Review: Sounds That Can’t Be Made – Marillion

I have been a fan of Marillion since their first album in 1983.  Back in those days, Marillion rekindled interest in Progressive Rock, which had taken an unjust kick in the teeth from Disco, then Punk, then New Wave and the apparent revulsion for long songs and technical playing.  Sounding like a cross between early Genesis (mainly) and Van der Graaf Generator (some), they astounded the anti-intelligentsia by selling out concert venues all across Britain.  They were so popular that EMI signed them, released some singles, moved many copies of their albums, and gave rise to the new resurgence of Prog and opened doors for many Prog bands who today still owe them a debt for their current careers.  Though Marillion weren’t the only band at the time to reinvent Prog, they had a big label, tapping into music fans that were tired of three-chord rock.  (Hey, before I start getting hate mail, let me be clear that I love some Punk, New Wave, and Alternative bands – but I was angry that the other music I loved got suddenly thrown out with the leftovers by greedy record labels that needed to manufacture a new market).  Anyway, I digress.  Marillion lost their original lead singer and lyricist, Fish, after Clutching at Straws (1987).  At that point, Steve Hogarth stepped in.  Here’s where the changes began to take place in a big way.

Marillion from that point on began to evolve continually, creating Prog, true, but also delving into all kinds of music – from Electronica to Folk to Rock; from long concept pieces to short bursts of songs.  To hear them today, I don’t think you would easily classify them as Prog in the sense of the Genesis family – they are a modern sounding Rock band with elements of Porcupine Tree, Talk Talk, and other bands within that spectrum plus the coolness and catchiness of bands like the sadly missed Sad Cafe.  And here they are with their 17th album, and I have to say, it knocked me right over.  Even after all this time, they surprise me, involve me, and suck me into their particular style of powerful Rock music.

Sounds That Can’t Be Made is made up of 8 songs with a total running time of over 73 minutes.  Besides the occasional tasteful guitar solo or keyboard line, you will not hear any noodling about or long instrumental segments.  Marillion is about the song and the message firstly, and they use beautiful arrangements and soundscapes to tell their stories.  When you listen to Marillion, you should be prepared to immerse yourself as you would a Classical symphony – the fast sections, the quiet sections, the emotional, beautiful interludes, and the particular warm parts that make you hum along.  All the elements are there within a Rock format, so you get the best of both those worlds for your listening pleasure.

Marillion has had the same lineup since Hogarth (h) came in, and besides the lyrics, he is the lead singer who also plays keyboard parts and percussion.  Mark Kelly plays keys, Pete Trewavas (TransAtlantic) plays bass and contributes backing vocals, Steve Rothery plays guitars and the great Ian Mosley (Daryl Way’s Wolf, Steve Hackett) drums.  They all contribute to the compositions.  The CD comes with a nice little booklet with all lyrics and Hogarth’s notes about the opening track, Gaza.

So about the songs:

As I said, “Gaza” opens the album and is an electrifying seventeen and a half minutes – really a suite of sorts.  Steve Hogarth explains that he interviewed the people of Gaza, and has written about the plight of the Palestinians in a terrible situation.  The melody takes on a Middle Eastern flavour with very modern elements of heavy chording.  Through the course of the piece the music changes to reflect the quiet sorrow with his plaintive vocals (he has never sounded better) and can erupt on a dime into a pulsing, bass-driven riff.  The lyrics are not only gripping, but the music is very heavy to match.   It makes a statement about the band too; they have never rested on their laurels and still want to challenge you with their words and music.

“Sounds That Can’t Be Made”, at just over seven minutes, follows with an uplifting, beat-driven melody that brought me back to some of the ’80s beat bands and in particular the more Pop side of Talk Talk and features some really nice keyboard work and a hot recurring guitar line that brings the song to a major crescendo.

“Pour My Love” is a smooth, jazzy, almost Doobie Brothers-like catchy melody.  Steve Hogarth shows his wonderful range and soulfulness.  This song could have fit well on Mike and the Mechanics and comes in at just under 6 minutes.

“Power”, at just over six minutes, continues the same sort of music – but with a tougher edge and a larger vocal sound.  There is an element of desperation to the sound and the band really soars.

“Montreal” is another suite, coming in at fourteen minutes.  Observations about a flight from England to Canada, and observations once there and how they miss their loved ones and home.  Simple stuff, but beautifully told and played, it starts off with a slow, wistful melody.  Then about half way in, the music begins to expand and once again, the band’s penchant for memorable melodies hits you hard.

“Invisible Ink”, another nearly six minute track, is a soulful ballad with minimal instruments.  We hear Hogarth’s wonderful ability to go from his deeper tones to his high falsettos that always lend so much character to the songs.

“Lucky Man”, at nearly seven minutes, changes pace and is a straight ahead Rocker that incorporates a similar riff of The Beatles’ I Want You (She’s So Heavy).  It has that While My Guitar Gently Weeps kind of slow guitar lead and a building chorus that reminds me a lot of Spooky Tooth too.

The final track, “The Sky Above the Rain”, is over ten and a half minutes and begins with a lovely solo piano melody and Hogarth’s vocal with Rothery and the rest adding little bits in the background.  The song soon becomes more stark with key strings giving the overall piece a large and full sound.  It ends with Rothery playing through a Leslie amp – talk about nostalgic.  And the solo piano comes back quietly to end the album.

So there you have it.  This is not the Marillion you might remember all those years ago when Phil Collin’s said “they sound like us” (Genesis).  Marillion is a modern band with influences from the past for sure, but also with a unique sound and vision.  They have surged ahead against all fashion, created their own label, and raised money through fans to help with album production.  They are doing what Robert Fripp predicted way back in the ’80s with his “Drive to ‘85” and the coming of the independent music movement.  If you have dismissed them as being “not your style”, then you owe yourself to give them a chance with this wonderful album.

They just might surprise you.

Release Date: October 2, 2012

— Bob Metcalf