Marillion is a British progressive rock band who are best known in America for the music they made more than twenty years ago. Back in the eighties, led by a lanky lead vocalist called Fish, Marillion was primarily known for its theatrical stage performances where Fish often dressed in a variety of costumes.
Because of this, as well as the long prog-rock pieces found on albums like Script For A Jesters Tear and Misplaced Childhood (which yielded their only American hit single in “Kayleigh”), the band was widely regarded – and some would say dismissed – as a pale imitation of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. When Fish left the band to pursue a solo career, the band were soon forgotten…
At least in America, they were. Not so however, in much of the rest of the world.
With a new lead singer in Steve “H” Hogarth, Marillion not only soldiered on, but over the course of several years reinvented themselves on albums like Brave and their conceptual masterpiece Marbles. Although they very much remain a progressive rock band, the Marillion of today in fact bears very little resemblance to the so-called Genesis wannabes of the eighties.
In the process of reinvention, Marillion have also developed one of the most devoted – and interactive – fan bases of any band in the world. Through the band’s website, which urges fans to “find a better life” through Marillion.com, the group’s fans have actually taken ownership of the band, financing both albums and tours.
On the band’s fifteenth album Happiness Is The Road they have taken this partnership with fans a step further by actually seeding the album on peer-to-peer sites for free download. The catch here is, once you download it, a window pops up on your computer where Marillion themselves urge you to go their website and check out other merchandise if you like what you hear. Happiness Is The Road is also available for sale on the site.
As for the album itself, Happiness Is The Road is an ambitious double-CD, divided into two separate parts, that altogether contains nearly two hours of Marillion music. After just three listens, I have also fallen in love with this record.
The first CD is subtitled “Essence,” and is the more ambitious of the two. With both quieter, layered passages focusing on Mark Kelly’s keyboards, as well as more anthemic songs like “Woke Up,” the music here actually recalls the musical ebb and flow of Marbles.
Like on Marbles, song titles like the aforementioned “Woke Up,” and “Nothing Fills The Hole” also seem to suggest a running conceptual theme about the search for personal meaning. Regardless of what it’s about, this is quite simply gorgeous sounding music, and nowhere more so than when the vocal chorus kicks in with a thundering crescendo of glorious sound on the track “A State Of Mind.”
This is followed by the more reflective sounding title track, where Hogarth’s nearly spoken vocal weaves around Kelly’s haunting keyboard textures. From there, H’s vocal grows to a more impassioned wail, as Steve Rothery’s guitar soars above it all. Like I said, just gorgeous sounding stuff here.
The second CD, subtitled “The Hard Shoulder,” finds the band stretching out and displaying their musical chops a bit more. “Thunder Fly” opens the second disc with a muscular sounding guitar riff that somewhat recalls The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” while at the same time continuing the ebb and flow with dreamy sounding keyboards and vocal harmonies. This song is definitely a standout, ending with yet another one of Rothery’s soaring guitar parts.
“The Man From The Planet Marzipan” finds the rhythm section of bassist Pete Trewavas and drummer Ian Mosley locking into a tight little funk groove that serves as the launchpad for more of Kelly’s keyboard textures and Rothery’s dazzling guitar wizardry. The band basically plays their asses off here.
The Beatles influence once again rears its head in “Throw Me Out,” where the string arrangement recalls the psychedelic, yet decidedly British feel of the Sgt. Pepper era, while Mosley’s drumming kicks things into a more modern context. “Whatever Is Wrong With You” is an uptempo rocker where Mosley’s power drumming eventually makes way for a searing guitar solo from Rothery. The song also has the sort of catchy hookline in the chorus that almost suggests a potential single.
The bottom line here is that Happiness Is The Road is that rare breed of double-CD that is rich in great songs, with really very little in the way of filler. In short, this is a great CD. So give the band a break, skip the free downloads at those peer-to-peer sites, and go to Marillion.com and order it.
I can’t promise you the “better life” that the website does. But I can promise you a great album.