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…
Loads of other people are doing subjective lists of best albums of the past decade – here are mine. I always think personal lists are much more interesting than the sorts of bland lists of CDs you can get in Tesco’s compiled by committees that you’ll see in the mainstream.media But I would say that, wouldn’t I?
In order to keep it varied I’ve imposed a rule that no artist may appear more than once in the top 10.
10: Nightwish - Dark Passion Play There are so many female-fronted symphonic metal bands coming from various parts of Europe that it’s very difficult to single out just one. Finland’s Nightwish throw choirs, orchestras, Uilleann pipes and kitchen sinks into a gloriously over-the-top album mixing metal and opera with a touch of celtic folk, with new singer Anette Olzon adding a touch of warmth to lead vocals that’s missing from some bands in the genre.
9: The Pineapple Thief – Tightly Unwound The Pineapple Thief describle themselves as ‘indie prog’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Some sonic similarities with pre-Kid A Radiohead, but with more traditional style rock vocals, and a extremely strong sense of melody, which is what makes this album stand out.
8: The Mars Volta – Deloused in the Comatorium After a string of disappointing albums over the past few years it’s easy to forget just how great their incendiary debut was. What’s been described as a mix of speed-metal and free jazz somehow combines the raw energy of punk with the complexity and technical skill of progressive rock. It’s all completely bonkers, but in a good way.
7: Breathing Space – Below the Radar The York band really come of age with their third album. They may have dropped the jazzier elements of their sound in favour of a harder rock edge, but they still find room for some atmospheric ballads and big soaring epics which showcase Olivia Sparnenn’s amazing voice. Iain Jennings production job gives the lie to the idea that you need a major-label budget to come up with a great-sounding album.
6: Porcupine Tree – In Absentia
It’s difficult to choose a single Porcupine Tree album out of several great ones they’ve recorded over the past decade. Indeed, with the possible exception of 2005′s slight misstep of Deadwing, all their albums in the noughties have been classics. If the 90s charted their progress from ambient Floydian soundscapes to a more song-orientated approach, 2002′s In Absentia saw them add some metal to the mix. The combination of some Zeppelineque riffing and some darkly ambiguous lyrics may have lost them some older fans, but introduced them to a younger audience of metal fans.
5 Karnataka – Strange Behaviour Some may say including a live album in the decade’s top ten may be cheating, but this is my blog, where I make up the rules. Strange Behaviour caught the atmospheric celtic-tinged prog outfit just when they seemed poised for a major breakthrough, the live dynamics making the songs far more powerful than the studio recordings. Sadly this double album turned out to their magnificent swansong, and the band were to implode shortly after it’s release.
4 Marillion – Marbles Marillion are a rare example of a veteran act who can still make great new music more than two decades into their career. Their output in the noughties may have been uneven, but this double album shows the Steve Hogarth incarnation of the band at their best; a hugely varied work which goes from experiments with drum loops and dub rhythms to huge soaring epics filled with Steve Rothery’s trademark sustain-drenched guitar. Ignore the single-disk retail edition; you need the double album available only from the band’s website.
3 Fish – 13th Star Marillion’s former frontman’s career seemed to be petering out by the middle of the decade after a couple of disappointingly weak albums. But he bounced back very strongly indeed with this one. Musically it’s far removed from the ornate neo-prog of 80′s Marillion, a mix of metallic grooves and heart-on-sleeve ballads, lyrically it’s just about the most intense and emotionally charged thing he’s even done.
2 Opeth – Blackwater Park Sweden’s Opeth combine death metal with 70′s style pastoral prog-rock to produce the perfect antidote to anyone who thinks heavy metal hasn’t progressed since Toni Iommi started playing tritones through a fuzzbox way back in 1970. Blackwater Park, produced by Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson, marks the point where they established their signature sound, Mikael Åkerfeldt switching back and forth between ‘Cookie Monster’ and ‘clean’ vocals, and the music switching back and forth between dense swirling heavyness and reflective acoustic passages. Metal has never quite been the same since.
1 Mostly Autumn – The Last Bright Light As I said at the very beginning, this is a personal list. And this is the album which has changed my life more than any of the preceding ones. This was very much the coming-of-age album for York’s finest progressive rock band, and marked the high point of their celtic-prog phase of their career, full of soaring and emotionally powerful epics making use of flutes and even crumhorns alongside traditional rock instruments. Although they subsequently moved to the more polished commercial sound of the follow-up Passengers, even now their live sets still draw heavily from this album.
There are plenty of other great albums just outside the top 10; Therion’s totally bonkers choral metal Gothic Kabbalah, Muse’s recent The Resistance, IQ’s neo-prog masterpiece Frequency, Pure Reason Revolution’s hypnotically captivating The Dark Third, either of The Reasoning’s two albums, and Dream Theater’s recent return to form Black Clouds and Silver Linings.
