May 12th, 2007
The whole Fish vs. H thing is, I think, mostly a dead issue for Marillion fans. Just as Steve Hogarth could never pull off the Beat poetry of “Bitter Suite”, Fish could never handle the gentle “Brave”. I’ve always credited the band with finding a replacement for Fish that sounded nothing like the big Scotsman. Along with a change in singer, the band’s music had to move on as well. They couldn’t continue in the neo-prog vein forever and everyone knew it. The first album with H, Season’s End, was largely comprised of songs written while Fish was still in the band but the new frontman made his mark. The lyrics mostly moved away from the personal and when they did address relationships, they approached them positively or at least not in the dire terms Fish was known for.
The band moved away from prog in fits and starts during the early and mid-1990s. The last album of theirs I bought on the day of its release was 1995’s Afraid of Sunlight. It wasn’t bad and I found that the best song was the least Marillion-like – “Cannibal Surf Babe”. Much more a nod to The Tubes than early Genesis, it proved that the band could tack non-proggy seas and still create great music. But I found the album to be wildly inconsistent and I had discovered other musical paths to tread. I still kept up with them and found out that they basically severed all ties to their past with Radiation from 1998. With it, they’d chosen to make intelligent, well-crafted rock music instead of prog. While this is a gross oversimplification, the new direction was undeniably different. I thought that the next few albums suffered from the same problem as Afraid of Sunlight – they were too inconsistent. Two or three great songs and the rest sounded like either filler or good ideas that weren’t able to be fleshed out well enough. 2004’s Marbles offered hope. A trio of lengthier songs which stitched together various contrasting bits generally worked well. In between were pure pop songs, jazzy bits, and ballads all with a nice modern sheen that was current but not out of place on an album by a bunch of geezers. The guys are exceptionally talented musicians with guitarist Steve Rothery being able to say more with just a few notes than most guitarists can with a few dozen. (His solos on “Sugar Mice” and “Easter” are spine-tingling.) Despite this, I approached their latest effort, Somewhere Else, expecting more of the same hit-or-miss stuff and prepared to just have it linger on my shelf along with their last several albums.
It was quite a surprise to find that the album was very good and much more consistent than anything they’ve done lately. They’re out of the gate with “The Other Half” with its skipping beat that’s almost surf. Rothery’s hurdy gurdy guitar grinds out something like a riff while these fluttering keyboards sound like they’re from The Beatles’ Revolver and the song as a whole has that same driving intensity of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Hogarth is in fine form with his voice as emotive as ever and I just love how Pete Trawavas’ bass slithers in and out of the other instruments. While the song lays no claim to being prog, Rothery’s solo here is classic. “See It Like a Baby” is another mid-tempo rock song with an uplifting chorus and more great work on the bass. The rim shots during the verses are vaguely reminiscent of a certain tune done while Fish was still in the band. Rothery scratches out a rather gritty solo while Mark Kelly fills in the picture with his keyboards. Again, this is a rock song as opposed to a prog song but the fine melody and catchy chorus are irresistible.
“Thankyou Whoever You Are” opens with some piano which leads into a tender pop song. Unfortunately, it all seems a bit by the numbers. Start out slow, speed up a bit, and then have a big guitar solo. Hackneyed but at least it’s sincere and not overwrought. “Most Toys” is perkier and a bit grittier as it rejects today’s hip nihilistic cynicism. Hogarth is nothing if not being honest when he sings “He who dies with the most toys/is still dead”. The song has another strong melody and a straight-ahead rock feel with the guitar lending a loose, ragged feel to it.
The album’s title track follows and it’s the longest song here clocking in as it does at 7:51. It’s a slow burner with H pondering “this rock-star trip” and illustrates the stripped-down aesthetic of the album. In days past, Mark Kelly would have added layers of keyboards to evoke a mood but here he is content with just some understated piano. The guitar here is classic Rothery – lots of sustained notes echoing through the rhythm. Somewhere Else as a whole has this rather bare feel.
“A Voice From the Past” follows quickly on the heels of the title track but doesn’t change the mood much at all with its slow tempo led by a waltzy piano. As the lyrics get angrier, the music follows suit during an interlude which is really Marillion at its best. The band have never really been about virtuosity. Sure, there were moments but their music has always been strongest when the ensemble is playing behind and under-girding some great, expressive singing. They never needed a big guitar up in your face because they got angry as a group. The same holds true here. Guitar adds muscle but it’s really H’s voice that holds centerstage.
“No Such Thing” reminds one of Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan” with the processed vocals. A simple guitar figure is plucked out and repeated while drummer Ian Mosley finds occasion to actually use his toms. And that Beach Boys theramin sound from “Cannibal Surf Babe” rears its head again. This is a nice change of pace for the album. And, when a rap of the snare gets the song moving, Rothery’s playing takes on a familiar guise. I recall being in high school when a friend of mine who was also into Marillion had taken up the drums and was in a band. He was trying to get their guitarist to stop playing big chords all the time and he said to me he wanted something more like the ending of “Incubus”. As that song comes to a big finish, Rothery is just playing this simple figure of like four clean notes. It’s a real testament to what the guy can do. No loud chords, no distortion yet what he played (or didn’t play) added so much drama to the music and that’s what is happening here.
“The Wound” begins a bit like “Out of This World” with its faux R&B beat. Again, Rothery’s minimal playing serves the song well. In addition, there’s some good organ work from Kelly. It eventually finds a groove, of sorts, which reminded me of Ozric Tentacles’ “The Throbbe” with its pulsing bass line. “The Last Century For Man” just meanders aimlessly too long. They’ve gone to the start-slow-and-build-up well just too many times. Instead of essentially bifurcating the song into a slow part and a faster part with a coda, I’d rather they’d have interspersed the dynamics throughout. “Faith”, which closes the proceedings, was originally from the Marbles sessions and a live version escaped as a b-side back then. This is a studio re-recording that begins with some gentle acoustic guitar as H gives a lovely, tender vocal performance that shows his affinity for Romanticism. This version lacks the slide guitar embellishments of the live rendition but, when it gets going with some drums, it takes on a breezy late-60s vibe which works well.
Somewhere Else gains strength from having shed much of the gloss of previous albums. Some recent material suffers from the band’s inability to integrate the shiny and new with their traditional strengths. For instance, the slick “contemporary” drum machine of “You’re Gone” just doesn’t sit well beside Rothery’s waves of sustained guitar. In 2007 the band have stripped down the arrangements and I think the music benefits from this tremendously. My first complaint is that Mark Kelly doesn’t get enough time to shine. He adds subtle colors to the songs most of the time and never really steps out. The other
weakness of the album is that they start too many songs off slowly. With the sparser arrangements, this eventually gets stale and the inevitable moments when things pick up are all-too predictable. At least the group doesn’t get bogged down by attempting to distance themselves from their past here as they have been doing for several years. This is especially true for Rothery. One of the great things about his playing style is that it’s rarely ostentatious. Marillion has never been about the big riffs and the guitar charging ahead. Rothery has always added muscle when needed but, as demonstrated here, he says more with less.
Somewhere Else isn’t going to draft a whole new legion of followers for the band. Neither will it draw Fish-era fans back into the fold. Perhaps the best thing about this album is simply that the songs are their best in years. They just went out and crafted good melodies.