04. Marillion (part one of two)

I don't think I have ever heard a song by this band, ever.  I know their name from watching the BBC comedy show The Young Ones from 1982 - 1984.  There were only 12 episodes made, but they're all pretty legendary within my circle of friends.  We used to watch them on MTV in the U.S. at like 11:00pm on Sunday nights in the late 1980s.  Thirty years later, they're still funny - to us - but I wonder if the Zoomers or even the Millennials would get the humor?  

Nigel Planer's character Neil the Hippie and his other hippie friends were always talking about Marillion.  So I suppose that for the past the past 30+ years, I've associated Marillion with being music for stinky stoners.  The kind who don't bathe and eat lots of lentils.  Like Neil the Hippie.  If pressed, I would have said that they were a prog-rock band who formed in the late 1960s and spent the 1970s as a second-rate Pink Floyd.

Turns out they didn't form until 1979, so they'd only been a band for like three or four years when Neil the Hippie got into them. Where to start? They have released a ton of music. The mandate of this project generally forbids me from researching the bands before listening, but I had to narrow their discography down. Seems they changed singers at one point, and also got a better drummer early on. Based on message board fan polls, and a few music journalist listicles, the records that seem to be best representative of what they do are:

Misplaced Childhood (1985)
Clutching at Straws (1987)
Brave (1994)
...and an outlier that I want to hear for personal reasons:
Friends (2007)

All righty then.  
Let's listen to Misplaced Childhood.

Misplaced Childhood (1985)

"Pseudo Silk Kimono"
Man, the only thing I hate more than this record's front cover is the back cover.  It's like something Kate Bush would have come up with before she even had a record deal, and then changed her mind about after she sobered up the morning after her 12th birthday party.  I like the song title though.  Kind of funny really.  Reminds me of the great Sparks: "Kimono my house".  This synth playing is annoying.  Kind of pseudo-classical in a bad way.  I'm not so into what the singer is doing, but then this hard-panned backing vocal comes in for just a sec, with some spoken phrase, all too serious.  Oh man, these guys are really self-important.  This is already hard to take.  This song doesn't come to any real climax, it just segues directly into the next song...

The drum mixing is so bad.  That side-stick is way too processed.  These drums sound terrible.  Ok, wait the tune is picking up.  This is the hook?   Oh dear.   The singer is complaining about someone named Kayleigh.  But it sounds like a pre-adolescent wrote these words.  Well, the album is called Misplaced Childhood after all.  Misplaced lyrics.  And the songs flow together.  So we're into a concept album here I guess.  This is painful.  These lyrics are generic as hell.  And this drummer.  Is this the new guy?  I hope it's the old guy and they fired his ass.  So stiff.  The tones sound like a drum machine, way too processed, but a machine would have played it better.  Ok, guitar solo: well this isn't too bad.  Typical eighties solo, but it's competent.   Fuck.  This drummer.  I hear the bass player trying to groove and getting no support.  If they had a better drummer and better lyrics, this might be ok.  Generic but tolerable. "Do you remember dancing in stilettos in the snow".  For fuck's snake.  "Kayleigh, I just want to say I'm sorry, but I'm too scared to pick up the phone".  Neil the hippie liked this shit?  No wonder his roommates Mike and Vyvyian always beat the crap out of him.  I would too if my roommate made me hear this garbage all the time.   Ech.

All right, we're officially into a suite here.  This one directly continues from "Kayleigh".  It's basically the same song.  "I was walking in the park, dreaming of a spark...".  No.  Stop.  "Then I heard the children singing, they were running through the rainbows".  Sorry, let me go shoot up my insulin now.  I have cut E.L.O.'s Jeff Lynne a lot of slack for trite lyrics in my day (I mean: "Mr. Blue Sky"... need I say more), but this dude in Marillion seems to be singing to the very lowest common denominator.  Or maybe he is the very lowest common denominator.

"Bitter Suite"
The suite continues, and I am bitter about it.  Ambient spacey stuff now.  Flanged cymbals.  Those are always fun.  See Japan's "Gentlemen Take Polaroids" (1980) for more.  Oooh, a huge tom fill... sounds like six toms on this drum kit.  Yes indeed, this is the eighties.  In the 1990s, grunge killed the fad for huge drum kits.  But not yet!  The guitar here is nice.  Have to say it, but kind of Frippish.  But so far, throughout this suite the synths are just way too loud.  I was saying that about a very different band, Steve Miller Band, a while back, and I said it about the band Asia too.  Even though synthesizers were new and cool in this era (although not so much anymore by the time of this record's release in 1985), someone needed to have spoken up and pointed out that the synths on this Marillion record completely dominate the mix and drown everything else out. Oh for fuck's sake, this guy is doing a spoken word poem with a Scottish accent about spiders and "mist crawls from the canal like some primordial phantom of romance" and being "tied to the phone like an expectant father".  Ah, crikey, then he starts singing about pubs in a bad London accent.  Fuck.  This sounds like a parody.  It really does.  Another drum fill after the 3:00 mark and then an attempt at a soaring jam.  This mix is so murky.  Like it's underwater, and not in a good way.  The midrange is out of control.  But I don't entirely hate the content of this segment.  That doesn't mean I like it.  Ack, this song is only halfway over.  The guy is singing again in his own voice now.  So that's better.  Or at least it's less bad.  His lyrics are still dumb, but at least his accent isn't a fake Briti--- ah fuck he just switched to French.  Non non non!  Last two minutes: they take on a totally different vibe, even mixed differently (it's better to be honest) that uses flutes, piano, guitar, and bass.  This is working.  Then the crappy drummer and blaring synths come in.  It wouldn't be so bad if the synth player weren't playing such generic pad parts.  When he's on piano, it's way better for this band, and also it's mixed properly.  Also, the drummer stops during these bits, so that's good.

