REAL GONE GOES OUT: Shawn Smith, Bush Hall, London 5/5/2015

In January 2014, Brad made their first ever live appearances in the UK. Twenty years after the release of their debut album ‘Shame’, you could say their visit was overdue.  Unsurprisingly, their appearances at medium-sized venues were a sell-out and their London show in particular was an amazing experience.  UK Fans finally got to hear tracks like ‘Buttercup’ and ‘Screen’ live, and the experience did not disappoint.  Given that response, it seemed possible that Brad may even return at some point, but in April 2015 something even more unusual occurred.   Their frontman, Mr. Shawn Smith, returned alone for a short run of one-man shows at a few very intimate venues, the run ending at London’s Bush Hall.

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MARILLION – Somewhere Else

It’s only fair before we begin, that I tell you how much I love this band.

It may be unfashionable, but I’m not one of those people who hold them up as some sort of middle-aged-but-still-trying-to-be-cool joke. I genuinely think they’re great. As a rule, their greatness far outweighs their faults. Even when in the past they’ve released albums I’ve not been so keen on, there have always been moments which truly stand out.

‘Somewhere Else’ really breaks the mould. The bad bits are bad. The average bits are average and, to be honest, the good bits are, just so…average. For a band who’ve often given it their all and been a band still capable of surprise some twenty-five years into their career, this album represents a band on auto-pilot; a band who, at best, sound somewhat pale when compared to their previous two outings (the epic and dark ‘Marbles’ and the surprisingly contemporary sounding ‘Anoraknophobia’). ‘Somewhere Else’ sounds like songs fashioned from bits of leftovers with some bleak lyrics, mismatched with some poor attempts at chorus writing.

The opening track, ‘The Other Half’ promises so much, with its big sound working from a rather Beatles-y loop. It’s a slow-burning opening track which leads the listener into thinking this will be an atmospheric journey, kind of like a familiar friend but with a new slant. It’s after this that things go awry, when the first single, ‘See It Like A Baby’ emerges from the speakers. The verses are full of unimaginative clichés about trying things for the first time, which become almost unbearable when Steve Hogarth utters the line ‘taste it like you’ve never tasted it before’; a line which no matter how many times I hear it, I expect him to be endorsing Cadbury’s Flake. No thanks. Things aren’t saved from despair when the chorus presents itself as ‘See it like a baby (x4)’. Is this really the work of a man who has been a songwriter for some three decades or maybe more? Is it the work of a man who has written things of a poetic nature in the past? I have trouble believing it myself.

‘Thankyou Whoever You Are’ sounds like something Marillion binned at the demo stage on previous attempts and then dragged out in desperation to pull this album up to ten songs. Musically, it’s more than competent, but sounds very much like a composite of previously released Marillion songs. I kind of hoped that lyrically, something would save this from being mediocre, but again, witness the chorus: ‘Thankyou whoever you are (x4)’. I could point out that thank you is two words, but that’d just be pedantic.

Before the album was released, the song ‘Most Toys’ was touted as a groundbreaking number in the Marillion cannon. It was supposedly the fastest, heaviest thing the band had ever recorded with [quote] Ian Mosely finally getting to drum like he’s in System Of A Down. In reality, that’s not true. It’s slightly tougher sounding than a lots of the band’s previous outings, but certainly not that much faster – not really any faster than, say, ‘Hooks In You’ or ‘Separated Out’, and as for the System Of A Down drumming comparison…that’s laughable. The chorus again is a one-liner; I wish they’d not tried writing choruses at all, to be honest. The title track, musically, is one of the albums strongest offerings – sprawling and atmospheric, but the lyrics add little to the over all result and the main hook, again, features too much repetition of one line. ‘A Voice From The Past’ and ‘Last Century For Man’ have a similar feel, but are ultimately forgettable and while ‘No Such Thing’, at first, seems to be on the right track atmospherically, it’s ultimately spoilt by a trippy vocal effect (used by Black Sabbath to far greater effect some thirty-seven years previously on ‘Planet Caravan’) and some spiteful lyrics, including ‘no such thing as a faithful wife’. Thanks for that. That’s lovely.

‘The Wound’ is the album’s other upbeat moment (aside from ‘Most Toys’ which should be swept under the carpet) and here, I’m pleased to say, it’s an improvement. Sure, compared to some of Marillion’s previous great moments it’s average, but compared to most of ‘Somewhere Else’, it’s a step forward. Steve Hogarth is in fine voice, the tune has a rock edge which feels natural, rather than forced, as it does on ‘Most Toys’. It’s the closest ‘Somewhere Else’ comes to representing how good a band Marillion can be. The rock bits are balanced by an atmospheric mid-section which reminds me of late-90s ‘dotcom’ era Marillion. By this point though (track 8 on a ten track CD), it’s really not enough to save face, particularly after ‘See It Like A Baby’ and ‘Most Toys’. Closing the album is ‘Faith’. As a song in an almost finished form, this has been kicking around for some time. It’s a gentle acoustic-based affair, somewhat reminiscent of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’. Its simple arrangement is one of its strengths. Maybe that’s why I preferred the earlier performances without the brass section. Even though this is one of the rare moments of ‘Somewhere Else’ I enjoyed, it’s hard not to feel just a little let down when a ten song outing, which took years to make, features something most of us were familiar with from what now feels like so long ago.

To be honest, ‘Somewhere Else’ is by far the worst album in the Marillion catalogue to date and even as a huge fan, I can’t bring myself to recommend it to anyone. I’d go as far as to say that although this isn’t the first time Marillion have left me disappointed, it’s the first time they’ve let me down to such a degree that I’m actually embarrassed by at least half of this album.  All great bands have their off-days, but in terms of misfires, this one’s special – the spark that often drives music’s “best kept secret” has totally gone out…

 

September 2007