A few months ago, I wrote a feature for Powerplay magazine, ranking the Marillion studio albums. Things change. Since then, they’ve released An Hour Before It’s Dark and as you often do with favourite bands, a reassessment has taken place. Using that article as the basis for the re-evaluation, here’s the latest – by no means definitive and of course, open to comment – on how we (or should ‘we’ say ‘I’) see the twenty album output…
There’s a strong tendency to see Marillion as a band of two eras, Their career isoften split into the Fish era and the Hogarth era. As a fan from the very beginning and with colours nailed firmly and unashamedly to the mast, to me, it’s all Marillion regardless of who’s standing at the front singing the songs. A fan yes, but one with a critical eye, keen to admire and celebrate the strengths of each release while being honest enough to say when they’re not scratching my itch (in the nicest possible way). They’re a band who’ve had an ‘interesting’ career of peaks and troughs, kickstarting as Prog Rock torchbearers in the neo-prog movement of the early Eighties. They’ve been labelled as a Scottish Heavy Metal band and seen darker days when they were much maligned and certified persona non grata. Record companies weren’t interested and their stock was pretty low. Their management even famously told them to go part-time and get other jobs.
Currently enjoying a bit of an Indian Summer, their stock is pretty high and riding a wave as progressive flag bearers, here’s a look back at their twenty studio albums. It’s a nice round number with their An Hour Before It’s Dark album receiving much (deserved) acclaim. The mass of live releases that fills the storage shelves of the fans and obsessives can be stored for a very rainy day or pub discussion amongst fellow fans and possibly try to pick out a top ten. Usual rules (personal opinion, not definitive, no death threats if I didn’t choose your favourite, etc) apply.
20. Less Is More (2009)
So at the bottom of the pile comes the stripped-back, acoustic album. A set of songs reimagined for posterity. They’d done gigs unplugged and in the guise of Los Trios Marillos, but Less Is More’puts things to on record. There are some revelations: the rearranged Wrapped Up In Time is stunning – particularly effective on the live document of the tour – and Out Of This World can’t be faulted in any form. Proof that when a song is so good, it takes something special to ruin it. An album that probably had to be done and the tour was excellent (preserved for posterity, naturally, on a CD/DVD set) but IMHO, the Unplugged At The Walls album is probably the go to album for bare-to-the-bones Marillion.
19. With Friends From The Orchestra (2019)
And to another album that also had to be done. The unplugged box ticked, the orchestral album brings a degree of balance of sorts. The friends turned out to be a string section adding to a choice selection of material that befits their inclusion. Estonia as expected, is sublime and the ending part of This Strange Engine could raise the dead (or at least the seated audience at the gigs). The arrangement on A Collection’lightens the mood on the creepily chilling song about stalking… Again, the tour (available as a live release) was excellent with the band spurred on to produce some stunning-looking and sounding shows. Essential? Maybe not.
18. Somewhere Else (2007)
Sorry guys. An album that simply doesn’t resonate. The only saving grace is opening track The Other Half which occasionally gets a live outing and just to be perverse, I’d also pick out Most Toys, which most fans dislike intensely, as a refreshing interlude. After all, it is less than three minutes. I do sit up during the “dead yet alive” moment in A Voice From The Past’ and while many fans rate the title track, it can be a struggle. Only avoiding the bottom as it sits above two albums that don’t contain original material albeit presented in a refreshed framework. What else? The cover is nice, but it seems to pave the way for a period of meandering and less-than-inspiring music. Incidentally, the only Marillion album/CD I’ve ever seen in a charity shop.
17. Happiness Is The Road (2008)
After the success of previous album Marbles, another sprawling effort that seems a little forced and might have benefitted from a little judicious trimming. Split across two discs, one themed as Essence and the other The Hard Shoulder, I have to admit that very little sticks out for me. Sorry lads, but much of the album fails to take off or stir the blood. Just looking at the set right now, some songs I couldn’t even sing to you and the only one I think I’d want to play is This Train Is My Life. Another opening track. Perhaps one of those that could have been a great (well, better…) single album. My beautifully packaged box set remains sadly underused on the shelf. I didn;t get to see the tour either which may have helped get some of the songs a little more into the memory.
