than anyone else (just WAIT until I get around to writing about my love for my talented countrymen…). Kelly’s synth textures made up the most important part of the band’s sound, bringing vibes taken from ambient music into a new, dramatic rock context. Perhaps that’s why this is far and away my favourite Marillion album and one of my favourites of all time.
This is a remarkable record, and for it Marillion has chosen a wise title. This record glows. The production is so glossy, it’s like the sheen on the surface of a tropical ocean. The guitar sounds are spacy and so very smooth. The ambient keyboards swoop and hover. Hogarth’s voice soars angelically over the grandeur. It’s one of the best-sounding albums among the thousands I possess. The veritable glow of the production is uplifting and life-affirming enough on its own.
But sounds this glorious need compositions to match in order to create perfection. And there’s not a duff track to be found here. Interestingly, there is a concept of sorts running through many of the songs, that being the darkness that often underlies seeming sunny perfection. Several of the songs concern people of fame and achievement who seemingly have everything but whose stories turn dark, for nothing is ever perfect and no one can ever have everything they want — and no achievement is great enough. These stories are hinted at both in the lyrics and in the clever musical motifs introduced into the compositions.
This is the theme of “Gazpacho“, which brings directly to mind the foolishness of the O.J. Simpson tale. Who doesn’t remember that stupid car chase interrupting their nightly programming? I saw it at a house party. This seemingly jaunty tune with its chiming guitars actually tells a sordid story of murder and of fame gone wrong, floating along on a deceptively cheery melody and some great hooks.
The fun and silly stomp of “Cannibal Surf Babe” recalls sixties surf music and features some pretty awesome Beach Boys pastiche in the telling of, well, telling exactly what the title of the song implies. While this could seem the album’s throwaway track, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fun. “I’m your nightmare surfer babe” indeed!
Things get serious with the melodic ballad “Beautiful“, which might not be to everyone’s taste since it’s quite sentimental. However, it’s wonderfully heartfelt and there’s an important lyrical theme, that of the way introverts with much to offer are marginalized in a loud, outgoing society that values aggression over everything else (“the fragile and the sensitive are given no chance”). More of us can identify with this song than we would care to admit.
The spacy “Out of this World” is about Donald Campbell, famous for land speed records and for dying in the attempt. Again, the song investigates the need to push the boundaries and the tragic results that can ensue. The ponderous pace and the mood set by the lush keyboards is broken up by virtuosic soloing from Rothery. It’s a giant, monolithic sound.
The title track is possibly my favourite on the album, again a slow ballad, but this time tranquil and reflective, with some great evocative imagery (“Small boats on the beach at the dead of night / Come and go before first light”). The song is further distinguished by a sprawling, grand chorus and a stupendously beautiful middle section. Pure sonic nirvana.
“Beyond You” is another heart-on-sleeve song, this time on the subject of love (I think). Another musical motif pops up, the wall of sound of Phil Spector, which is expertly rendered, timpani and all, accompanied also by some great slide guitar.
The album concludes with “King“, bringing all the threads together in a rumination on attention-seeking, as Hogarth declares to our unhappy fame-ridden protagonist, “I hope for your sake / You’ve got what it takes / To be spoiled to death”, because as any wise person knows, true contentment can never be found via adulation from other needy people. The album concludes with a gloriously oceanic, noisy, soaring build-up.
This is just a great album, full stop. It’s not just good progressive rock or modern rock — it has a timeless quality and an effortless melodicism, not to mention that beautiful all-around glow, and it’s an all-time classic to me. Check it out and visit Marillion to pick up a remastered copy.