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The Dilated Stare of Obsession and Dreaming
Marillion: Afraid of Sunlight
The heavy-bias warning from last week's Big Country review remains in full effect to start this edition, as well. When you enlarge my set of favorite bands from just Big Country to the round of four, you pull in Kate Bush, Game Theory/The Loud Family, and Marillion. Kate had a new album just a couple years ago, which means we're not due for another until, let's see, around Armageddon. The Loud Family is between albums (their last, The Tape of Only Linda, was my pick for the best album of 1994). Marillion, however, have timed their new album to reach me within days of Big Country's, and this one is even on sale in the US as you read this.
Marillion, for those of you unacquainted with them, has had two distinct career phases. In the first phase, which ran from about 1982 to 1987, they were lead by a burly Scotsman called Fish who contributed some of the most complex and sophisticated lyrical wordplay rock has ever seen to the band's bristling, intricate brand of neo-progressive music. Script for a Jester's Tear and Fugazi, the first two albums, are angular and frequently uncomfortable, but with moments of clear melodic power. For me, though, the elements didn't reach the perfect balance until Misplaced Childhood, the third record, which is a semi-concept album of awe-inspiring musical coherence, centered on the enchanted single "Kayleigh", which I believe is probably the best love song ever written by human beings (though not quite as universally quotable as "I Melt with You").
The end of Fish's era was marked by the album Clutching at Straws, a bracing immersion in lonely, drunken depression. Two live albums and a b-sides collection completed the output thus far, and Fish departed for a solo career. At this point the safe bet seemed to be that Fish would carry on his lyrical brilliance with some other supporting cast, and Marillion without him would be in big trouble. When the first post-break albums from both sides appeared, though, Marillion's Seasons End in 1989 and Fish's Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors in 1990, I was startled to find that, at least from my point of view, Marillion had emerged from the separation in markedly better shape than Fish. With new vocalist Steve Hogarth, formerly of the not-too-well-known Europeans and the even-less-well-known How We Live, Seasons End was a riveting album I usually consider my second favorite Marillion record, behind only Misplaced Childhood. Fish's album, on the other hand, I found bewilderingly banal, his gift for lyrics literally nowhere to be found, and the music, despite some good players (including Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki, bassist John Giblin, and backing singers Carol Kenyon and Tessa Niles), distressingly far from exceptional.
Both sides proceeded to consolidate their positions on the next albums. Marillion put out Holidays in Eden in 1991, an unexpectedly mellow album of smooth pop songs that went over pretty badly with the segments of Marillion's audience that were still wishing for a return to the eight-minute labyrinths of "Assassing" or "Forgotten Sons". Personally, I found it initially a little underwhelming, but as I slowly grew to understand it better, and to stop wanting it to be something else, I eventually came to see it as in a way the band's most beautiful album to date. Fish, meanwhile, put out the uneven, if intriguing, Internal Exile, which didn't salvage much of his lyrical agility, but at least set what was left of it to better music, though on a couple songs by "better" I really mean "Marillion-like". Holidays in Eden made #3 on my 1991 album list, and "Cover My Eyes (Pain in Heaven)" was #6 on my song list. Fish earned no mention.
Marillion then took a break from new albums for a bit, releasing a best-of and some singles to fill the time. Fish, in a disastrous failure of discretion, put out an album of covers called Songs from the Mirror, about which I can really think of nothing charitable to say, followed by a new album of his own material called Suits that found him indulging all the critics who used to accuse Marillion of ripping off early Genesis, and attempting to emulate Phil Collins' later-day VH1 soft-rock mediocrity. Marillion returned in 1994 with Brave, a concept album about a girl found wandering on a bridge over the Severn, between England and Wales.
Brave, I must admit, disappointed me a little. I kept playing it, waiting for it to grow on me like Holidays in Eden did, but it never quite got there. It seemed a little too muted, a little too loose and melodically unfocused. Too much of it seemed to meander, killing time until the next hook finally came long. It still made my top ten last year, on the strength of it being a compact disc filled with Marillion music, but only at #9. I was genuinely apprehensive about Afraid of Sunlight, then, worried that Marillion might be slowly losing me. I hate giving up favorite artists.
