“Something…is gonna happen…”
So. Marillion. One of the bands that kept progressive music going during the fallow eighties. They’re from Aylesbury, half an hour from Hemel Hempstead. They’ve been active since Wilson was eleven. There’s a lot to get through here, so let’s begin.
1. A knight for Embankment folds his newspaper castle…
The music of Marillion up to Sunsets on Empire can be split into three phases. The first encompasses Script for a Jester’s Tear and Fugazi, and is primarily of importance to us in the way it intersects with Steven Wilson’s early music career. The former album, for instance, was released in February 1983. Karma released The Joke’s On You in October 1983. This is not a coincidence. The entire time I was listening to it, all I heard was the original version of Nine Cats, as sung by Derek William “Fish” Dick, a gentleman who was created in a lab to be the ultimate progressive rock vocalist. This guy has the vocal cords of Peter Gabriel, the range of Jon Anderson, and the theatrical penchant of Ian Anderson. And as long as we’re talking about Karma as a blatant Marillion ripoff, I challenge you to imagine Wilson yelping and whooping on The Joke’s On You the way Fish does here.
The problem is Script for a Jester’s Tear isn’t very good, although Fish is trying his damnedest to elevate instrumentation that’s 75% Mark Kelly engaging in psychosexual congress with the horn setting on his synthesizer. I.e.; fun for him, not quite so much for us. Fugazi, meanwhile, gives the Script sound a particular energy it had previously lacked, albeit through sounding pretty much like an extremely progressive-oriented arena rock band. In other words, this album lays on the eighties cheese thick and it’s wonderful. I can totally imagine an alternate universe in which the standard elements of the middle-aged white guy wardrobe included a Marillion tour shirt alongside Queen and Boston and Journey. (They’d certainly get the chart numbers worthy of such an honor.)
So, when the time came for Karma to pull together that second album, they had two options: sound like Embryonic Porcupine Tree, or throw in mainstream hard rock influences and sound like Fugazi. They did neither, turning their collective nose up at this album’s more streamlined musicianship and hoping lightning would strike twice…and thus we got Last Man to Laugh and the band’s breakup the next year.
2. Hotel lobbies padding dawn’s hollow corridors…
Marillion’s second phase is its imperial phase, comprising Misplaced Childhood and Clutching at Straws. The former is relevant for Wilson-adjacent purposes, as he remixed that album in 2017. And really, if you’re going to remix one Marillion album, it’s that one, because what a record. Yes, yes, it’s one of Marillion’s more accessible offerings this decade. Yes, we’re edging dangerously close to sounding like sellout-era Genesis (!) during the year of Live Aid (!!). But the prog is far from gone; it’s just actually digestible. A band that abandoned prog entirely would not have produced the Bitter Suite. And quite frankly, if your definition of what constitutes good prog is that it’s so intricate and complex it’s impenetrable to the average listener, you’re part of the reason Wilson’s distanced himself from the label and finds prog music irreparably ossified and self-contradictory. Get over yourself.
Also, Fish is a brilliant lyricist, in every song unspooling this string of lines that’re at once wordy and evocative. “Do you remember dancing in stilettos in the snow?”, for example, is typical, but he really shines at that point at least once each album when he’s allowed to be properly leftish and go to town painting these nightmarish visions of Thatcherite Britain (the title track of Fugazi comes immediately to mind).
Which brings us to Kayleigh. Marillion’s biggest hit is a baroque, deliriously cheesy masterpiece that hit #2 on the UK Singles chart. In so doing, it effectively brought the name “Kayleigh” into existence (one of the actual exes that inspired the song was named Kay Lee, the name was altered to protect the innocent). It’s killer, especially that powerful solo that bursts onstage after the first chorus, Exhibit A for Wilson’s contention that simplicity in the name of emotional immediacy is inherently better than technical wizardry for its own sake. Kayleigh would reach its definitive form in 1988, at an anti-apartheid benefit concert held at Wembley Stadium to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. There, Fish appeared onstage to belt out this song accompanied by (a) a horn section and (b) Phil Collins on drums…in other words, the way the song was meant to be performed.
