In 2001, Marillion released ‘Anoraknophobia’, a contemporary sounding album which contained some of their finest work up to that point. It was enough for some of the band’s more enthusiastic fans to make enormous statements like “if they’d changed their name when Fish left, they’d be as big as U2 by now!” While such enthusiasm is admirable, this just would never be the case: U2 have had a multi-million pound promotional machine greasing their gears for years – one that has ultimately allowed Bono to straddle the globe like a giant self-righteous colossus. Despite best efforts and a hugely, hugely devoted team behind them, these five gifted musicians from Aylesbury just can’t afford that kind of huge promotion.
After ‘Anoraknophobia’, Marillion released some equally fine music on 2003’s ‘Marbles’, though parts of that album were less easy to digest. From then on, however, the band’s output – although more prolific than it had been in the past – was less impressive. 2007’s ‘Somewhere Else’ was pretty grim and 2008’s bloated double set ‘Happiness Is The Road’ contained some great moments but may have fared better if slimmed down to a single volume. An album of acoustic-based re-workings – ‘Less Is More’, issued in 2009 – was only of any real interest to hardcore fans. A few years earlier, such a release may have actually been a fan-club freebie.
Considering the hit and miss approach of the last few discs, there was a lot riding on 2012’s ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’, especially for the more critical fan. …And with eight songs, clocking in at almost 75 minutes, they’ve certainly given their fans (critical or otherwise) something to get their teeth into.
Not doing things by halves, this time out Marillion open their seventeenth studio record with a seventeen minute epic – and ‘Gaza’ is epic in every sense. Spanning what would have been the whole of side one in the olden days, Marillion take the listener on a journey of many moods, as Steve Hogarth (aka h) delivers a hugely emotional and thoughtful lyric regarding the plight of children in war-torn Gaza. [Within hours of the track appearing on the internet, people in a YouTube shoutbox argued whether the piece was pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. It’s not either. The child’s viewpoint does not take sides; the child simply wants an end to the grown-ups fighting.]
Following a slow fade in, a keyboard riff with an eastern quality appears, quicky joined by the sounds of bells and a choppy guitar, over which the vocal is strong. h shifts between his reguar tones and a gentle falsetto; the latter is less enjoyable but suits the pop/rock, keyboard-led part of the tune well. Just after the two minute mark, Marillion challenge their listeners with a surprisingly heavy riff. It’s not of the hard rock kind which fuelled the ‘Most Toys’ embarrassment, but something genuinely heavy. The kind of riff which sounds like it belongs on a Tool record or a post ‘In Absentia’ Porcupine Tree release, it’s fleeting at first, but on its second appearance it really shakes things up. The resulting lead guitar parts add extra elements of discordance further highlighting the sense of turmoil and despair within the song’s narrative driven lyric, where “hell can erupt in a moment” and the child protagonist’s father “died feeding the birds”.
Ambient instrumental sections allow keyboardist Mark Kelly and guitarist Steve Rothery ample opportunity to noodle, but these quietest moments never detract from the sheer power of the track as a whole. If you’ve not been absolutely absorbed thus far, Marillion save the best section for the number’s inevitable climax. “Grieving mothers on both sides of sides of the wire” paints a vivid image, before the two Steves join together on a short piece of music which has all the fire of Marillion’s past, something further highlighted by a wondrous, soaring guitar solo.
“We will kick the ball. We will skip the rope. We will play outside. Be careful.”
“We all want peace, that’s for sure…but peace won’t come from standing on our necks.”
While ‘Gaza’ is very long, like a mini movie for the ears, it doesn’t necessarily feel long. It pushes the boundaries of their musical capabilities to new level. After such a huge opening statement, the rest of ‘Sounds…’ potentially runs the risk of falling short. It is fair to say, though, ‘Gaza’ is not really like anything else on ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’, so it’s perhaps best approached as a standalone track, as opposed to being part of a broader collection of songs. Aside from the section near the end featuring a particularly trademark sounding Rothery solo, it is, In fact, quite unlike anything else in Marillion’s recorded history to date.
