This is my very first exposure to the "new" Marillion, and in many ways it is almost like being introduced to a new, previously unheard band entirely. For those unfamiliar with the history, let me explain.
Marillion was originally part of a "new wave" of progressive rock bands who came along in the early eighties — at roughly the same time as the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (or "NWOBHM"). The idea behind these bands was to revive the sound of seventies progressive rock bands like Yes and Genesis, whose sound had all but disappeared off the map in the wake of both punk rock, and its somewhat more synthesized (and elegantly dressed) illegitimate bastard stepchild, "New Wave."
Marillion were perceived by most — if not all — as the de facto leader of this movement. I first heard of them by reading raves in the pages of Kerrang! magazine, which at the time was considered the bible for underground metal fans. When I finally was able to check out their debut album, Script For A Jesters Tear, my immediate reaction was, of course, that it had all been done before by Genesis on albums like Selling England By The Pound. Which it certainly had, right down to the vocal mannerisms and theatrical stage get-ups of lead singer Fish.
Still, there was a certain earnestness and sincerity about these guys that I liked immediately. And in all truthfulness, if you liked this particular type of music (which I did and still do), at the time Marillion was the best, and perhaps it can even be argued, the only game in town.
A few years and a minor American hit single ("Kayleigh") later, and Marillion all but vanished from the map. Fish left to pursue the obligatory solo career, and that was basically it. Or so I thought…
When my interest in Marillion was reignited several years later by a concert from the Fish era captured on the DVD Recital Of The Script, I did a little Google searching and soon discovered that not only was Marillion still around — they were also as popular as ever, at least in Europe.
So as I said, this album is my first listen to the "new" (at least for me) Marillion, with lead vocalist Steve Hogarth. And I have to say, not only am I pleasantly surprised by how "modern" it sounds — but how much this CD sounds like it was made by a completely different band than the one I remember from the eighties. Which I guess is what happens when you pick up on a band once again, some twenty years after the fact.
Indeed, Marillion sound no more like the baby Genesis clones they once were. Some of the prog-rock elements remain of course. Tracks like "See It Like A Baby" mine a lot of the sort of lush, romanticized sounding terrain of its earlier, proggier incarnation. But the overall sound is much more disciplined, and seems to originate more in traditional pop song construction than the wild improvisation of earlier efforts. What once could be called indulgence, has for the most part been replaced by economy.
The musical genesis (and forgive me the use of that particular word) of keyboardist MarK Kelly and guitarist Steve Rothery also remains intact. Rothery's fluid guitar runs on songs like the title track, "A Voice From The Past," and especially "The Wound" once again echo ghosts from this band's progressive past.
Some of the lyrical content here is also quite interesting. "A Voice From The Past" seems to voice the sort of alienation that comes as a direct result of loss. Likewise, that sort of pain was never made to sound like something to be embraced as on "The Wound." Musically, the song builds to a final layered section based around a simple, repetitive chord sequence, which is wrapped around a deep bass line and layered with beautiful sounding guitar and keyboard flourishes.
As a vocalist, Hogarth makes these lyrics stand out too, as he sings them with a sort of disciplined passion that stands in contrast to the vocalized theatre of former lead singer Fish. Not that the conceptualized theatre isn't still there, it has just been repackaged somewhat as modernized, romantic sounding pop. Think of Coldplay's emphasis on pop structure, with less of the whining.
Not all of this completely works. Where "The Last Century of Man" succeeds in painting a bleak picture of the future, as a political statement it somewhat exceeds its reach. It does however feature one of those washes of symphonic keyboards that will make old school prog-rock fans melt in their tracks.
I've been told by people who know these things that this album suffers from a muddy sounding production compared to other efforts. Without a proper reference point to judge, I can't say this is something I really noticed. However, I've been told by those same folks that 2004's Marbles album represents the real standard for the present incarnation of Marillion.
That said, if Marbles is indeed the band's true masterpiece, let us just say that Somewhere Else has done one hell of a job in whetting my appetite for it. Hearing Marillion all these years later in this context, has been like hearing the band for the very first time again.