Our Agency Considers You a Risk
205 · 31 December 98
One more night before millennial insanity lays claim to all of us, for twelve months plus however long it takes us to clean up afterwards. Having spent the Nineties working on computers and software, I'm plenty worried about genuine Year 2000 system bugs, and I'm definitely expecting something notable to break, spectacularly and irremediably, when the calendar clicks over, but my house has a wood-burning stove and skylights and no elevators, there are hospitals within walking distance, and the file-numbering scheme this column uses doesn't run into problems until the autumn of 2186, so barring serious social-order collapse, I ought to be OK. I'm a lot more worried about getting through 1999 safely. The end of the millennium (and yes, I insist that centuries change with the hundreds digit in their number, just like the decades change with the tens, and if the denizens of the "first" century feel aggrieved about their missing hundredth year, they should have started at zero) has only the significance we bestow upon it, but the number of deranged factions lining up to bestow is terrifying. Spaceship-behind-the-comet suicide cults are only amusing tabloid fare (and free Nike advertising) until one decides to mix a little altruism into their doctrine and make sure that we all get a chance to come along on the pilgrimage. Even if this year is only weird, instead of straying into ugly, the ensuing bank implosions and $14,000,000 parking tickets will be harmless and amusing by comparison.
At their current production rate, Marillion will probably have another record out before the decade closes, but just in case they get sidetracked (stockpiling canned goods, wiring bunkers for solar power, learning to dowse, etc.), Radiation, the band's tenth studio album, and sixth with their second line-up, offers a token of their end-of-the-world esteem. The cover depicts a man, standing on an eerily-lit beach, holding what appears to be either a forlorn bouquet of weeds or humanity's last sheaf of wheat, with his head on fire, and the album opens in correspondingly dire fashion with the sternly sarcastic global-warming admonition "Under the Sun". "The hole in the ozone layer is allright by me", Steve Hogarth mutters over the phone, failing to stifle a yawn, in the mock-folk intro. "Makes England warmer in the summer". It's a throwaway line, half echoing and half undermining the similarly-themed title track from Seasons End, the first Marillion/Hogarth album, and the song launches into a choppy, anthemic sprawl that plays the title phrase for its generic resonance, not its content, but there are actually three levels of points to it, which is three or four more than the usual rock-song allotment. First, there's nothing inherently catastrophic about the temperature of the planet changing. The planet itself is indifferent, and as I write, here in Cambridge, with a ferocious wind supplementing the ten-degree chill outside that means New England is almost ready for one of only two holidays a year where people walk around outside at night, it's tempting to shrug and figure that the large portions of humanity who have opted, stubbornly, to live in areas where it's often much too cold for anybody's good could use the heat. You can almost imagine, if you forget, selectively, about rising coast lines and how precariously many human settlements, particularly in the non-CD-overconsuming parts of the world, perch on the edges of the oceans, that global warming is either the Earth's, or our own, compensation for our having mislocated civilization, to begin with, and been subsequently too proud to admit it and move somewhere more humane. The second-order point, I think, is that although of course nobody seriously endorses this idea (we remember, eventually, about the burning head, and/or vaguely-remembered Bangladesh flooding death-tolls), our denial mechanisms are sometimes more powerful than we consciously admit, and glib feigned resignation is often cover for dangerous apathy. "Global warming" is an unfortunate choice of words; it sounds too benign. "The hole in the ozone layer" sounds too localized. "Radiation", one of the modern era's purest fear-inducing words, would be much better at fostering continuing alarm. And the difficult meta-point the song tosses in, almost in passing, at the end of the intro ("What's wrong with the odd melanoma, / If it gets us all out of the coma?"), is that adversity is easily the best motivator, so perhaps we need this. Perhaps, as a species, we require the pressures of ozone depletion, and viral plagues, and overpopulation, and religious terrorists with nuclear weapons and legacy accounting systems with Y2K tumors to push us to the next stage of our evolution. Perhaps only wrecking this planet will get us off it and out into the rest of the waiting universe. It didn't work for the dinosaurs, but maybe they just didn't phase out the COBOL modules fast enough.
Surprisingly, after this apocalyptic opening, and given how long it's been since Marillion's last concept album (1994's Brave), the rest of Radiation turns out to be much smaller and more personal. "The Answering Machine" follows the sad collapse of a long-distance relationship that maybe only ever had potential in one direction, and the narrator's concluding plea, "Let me talk to the answering machine", is a reminder, more chilling if you meditate on it while sitting in front of a computer, alone, at two in the morning, that building relationships with machines is frequently an avoidance mechanism for building them with people. "Three Minute Boy" translates the perils-of-fame theme from Afraid of Sunlight's "Gazpacho" into the domain of pop, investing a familiar trajectory with some pathos and grace (I love that the pop star's glamorous girlfriend goes back to her parents when the money runs out), and even hints at the phenomenon's cannibalistic feeding-cycle ("When he was young, / Staring at the TV, / He watched the fun / Happenin' to other people"; when we define "fun" this way, no wonder it chews up the people who get to "have" it). The haunting "Now She'll Never Know" is a collection of regrets, for both of them, at the end of a relationship, and "These Chains" is a hopeful companion piece about the freedoms you never think to request until they're imposed on you. "Born to Run", deliberately recasting a hackneyed title, watches the grand battle we fight against our own natures, for show, never hoping or intending to win. The oblique "Cathedral Wall" visits one of the great romantic dilemmas, that unattainability is essential to sustaining a quest, and yet also the reason the quest can never end successfully (a Grail in hand is not the embodiment of triumph, it's an insurance headache waiting to happen). And the monumental "A Few Words for the Dead", the finale, twirls an entire cultural tradition of effort and assertion in its hands and wonders, with more than a little Zen insight, if love isn't an alternative to it, instead of another forum in which it can be expressed.