‘Power’ has a warm, almost trip-hop vibe from the rhythm section, as Ian Mosley’s drums offer a laidback groove and Trewavas’s bassline takes most of the lead. With a similar atmosphere to parts of ‘Anoraknophobia’, it will come as no surprise that the bones of the song date back to those days, but this is more than mere padding. As the chorus kicks in, Rothery’s guitar rings out with a sense of real presence and h’s lead vocal shifts from its previous understated tones to a full cry. Although already enjoyable, it’s with the last couple of minutes ‘Power’ really comes into its own: h continues to use his voice in a powerful way (so distinct, but you either love it or hate it), stretching emotion from the last few lines, while underneath, Rothery adds sweeping guitar lines. Keeping with the more accessible, some gorgeous eighties keyboards form the heart of ‘Pour My Love’, a hugely commercial ballad. With Pete Trewavas’s bass very high in the mix throughout, his solid playing makes the perfect foil for keyboard lines. There’s something about this tune’s pop edge which recalls parts of 1991’s ‘Holidays In Eden’ – ‘Dry Land’ in particular – especially so, once the guitar solo hits. Much like most of ‘Holidays In Eden’, this is a tune likely to divide fan opinion with it’s very lightweight feel, but for those who still love that album (and it remains a Real Gone favourite), ‘Pour My Love’ is destined top become a favourite. [Interestingly, its lyrics are co-written with John Helmer who last worked with the band in 1999, so perhaps, like ‘Power’, the roots of this tune are a little older?]
The second of the album’s extended pieces, ‘Montreal’ begins with a restrained and thoughtful tone, as h’s voice cries out over some simple electric piano. Just as you’re expecting it to kick in, it becomes even more restrained as instrumental synths wash over the listener. Across fifteen minutes, ‘Montreal’ ambles along quietly, occasionally rising up for some mid-paced rock moments, under which Ian Mosley’s drum style is unmistakable and Rothery turns out a couple of rather lovely solos. Lyrically, it appears to be autobiographical for the band: a tale of airports, hotel rooms and “a trip with the minimum of fuss” and “being greeted as guests of honour” in the Canadian city. While it does not present the real surprises – nor the musical challenges – of ‘Gaza’, there’s some good material within. Although, perhaps, the weakest of this album’s three extended numbers, it’s a song which uncovers something new with each listen.
‘Lucky Man’ turns up the guitars and turns down the atmospheres. Pete’s bass is nice and warming and SR get the chance to deliver something a little tougher – though nowhere near as threatening as the loudest parts of ‘Gaza’ – but beyond that, there’s not so much going on. It is a solid enough number – and has something resembling a chorus – but Marillion are not necessarily playing to their strengths here. Had it appeared earlier on ‘Somewhere Else’, for example, it could have been that album’s standout; here, though, it’s totally outshone by Marillion’s grander ideas…and let’s face it, a couple of those ideas are grander than ever. Driven by heavy keyboards, the intro to the mid-paced title track fares much better in the rockier field (rockier here, of course, being relative). Across seven minutes, Mr Hogarth turns out a rather unshakable vocal performance, one of his best on this album, he’s not tempted to use to much falsetto. Meanwhile, the rest of the band tackle a tune which slowly moves from mid paced punch to cinematic pomp, complete with an 80s prog keyboard solo. Initially, it’s not as good as some of the material on ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’, but the closing section featuring a forceful vocal and huge guitar solo falls not to far short of being classic Marillion… ‘Invisible Ink’ is minimalist at first, with h singing quietly over an equally quiet piano arrangement. Just as you think the band are about to settle for something which sounds like a distant cousin to ‘Now She’ll Never Know’ (from 1998’s ‘Radiation’) the song breaks into something more fully formed. There’s something in h’s voice that’s a little jarring on occasion, but it doesn’t spoil the other good qualities on show throughout the number’s rockiest moments: namely a rock solid bassline and drum part, plus a rather punchy lead guitar. Despite these enjoyable elements, if ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’ has a track destined to be skipped, ‘Invisible Ink’ is the one.
The closing number – ‘The Sky Above The Rain’ – another ten minute piece – begins with soft vocal, piano and synth sounds approximating strings. h’s voice sounds quite fragile during this first part of the song, as befitting for a tune so light, but it’s no match for the musical arrangement, which is particularly striking in its restraint. Of particular note is Rothery’s guitar playing once again, as he offers soft jazzy notes, never tempted to break into anything more aggressive. From the four minute mark, rocky elements start to creep in and the tune gathers momentum, eventually building to a crescendo. During the inevitable climax, there’s very little long term fans won’t have heard from Marillion previously – and it’s probably not as masterful as ‘Neverland’ (from 2003’s ‘Marbles’) – but after several plays it feels like an appropriate end to a very well crafted album.
Throughout the late 90s/early 2000s, Marillion (and a fair number of their fans) were always keen to argue against being tagged as a “prog band”. With bands such as Porcupine Tree, Opeth and The Pineapple Thief attracting very positive press around the time of this album’s release, “prog” should not be a stigma. Since Marillion’s 2012 release is rock based and includes three pieces of music clocking in at over ten minutes – whether they choose to embrace the tag or not – it is very much a “prog rock” album. Regardless of how you’d like to pigeonhole it though, most of ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’ is fantastic – easily Marillion’s best work since ‘Anoraknophobia’. They should be proud…and you can bet they are.