18 October 1999
“He’s got such a nice arse.” —Steve Hogarth, on Wilson
SEASONS END: H sounds like D Gilmour with a mullet (or perhaps an 80s soft-rock crooner a la Bryan Adams or the guy from Foreigner). King of Sunset Town has shades of late Police. Transitional record – written before Fish left. Hooks in You sucks like Incommunicado. This Space is properly bombastic.
So. Marillion. Again. There are essentially two Marillions, but not in the same sense that there were, say, two Queensrÿches, existing simultaneously while both bands were suing each other. The first Marillion ran from 1979 to 1988 and was fronted by everyone’s favorite giant Scotsman, Derek Dick. They had a nice run of four albums as pretty much one of the few good prog bands in the 80s before dissolving acrimoniously in a haze of alcohol and swollen egos. The second Marillion was formed in 1989 and remains active today. This band retained the instrumentalists from the first go-round, but their new frontman is Steve Hogarth, who spent much of the 80s playing in smaller pop and new wave bands. (Which is a long way of saying, hope you don’t think Fish’s delivery and lyricism was essential going forward.)
In the ten years since, they released seven albums, including the one which this post is ostensibly about, and saw a steady decline in their fortunes. Each record was less popular than the last. They were dropped from their label. They had to rely on crowdfunding to support a US tour (more on that later, as well). To be fair, they were (and are) doing okay enough that they won’t have to flip burgers to make ends meet, but they won’t be sharing stadium stages with Phil Collins anytime soon, either. Either way, though, Marillion clearly ended the decade at a considerably more modest place than where they started.
HOLIDAYS IN EDEN: Nice wall of sound in Cover My Eyes. Still cheesy, but cheesy in a way better suited to Hogarth’s singing style. (Usually. Still has places where it sounds like Fish.) Many of the songs fade out in a way evocative of a freeze-frame ending. When they try to do dad-tier hard rock it’s embarrassing. Ethereal ending of 100 Nights is amazing.
It’s 18 October 1999. Tom Ewing’s Popular tells me Christina Aguilera is at #1 with Genie in a Bottle. She’s mostly interesting at this point in terms of her rivalry with Britney, and that, in turn, is mostly interesting as an echo of the manufactured shenanigans that went down several years earlier, one of the central events in the history of the collapsed empire we will shortly be surveying.
When Andrew Hickey began his history of rock music in 500 songs, he explicitly defined a cutoff point of 1999. Which makes sense; by this time rock had well and truly ceded the superstardom floor to boy bands and, yes, pop singers like Britney and Christina. There were trends in rock that gained serious popularity after that—the mid-2000s pop punk/emo explosion spearheaded by Fall Out Boy and Panic at the Disco comes immediately to mind—but nothing on the same world-conquering tier as what came round the previous decade.
(I just eyeballed Billboard’s rock charts as I’m writing this, and the top rock song right now is Panic running on fumes, followed by Imagine Dragons running on fumes (which is saying something), and that excruciating lovelytheband song which would be running on fumes if it had fumes to run on. I think that speaks for itself.)
The point is this: despite the occasional bump later on, by the turn of the millennium rock music was in terminal decline. And, in many ways, that decline was echoed and prefigured by Marillion’s own decline in mainstream relevance a decade earlier.
BRAVE: What are the details of this narrative? Use of female perspective–contrast with HCE? Something about the Severn Bridge, and all bridges, as a space between worlds. Last track implies manic pixie dream girl.
Just like how there’s no one place where mainstream rock was well and truly born, there was no one place where mainstream rock well and truly died, either. My own pick for that date is 2013, the year we got the sickening one-two-three punch of George Ezra’s Budapest (laying waste to the stripped-back acoustic balladeers), American Authors’ Best Day of my Life (laying waste to the lo-fi punks and indie kids, think the Strokes or Franz Ferdinand in the previous decade, and the mountain of influential artists they sit on top of), and Bastille’s Pompeii (laying waste to the pretentious, bombastic, high-concept theatrical stuff). But I’m defining the date rock died as the date rock was finished off as a genre with mainstream relevance, and by that point it was on life support for a long time. We’ll have to go farther back.