16. Radiation (1998)
Even a major reboot on the production in 2013, good as it was, can’t rescue what, at the time, was a little disappointing. Time may have been kinder, revealing some treasures. I always rated Cathedral Wall above the similar King (from Afraid Of Sunlight) that always gets the acclaim as a barnstorming setlist closer and Born To Run (not that one) is their best attempt at something bluesier. A Few Words For The Dead ticks the progressive/psychedelic box with an extended intro and wonderful “see the weirdos on the hill, come to get you if you stand still” line and I’m also partial to the divisive The Answering Machine that’s a real blast. Maybe it should be higher…hmmm… But we’re starting to move into territory where there’s sometimes very little to choose between, and on another day….
15. Sounds That Can’t Be Made (2012)
The great clashing with the not so great. On the one hand, we have Gaza (Marillion heading into topical/political territory that would manifest itself on the next album) which is epic and The Sky Above The Rain, one of Hogarth’s heartbreaking relationship tales par excellence although I’d love to hear the bluesy Rothery guitar caresses a little higher in the mix. The title track is nice, but on the other hand… Pour My Love strays into saccharine territory and Montreal (great if it’s where you live, a bit ‘meh’ if not) uses the ‘diary for lyrics’ idea way too literally. Aside from Springsteen’s Drive All Night, where else could you find lyrics about “shopping for shoes”? Trying times for the band with relationships a little strained but they came through.
14. Holidays In Eden (1991)
Too poppy and commercial? The album where Marillion were eased in a more commercial pop direction, Mike & The Mechanics style – strangely in the same way as a similar change of direction saw Genesis conquer the mainstream. With the new singer now bedded in, Holidays… finds them searching for their new USP which certainly wasn’t going to be with the Prog Rock style with which they made their mark and with Christopher Neil’s production polish, granted, there are some nice tunes in a poppy sort of way. However, the album has some saving graces. Splintering Heart is a dynamic opener especially in concert and the This Town/Rake’s Progress/100 Nights closing combo are up with the cream of Marillion. A ‘nice’ album that provoked an inspired reaction three years down the line.
13. Anoraknophobia (2001)
Where the crowdfunding/patronage scheme paid dividends. With the band struggling to find a new deal, they flew solo and never looked back. Having gained the artistic freedom through the trust of the fans, the album featured a couple of great single material songs – Between You And Me and Map Of The World (with an underrated Rothery solo) – while allowing the band to head into new sonic areas, incorporating jazz, blues and funk. All in moderation of course. Major numbers included the wiring giant of This Is The Twenty First Century and If My Heart Were A Ball, both intense and weighty contributions. They band also took the step of going back to gigging in the universities to appeal to the student body, that backfired a little as the regular fans just devoured up the chance to see their heroes in the smaller venues instead. I’ll certainly never forget the sweat running down the walls at Leeds Cockpit.
12. Script For A Jester’s Tear (1983)
Maybe a bit controversial, Script being the first born and all, but we’re closing in on the top ten. They’d already staked their claim with the Market Square Heroes anthem and the live tour de force Grendel that would plague them, albatross-like, forevermore. The debut album saw the live set transfer to a major label record along with the compelling title track, introducing us to the posturing vocals and falsetto of a charismatic frontman and an increasingly confident instrumental combo. the title track is perhaps the standout from a set that they’d been playing for a few years. Steve Rothery is starting to stand out with some intricate guitar work and Mark Kelly has plenty of his ‘widdly widdly’ keyboard moments. We also had the introduction to the wonderful artwork of Mark Wilkinson whose creations would see Marillion rivalling Iron Maiden in the instantly recognisable branding stakes in the early Eighties.
