Steve Rothery’s distinctive guitar work has always been Marillion’s secret weapon right from the very early days of the band. With a less-is-more approach that doesn’t believe in wasting notes and an evocative tone it’s his playing that’s been the cornerstone of their sound for more than thirty years.
Rothery’s previous side-project was the collaboration with vocalist Hannah Stobart, The Wishing Tree, resulting in two semi-acoustic albums with an ethereal All About Eve vibe about them. The Steve Rothery Band is something altogether different. With fellow-guitarist Dave Foster (Mr So and So) and a rhythm section of bassist Yatim Halimi (Panic Room) and drummer Leon Parr it’s a guitar-led rock instrumental project. The whole thing began life with Rothery’s appearance at a guitar festival in Poland, documented in the earlier “Live in Plovdiv”, which in turn led to a successful Kickstarter project for an album “The Ghosts of Pripyat”, due in September.
“Live in Rome” records the band’s second live appearance, and presents an intriguing snapshot of the work in progress on the album. Instrumental guitar music can bring back memories of those 1980s shred-metal albums released on Mike Varney’s shrapnel records, but this record has little in common with those. Rothery’s playing has always been about melody and textures rather than technical showing off, and the first half of this record is Steve Rothery doing exactly what he does best, backed by an excellent supporting cast.
Many of the instrumental pieces follow a similar form; a slow-burning opening that gradually builds in intensity over ten minutes or more. They’re neither overly rigid compositions nor loose unstructured jams, but manage to hit the sweet spot between the two, and despite being tight there’s a raw intensity to the playing from the whole band. It feels like the gig must have been something very special to have been present at. This is far, far more than just an hour’s worth of guitar solos.
The second disk sees the band joined by vocalists Manuela Milanese and Alessandro Carmassi plus keyboard player Riccardo Romano for a run through some highlights from the Marillion back catalogue, featuring the likes of “Easter”, “Sugar Mice” and even the very early B-side “Cinderella Search”. They’re close to the originals instrumentally, completely with Rothery’s magnificent solos, but with some interestingly different takes on the vocals.
As a taster for the forthcoming studio album and as a recording in its own right this is an excellent record, and it will be very interesting to hear how these live takes of the songs compare with the finished results in the studio.
I went to so many gigs in 2013 I ended up losing count; everything from local cover bands in pubs to rock monsters in enormodomes, and everything in between. There have been a few gigs outside my usual comfort zone, such as The Damned and The Orb; I even went to see Iron Maiden at the O2 Arena, a band I last saw in 1982. I even went to see a Fleetwood Mac tribute band…
Picking a best-of list out of all those gigs is a hard one, but these six stand out as ones to remember for all the right reasons.
Marillion’s fan conventions are always amazing experiences, with a hall full of hardcore fans and three sets with completely different setlists over the three nights. The end result is an electric atmosphere that few regular gigs can approach. All three nights in Wolverhampton were amazing experiences, but for me the best of the three was Saturday, with the dark, intense concept album “Brave” played in its entirety.
I got to see Fish four times this year, twice in his spring tour before the band went into the studio to record the album, and twice in the autumn on the tour to promote the album. All were great shows, with the big man on superb form, the London gig in May was a real standout.
I wasn’t entirely convinced by Steve Hackett’s restatement of his Genesis legacy in the studio; the re-recorded versions seemed to add little to the much-loved favourites. But live it was a completely different experience; a triumphant and uplifting celebration of the magnificent music that deservedly won many standing ovations. The Guardian completely missed the point.
Panic Room + Morpheus Rising – Manchester Sound Control
Panic Room have had a few ups and downs this year, forced to regroup following the departure of lead guitarist and founder member Paul Davies. Their tour in early summer featured Morpheus Rising’s Pete Harwood standing in guitar doing double duty with both the headliners and his own band. The tour ended with two superb shows in Bilston and Manchester demonstrating the band’s ability to triumph over adversity, with great support from Morpheus Rising, themselves premiering a lot of new material.
