Next month sees the retail release of the full (and therefore proper) edition of Marillion’s 13th studio album, Marbles. It was conceived at the outset as a double album over discs, but for reasons logistical and economical, the retail sector only got a single-disc edited release, and the full-fat version was only available through the band’s own website.
It is indeed a great album, and the editing out of four of the more complex songs for the retail market subtracted greatly from its quality when it hit the shelves in 2004. You could argue that the band, now self-financing and wholly independent of record companies, needed a volume of sales that a double album would be unlikely to yield. Nevertheless, the bulk of its customers missed out on some of the best music the band had written in a decade, and it’s hard to imagine this release being sought out by too many more customers – the hardcore fans will have bought the website version, and the occasional fans probably won’t buy the same album again with four more songs. Coupled with these factors is the remarkable decline in record shops and their stock over the last ten years, but that’s another story.
Marillion pulled out all the remaining stops for this album, and artistically, it certainly paid off. The previous album, Anoraknophobia (2001), was a portent sign that the band, after 20-odd years, were running out of ideas. The decision to break away from mainstream record companies and run the band as a cottage industry made good financial sense, but seemingly left them short on impetus. The three-year gap in albums that followed was at that point, the longest that Marillion fans had waited for new material. But the time spent on Marbles paid off, and the album featured all the hallmarks of their classic work.
The first thing that’s obvious is that this album sounds incredible, and this is most likely the result of choosing Steven Wilson as producer. Even on a modest sound system, it’s a glorious palette of warm sub-bass, glimmering trebles and crystal clear midrange, all tastefully mixed. This is, by some distance, their best-sounding album of the digital age.
Song-wise, the album opens with “The Invisible Man”, a thirteen-minute prog opus that fulfils the definition of classic Marillion – a tapestry of light and dark areas, soaring melodies, knotty passages of complex music, and lyrics that reflect a brooding, and overly-sensitive writer. The band’s story-telling facet, evident on 1989′s Season’s End and 1994′s Brave is once again displayed in the 18-minute homage to Atlantic rower Don Allum. It’s among the very finest of their longer pieces, alongside “This Strange Engine”, “Interior Lulu”, and “A Few Words for the Dead”.
To break up the sequences of complex, and often lengthy songs (five songs go over the seven-minute mark), Marbles has a series of eponymous interludes (“Marbles I-IV”) and more accessible material. They deservedly scored hit singles with the tense, but uplifting “You’re Gone”, and the radio-friendly “Don’t Hurt Yourself”. Were this album released in the glory days of the EMI contract, these two singles would probably have been rounded off with a fans’ favourite for a nice meaty 12″ single release, and “Fantastic Place” may well have fitted the bill. This gentle, optimistic song is, in my own opinion, among the very best of their 30-year career, and proves that whilst the more dynamic material of their many hit singles is all good fun, one of their key strengths is Steve Hogarth’s ability to burrow into that quiet, fragile, and self-absorbed space that Mark Hollis made his own from Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring onward.
The album sounds in retrospect, like one last triumphant effort at laying down a progressive rock masterpiece, and it succeeds. After this point, the loss of their collective muse and failings in Marillion’s self-sufficient approach to recording and production became evident. Their next album, Somewhere Else (2007) was a tedious effort, and Happiness is the Road (2008) was a another double album, but without any quality control or attention to detail. The fact that the album’s starting point was the songs left over and discarded from the Somewhere Else project is an indication of the general standard of the material, and seemingly, pretty much every idea they recorded ended up being shoehorned into the 116 minutes with little consideration for the listener.
I can only guess that it’s their financial necessity to record every album in the same location (their own Racket Studio), and the habit of returning to the same producers that has let them down in recent years. Even though I’m a devoted listener since I was 15 years old, the material from the last two albums (three, if you count Happiness… as two separate albums) sounds homogenous, bland and is in no way remindful of their vintage.
I am hopeful that the slowdown in writing new material provides the band with some reflection on the last seven years work, and instils some quality control in their output. Although by contemporary standards, Marillion are a fairly prolific band, It’s sad to say that Marbles aside, their two most enjoyable releases in the 2000′s were an album of fans’ remixes from Anoraknophobia (Remixomotosis) and Less is More, an album of re-recordings of some 1989-2009 highlights performed only on acoustic instruments.
The truth may well be however, that Marbles is Marillion’s final excellent album. If so, we can consider in hindsight of the albums that followed, that Marillion were fans of their own success.