I wasn’t originally going to arrange these in order, but in the end I did it anyway, just to annoy those people who hate ranked lists.
10. Van der Graaf Generator – Trisector Reduced to a trio after the departure of David Jackson, this album proves the slimmed-down version of the 70s progressive rock veterans can still deliver an album in the same league as their 2005 comeback album “Present”
9. Magenta – Metamorphosis Magenta are very much old-school Prog, wearing their Yes, Genesis and Mike Oldfield influences on their sleeve, playing 20 minute epics with titles like ‘The Ballad of Samual Layne’. They get away with it though superior songwriting and arrangement, and stunning individual performances from Christina Booth on vocals and Chris Fry on guitar.
8. Josh and Co – Through These Eyes This solo album from Bryan Josh of Mostly Autumn appeared out of the blue at the end of November. Has a similar sound and production to Mostly Autumn’s last album, but the songs are looser and more contemporary-sounding. Quite dark in places, playfully self-indulgent in others, and Bryan cuts loose on the guitar in a way that shows how much he’d been holding back on recent Mostlies releases; I haven’t heard him shred like that for ages. Although Bryan naturally handles most of the vocals, there are also some quite stunning contributions from Olivia Sparnenn which really make me look forward to the next Breathing Space album
7. Uriah Heep – Wake the Sleeper Nine years since their last studio album, and the mighty Heep are back with a powerful statement that the hard rock veterans are very much in business. Ironically for a band who have spent much of their career in the shadow of the much bigger and more successful Deep Purple, they’ve now come up with something that blows away anything Purple have done in the last nine years. It compares very favourably with their best output from their 70s heyday, and I don’t think they’ve ever rocked harder than this.
6. Panic Room – Visionary Position The debut from the band that grew out of the ashes of Karnataka, fronted by Anne-Marie Helder. Three years in the making, it’s a rich multilayered album with a real mix of styles from hard rock, folk, pop and full-blown prog which was well worth the wait.
5. Pineapple Thief – Tightly Unwound
Pineapple Thief are one of the new generation of progressive rock bands who mix elements of 70s progressive rock with more contemporary influences to give a streamlined modern sound rather than produce a pastiche of older bands. You can hear the influence of both early Radiohead and Porcupine Tree on this album, although thankfully we’re spared Thom Yorke-style whining vocals, and there is definitely no shortage of tunes.
4. Mostly Autumn – Glass Shadows A strong release which is a marked improvement on the patchy and badly-produced “Heart Full of Sky” even if it doesn’t quite match their best work. Written entirely by Bryan Josh and Heather Findlay this time around, it’s more mainstream melodic rock than the celtic-tinged prog of their early work, but retains the 70s vibe that’s still a major element of their sound. Musically it has hard rockers, shimmering piano ballads, dreamy atmospheric numbers and soaring guitar-driven epics. Lyrically they’re certainly not singing about Hobbits any more, this is a true life story about heartbreak, joy, tragedy and hope.
3. Opeth – Watershed 2005′s “Ghost Reveries” wasn’t an easy album to follow, but Opeth managed to equal it with “Watershed“, which contains all their trademark elements; piledriving heavy passages alternating with delicate guitar harmonies, Mikael Åkerfeldt’s vocals swapping back and forth between harsh ‘cookie monster’ and heartfelt clean vocals, typically all in the same song. It’s not an easy listen, songs average ten minutes, and don’t have anything as crassly commercial as conventional verses or choruses. But when you get what they’re doing, the result can only be described as ‘symphonic’.
2. Marillion – Happiness is the Road This double album is a vast improvement on last year’s patchy “Somewhere Else“. The two disks are conceived as two separate single albums; the atmospheric “Essence“, and the rockier “The Hard Shoulder“. Both contain plenty of gems and very little filler. Stylistically it’s the same contemporary sound as recent albums rather than a reversion to an earlier sound. Steve Hogarth is on great form, using his voice as much as a musical instrument rather than solely to express the lyrics, and Steve Rothery demonstrates in many places why he’s one of the best rock guitarists out there.
1. The Reasoning – Dark Angel
It’s difficult to choose just one album as my album of the year, but in the end I’ve settled for The Reasoning’s second album. Last year’s debut “Awakening” was one of my top albums of last year, a great mix of melodic hard rock with progressive flavouring, with three-part vocal harmones and a powerful twin lead guitar attack. This one takes things to another level, adding some metal to the mix, full of melodies that get stuck in your brain, sublime vocals from Rachel Cohen, and some amazing but never self-indulgent playing from new guitarist Owain Roberts.
