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It was always going to be a bit of a gamble going to see a band I hadn’t been a fan of since way back in 1988, when their charismatic, unhinged singer stormed off for good in a drunken huff, and single-handedly terminated a unit that had helped guide me confusingly through my teenage years. And so the irony wasn’t lost on me when my good friend Chris Collison explained that the Marillion tickets he’d got his hands on were for a show at something called a “rocksino”. A rather bizarre place, it turned out to be half casino, half rock venue, and from the outside it looked like a huge department store wedged into an ugly suburban shopping mall surrounded by acres of parking spaces, dozens of traffic lights and wide strip-mall lined streets. Inside, noisy, flashing slot machines spread out in all directions and weekend leisure-seekers sat back languidly in their chairs, reclining at an angle intended for ergonomical lever-pulling and button-slapping, but fully focused on strategy (and maybe mathematics?).
Past the bells and sirens and fanfares, we cleared through security who opened high doors into a large carpeted room where Marillion fans gathered to drink at the bar, mess about and watch a historically significant “world” series baseball game on mounted screens. Through another pair of doors was the excessively modern music hall, and we waited patiently for the support artist to finish before walking in and chatting to the sound engineers from Wigan about football, before getting comfortable at seats that were further back than expected.
The lights lowered and slow eerie music began to seep out of the speakers like depression. Three large screens hung behind the centre and flanks of the stage and on each of them, a computerized, robotic image of a head appeared. Meanwhile, on the stage, the forms of four musicians taking their positions appeared in the slowly rising light and smoke, and the head on the screens slowly developed facial features, and then grew jet-black hair and transformed into a likeness of the bespectacled lead singer, Steve Hogarth (aka ‘H’). The heads started singing and then ‘H’ himself walked out onto the stage to applause. During this opening song, entitled “Invisible Man”, he looked serious, pained, demonstrative, and tormented, and these emotions were on his face for the rest of the evening. Images flashed on the screens behind him, accompanying the music until after about eight minutes the song eventually died a death and applause returned and the crowd all got to their feet, and clapped and cheered for ages and ages.
“The Invisible Man” set the tempo for the rest of the night. The music was mostly slow or at best mid-tempo; occasionally gears were raised to a more rapid rate but this wasn’t sustained for long. Dramatic guitar solos from Steve Rothery peppered the evening but sadly there weren’t many keyboard solos on offer. This is a noticeable difference from the Marillion of the 80s when Mark Kelly’s pacey keyboard riffs or refined piano melodies signaled a shift from one song section to the next or led the rest of the band through a rowdy chorus. These days, Kelly seems to be mostly resigned to playing heavy, layered chords as foundations to Rothery’s angelic guitar solos.
Also, Hogarth’s voice is a contradiction. It is the best voice I’ve ever heard that I don’t love. It’s unquestionably beautiful and confident with impressive range and I reckon he could sing any song ever written with aplomb, but for me there’s also something missing. It’s almost too good. The original singer (a giant Scotsman named Fish. Don’t ask!), had an imperfect voice and he was an imperfect person. Back in 1989, when Fish unwisely left the band, I could never accept Hogarth’s voice mainly because it was an imposter, but also because it sounded far too safe and respectable. But I’ve listened to it a lot over the last couple of weeks and you know, maybe I’m beginning to let bygones be bygones.
Marillion has a new album out called “F.E.A.R” which stands for “Fuck Everyone And Run”. There are some good moments on it and they played most of it tonight. What is most admirable about them is that they sing about important issues and current affairs. They have something they want to say and they say it. F.E.A.R is a response to the recent global financial crises; it’s an angry commentary on the sheer greed and deviousness of the financial sector which blithely expected tax-payers to bail it out with no questions asked or ramifications imposed. F.E.A.R points fingers at the hypocrisy of private industries that accept tax breaks and bail outs whilst in turn, only caring about the bottom line and I can’t think of any other album of the last few years that examines this so deeply. Having said that, one of the album’s songs they played tonight is called “The Leavers”; I’d assumed it was a poignant track about the plight of Syrian and Afghan refugees, but it turns out it’s actually about the members of Marillion going off on tour. So what do I know?
The images on the large screens were synchronised to the subject matter of the music, creating a multi-media show (or “bi-media” I suppose). During a track named, “Living in F.E.A.R”, which is a tribute to world peace, Hogarth sang the words “We’ve decided to start melting our guns as a show of strength”, and multi-coloured flowers were displayed on the screens. During “The New Kings”, which is a song about powerful, unelected global elites, the screens flashed slogans like “Too Big to Fail” and “Greed Is Good”. And during one introduction, Hogarth, in his Yorkshire accent, jokingly referred to their music, which he says has historically tackled topics like war, famine, sexual abuse, and societal immorality as “toe-tapping pop music”.
A lot of the songs were very long and each song ending was a cue for the audience to stand, move about, clap vigourously, and generally let the blood circulate. Eventually they played a couple of songs I do love, “Sugar Mice” from the Fish era, and “Easter” from the first album post-Fish, which was an album mostly written while Fish was still in the band. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear much tonight that made me change my mind about them. I do think they are very, very nice people. I also know that they are excellent musicians, but in all honesty this new album is mostly dull and insipid, and a lot of tonight’s show fit that description. The best I can say about the show is that I didn’t mind being there, but this was partly because I enjoyed seeing my old heroes, Steve Rothery, Mark Kelly, Pete Trewavas (bass), and the statuesque Ian Mosely on drums. We even talked to Kelly after the show and he seems like an EXCELLENT bloke. In fact, from watching them on interviews they all do. I also loved seeing my mate, Chris Collison enjoying himself, which was worth the ticket price alone.
During the last track, ‘H’ got on a small piano and asked us all to sing the chorus. God knows what the song was, but what he wanted us to sing was “oooh…..oooh…..oooh” and he wanted us to sing it as softly as possible, barely audible in fact. Now that’s not a very easy thing to do and it seemed completely pointless. A couple of times he challenged us to go even softer, never happy with our efforts. If you don’t get how strange this is, try it yourself now, and tell yourself as you’re doing it that you must go even quieter and imagine standing next to hundreds of other people straining to do the same thing. In the end I just couldn’t resist shouting out a deliberately tuneless shriek of “OOOH”, which I’ve spent the last few days feeling very guilty about. Sorry, but the cross was pin-point. I just nodded it into an empty net.