Mostly Autumn have been a bit hit-and-miss as live band during 2013, with fluctuating lineups from gig to gig due to various members’ other commitments. But the stars aligned when they came to London in Ocober. Chantel McGregor’s incendiary opening set gave the whole show the feel of a co-headliner, and Mostly Autumn’s barnstorming set had to be one of the best shows they’ve done in the past two or three years.
Steven Wilson, Royal Albert Hall
Steve Wilson came to London’s most prestigious major venue with his band including Theo Travis, Guthie Govan, Nick Beggs and Zappa alumnus Chad Wakerman, with the combined virtuosity you’d expect from a top-flight jazz ensemble rather than typical rock band. They proceed to delivere a mesmerising set drawn almost entirely from Steve Wilson’s three recent solo work, reinventing 70s Mellotron-drenched progressive rock to make it relevant to the 21st century. There are still people missing Porcupine Tree, but on the strength of shows like this, his new band are very good trade.
Some of the records I’ve been listening to over the past couple of days. 2013 has been a great year for new music, but here I’ve revisited some old and sometimes overlooked classics.
Marillion – This Strange Engine
Their live sets in recent years have often drawn heavily from this album, but it’s the first time I’ve given the whole album a listen for a long time. One thing that struck me was how much it resembles their more recent work, despite being a decade and a half old. When it came out it was a bit a departure for them, with more emphasis on atmospherics and textures, and drew mixed reactions. But in retrospect, a lot of their current sound has its roots in this album.
Touchstone – Discordant Dreams
Touchstone’s first full-length album shows just how far they’ve progressed since they started out. I’d forgotten that Rob Cottingham sang most of the lead vocals back in the early days with Kim singing harmonies – It was only from “Wintercoast” onwards that Kim took over as the band’s main lead singer.
Yes – Drama
The announcement that Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes from pop duo The Buggles were to replace Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman made heads explode when announced all those years ago. But thirty years on this is an album that stands the test of time far better than its unfocussed and directionless precessor “Tormato”. I think it’s fair to say that without “Drama” there would have been no Yes three decades later.
Black Sabbath – Seventh Star
Tony Iommi and former Deep Purple singer Glenn Hughes made this collaboration with a bunch of session players after the ill-fated Ian Gillan-fronted Sabbath fell apart. It was never really intended as a Black Sabbath record, and lacks the doom-laden melodrama associated with the Sabbath name. But taken on its own merits it’s an excellent blues-metal hybrid, with both Iommi and Hughes on top form.
Rush – Roll the Bones
I was never that big a fan of Rush’s “Synthesiser period” and found their late 80s output a little bloodless and sterile. Their first release of the 1990s represented a back-to-basics power trio approach with Alex Lifeson’s guitar in the centre of the mix where it belonged. All very welcome for me, even if the rather heavier following album “Counterparts” remains my favourite Rush disc of the past two decades.
Marillion are a band who have always had an especially strong long-term relationship with their fans, and the way they’ve made full use of this goes a long way towards explaining how they’ve prospered over such a long career. Weekend-long fan conventions have been a regular feature of the Marillion calendar since the first one at an out-of-season Pontins back in 2002. Such has been the demand that this year they held three separate events, the first in Port Zelande in Holland, the second in Montreal, and the third at The Civic in Wolverhampton.
While each one featured different support acts and other activities, the concerts at each convention took the same format. On each of the three days, the band would play one album in its entirety, with the other half of the show made up from complimentary material. Friday’s album was 1998′s Radiation. It would be fair to say it’s a much-discussed album which has divided fan opinion over the years. It dates from a time when each Marillion album was a reaction against the one before as the band tried to reinvent themselves in a very different musical climate from when they started out. It was a time when “prog” was at it’s lowest ebb, and some of Radiation adopted a more contemporary alternative rock sound with as much in common with the music bands such as Radiohead and Suede were making at the time than it did with the Marillion of old. Certainly the raw, lo-fi production was a bit of a shock to the system.
In completely contract, Saturday’s album would be Brave, the 1994 concept album inspired by a news story of a girl found wandering on the Severn Bridge. Recorded as a return to their progressive roots after the relative failure of its more commercially-orientated predecessor, the album was one of the most musically ambitious things they’ve ever done. Dark, intense, and utterly lacking in radio-friendly singles, it’s always been a firm fan favourite. Finally on the Sunday, they would play their current album, “Sounds That Can’t Be Made”, released at the tail end of last year, and never before played live in its entirety. On their November tour they only played selected highlights of the album at a time when a lot of fans hadn’t had the opportunity to hear the record.