It’s 1999. Right now the Billboard alternative charts are a post-grunge lovefest, a dalliance between Creed’s Higher (yuck) and Bush’s The Chemicals Between Us (slightly less yuck). Post-grunge itself was, as the name implies, the sanitized remnants of grunge, the long hangover following the death of its avatar in 1994, limping along well into the aughts. Though it’s extremely tempting to paint post-grunge as the death knell of rock (and oh Lord it is, this was the genre that gave us Nickelback), the reality is that 1999 was only the lull between the fall of dweeby alt-rock like Barenaked Ladies and Semisonic and the rise of sweaty, brotastic nu-metal like Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach. Post-grunge was just one in a long string of phases the genre went through as it was thrashing around in denial of its own imminent irrelevance. We’re not done yet.
Rock music has always had the seeds of its own demise baked into it. All genres do. There is a legitimate case to be made that rock music died the instant Elvis released Heartbreak Hotel or when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. But we’re not looking for the moment when rock’s trajectory from birth to death became clear, we’re looking for the moment when the genre’s fate was sealed and it was only a matter of time. And happily, we only have to go back two more years before we stumble upon the corpse of a dead goddess.
AFRAID OF SUNLIGHT: Ironic that the album that’s about celebrity is the one that saw them dropped from EMI. H’s voice works best as a sort of gothic wailing in the background (e.g. Out of this World). More definitively H-ian lyrics at this point; no longer imitation Fish. Back half has best stuff they made to that point.
We’ve spent entirely too much time focusing on the destructive effects of magic as opposed to the creative effects, but that’s just the way our tale has gone thus far. Stupid Dream, for instance, was that particular variant of magical ritual where all the pieces are patiently and meticulously assembled in the background, and the act of magic itself that brings everything together occurs in an instant. Meanwhile, the Space Era was self-destructing over the course of several albums, so guess which act got more airtime on this old blog. This trend, unfortunately, will continue with this post.
Unrelatedly, if we take seriously the idea that music is magic, then we must also take seriously the idea that magic can occasionally happen accidentally, or can quickly and easily spiral out of the control of its practitioners. Which brings us to Britpop.
Britpop was, in retrospect, a short-lived burst of manufactured music-magazine hype that catapulted a couple of bands to stratospheric levels of fame and, in the process, revealed its own hollowness as a label. The music itself was a goulash of previous trends—psychedelia, shoegaze, and Madchester, most prominently—but which sensibilities predominated and by how much fluctuated so wildly from band to band that the term “Britpop” could reasonably describe any relatively accessible rock group active in the UK in the mid-90s. If Porcupine Tree’s Alternative Era began just a few years earlier, I have no doubt that they, too, could have been Britpop.
This was meant to be a celebration of proper British rock-and-roll, an effort to return fair Albion’s guitar-wielding king to his rightful throne atop the charts once more, an exercise, ultimately, in superficial image. But in the process, though, it elevated a bunch of genuinely interesting bands to the national spotlight. Blur and Suede, for instance, the latter of which the hype machine famously plastered on the cover of Melody Maker before they’d even released an album, functioned as the scene’s twin creator gods with Popscene and The Drowners, and thus created a toehold for other interesting bands and hangers-on to gain a following. And it was good for a while. Despite Britpop’s origins as cynical nationalist marketing, the culture is genuinely richer for having stuff like Dog Man Star and His ‘n’ Hers and Modern Life is Rubbish in it.
And then Oasis came along and ruined everything.
That is an oversimplification. Movements and scenes come and go. Bands evolve. Aesthetics evolve. Britpop is not unique in this. Cobbled together as it was from the detritus of earlier eras, this was always going to be mainstream rock’s last hurrah before fading into irrelevance, like a blowout farewell tour featuring all the hits. Britpop would have died anyway without the aid of the squabbling Gallagher brothers, and that death would have been just as psychically catastrophic. But they’re still here, and replaceable or no, they’re still the two-headed Antichrist for the movement as it exists.