11. Fugazi (1984)
An album containing two significantly major tracks – Incubus and Fugazi – where Fish is at his most bitingly poetic on an album where he occasionally overeggs the lyrical cake. Two songs which are probably the reason Fugazi ranks above Script… are still mainstays for the Steve Rothery Band to this day although none of the Fugazi material has ever made it to a Hogarth era setlist (bar the first part of Cinderella Search which he sang really well before the piece segued into The Space). Add a decent single, some solid album tracks, a great ‘b’ side in Cinderella Search and a wonderful gatefold sleeve and Fugazi is deserving of a little more attention it often gets. The weak link is She Chameleon, rescued from their earlier days and maybe an indication that they’d found the generation of new material to be a struggle. That would change with their next album…
10. Season’s End (1989)
The first album with Steve Hogarth played it pretty safe. The classic logo remained the same, bridging the gap, and it proved to be a happy album in the sense that the band knew they were going to be ok to carry on, thrive even, even losing the huge presence of their lead singer. There’s nothing overambitious with no real duds though some aren’t keen on Hooks In You’(and the Top Of The Pops appearance) but isn’t it just ‘Incommunicado’ for a new dawn? The King Of Sunset Town is a great opener on the album and also proved to be in the live setting and Easter is, of course, a Marillion classic with a solo that must rank high (the best? Top three at least) in the Steve Rothery book of solos. Hard to find fault and a couple of great ‘b’ sides to with The Bell In The Sea and particularly The Release. An album I feel could well be higher.
9. Clutching At Straws (1987)
The last album with Fish as singer and one that documents the fractured state of a band who’d reached a point where they couldn’t continue as they were despite this being the singer’s favourite album of the four he completed. A perfect example of how great art is created in the most challenging of times. Slainte Mhath is a terrific opening concert song with Clutching… an early album that Hogarth seemed much more comfortable with should the guys fancy a dip into the past. The Hotel Hobbies/Warm Wet Circles/That Time Of The Night sequence works well and The Last Straw is particularly prophetic. The writing on the wall song. Harping on again about guitar solos again, there’s another biggie that lifts Sugar Mice – a song that continues to be a communal audience participation in concert despite its melancholy ambience.
8. This Strange Engine (1997)
On the cusp of the top five and above Clutching… mainly on the strength of the title track. One where the Hogarth childhood memories aren’t misplaced but still provide a series of episodes matched by an inspiring soundtrack. Oh, and let’s not forget Estonia where Marillion hit a rare peak of emotional connection with a song that’s on many fans ‘music to be played at my funeral’ list. The archetypal Marillion song that includes their two favourite subjects in one fell swoop – death and water. Taking of which, Memory Of Water (before it got a driving beat remix) is like a folk song. Man Of A Thousand Faces with the multi-tracked voices providing a rousing finale after the acoustic opening and Eighty Days, both strong tracks add weight to the album’s legacy. The genres may be varied, but I think we can quickly skip the calypso Hope For The Future…
7. Marbles (2004)
An ambitious and more consistent double disc set that has its share of major songs; cue Invisible Man, Neverland (another immaculate Rothery solo) and the huge drama of the seafaring epic Ocean Cloud. The moment at almost five minutes in Neverland when they hit a big chord, the synth strings rise and Rothery plays those three notes – possibly the most spine-tingling in their whole library of work. The album even spawned a hit single with You’re Gone although Genie is another of those underrated gems which is crossover single material and Fantastic Place does what it says on the tin. Despite the length, it works, ebbing and flowing and punctuated by the odd little Marbles song cameos that celebrate the shiny glass orbs from our youth. Many might place it higher, but personal tastes and all… Good tour too, despite the number of live releases that emerged. Too much of a good thing.
6. Marillion.com (1999)
As the age of the internet came up over the hill to give hope for the future (see what we did there?). A decline in fortunes, the last contracted album and their first album not to break the top forty. However, Marillion.com is (almost) consistently strong. Tumble Down The Years is a particular favourite of the Marillion-lite canon and Enlightened has that Estonia ambient vibe. The underestimated blockbuster Interior Lulu rivals some of their other extended pieces and, as the songs says, “Thank God for the internet.” An album with personal significance for the magnificent gig in Manchester in 1999 not long after the IRA bombing of the city when Go opened the gig with the band behind a colourfully lit gauze curtain and where Marillion made a connection that’s existed every time they’ve played Manchester since. A personal favourite – maybe because it was the album that really got me back on board and could easily be in my top five.