There was a different support act on each of the three nights. Friday’s was virtuoso guitarist Aziz Ibrahim, accompanied by tabla player Dalbir Singh Rattan, who served as a complete rhythm section on his own; some of the tabla fills came over more as bass riffs than percussion. They began with a fifteen minute instrumental (very prog) with some amazing fluid guitar work and good use of effects, the two of them making as rich a sound as a whole band. The rest of the set was a little more song-based, and there were moments when it felt as if the singer-songwriter part of his act needed more work, as if things were marking time until he took off on another solo. But by the end of the set it was Aziz’ phenomenal guitar work that remained etched the mind.
There was a huge buzz of anticipation by the time Marillion themselves hit the stage. From the opening hard rocker “Under the Sun” to the beautifully melodic ballad “Three Minute Boy”, whatever Radiation’s merits on record, the material came over strongly live, and might even have prompted a few doubters to reassess the album. The closing two numbers were especially powerful, with intense takes on “Cathedral Wall”, and “A Few Words From The Dead”, retrospectively made relevant by the terrible events in America two days later.
They filled the second half with crowd-pleasers, drawing surprising heavily from pre-1988 material. “Slainte Mhath” has featured in setlists a few times in recent years, and Steve Hogarth’s raising a glass to Fish was a nice touch. But I doubt many expected the band to reach further back, with the hits “Lavender” and “Heart of Lothian”, and jaws dropped even further with “Script for a Jesters” Tear, the title track of their debut album as the first encore. They signed off with “Happiness is the Road”, the crowd singing the refrain over and over long after the band had left the stage. The whole thing was recorded as a DVD, and in a successful attempt to break the record for the time to produce a DVD had the finished product “Clocks Already Ticking” on sale the next evening.
On Saturday afternoon tribute band Stillmarillion played a charity gig at Bilston Robin 2. I don’t normally do tribute bands, but since I was staying two minutes from the venue, it would have been rude not to. Stillmarillion are a tribute to the 1982-87 era of Marillion, so this one was a trip down memory lane. The obvious highlight was when Marillion’s own Steve Rothery joined them for two numbers, “Chelsea Monday” and “Incubus”, but even without him they pull off the music very effectively. When the final notes of “Market Square Heroes” died away I looked at my watch and was amazed to realise they’d been on stage for two and a half hours, with a set including all of “Script for a Jesters Tear”, most of “Misplaced Childhood”, the highlights of “Fugazi”, selections from “Clutching at Straws” and quite a few non-album b-sides. No “Grendel”, but that did get played on the jukebox in The Old White Rose after the gig, which was fill of people dressed as jesters.
Then it was back to Wolverhampton for the second night of the convention proper. This time were two supports. First up was an acoustic solo spot from Marillion’s bassist Pete Trewevas, accompanied on some songs by Eric Blackwood of Edison’s Children playing some electric lead lines. Appearance-wise, if not musically, they gave me flashbacks to The Two Ronnie’s Big Jim Jehosaphat and Fat Belly Jones. Next up were Relish, a trio playing an energetic mix of rock, funk and soul. After a rather weak opening number, they got progressively better as the set went on, with some strong grooves and some impressive lead guitar.
Then came what many fans were eagerly waiting for, Marillion’s performance of “Brave” in full. They did not disappoint, and proceeded to play one of the most incredible live performances I’ve ever seen them do in 30 years of attending their gigs. Through the emotional maelstroms of “Living with the Big Lie” and “Mad”, the atmospherics of “The Hollow Man” and the title track, and the climax of “The Great Escape” the whole thing built in intensity, and the five minute standing ovation at the end of “The Great Escape”, really said it all. Many of the songs have featured individually in live sets over the years, but played as a whole it turns into something much greater than the sum of the parts. By the time the applause died down and the band played the coda to the album, “Made Again”, minds has been blown.
