This is my first Marillion review at Apocalypse Later, so I should get this out there and then never mention it again. I discovered rock music in 1984 and Marillion were one of the first bands that I'd called my favourite. Script for a Jester's Tear is still one of my top ten albums of all time. B-Sides Themselves isn't far behind it. I know Grendel by heart. Those songs were all shaped by Fish, their idiosyncratic lead vocalist and the arbiter of their uniquely poetic lyrics. But, he's long gone. Sure, Steve Hogarth is still the new fish in the band, but he's been there since 1989, which is thirty-three years and counting. Fish only managed seven and he wasn't their original singer anyway. Let's get over this idiocy, people.
Now, I haven't kept up with Marillion the way I should have done. I couldn't name you the greatest songs of Steve Hogarth's era the way a friend of mine surely could, but I certainly enjoyed what he brought to Seasons End and I've heard and appreciated odd tracks here and there in the decades since that album. This is the first time I've sat down to listen to a full Marillion album since maybe Holidays in Eden and I'm seriously impressed. Sure, they've moved firmly away from the technical intricacies of Van der Graaf Generator and seventies Genesis to a more commercial sound, but it's still prog and it's still really good stuff. You Can Learn nails its groove and Murder Machines has a magnificent sweep.
The thing is that it's hard to compare this to anyone except Marillion themselves, which I can't do because I'm not familiar enough with their last few decades. To my ears, there's more Pink Floyd here than Genesis, but this certainly isn't a Pink Floyd album. There's Magnum in there too when Be Hard on Yourself kicks in, though it grows beyond that. Hogarth came to Marillion from a new wave background and, while I wouldn't say there's new wave here per se, there's certainly a dose of contemporary art rock in the current sound as well, a Coldplay or Radiohead element. Mostly, they're simply Marillion, which goes an awful long way to explaining how they've maintained such a dedicated fanbase.
There are two sides to this album, but I'm not talking the first and second halves for a change. The bookends are multi-part suites that aren't as epic as they might seem, in three, four or five parts. Reprogram the Gene may have the most delineated parts, but they only add up to a seven minute song. Be Hard on Yourself is nine, Sierra Leone eleven and Care a fuller, more fleshed out fifteen but, as I remember Marillion doing in the past, these suites are also individual songs tied together. I have no problem pulling a part from this song and a part from that as highlights.
The other side to the album are the songs in the middle, which are more coherent as single tracks and so aren't broken up at all. Why Marillion separated them like this, I don't know, but I like the approach, because Murder Machines is the clear standout for me here and, while I liked the early two suites, they felt like they were building towards this song as much as the brief intro listed as a separate piece, Only a Kiss. Three minutes into Murder Machines, we're floating on a sonic wave, every aspect of this band combining effortlessly into magic. I wanted this song to go on and on.
The other major song in the middle of the album is The Crow and the Nightingale, a real exercise in dynamic play. It's a wave too, but one that waxes and wanes rather than maintains. While I have no hesitation calling it the lesser of the two songs, it has a grandeur to it that makes me think it'll argue with me about that. It's still strong though and you'll never hear me complain when a song allows Steve Rothery to let loose on his guitar.
After that, the album tails off gradually with two suites that are softer in nature and so remind of how Pink Floyd built their Wish You Were Here album. An Hour Before It's Dark sometimes echoes that approach, putting the more straightforward songs at its heart, between its sprawling suites, but sometimes flips it on its head, making those sprawling suites clearly vocal. It's an interesting approach and it seems more meaningful the more I think about it. Which probably means that it didn't enter into the band's minds when they put it together.
I like this album, but it's a very easy album to like. On the surface, it's smooth and unchallenging, though there are depths to be found if you dive in and explore beyond the surface (a shoutout to Pete Trewavas's basswork on Maintenance Drugs right here). It's also wildly optimistic, shorn of its edges and infused with optimism. Reprogram the Gene's lyrics open: "I don't want to be a boy. I don't want to be a girl. I want to be happy, I want to be clever and no pain whatsoever." That's this album in a nutshell.