Moving on to Clutching at Straws, I pretty much toe the critical line that it’s not quite as good as its predecessor. To elaborate, I’d say that this album is kind of a tough one to get a serious critical read on, as the quality of the individual songs oscillate wildly between absolutely brilliant and sheer torture, and look there’s no way of sugarcoating it Incommunicado was the worst thing Fish wrote in the 80s. Marillion during this era never quite tipped into the worst trends of sellout-era Genesis…except here, with all those synthesized horn flourishes and that overexuberant vocal delivery and tempo that’s just slightly too fast. I know what they were shooting for, a sort of modernized throwback to the first two albums, but the result sounds like a band that’s jacked up Turn It On Again on all the steroids in the hopes that some of the cheddar that song produced would drift their way. Somewhat ironically for a song where they’re bragging about how famous they’ve become, the end result sounds like it was written out of contractual obligation. Also, Fish should never use the word “rootin’-tootin’” in a song ever again.
On the upside, Fish’s brogue. People have complained once in a while about Fish’s vocal delivery and how it sounds a bit too much like Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel, but they forget one thing: Derek Dick is extremely Scottish. He is one of the Scottiest Scotsmen that’ve ever Scotted. And boy does it show in this album, where he often drops any pretense of vocal neutrality and lets the Saltire in his voice fly. In addition, despite its unevenness, Clutching at Straws still has probably the densest concentration of highlights from the Fish era, like the burnt-out, desperate bombast of That Time of the Night, the tense, dystopian White Russian (repeating “Uzis on a street corner” like a madness mantra), and the majestic The Last Straw. Especially The Last Straw. The sudden Tessa Niles in the last minute is simply heavenly. It feels like a definitive summation of not just the themes behind Clutching at Straws but Marillion’s entire career up to that point. The album couldn’t have ended on a higher note.
3. They bury a wasteland deep in the wilderness…
And the in October 1988 something weird happened: the case of the Famous Egos that collectively afflicted Marillion hit a breaking point and Fish proceeded to fire everyone else and rename the band after himself. Thus do we hit the third phase: Fish’s solo career. This phase, like most nascent solo careers, comes in two parts: an exorcism, and a self-discovery.
The exorcism comes in Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors, recorded and released while No-Man were flogging their earliest demos and Wilson’s ostentatious fake band were cobbling together their early EP trilogy. The long-ish form explanation for the way this sounds is as follows: after a certain point the band develops a clearly recognizable sound, and then the frontman feels strangled by the expectation of what a band album should sound like. When the tension becomes too great, the frontman abandons the band for a solo career and the first album after the split will often sound like the frontman’s unfiltered head contents. This album will feel scattershot and uneven, but on the upside, that attitude got us Fish bustin’ out the pipes right in the expansive, cinematic banger of a first track.
But at least it’s all out now and Fish can move forward. If only he knew how. Fortunately, at this point we do have a germ of an idea: Fish is, lest we forget, oh so very Scottish. He’s just returned to the old country after spending the past decade in England, and it’s great to reconnect with where you came from. Let’s see what that gets us.
Internal Exile, apparently, released roughly the same time as Days in the Trees, and exactly the sort of thing Fish could not have got away with if he were still with Marillion. This is a folk-tinged concept album centering largely around Scottish nationalism and how proud he is to be Scottish…and yet, the best thing off the album doesn’t actually have anything to do with any of that. Yes, the title track is fantastic, pure, unfiltered, boisterous folk, but: have you considered his cover of Something in the Air, which I can only describe as something performed at an abandoned warehouse rave in Leith.
After this there was a detour into coverland with Songs from the Mirror, released the same time Porcupine Tree was pulling together Up the Downstair. It’s decent, albeit unremarkable. Although I would like to state for the record that like the last album, any time he goes full-on traditionally Scottish, like with Solo and Caledonia, is simply heavenly.
The next year, though, between the release of Porcupine Tree’s first live album and the marathon improvisational session that would produce Moonloop, Fish would return to original material with Suits. Now, let’s address something real quick: Marillion have been called a poor man’s Genesis for basically the whole time they’ve been popular. I don’t think that’s a strike against the band—The Gaslight Anthem ripped off Bruce Springsteen wholesale and they’re amazing—but that’s largely because Genesis is a band worth ripping off. You can do things with their sound and make it your own. The problem is this: when Phil Collins left Genesis, his solo career was already sinking rapidly into an easy-listening quicksand pit. So when your band is often compared to Genesis and you leave to form a solo career, the danger is that your solo work will be on roughly the same level as Collins’. This has loomed over Fish’s solo career the whole time he’s had one, and nowhere does this danger present itself more explicitly than on this record, a soft rock album wrapped in several layers of neo-prog.