Following that wasn’t going to be easy, and for the second set they again they dipped back into the earlier days of the extensive back catalogue. We had fantastic versions of “Out Of This World” and “Seasons End”, encoring with “Warm Wet Circles/This Time of the Night” from “Clutching at Straws”, with that incredible solo from Steve Rothery.
Sunday’s support was Touchstone, a band best described as being at the rock end of prog-rock. Despite a poor sound mix that rather took the edge off things, they played a spirited set which still managed to make a strong impression on the crowd. Kicking off with the epic “Wintercoast” their short but sweet set took in all of their three albums, and it was nice to hear the Discordant Dreams/Beggars Song medley back in the set, something they’ve not played for a while. Kim Seviour, as ever, makes an engaging frontwoman and visual focus, and the three-part vocal harmonies with Rob Cottingham and Moo Bass were particularly effective when the sound mix did them justice.
Marillion took a slightly different approach for the third night, playing just a single set without an interval. “Sounds That Can’t Me Made” is more a collection of songs than a concept album like “Brave”. So beginning with the 17-minute “Gaza”, one of their most overtly political songs, they interspersed the new material with older songs. Even if it couldn’t quite top Saturday’s incredible performance it was still another great show. The crowd was more enthusiastic than ever, at one point singing the prominent guitar line at the end of the title track as a refrain, much in the same way as we’d sung “Happiness is the Road” on Friday. The band even went into a holding pattern on “This Strange Engine” waiting for the extended applause for Steve Rothery’s final solo to die down before carrying on with the song.
The main set ended with what may have been the best version of the epic “Neverland” I’ve ever heard them play. And for the final encore they took us back down memory lane with “Garden Party”, in which Steve Hogarth paid no heed to Heath and Safety and climbed via the PA stack to the balcony.
And so ended another Marillion convention. If you only know “Kayleigh” and their other 80s hits, and still ask if Fish is still with them (I got asked that more than once over the course of the weekend!), then you don’t know Marillion at all.
The Marillion of the 21st century is one of British music’s best-kept secrets. They’ve weathered a great many changes in musical trends. They’ve lived through a music business that’s changed out of all recognition and pioneered the art of staying afloat without the aid of a record company. How many other bands can rehearse and play more than seven hours worth of music over the course of a weekend? What band can omit their biggest hit, yet nobody cares? Who else can continue to make relevant and challenging music more than thirty years into their career? And who else combines that level of emotional intensity with such an incredible level of musicianship?
But above all, what makes an event like this is the fans. At it’s best, live music can be as much about the audience as it is about the people on stage, when the band feed off the energy they get from the crowd. So it was here; it went from being able to hear a pin drop in the quiet moments to mid-song standing ovations, and occasions where the crowd became a 2000-strong choir. Marillion plan return to the UK towards the end of the year. But as good as the tours can be, nothing can quite match the atmosphere of these fan weekends.
Today is the 30th anniversary of the release of Marillion’s debut album “Script for a Jester’s Tear”.
I first got in to rock at the end of the 1970s through listening to Nicky Horne and Tommy Vance on late night radio, and the very first album I bought was Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” in 1979. It was a time when the “mainstream” was all punk and new-wave, and I found much of that simplistic and rather unsatisfying.
At the time I got the feeling that I was late to the party and had just missed out on a golden age of music. It seemed as though many the great 70s bands whose back catalogues I was catching up with had either split or had passed their prime. At any rate they were always dismissed as relics of the past, and I kept being told I should be listening to The Clash and The Jam instead. Not that it was really true; around that time Rush were producing what many now consider their finest work, and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was just gearing up. Rock’s second generation was happening.
Into this came Marillion. I first heard their early sessions on Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show, and they sounded quite unlike anything else around at the time. I first saw them live halfway up the bill at the 1982 Reading Festival. I bought the first record, the 12″ single “Market Square Heroes” with “Grendel” on the b-side. A few months later I bought their first album on the day of release. Unlike Pink Floyd, Deep Purple or Genesis, here was a great band that I got in to right at the beginning of their career, and belonged to me in a way the older bands didn’t.