"Heart Of Lothian"
Is this a Tolkien thing?  Ah, no it's probably about the Scottish Highlands.  And we're still in this bitter suite. This has been one long song so far.  And not a good one.  Hopefully this is the big soaring finish.  Seems like it's going that way.  Same comments: this song would be much better with the synths pulled way down in the mix, a lot, and with a much better drummer.  This is the best bit of music so far (faint praise), but maybe I'm also liking it because it suggests this suite is going to be over with.  I don't want to hear any more by these guys, but I think side two is still coming up.

"Waterhole (Expresso Bongo)"
Ok, lets see if side two is any better.  Spooky ambient intro for a sec, then quickly into synth marimbas and an intense groove.  This song is like third-rate 1980s King Crimson (but nothing else by Marillion so far has been, at all).  This one is a totally different vibe for these guys.  So far the vocals have been mixed pretty low on all of the songs.  It works for this band.  But once again, the mixing here is just so off.  The marimba is a repetitive pattern that never changes (no Phillip Glass, to be sure), and it's by far the loudest thing in the mix.  It's a relief whenever it pauses, like when the neighbor finally turns off the lawnmower at 6:30 a.m. after cutting ten acres worth of their half-acre lawn while you're nursing a hangover and shingles and leprosy.

"Lords Of The Backstage"
Oops, looks like side two is another suite!  This song is almost compelling.  Much better than side one.  But still kind of sloppy and amateurish.  It sounds like these lads were overreaching.  They had these lofty ideas but couldn't quite pull them off yet.

"Blind Curve"
After just two minutes, the previous song crashes into this one, slowing down quite a bit into a sort of late-Floyd groove. "I just want to be free" he sings.  I know the feeling.  Free of this record.  "Just leave me alone with my thoughts; I'm just a runaway".  Whatever.  Please run away.  Did he just sing "I'm just too tired to fuck", or "too tired to fart"?  Oh, maybe it was "fight".  Big guitar solo.  Yes, this one is very Floyd-ish.  This song is their answer to The Wall.  And yeah, here's the pitch-bend wobbly synth solo.  It's awkward though: a solo begins and then the guy just suddenly stops as if he changed his mind about soloing.  The song just rambles.  If you're gonna do a 9m 30s song in the middle of a side-long suite, then make it a song.  This could be chopped up into three other "songs" and it wouldn't make a difference, especially in the context of having two other song fragments before it - and two more after - as part of this suite.  Ah wait, after about 5:20 it settles into a bassy ambient tribal thing.  Singer is mumbling something about mystical presences.  No, just shut up dude, you're ruining the most interesting piece of music so far.  Then POW! The whole band are back in for a sudden climax!  But no, not really.  It's a limp effort at something that could have been powerful.  They didn't make it. "Does anybody care, I can't take anymore, should we say goodbye", he sings.  Ha.  Yes! Yes! Yes!

"Childhood's End"
Did they get this title from Arthur C. Clarke?  Ha.  Gotta love a good sci-fi prog epic.  But at least Rush wrote their own stories (i.e. 2112).  If Led Zeppelin can sing Tolkien, I guess Marillion can do Clarke.  The playing here is sloppy.  The picked guitar and hi-hat need to lock, and they don't.  It's this drummer.  He can't do it.  Lyrics begin, and... no Clarke.  This whole record has had some theme about childhood.  Haven't caught enough of the lyrics to pick up the whole story.  Fortunately.  The mix is much better on this track.  It's the only one on this record that's even close.  Still not there, but it's closer.  I'm not annoyed by it.  Another soaring guitar solo.  Is it the exact same solo as on the last couple of songs?  Does this guy only know one solo?  "You've resigned yourself to die a broken rebel, but that was looking backward, now you've found the light".  Yeah, grow up punk!  Get a job!  Consume!  Obey!  Rebellion is for children!  Grownups fall into line like good consumers.  Then... another synth solo.  Ok, this one is interesting.  Kind of Wakeman-ish.  And he plays the whole solo this time instead of chickening out after the first few bars.

"White Feather"
...and then straight into the closer for side two.  Each side is structured like one long song with many parts.  Side two is better, but neither are anything I want to hear ever again.  These guys have lofty ambitious, but they aren't talented enough to pull it off.  Both suites ramble along, unfocused.  Neither have significant themes that they return to, or satisfying dynamic arcs.  Even if the mixing were better, the drumming definitely sucks a lot, the singing is mediocre with some pretty clunky lyrics, while the guitar, synth, and bass players seem competent but are rarely interesting.  None of this stuff sticks.  

These guys are by no means a jam band.  They don't sound like they're improvising at all.  The music has all been composed and rehearsed from start to finish.  It's just that it's written in a way that aimlessly meanders into really dull places, never engaging, never sounding inspired.  And yet: we're gonna give them another chance with their also-highly-rated (among fans) album Clutching at Straws (1987).

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape:  Let's wait until we do the second Marillion record and then decide.

Next: Marillion, part two (of two), coming June 15, 2021.

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