But my fears only made me that much more elated to find that Afraid of Sunlight is marvelous. My initial trepidation quickly gave way to broad smiles, followed in quick succession by the delirious rolling of eyes back into head, the alarmingly oblivious waving of arms, the inadvisable attempt to imitate Steve Hogarth's falsetto, and a measure of the triumphant about-the-room stomping with which I tend to greet particularly noteworthy musical arrivals in my life. The album is a blithely concept-free eight song collection that implaccably cements Marillion's dominance of a subgenre of which, come to think of it, they are probably the only current members. Hardcore progressive fans, pausing from their painstaking transcriptions of Keith Emerson Moog solos and scrutiny of the Yes family tree, hoping to revel in modern championing of symphonic excess, will probably be disappointed. So, too, will holdouts who had been hoping, without any particular reason for optimism, that Steve Hogarth would suddenly be transformed into Fish, or some close relative ("Shrimp", some particularly recalcitrant Fish follower is liable to suggest). In place of all of these things, Marillion have chosen to become defenders of elegance. Far less exploratory than Brave, less pop-constrained than Holidays in Eden, and calmer than Seasons End, Afraid of Sunlight is relevant to no current trend I can think of. In a musical era characterized by grunge, aggression, dance beats and populism, Marillion have made an album of subtlety and unforced grace, of beauty, without any of the commercial VH1 blandness that too often accompanies the use of those adjectives. Does a cross between Rush and Clannad make any sense? Unhurried atmospheric richness, but without any New Age vapidity? No? Hmpf.
The album opens, fading in (as have all Hogarth/Marillion albums, I note), with "Gazpacho", an instant Marillion classic, halfway between melancholy ballad and magic pop anthem. A movingly empathetic portrait of a celebrity trapped in an empty life, not knowing how to cope with the ordinary problems that have managed to beset his supposedly charmed world, it even manages to survive the OJ Simpson soundbites grafted onto the end (regrettable, as the song really isn't about OJ in particular otherwise, though he does make an apt example). I'm very taken with the observation, in "The nearest neighbors are a mile away", that the very details of what you've earned could end up preventing you from enjoying it.
The third song (I'll come back to the second one) is the first single, "Beautiful". I'm not sure how good a choice for single it is, musically, as it's pretty introspective and understated, but as a topic statement for the album's aesthetic it's close to ideal. "We don't have to live in a world where we give / Bad names to beautiful things." The album then eases into "Afraid of Sunrise", the first half of the "Afraid of..." diptych. This part is slow, gentle and poignant. The instruments pirouette delicately around Steve's angelic voice in a sort of sylvan medieval counterpoint. "How do we now come to be / Afraid of sunlight?", he asks. "Yeah", I say, joining him in his confusion. A moment later I realize that I have no idea what he means.
I grow even more perplexed during "Out of This World", which drifts from an opening much like "Afraid of Sunrise" into a soaring guitar solo, beforing subsiding into a meditation on, I think, an impending suicide? I'm really not sure. No matter, though, as "Out of This World" serves mostly as the intermission between the two halves of "Afraid of...". "Afraid of Sunlight", the second half, is the charged one, building into its rousing surge with typical Marillion flair. "Beyond You" is structured similarly, quiet introduction leading gradually into a propulsive stretch. "King", the finale, takes the pattern to its logical extreme, building from near silence to a roaring catharsis driven on crashing drums, flailing guitar and writhing synthesizers. It subsides to a singled muted piano, and then spirals back up into a thrashing gale that builds preciptiously right up until the point when, suddenly, the album ends.
You will have to be somewhat patient with this album to like it, I think. If you find yourself reaching for the Search button to get on to "the good parts", I think you'll tend to skitter right to the end. Either you think they're all basically good parts, or the whole thing is probably going to be boring. Either you think this album is an exemplar of how professionalism and maturity can be positive characteristics in a rock band, of how human and inviting "progressive" rock can be in the right hands, of how comfortable and confident Marillion have become, or else it sounds to you like something that should come with a book on self-hypnosis and a free t-shirt, just like they showed on TV.
Or at least that would be the case if it weren't for the song I skipped over. To put track two in context you must understand that, like Big Country, Marillion has tended to be a pretty serious band. Steve Hogarth once managed to make the image of an underage girl being sold a bottle of alcoholic cider sound about as dramatic as a small primitive civilization being disowned by their only god. So you just don't expect to find a Marillion song called "Cannibal Surf Babe". And even when you find it, you definitely don't expect it to be a crazed mutant Beach Boys parody/homage filled with creepy synthesizer noises and falsetto "doot-doot" harmonies, and a chorus that has me singing the cryptic line "I was born in Nineteen Sixty-Weird" like it's the theme song to the world's greatest TV show, which is coming on in a matter of seconds.
But here it is, and every time through it makes even better sense to me. First of all, the song is totally amazing. Never mind who did it, this is one of the great pop masterpieces of our time. I've never been a Beach Boys fan myself, but this is a song whose place in history I could see arguing vociferously about in some contentious newsgroup in the year 2025 (or whatever replaces newsgroups as the forum of choice for people with axes to grind in place of normal lives), with as much indignant passion on both sides of the question as Pet Sounds-vs-Sgt. Pepper debates can stir up today. Even my boss, who insists that complex arrangements are inimical to rock and roll, will have to concede Marillion's worth once he hears this. Yes, I'm sure of it.