As a consequence, Suits can be sickeningly cheesy. Emperor’s Song in particular sits comfortably in that vaguely worldbeatish triangle with Graceland on the left, So on the right, and We Are the World at the apex; the sort of song whose music video is the band performing in a savannah somewhere surrounded by photogenic African children; the sort of song that encapsulates the detritus of the decade that brought us Live Aid-esque grandiose white guilt. Fortunes of War is a less positive example, a mess of beige slop whose music video’s defining image is Fish earnestly contemplating a bullet to make the point that Armed Conflict Is Bad, Mmmkay? It’s Fish at his most embarrassing, possibly topping Incommunicado as the worst song he’s ever written, and a big flashing-light illustration of the failure mode of his solo career.
But that’s not to say the album isn’t completely without merits. Since the cover of Something in the Air we’ve been seeing more and more electronic influences creep in, and nowhere is that quite more evident in No Dummy, this weird reggae-ish thing that has some very nineties keyboard work and a saxophone that wouldn’t sound out of place on Under the Table and Dreaming. This song also features some of the most bone-shatteringly deep bass work in Fish’s career thus far, of the sort that made me wish he and Mick Karn got together in the studio at least once. That said, like with the Scottish folk of Internal Exile and Songs from the Mirror before it, there’s still the sense that Fish is trying on hats that don’t quite fit. These are, ultimately, experiments. Some of them are successful, some of them aren’t. The result, unfortunately, is a solo career that is frustratingly uneven. This is unsustainable. We’ll have to try something a little different.
4. Your next allotted twenty-four hour slice of destiny…
So now it’s May of 1997. We’re entering a weird liminal period. I am five years old and discovering that the world extends far beyond the mountains that surround my hometown. On TV, for instance, there’s a white-haired man in a suit who’s always someplace stately, so that means he must be the President. Meanwhile, Tony Blair becomes Prime Minister, Deep Blue defeats Garry Kasparov, and the Spice Girls perform for the British royal family. Next month Richard Ashcroft will walk down a street in Hoxton, and Radiohead will release the first of several quietly nightmarish, Ballardianly anxious magnum opuses. In two months Hong Kong will switch from being a British colony to a Chinese colony. In three months Princess Di will have a fateful spiritual experience in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, and Oasis will release Be Here Now and kill Britpop for good. No-Man are burning off the remnants of Wild Opera and will soon pull together what will become Returning Jesus. Porcupine Tree are deep in a magical ritual to kill off the Space Era. And Steven Wilson gets together with Fish and releases Sunsets on Empire.
Which I then listen to and like fifteen seconds in there’s a record needle scratch in my head.
Before we go any further, we must address this, and I hate that I have to address this, but… betwixt Dick and Wilson, who are credited as co-writers, whose bright idea was it to throw in the n-word right in the first line of the first track? The line for white musicians throwing in slurs to make a satirical political point (like here; the song is partially about the Balkans during the wars and the first couple lines are meant to be what society tells people who’re about to be ethnically cleansed) and/or make it clear the viewpoint character is a horrible person stands at In The Flesh, off The Wall, and it is a bar no song since has yet cleared, including this one. Sorry if that wrecked it for you; it came perilously close to wrecking it for me (the offending lyrics were altered for the US release, which…well, they do get the point across clearer), and to be honest once I’m done writing this post I will never listen to this song ever again.
There’s also been some other stuff that hasn’t aged well either, unfortunately. Brother 52, for instance. I could not find any further background on the story the song’s centered around, and maybe when you’re a Scotsman in the spring of ‘97 the concept of “gun nuts with enormous quantities of firearms find themselves under siege Waco-style” doesn’t have the same implications it does today, but…well, let’s cut to the chase here. This Doc dude’s a Second-Amendment nutcase and I’d be genuinely surprised if the story happened as it was told. “Anybody that’s stockpiling firearms and ammunitions is a threat to the government, so the government wages war against us,” the guy says. Baloney. To paraphrase, Bubba was not coming for your guns. In fact, from the vantage point of 2018, anyone with an enormous gun stockpile is probably not a freedom fighter but a terminally aggrieved white man who believes women shouldn’t have autonomy and/or people of color shouldn’t exist. So this is a cause that I’m…kind of surprised to see Fish, who’s farther left than most, take up and champion here. I neither know nor care how he feels about it now, but I, at least, would be trying my hardest to forget this song ever existed.