Musically, I've more or less granted Marillion emeritus status in my life, which confers upon them the right to make albums that are any combination of redundant, ill-advised, over-blown, unfocused or unwieldy, without losing their place in my five-favorite-artist list, but maybe they don't realize, because Radiation sounds as thrilling and vital, to me, as anything they've done. The soaring "Under the Sun" seethes with muted guitar squawks, theremin-ish synth runs, syncopated snare cracks and a gritty Steve Rothery solo in the middle with no trace of his usual ethereal reserve. The blocky, surging "The Answering Machine" layers odd, wheezy sequencer digressions over a furious guitar substrate, like a Rush version of Yes' Union album that makes a six-piece band out of the trio circa A Farewell to Kings and their later selves circa Counterparts. "Three Minute Boy" climbs from serene, sentimental piano to dizzying guitar catharsis, including a twelve-second bridge in the middle somewhere that may be the most direct and exciting passage I've heard this year. "Now She'll Never Know" is heartbreakingly hushed, Hogarth's breathy falsetto halfway between Thom Yorke's plaintive exhaustion and Mark Hollis' ghostly frailty. "These Chains" rises from calm, unhurried piano and acoustic guitar to choruses buoyed on oscillating synth-strings and Rothery's sinuous background flutters. "Born to Run" is a deadpan late-night slow-waltz, this album's reminder, like "Cannibal Surf Babe" on Afraid of Sunlight, that Marillion's customary complications are entirely voluntary. The drifting, evasive verses of "Cathedral Wall" are draped over expansive, pealing choruses and abstruse synth hooks, and the final three minutes, after a virtual dead-stop, are like an epic fade-out in reverse, crescendoing patiently into a dense, cacophonic swirl worthy of Puressence. "A Few Words for the Dead", despite its eleven-minute bulk, is one of the band's most limber experiments, an obvious result of paying attention to the ambient remixes they've commissioned, something like an early Future Sound of London meditation gradually morphing into a Celtic folk dirge, then a fond mid-tempo rock ballad, and then a combination of the three, like Massive Attack without the dance or street impulses. The two This Strange Engine alternate versions appended to the US version, a semi-acoustic reworking of "Estonia" and a busy "Big Beat" remix of "Memory of Water", invariably sound incongruous to me, and I've taken to programming them out, but if they'd shown up on b-sides (the "Memory of Water" remix is a b-side on the UK single for "These Chains") I'd have said that this version of "Estonia" demonstrates Hogarth's gift for quiet grandeur even better than the broader album version (and certainly better than the blurry Positive Light remix that was a US bonus on This Strange Engine itself), and that the reinterpretation of "Memory of Water" as a pulsing, drum-and-bass-driven trance theme works about as well as any project with such a perverse premise could hope to. Nothing here follows up on the direction-altering potential of "Cannibal Surf Babe" (which for a brief and surreal moment threatened to be Marillion's commercial-pop crossover, but luckily nobody heard it), or proposes another, but partially for that reason Radiation seems more coherent to me than Afraid of Sunlight and This Strange Engine, as if the shadow of Brave was so long that they're only now finally out of it. Marillion and Rush share musical dilemmas, at least until unapologetic intricacy comes back (sic) into favor, but while Marillion have adopted some of the same responses, particularly the ones that involve more aggressive guitar processing, they've really only adapted their playing style, and left their compositional style alone, which makes me think, again, that Rush overreacted. There aren't any real singles here, I think, but where Afraid of Sunlight concentrated all its pop energy in "Cannibal Surf Babe" and so left the rest of the album almost becalmed, and This Strange Engine went in so many direction that I rarely managed to think of it as an album at all, Radiation counterpoises the new impulse to play loud against the band's recent penchant for magnificent hush, and lets the tension between the two suspend the album in air.