“Script for a Jester’s Tear” remains a remarkable record that I think still stands the test of time, and was certainly a stronger and more forward-looking statement of intent than the early 70s Genesis retread of “Grendel”. Fish’s evocative lyrical style is something you either love or hate, but there’s no denying the power of some of his imagery. The closing anti-war epic “Forgotten Sons” with it’s Psalm 23/Lords Prayer spoken word section lost none of it’s power when he performed it live last year. And right from the beginning it was obvious that Steve Rothery was a quite exceptional guitarist.
I did not imagine back then that the band would still be going strong thirty years later, as is Fish’s solo career, and subsequent generations of musicians would be citing Marillion as a major influence. Both Marillion, now with Steve Hogarth and Fish as a solo artist have reinvented themselves multiple times and today produce music with sounds that has little in common with that very first release thirty years ago. Rock itself hadn’t been going for thirty years back in 1982.
And I certainly could not have imagined the circumstances in which I would first meet Fish in 2007, but that’s another story entirely.
Continuing the end-of-year list, these six are the year’s Great releases. Again, though they represent nos 11 down to 6, I haven’t attempted to rank them in order, and have just listed them alphabetically. It says something about the quality of this year’s releases in that any of these would have been top-3 contenders in many other years.
Anathema – Weather Systems
With their intense and atmospheric sound, it’s hard to imagine that Anathema started out as a death-metal band. It has a lot in common with 2010′s “We’re Here Because We’re Here”, and like that it’s best experienced as a single piece of music that builds in emotionally intensity as the album proceeds. Anathema are precisely the sort of band who deserve wider mainstream recognition.
Gojira – L’Enfant Sauvage
The strongest modern-style metal release I’ve heard all year. This release by the French technical metallers is the sort of thing that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. It’s a monstrously heavy and unrelenting piledriver of a record that sounds like something out of the twenty-first century rather than anything out of the 1970s or 1980s.
Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made
Thirty years into their career, at a stage where most bands have long since burned out and turned into their own tribute acts, Marillion prove that they’ve still got something to say in their own inimitable style. It’s an album of lengthy epics, with three songs extending past the 10-minute mark, and yet again Steve Rothery’s fantastic less-is-more guitar playing demonstrates why he’s one of the best guitarists in the business.
Morpheus Rising – Let The Sleeper Awake
Classy old-school twin-guitar hard rock with echoes of NWOBHM bands like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head without ever sounding like a derivative pastiche. It contains some very strong songwriting combined with great guitar harmonies and tight arrangements. It’s all unashamedly retro, but none the worse for it. If they’d been around in 1981, they’d have been huge.
This is the one big mainstream stadium-rock act in this list. With their mix of rock, metal, glam, funk, opera and God knows what else, they put it all in a blender resulting in prog-rock with a pop sensibility. It’s all completely and gloriously over the top, of course, and they steal shamelessly from many other bands and somehow manage to get away with it in a way that Oasis didn’t. But that’s precisely what’s great about Muse.
One of the most “out there” releases of 2012, the collaboration between Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson and Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt sees them take off into uncharted territory, eschewing the expected prog-metal in favour of dark and sinister semi-acoustic soundscapes. A clearly experimental record, the result sounds like a cross between “Simon and Garfunkle on magic mushrooms” and the soundtrack of a 1970s horror film shot in grainy back-and-white.
Today is the 30th anniversary of Marillion’s first single, “Market Square Heroes”.
Who would have guessed back then that they’d still be going three decades later? Of course, they’ve changed and evolved a lot, soon shaking off the “Poor man’s early Genesis” tag to develop a sound of their own. And they’ve continued to reinvent themselves since their original frontman Fish and the rest of the band went their separate ways more than two decades ago. Most artists of their vintage have long since ceased adding to their legacies, content to turn into their own tribute bands playing greatest hits sets from their glory days. Both Marillion and Fish with his solo career are exceptions to this.
I bought the 12″ version of “Market Square Heroes”, which contained the infamous 17-minute “Grendel” on the b-side, loved by some, hated by others. I’ve actually been a fan for rather longer, since seeing them play halfway up the bill at the 1982 Reading festival.
I ended up spending my 25th anniversary of first seeing Marillion in the company of Fish’s ex. But that’s another story…