As part of their now-traditional fan-club freebie, rock legends Marillion recorded a version of the festive tune ‘Carol of The Bells’. Normally fan-club tracks stay that way, but this year, the band have made an exception.
This debut album by Arena feels like an important progressive rock release. Arena’s keyboard player Clive Nolan is probably best known as being a longtime member of Pendragon and the drummer, Mick Pointer was part of the original Marillion line-up.
The lengthy album opener, ‘Out of the Wilderness’ is a good indication of Arena’s musical ability. At over ten minutes, ‘Valley of the Kings’ follows a similar neo-progressive musical path and has a mid-section which sounds like Marillion’s ‘Forgotten Sons’. As a consequence, vocalist John Carson tries his best to sound like Fish. Sadly, this is the album’s main deficiency: Mick Pointer seems intent on capturing his former glories and as a result, all of the best bits sound like they’ve been all but plagiarized from ‘Script For A Jester’s Tear’.
The conceptual ‘Crying For Help’ could’ve provided the band with an interesting centrepiece. Unfortunately, it’s nearly all instrumental keyboard work and when added together, its four parts total nearly fifteen minutes and very little of it holds the attention. The only part of ‘Crying For Help’ which shows any real promise is the final part which features a guest solo from Marillion’s Steve Rothery. But, again, on the down side, the track closes with a ringing telephone and a message saying “…this is the problem line.” Sound familiar?
On the whole, ‘Songs From The Lions Cage’ lacks originality and is only worth a listen if you’re a diehard Marillion fan. Otherwise…
Originally written for Fastlane magazine, 1994
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.
‘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.