Secondly, this song's presence on the album informs the other songs in a fascinating way. It confirms the consciousness of their intent, the deliberate control and subtlety elsewhere on the album. One of the problems with Brave, to me, and even Holidays in Eden on the first few listenings, was how monochromatic they were, and how hard the lack of contrast made it to concentrate on any particular parts. "Cannibal Surf Babe" is a jump start, then, both towards appreciating the album for that song, and for appreciating the rest of the record. It settles instantly any questions you might harbor about what Marillion is capable of, so that you are freed to study what they have chosen to be.
I hope you want to.
The Comsat Angels: The Glamour
Pulling myself from just flipping back and forth between Why the Long Face? and Afraid of Sunlight is hard, but as much as I like those two bands, there are others who need me. One of the ones I feel the strongest sense of obligation towards is the Comsat Angels. This has to be the world's most unlucky band, and I include in that ranking most of the ones who suffered sudden depletion via plane crash. I'm convinced the Comsat Angels could have ruled the world, à la U2, if they'd just had anything but the longest, most demoralizing series of misfortunes, mostly at the hands of the labels that were supposed to be supporting their candidacy. First, Jive attempted to turn them into A Flock of Seagulls in the mid-Eighties. Then Island, who wouldn't stand up for their name against a space-hardware company, eventually forced them to change it to Dream Command, and then dropped them anyway. RPM has finally begun a revival, but they're frustrated by Polydor's refusal to allow the brilliant first three albums to be reissued on CD. Still, they made a terrific comeback album called My Mind's Eye in 1992, and have put out two impressive radio-session CDs since, and things really were finally looking up. So, would the departure of bassist Kevin Bacon and the arrival of two new members, the first personnel changes in the band's history, be the detail that derailed them this time?
After the first couple listens, I wasn't sure. My favorite Comsat Angels' trait has always been their uncanny ability to balance atmosphere and minimalism, but this album is neither particularly minimal nor particularly atmospheric. The drums no longer sound like they were recorded inside a hollow asteroid, the guitars no longer sound as much like the distorted emanations of shattering galaxies, and Stephen Fellows voice doesn't tremble nearly as close to the brink of heat death. "Oblivion", with its reversed electric and precise acoustic guitars, and limber bass part, would probably look like something off Waiting for a Miracle written out on paper, but here I think it's done about twice as fast as they would have done it then, which makes it more considered than haunting. "Sailor" is technically spare, using just one guitar and some keyboards as accompaniment, but it's still not stark in the way that even full band arrangements were on the first three albums. The fuzzy bass strut in the verses of "Pacific Ocean Blues" makes the title seem insufficiently ironic, and the trebly guitar and shuffling drums of "Breaker" always make me sad that the chorus doesn't last the whole song.
Juxtaposed with your average Pearl Jam or Tom Petty album, though, this is still pretty otherworldly. Burbling keyboards and oscillating bass open "Psychedelic Dungeon", which then slides into a sawing two-note groove accompanied by Mik Glaisher, who still has the best splash cymbal sound ever captured on microphone. "The Glamour" is a pounding four-chord rock song, but the four chords are odd ones, more a trapezoidal formation than square. "Web of Sound", with its churning guitars and throbbing bass, could easily have fit on My Mind's Eye next to "Driving" or "Route 666". The keening siren noises in "Demon Lover" provide an interesting counterpoint to its insistent metallic guitar riff. "Audrey in Denim", previewed on Unravelled, has stark trademark Comsat Angels verses, and the way the chorus "SS100X", the other Unravelled track, steps up the scale is a particularly Angel-esque touch.
To me, though, the album comes together in its best form for the last three tracks. "Anjelica" puts the rock aspirations on hold and churns through a song that is repetitive in all the best ways, showing that the two new members have been adequately tutored in the virtues of a carefully executed slow chord cycle. "Valley of the Nile", which essentially dispenses with the notion of a chorus, is even more focused. Fellows' resonant voice slides a carefully controlled melody through a steady weave of guitars and keyboards, and the song never breaks its deliberate slow pace for a second. "Spaced", the epic final song, then drifts in as a soft meditation that reminds me of Ian McNabb at points, transforms after a few minutes into a minor sonic tempest, and then subsides again, trailing off gracefully with an extended coda of eerie piano, smooth bass and skeletal drumming.
Overall, I'm still not entirely sure what to make of this. If the next album is great, I can see myself years from now citing this run of albums as another trio of unfaltering purpose, my current half-formed misgivings conveniently forgotten. If the next one turns into Counting Crows, though, The Glamour will come to seem like another of those points where, yet again, the long-implied artistic epiphany found itself but an untaken turn out of the band's path.
Ah well. Better enjoy it while I can.
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