5. F.E.A.R. (2016)
The recent album that received many plaudits. Very topical, very well and very widely received, where El Dorado, The New Kings and The Leavers are huge songs of the highest order. White Paper might be less complex but no less incisive. In the One Tonight part of The Leavers they’ve created the ultimate communal coming together concert moment that’s reminiscent of the recurring Misplaced Childhood motif. Those four minutes alone are worth the price of admission as Rothery tops it off with a tearjerker of a solo. If you’re seated, then stand up for Marillion; show your devotion to the strange religion. It’s (almost) the album that confirms Marillion’s re-entry into the prog stratosphere. Horrible gold cover though…
4. Afraid Of Sunlight (1995)
The album that was ‘knocked out’ after the lengthy process of creating Brave. A reaction to that album but a time when the roll of the dice came up sevens and elevens. Maybe a surprise high rating, but evidence that Marillion don’t have to jam and labour for months. The themes of the search for and the price of fame are explored on one of the band’s most consistent album from Rothery/Trewavas complementing one another in the opening to Gazpacho to the thunderous crescendo on King. Several high points come via the title track, the trippy idealism on Beautiful and Out Of This World the latter sounding out the thrill, the goosebumps raised, of going where nobody has gone and the gasp of the crowd. Some of Hogarth’s best lyrics. Even the test of Cannibal Surf Babe is fun. In a word – consistent. Good artwork too that emphasises the day-glow brightness of the music and the tour was fab. A ‘top five’ favourite of Mark Kelly according to his book. Great minds…
3. An Hour Before It’s Dark (2022)
So the new album gets a high entry. Perhaps still in the flush of the release? Maybe not as like the best of Marillion’s work, the high points soar and the weaknesses are few and far between. Constructed in much the same way as F.E.A.R under the stewardship of Mike Hunter, the band emerge from the uncertainty of lockdown and global pandemics with a set that marks the time and more. And with a decent amount of time to let the new music seep in, first impressions stick. We have a hands down classic on our hands in Care, a lengthy and hook-filled Sierra Leone, a decent ‘single’ in Murder Machines and the chance to appreciate recurring themes across the album – the recurrence of the title and the wrapping of hands featuring often. Reprogram The Gene could emerge as a biggie – almost one song that’s given two treatments and merged. Some classic Rothery moments guarantee, that despite the nature of some of the lyrics being inevitably tied to the COVID pandemic, AHBID is going to go down in the annals as ‘essential’.
2. Brave (1994)
The album that regularly tops the fans’ polls. Not particularly well received on release, it’s a grower and ultimately an ‘experience’ which, if you follow the guidelines, is at its best listened to in the dark with the headphones. No immediate single material, but highlights such as the mournful title track and the emotional peak of the Great Escape/The Last Of You/Falling From The Moon section are so strong that grown Marillion fans are often moved to tears. Like all good concept albums, it was performed in full and reprised once or twice on special occasions since. Underappreciated in 1994, Brave is now viewed as a high watermark not only for the faithful but amongst their peers.
1. Misplaced Childhood (1985)
Another concept album? And this one with a sackful of hit singles including the one that named many a child (how many Kayleighs do you know?) and elevated Marillion into the premier league. Flowing seamlessly, there’s not a wasted note and only one slightly awkward line about the train driver guzzling another can of lager. You’ll also find some of Steve Rothery’s most glorious guitar melodies ringing out in the recurring musical themes. The album where Fish reined in his indulgent poetic tendencies and which wobbled between spooky, atmospheric and gloriously melodic and uplifting, much inspiration maybe coming from recording in the famous Hansa Studios and the whole Berlin experience. The simple Side One and Side Two were split into tracks and songs but an album which is hard not to listen to as a whole piece. Played live in its entirety at the time, and also by Fish on the Return To Childhood 20th anniversary, while much of the album has also been performed in the Hogarth era. The one album I’d take to the desert island and be buried with. Gatefold sleeve LP naturally.