Shadow Gallery: Tyranny
I have an alarmingly large collection of albums by minor progressive and progressive-metal bands, most of them from the smaller European countries, but many of them are, for my limited purposes, interchangeable: when I'm in the mood for ridiculously complicated metal, any of them will do. Endless virtuoso profusions you'd need a year to memorize are kind of progressive-metal's stock in trade, so the anonymity my lack of close attention gives these records never detracts from my enjoyment of them. I don't want, when I'm in that mood, to remember what notes come next. I want to be surprised (albeit in ways that obey a set of well-defined genre rules), a dozen or two times per second if possible. The New York label Magna Carta, whose commendably straightforward self-description is "The Home of Progressive Rock", has produced a reliable stream of these records, but reliable is an ambiguous term in this context. I've learned to count on Magna Carta to mean the same thing I do when I say "progressive", but I've also learned that their selections rarely make lasting individual impressions on me. In my taxonomy of progressive rock, there's Dream Theater and Fates Warning (and Queensrÿche, if you go back further), and then there are the other ones. Either I'm getting more sensitive to the style, though, or Magna Carta's bands are getting better (probably both), because I'm starting to fixate on specifics. The 1997 Magellan album Test of Wills was still kind of a blur to me, but I liked it enough to buy its predecessor, Impending Ascension, and I liked that enough to give it a Belated Mention in my 1997 year-end awards. The Bozzio Levin Stevens album Black Light Syndrome was a little too jazzy and abstract for my tastes, but I appreciated Terry Bozzio's lucid drumming on the new Knack record more for knowing how radical a simplification it was.
And while I'm not sure if I've actually signed the papers yet, the new Shadow Gallery album, Tyranny, brings me as close as I've come to promoting a Magna Carta band to my first division. The timing is fortuitous: Dream Theater has begun to incline towards the mainstream, Fates Warning has let atmospheric composure take some of the metal edge off their playing, and Queensrÿche has strayed out of the genre entirely, which leaves me in a state of frenzied receptivity for a progressive-metal band who remember the powers of percussive bass (Queensrÿche's Empire is probably my vote for the best pounding-bass-guitar album in history), floridly symphonic song constructions grounded by power-chord guitar, joyously histrionic vocals, lyrics that go on for pages in an infinitesimal font, concept album ambitions that I would have dreamed of in high school but have since lost the nerve for, synthesizer bombast, incestuous guest-appearances, clunky character-acting, preening literacy, hopeless idealism, relentless paranoia and albums that go on until you're too drained to stand. Tyranny has all these qualities in irrepressible overabundance. Shadow Gallery play fast enough to make you glance at your CD player to see if the seconds are running faster than they're supposed to, the fourteen songs here (most of them long, naturally) crash through enough movements to make Mussorgsky edgy, and lead vocalist Mike Baker isn't as shrill as Geoff Tate but gives away nothing in drama. The text is a bitter indictment of the corporate soul of the Gulf War (a subject I thought the Call settled with "I don't think there are any Russians, / And there ain't no Yanks, / Just corporate criminals / Playing with tanks", but the wars keep happening), which Baker and bassist Carl Cadden-James humanize by following an exiled hacker out of the war-rooms into his spiritual re-awakening. Dream Theater singer James LaBrie wanders in for a song, and Linda Jaeger supplies the duet part on the mournful "Spoken Words". Shadow Gallery don't make anything remotely resembling a concession to non-prog-metal fanatics, but if, like me, you miss the paranoid flamboyance of Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime and wish Dream Theater had never admitted to liking Journey, you wouldn't want them to.
Explorers Club: The Age of Impact
The year's most unrepentant prog-rock indulgence, though, and the album that, it seems to me, most succinctly states the case for having single-minded labels like Magna Carta in the world, is this all-hands effort helmed by Magellan leader Trent Gardner. Explorers Club is a project, not a band, but the core players, at least this time, are Trent on keyboards, brother Wayne on guitars, Terry Bozzio drumming and Billy Sheehan playing bass. Trent, James LaBrie, D.C. Cooper, Matt Bradley and Bret Douglas (the last two from Magna Carta colleagues Dali's Dilemma and Cairo) take turns with vocal leads, and the teeming soloist corps includes Magellan drummer Brad Kaiser, Dali's Dilemma keyboardist Matt Guillory, Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Derek Sherinian, and Yes guitarist Steve Howe. The music, despite Trent's rambling introduction about having been depressed after the last Magellan album but intimidated about writing for other players, sounds unmistakably, to me, like Magellan, the ensemble performing effort doing nothing to interfere with Gardner's fondness for multi-layered harmonies and general galloping melodic exuberance, as if the 90125-era big-pop incarnation of Yes were trying to write songs as Byzantine and ambitious as Yes' earlier work. Although there is a fair amount of concentrated metal crunch, serious ferocity isn't really Gardner's songwriting forte, nor do many of the guests seem interested in power-chord drudgery when they could be soloing. There are enough warp-speed guitar fusillades on this album to make Yngwie Malmsteen queasy, despite Terry Bozzio's continual attempts to either upstage or upend them by yanking the rhythm into evasive-action twitches. The three-minute duel between Bozzio and Petrucci that ends the album is probably enough, by itself, to occupy obsessed transcribers for a year. A whole album of this manic exuberance makes sense only as a wildly extravagant and wholly unexpected gift to a startled genre following that will, I hope, try to make up with gratitude for what it lacks in numbers.