We start in Manchester, with Marillion at their usual Manchester venue, Academy 1. Last year the place was still a building site with a temporary entrance, and festival-style portaloos. Now it’s finished, with a proper bar and cloakroom, so you don’t have to spend entire gigs clutching a wet coat.
The support band were so utterly forgettable that I don’t even remember their name. Marillion seem to be so determined to avoid any opening act with the faintest taint of ‘prog’ that all too often we end to end up with pretty generic alternative rock. As for this lot, I can tell you they were a four-piece, with one guitarist playing some pedal steel. But I don’t remember any of their actual songs.
Marillion, though, were excellent. Their two hour set drew heavily from their new double album “Happiness is the Road”, favouring the atmospheric first disk “Essence” over the rockier “The Hard Shoulder”, and interspersed with a few older favourites. The new material comes over very well live, but with a double album there’s no way they can play all of it in one set. I hope they tour again next year to play the other half of the new album. As for the oldies, it’s nice to hear ‘The Great Escape’ from “Brave” again, and while some people are saying ‘Neverland’ could do with a rest, it still makes a great set closer. As usual, there was nothing whatsoever from the Fish era. Steve Rothery in particular was on superb form – it’s not for nothing that I he’s possibly my all-time favourite guitarist. Nice one.
Then it was down south to London for Marillion’s former frontman, Fish.
Unlike Marillion, Fish always has good opening acts, and the support for the first part of the tour was none other than The Reasoning. With Fish’s own set timed for more than two hours, they had a short slot of just 30 minutes, not long, but just enough to make an impression. With a very good sound for a support band, they went full-tilt, just five songs (Dark Angel, Aching Hunger, Call Me God?, Awakening, A Musing Dream). A pretty storming set, and judging from comments on Fish’s forum, they went down well with the large and enthusiastic crowd.
Fish was on great form. Even though his voice isn’t what it was back in Marillion days he’s still a powerful live act, his sheer presence and charisma, helped by a talented backing band making up for any shortcomings in the vocal department. If this one didn’t quite match that legendary gig at Manchester last year, it still came pretty close. His set consisted almost entirely of his new album “13th Star” and old 1980s Marillion songs. Although he’s playing many of the same songs as last year, he’s made a few changes, notably including more of “13th Star”, and replacing some of “Clutching at Straws” with those two big hits from “Misplaced Childhood”. ‘Openwater’ in particular rocks as powerfully live as I expected it to. He went walkabout in the crowd during the cover of “Faithhealer”, and recognised me from Manchester; I got the “Oh God it’s him” look. Frank Usher, recovered from the health scare at the end of last year was on great form on lead guitar; his playing on his showcase number ‘Cliché’ was as utterly mesmerising as last time. Chris Johnson was great on second guitar; seeing him next to the 6’5″ Scotsman really does make him look Hobbit-sized.
The one sour note of the gig was that Fish insisted on telling that story about the Fairies. If Fish really wants to be known as the great lyricist and frontman he undoubtedly is rather than a bitter knobhead who can’t stop washing dirty linen and reopening old wounds in public, he really needs to drop that one. Yes I know what and who ‘Dark Star’ is about, and I don’t want to be reminded of it. There will be trouble if he tells it in York on Sunday, I tell you.
Back to Manchester again for the mighty Uriah Heep at Manchester Academy 2
Support was from a female-fronted five-piece Maccara, a pretty impressive mix of blues, metal and even a bit of reggae at one point. The impressed me enough to buy their album from the merch stand. We may be hearing more from this band in the future.
It’s several years since I last saw the Heep, at this very same venue. The last few times I’ve seen them they’ve played what amounted to greatest hits sets. This time, with their first album for nine years, they decided to take the brave step of playing their new record “Wake the Sleeper” in it’s entirely. It’s a ploy that could have backfired badly had the new album not been up to scratch, but with the strength of the new material it turned into a triumph. New drummer Russell Gilbrook has injected another level energy into this band, and they’ve become an unstoppable juggernaut of sound. The more guitar-driven new songs complement the Hammond-drenched older numbers well. Of the new songs, ‘What Kind of God’ was a high spot, as was Trevor Bolder’s “War Child”. The older numbers were without exception real crowd favourites like ‘Gypsy’, ‘Easy Living’ and ‘Sunrise’, dating from the 70s, all of which were rapturously received. This is a band that you can tell really enjoy playing live; Mick Box always has a huge grin on his face. That’s a possible candidate for gig of the year.
Three gigs, from three bands which are now well into the ‘veteran’ category – indeed their careers add up to ninety years in total. What’s significant is that not one of them has taken the easy route and become their own tribute band. Even if Heep and Fish’s sets included a lot of old material from the 70s and 80s, they also played a significant amount from their most recent releases. I’ve heard people (mostly indie fans) who insist that nobody can make good music after ten years. To which I say “Bollocks!”.