“You’re gone, and heaven cries
A thunderstorm breaks from the northern sky”
As I’m sure is the case with many people, for a long time I was only aware of Marillion with Fish. When I finally discovered Seasons End I became hooked on the ‘new’ Marillion with lead singer Steve ‘h’ Hogarth. Since then I’ve decided that I definitely prefer the material with h (whose nickname, for some reason and much to my mild annoyance, is never capitalised) and although it may seem like an obvious choice, I think Marbles is the best work they have done. It was released in 1- and 2-disc editions, and I do feel sorry for those who bought the 1-disc version, which emits some of the best tracks. I’ve been listening to this album a lot recently so I can get to know it inside out before next year’s convention, but then also have time to stop listening to it so I don’t overplay it just before the weekend, so I felt it would be apt to review.
The album opens with what has become my favourite song of all time – ‘The Invisible Man’. It took me a very long time to get into and fully appreciate this song. It is in no way instantly accessible and it took me multiple listens and a stellar live performance before I finally ‘got’ it. However, seeing the effort h puts into his performance and the emotion with which he sings the final few minutes is enough to turn anyone into a Marillion fan (I have this on authority of the two people I converted with this method over summer). The utter desperation of the song’s protagonist is conveyed brilliantly and no matter how many times I listen to the song my skin prickles with goosebumps. You can truly empathise with the character, who turns invisible, whose wife finds another man to love and no matter how hard he tries he can’t make contact with her.
“I must watch in dread
when he’s cruel to you
I cannot lift a hand
Lift a hand to stop him
I will scream in your ear
As you’re passing by
I will wrap my arms around you
You won’t hear, you won’t feel me
I will walk stride for stride with you
I will try to help
When you stumble
You will stumble through me”
Every other member of the band plays exquisitely, perfectly complimenting the mood of the song without being in any way obtrusive. I do believe, however, that seeing this song live (or at least watching a live performance) is essential in order to get the full effect.
It could be said that Marbles peaks too soon with ‘The Invisible Man’, and if you listen to the next song – ‘Marbles I’ – you may agree. It is a short interlude (there are 4 of them across the album) and, while it’s a nice little piece of music, it isn’t anything to shout from the rooftops about, and by ‘Marbles IV’ I start to wonder how necessary they really are. After the emotional powerhouse that is ‘The Invisible Man’, it’s refreshing that there is a small moment of respite before the rest of the album continues. ‘Genie’ comes next, a shorter and much more accessible pop song with some sublime female backing vocals and a soaring final chorus that serves as a great climax to the song. Yet it feels dwarfed by the much more mature ‘Invisible Man’ that comes before, and ‘Fantastic Place’ which follows. A quiet, understated masterpiece, ‘Fantastic Place’ is another of the many highlights on this album. Steve Rothery’s moving guitar playing compliments the simple keyboard and the lyrics, which I love even though I’m unsure as to their meaning. For me, ‘The Only Unforgivable Thing’ peaks too early. After the church organ intro, there comes a beautiful few bars of echoey drums and delayed guitar harmonics. While the rest of the song is beautiful, it doesn’t get much better than that for me.
I love the lyrics on this album. There are a series of YouTube videos where h explains his ideas behind some of the lyrics which I really recommend. Knowing what a song is about really helps me get into it, and often it can make you appreciate the song more, if the music compliments them well. I think a good example of this comes not from this album, but from Marillion’s latest, Sounds That Can’t Be Made. The song ‘Gaza’ is about the conflict, but from the perspective of the children and the innocent victims. It takes no side – “There are grieving mothers on both sides of the wire” – and the music is at times harsh and heavy, when the lyrics are about the conflict itself, but becomes quieter when the victims are mentioned, and uplifting towards the end – “With the love of our family, we can rise above anything”. I think Marillion are excellent at this, and it shows on this album.
The epic, 18-minute ‘Ocean Cloud’ ends the first disc of the album in truly magnificent fashion. It deals with Tony Bullimore, a man whose boat capsized and who managed to stay alive in the pocket of air between the sea and the boat, and is at times loud and almost angry,which is contrasted by long periods of ambiance to reflect the mood of the protagonist. It is widely renowned as a progressive masterpiece and I cannot think why it was left out of the single disc release, or why there even was a single disc version if a song as good as this had to be left out.
Another Marbles track (my favourite, actually) starts the second disc and this is where the album takes a downward turn. I’ve never really been able to get into ‘The Damage’; musically it doesn’t really do anything for me, it seems to be a vast change from the general tone of the album up to now. Maybe that’s what they were going for but I’d have preferred a continuation and less falsetto vocals. The idea behind the lyrics is interesting: it serves as a counterpart to ‘Genie’ – they are the same story told from two perspectives, hence the shared lyrics. On an album as long as this I don’t mind two songs having similar lyrics, but on their earlier Afraid of Sunlight album, the songs ‘Afraid of Sunlight’ and ‘Afraid of Sunrise’ are lyrically very similar which I feel is almost a cop-out.
The next three songs, ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, ‘You’re Gone’ and ‘Angelina’ bring the album gradually back up to and beyond par. Steve Rothery and Pete Trewavas (bass) switched roles for ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, an upbeat if slightly forgettable song in comparison to some of the others on the album. ‘You’re Gone’ was the first single from the album and the only Marillion song other than ‘Incommunicado’ in the ’80s to reach the UK top ten. This seems plausible as the song is driven by a poppy, electronic drum beat and follows a straightforward structure. I wouldn’t say that this detracts anything from the song, I really like it and it’s a popular live song. Marillion are one of those bands who are able to play a progressive beast of a song such as ‘Ocean Cloud’ and then follow it up with one such as ‘You’re Gone’ and no one would bat an eyelid. As I said in my previous review, this is a big factor in my love for progressive music: there is more often than not no opportunity to get bored. ‘Angelina’ is a slow burner, but a very good one. Almost in the same vein as ‘Fantastic Place’, it could pass by unnoticed, but if you sit down and listen to all the nuances you can take away so much. It’s place in the two disc album sits perfectly, and were it to be followed by ‘Neverland’, the album would finish flawlessly. Unfortunately ‘Drilling Holes’ comes next, which is easily the worst track on the album for me. Much like ‘The Damage’, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album’s tone and could have been left out without leaving anything to be desired.
A final Marbles track paves the way for ‘Neverland’, my second favourite track on the album and many people’s favourite Marillion song. I can completely understand why. The song is equally as perfect as ‘The Invisible Man’, the only reason I prefer the latter being that it stirs up more emotions in me when I hear it. This isn’t to say that ‘Neverland’ doesn’t bring a lump to my throat, from the opening piano to the final chimes, every note played is placed perfectly. The second half of the song is one huge Rothery guitar solo, arguably his best, complimented with h’s amazing delivery of some Peter Pan-esque lyrics. I highly recommend watching the live version from the Out of Season DVD – just wait for the confetti…
As with every two-disc album (I can’t think of one that breaks the rule) there are some filler tracks, but Marbles makes up for these with the killer ones. It says something if Marillion’s three best songs (possibly) all come from the same album. I can listen to this album all the way through any time of day (okay, sometimes I’ll wind through ‘Drilling Holes’) and still get caught up in the emotion of it all. The instruments aren’t intrusive yet all clearly stand out and get their time to shine. The two-disc version is highly recommended in order not to miss out on ‘Genie’, ‘The Only Unforgivable Thing’ and above all ‘Ocean Cloud’. This is Marillion’s masterpiece.
Stand-out Tracks: The Invisible Man, Ocean Cloud, Neverland