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Date: Mon 01 May, 2006 at 22:09
Headline: What's Out There: Marillion
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"Any more impossible questions you want to ask me? How about "if you could only have one guitar..."

-Matt Meldrum (upon being asked to choose which single Marillion tune he would cover, given the chance)

Greetings & Salutations!

Currently listening to: On An Island.

Yes, again. Still. Whatever.

I am completely in love with this album. I knew it would be well-done, but I honestly didn't expect it to be anything memorable, anything that would stick with me. However, it just keeps coming up on my playlist. So incredibly beautiful and multi-layered and soulful, even though one review I read describing it as "so laid-back it should come with a free hammock" is not far off the mark. Strangely, I am only now coming to realize for myself that a piece of music can be just as intense at the level of a whisper as a shout, which is something I've always theoretically understood but never fully internalized. Don't get me wrong; I still love the loud, heavy, fast, edgy (whatever that means) and aggressive stuff. That will never go away. But those fools who equate "soft and subtle" with "bland and shallow" ...well, they're missing out.

Which brings us to Marillion.

My history with this band goes back around 15 years. My friend John Woodhouse, knowing my proclivity for progressive rock, gave me a tape with Misplaced Childhood on one side, and Fugazi on the other. I liked what I heard, but didn't love it. Later on, John came into the posession of a few solo albums from the band's erstwhile lead singer Fish, and for some reason it was those discs that really sparked my interest. Maybe it was the more modern production, maybe it was the more straightforward melodic approach to the songs, maybe it was the passionate Scottish nationalism, who knows...but this stuff reached me a little more. I had a tape copy of Internal Exile and would whip it out every now and again. Another few years would go by before I fully embraced fandom of either Fish or his former band, but I would still listen occasionally, learn about their current activities via the Net, and so forth. It was all very casual.

In 1997, Fish released Sunsets On Empire, a fantastic piece of work which remains to this day my favorite of any Marillion-related albums. He also toured the USA for the first time in over a decade, and my wife and I flew to see him at a club in Seattle. I have never been more flat-out astonished at a live performer (well, possibly one other, but that's another story for another time...) in terms of having my expectations subverted and surpassed. His energy, charisma, and honesty just floored me. Never before had I witnessed such a strong connection between artist and audience. It was a truly magical gig, and at that point I fell hard. I scooped up Fish's entire back catalog on CD, including the handfull of Marillion albums which feature his vocals. The music became part of the soundtrack to my life, and the big Scotsman and his former band were raised into my Pantheon of all-time greats. It's always amazing and exciting for me to become a fan of a band with a long history, then get to mine that history for new musical experiences....but I realized after a while that I was leaving part of that history unexplored.

When Fish left Marillion, they replaced him with vocalist Steve Hogarth, and have, at the time of this writing, released 9 albums with him. The first actual Marillion CD I bought (before the mania following the Fish gig) was a best-of that featured tracks with both singers, and although I liked the "H" material, again I didn't love it. It took being in a band with someone who does love it for me to take a closer look, and I'm glad I finally did.

Matt is a huge fan of Marillion, and the H era in particular. Since they have never really had more than a cult following in the States, I have always thought it was unexpectedly cool to end up in a band with someone who shares my interest in them, even though his tastes are more rooted in the opposite end of the band's spectrum. A few years ago, he loaned me his copy of their 2001 release Anoraknophobia, an album which hooked me more as a whole than any of the other H albums had up to that point. I admired the way they had become less strident with the proggish tendencies, more subtle, more mature, channeling their art-rock vibe in an almost Floydian vein. When they released their hugely acclaimed Marbles album in 2004 and got their own chance to tour the USA after years away, Matt flew to see them play in San Francisco. He returned somewhat dazed, wearing a look when he spoke about the gig that made me remember my experience in Seattle. I made up my mind that I would definitely need to see the band live with Hogarth, the next chance I got.

Well, I got that chance, in a sort of once-removed way, when I watched their Marbles On The Road DVD a few weeks ago. And what a DVD it is; as is often -- and appropriately -- the case with any band that I consider to be a role model for my own, this performance/recording leaves me feeling both ashamed and inspired. Turns out Hogarth is every bit as personally intense as a frontman as Fish is, he just turns his energy inward instead of out. Fascinating to watch. The rest of the band has, if anything, improved over time. I was especially impressed with guitarist Steve Rothery, who has become an incredibly versatile and well-rounded player, in addition to being one of the best melodic soloists I've ever heard. There aren't many pieces of music which get me to literally tear up, but his lead break in "Easter" does every time.

So, at this point I suppose I can say that my Marillion fandom is complete. Took over a decade, but I have now heard everything, and I don't just like it, I love it. Right now the audio from Marbles On The Road is currently giving Gilmour's latest a run for its money as most-played album 'round here. Both are wonderful in their dense, textured musicianship, both manage to seriously ramp up the emotional intensity under a seemingly laid-back veneer. Simply put, this is great, great stuff.

That said, there's a time a place for everything. I may have started this entry blissing out to On An Island, but I'm finishing up in the grip of Metallica's Master Of Puppets (insert devil-horn saulte here.)

Rock On,

TB