Two posts back, busy blogophile Henry Holland -- whose postings I've long noted here and elsewhere with genuine interest -- left an inquiry in the comments field. I'll quote it here rather than addressing it there, because it deserves a post of its own:
...can you give a thumbs up/thumbs down/meh opinion on the new Marillion? I've loved the band, with both singers, since I got "Market Square Heroes" as a very pricey import back in the 80's. I'm going to their gigs in Leeds and Newcastle when I'm in Europe in June, I'm very curious about the new ablum (I didn't really like "Marbles", though I loved the run of albums from "Afraid of Sunlight" to "Anoraknaphobia". Thanks if you can spill any info! :-)
The new Marillion in question is Somewhere Else, the band's 14th studio album, which I've recently been "spinning," and which Henry noticed in the playlist du jour. The word "spinning" is in quotes because in reality, I've been streaming the album from a password-protected website set up in lieu of circulating promo copies of the disc, a strategy increasingly used by record companies to thwart illegal leaks. Every now and then, a voiceover -- keyboardist Mark Kelly, perhaps? -- solemnly intones, "You're listening to an advance promotional copy of Marillion's new album, Somewhere Else. Please do not upload it onto the Internet."
Like Henry, I am a longtime Marillion fan, ever since a high school friend's uncle who worked at Capitol Records sent his nephew a cassette of the newly signed band's debut album, Script for a Jester's Tear. Back then, the group was the leading light of the so-called "neo-prog" movement, a brief swell of British bands influenced by the original progressive rock generation -- King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and so on. Specifically, Marillion was viewed as a new Genesis, with the theatrical, facepainted singer Fish (real name Derek Dick) considered the second coming of Peter Gabriel. The cover art for the band's first two albums actually incorporated images of discs by Pink Floyd and Peter Hammill.
After four albums -- the last of which, Clutching at Straws, ranks among my favorite rock-band albums ever -- Fish left the group, embarking on a solo career that has yet to ignite despite copious worthy effort. His replacement, Steve Hogarth, brought a new sensibility to Marillion. Where Fish had provided high-minded poetry and dramatic delivery, Hogarth was a polished everyman fronting the world's most improbably sophisticated pop group.
Trouble is, the "prog" label -- that four-letter word to which my header alluded -- hung 'round the band's neck like an albatross, burdening its new plans with the weight of media suppositions. A name change might have headed this off, but at the time Marillion had to satisfy the needs of a multinational major label as well as a cultish fanbase, members of which referred to themselves as "Freaks" per a Fish-era B-side.
Nowadays, "prog" (and "freak," as well) are among the words the members of Marillion least care to see in reviews of their current work. I don't blame them, really: there's little in critics' darling Radiohead (whose "Fake Plastic Trees" this band respectfully covered) and best-selling Coldplay that can't also be encountered in recent Marillion records. But this band has a memory that extends well before and beyond the prog-rock era; the Beatles, Pink Floyd and U2 are all touchstones, especially now. (That said, one sure way to break that longtime association with prog-rock would be to cut out those songs of more than seven minutes' duration -- but then, it wouldn't be Marillion.)
If anything sets Marillion apart from pretty much any other band I can think of, it's the fierce devotion of its admirers -- and the way that loyalty has been mobilized. Confronted with news that the band couldn't afford a U.S. tour in 1997, fans worldwide raised some $60,000 in donations without any promise of a return on the investment. And Marillion did in fact tour the U.S. that year. Ironically, I wasn't able to attend the local show, but I am the proud owner of a signed copy of Marillionrochester, the donors-only live release.
Surprised but emboldened by that experience, Marillion later solicited pre-orders for its as-yet unrecorded 12th album, Anoraknophobia, rewarding subscribers by printing their names in a deluxe version of the release. I am indeed the "Steve Smith" whose name appears therein. Since then, Marillion has extended its grassroots appeal with a series of subscription-only concert recordings, none of which I own.
All of that said, can I be trusted to weigh in on Somewhere Else with anything approaching an objective opinion? Somehow I'm still inclined to think so, given my longtime familiarity with Marillion's output. That's why I can't answer Henry Holland's question directly just yet: I do plan to review the new disc for Time Out New York in April, when it will be released domestically. (British fans will get the new album on April 9; here, we have to wait until the 24th.)
So Henry, the indirect answer to your question -- a status report, really -- is that some of the songs on Somewhere Else are about as fine as anything Marillion has written. "Thankyou Whoever You Are" and "Most Toys" are already stuck in my head. I'm not yet sure how it coheres as an album per se, but maybe that's not important. Interesting that Marbles is where your attention flagged; that one seemed especially strong to me. And if it tells you anything, I think the current band's shining hour might well be the decidedly unproggy Radiation. ("The Answering Machine" is one of my very favorite H-era songs, for what that's worth.)
It's tough to judge an album streamed from a website; there are so many distractions available when you're online. That said, so far parts Somewhere Else recall the Beatles and U2. But mostly, it sounds like a new Marillion album -- and that's a mighty fine thing.