Now for the good stuff. First, the spoken word bits. They’ve been rolling around in the background for Fish’s discography since the Marillion days, but most of the time they’ve been pulled into the background, like the ones in Dark Side of the Moon. The conversation between Dr Finlay and Torch in Torch Song is representative. But Sunsets on Empire represents the point where the spoken word bits become the centerpiece of the songs they’re featured on. It helps that Fish’s natural speaking voice is this deep Scottish rumble that’s at once soothing and authoritative and very, very well suited to this sort of thing.
As are, of course, the words themselves. Fish has always been a very good lyricist, but the spoken word interludes let him be self-indulgent in the one place where self-indulgence works great in prog. Check out this little bit from Jungle Ride:
“The glazed eyes of porcelain clowns stare skywards at clouds of goldfish madly circling their own silent plastic worlds, high above the children who stuff ping pong balls like pills in the mouths of slowly rotating heads…”
Beautiful. Like The Mars Volta by way of the Weaver. He’s a bit more direct than that most of the time, but boy can he get evocative when he wants to be. This is one of the things that distinguishes Derek Dick from most other prog boys; he’s always thought of himself as a poet who sings, and has thus been most comfortable constructing songs around words than around instrumental improvisation.
Fish’s words also help the instrumentation out tremendously. He’s been dancing around what he achieves here throughout his solo career, but this is probably the first time since leaving Marillion that he’s managed to strike the perfect balance between technical complexity and emotional resonance. For the first time since Clutching at Straws the words consistently give the music a particular focus that a lot of prog lacks. We’re mainly concerned with what the song is about here (whether it be things like Bosnia, the inadequacy of religion, or Fish’s daughter), as opposed to using the song’s ostensible themes as an excuse for the musicians to show off.
In essence, with Sunsets on Empire, Fish has finally found his footing as a solo musician. The result sounds a fair bit like what Marillion would have sounded like in the 90s if he’d stayed on as frontman. We could describe this as a regression thanks to the lack of folk or electronica or anything else that made his earlier solo work stand out, and it is, but it is an exceptionally well-made regression, and is the reason the next album’s progression is as successful as it is. Because in this album, he consistently brought forward the album’s emotional center, and that’s infinitely more rewarding than any amount of technical brilliance could ever be.
We said earlier that Porcupine Tree is at this time in the middle of a magical ritual to kill off the Space Era and usher in something different. But what that something different is going to be is as yet unknown. For all that krautrock is a fine musical tradition, the way everything came together in Signify was clearly a non-starter. The band is working on demos right now, but it’s not clear that these efforts will bear fruit either. So now what.
Well, as it happens, Goldfish and Clowns and The Perception of Johnny Punter sound very much like oddly bent Porcupine Tree songs…specifically, the sort of Porcupine Tree song they’d make from Stupid Dream onward. It’s not that Fish now sounds like Porcupine Tree, it’s that Porcupine Tree decided to sound like Fish. The corollary to this is it’s pretty easy to imagine Wilson singing some of these songs, or even rearrange and cover them at his shows…even the ones he didn’t write. (Similarly, it’s pretty easy to imagine a No-Man cover of Say It With Flowers.) Essentially, in recording this album, Derek William Dick birthed the Alternative Era.
So we have a path forward. Now what do we do with the detritus of the old, because not only do we have to fully burn off the Space Era, we have to deal with the wreckage that is Signify. The latter, fortunately, has only managed a brief, comparatively stillborn existence compared to the Space Era’s eight-year-deep musical density and heft, and so is pretty easy to dispatch. And that is what Fish does here with What Colour is God?, a song that puts religion on blast in a very Signify-esque manner, right down to the psychotic preacher samples that could have been ripped directly from Sever itself. He even managed to inhale, Kirby-like, Porcupine Tree’s primary lyrical mode up to this point in that spoken-word bit in Jungle Ride up there, an easy feat since “bad LSD trip” is already not far from his own lyrical style to begin with. The rest of the Space Era, though, is still a bear to get rid of, a big enough monster that not even a giant, burly Scot can expect to take it on single-handedly. There is still more work to be done.