Oasis were a vessel of completely unironic testosterone-soaked monosyllabic nostalgia. They possessed none of the Stepford saccharine melancholy of Blur, the sarcasm and sinister subtext of Pulp, or the camp theatricality of Suede. Their music was simple, direct, catchy, and very loud; the Gallaghers sheer forces of irreverent working-class Mancunian volatility; sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll personified. They were a straightforward, uncomplicated rock band, playing the songs that a straightforward, uncomplicated rock band should play. This doesn’t mean the Gallaghers and the people they surrounded themselves with were terrible musicians, but it does mean they knew how to play one thing, and they played that one thing extremely well. The problem is playing one thing extremely well can only get you so far, and while the first two Oasis albums loom large in the consciousness for good reason (mostly)…the third, not so much.
There were, of course, signs of rock music’s looming destruction before Be Here Now. The previous album was a major salvo in the loudness war, and was thus directly responsible for the universally terrible state of music mastering in the years to come, and ultimately, Steven Wilson’s “use your volume knob” rant. That the biggest band in the world, a band that deliberately modeled themselves on the Beatles, had no interest whatsoever in the musical experiments that marked their idols’ later career, while their rivals were getting tired of Britpop and used their new album to go in a different direction. That the biggest band in the world managed to so completely swallow the scene they grew out of that those out of the loop (like, say, Americans) saw Britpop as Oasis and maybe possibly those posh London boys they were always smacktalking. That the biggest band in the world was, perhaps, so big that if they failed they might take their whole scene down with them. But when you’re riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave, you tend to not notice when it starts to break.
And oh, if there ever was an example of magic getting away from the magician, it’s Be Here Now. This was supposed to be a bombastic, celebratory victory lap for the biggest band in the world. If it came from anyone else, we’d have just had a subpar, unremarkable record cockily coasting on its artists’ legacy, but since it’s ~Oasis,~ its release caused Britpop to implode (though it wasn’t clear at the time) and rock music to slowly deflate into irrelevance. This was a bloated, sagging, cocaine-drenched ode to everything wrong with the genre. If Be Here Now was a ritual deliberately crafted to destroy rock music, it would have been perfect.
And the carnage was total: in addition to being the album that beheaded mainstream rock music, this album was also one of the greatest critical misfires in music journalism history: the press fell over themselves showering Be Here Now with rapturous praise. Jeremy Deller was just about spot-on when he described Oasis as ruining British music journalism: thanks to a combination of Britpop’s and Oasis’ sheer momentum, fractured egos after missing (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, and some strong-arming from the band and their management, the hyperbolic, adulatory reviews of Be Here Now were written long before anyone in the press heard a single note of the actual music. “All of rock history has been leading up to this point,” they said, and therein lies the problem. NME and Select and Q and all the rest had built themselves a narrative. And narratives, in this business, are an extremely dangerous thing to construct in the moment, because there’s always a chance you might whiff, and whiff big.
THIS STRANGE ENGINE: Opener is great. H’s voice: if Tim Bowness (or Ben Gibbard) was power metal. The trouble with quick pilgrimages like this: quick glance at album = tough to unearth what might be gained through repeat listens. Old-school blast at the end, there.
As this blog is one long exercise in constructing narratives, I have quite a few whiffs of my own to pull from, but let’s pick one that’s particularly relevant. In October of last year, after three months of gestation, I published a post on Fish’s Sunset on Empire, released the year Oasis killed rock music. That was the first non-ex-Japan Steven Wilson guest contribution album to get its own post, and my policy when encountering one of those is to survey the entire careers of the host artist so I know what they’re about and can be at least somewhat informed when I write about them. The problem was, up until I hit Sunsets on Empire I was writing the post in real time, pretty much as I was listening to the records, and so what went in the post for that album were mostly initial thoughts, which may or may not have held up across multiple listens. And when they didn’t, you can see the graft tissue where the rewrites happened. (In earlier drafts, I didn’t say Script for a Jester’s Tear sucked until I started talking about Fugazi.)
Nowhere is that more clear than the point to where I got to the album, where I spend a not inconsiderable amount of time building up to Sunsets on Empire as a landmark record in Fish’s career, as befitting The One Wot Steve Worked On…and it turns out I was one album off and instead got the one with the racial slur three words in. You can hear the record needle scratch and the furious on-the-fly attempt to course-correct and salvage what was already written. Part of the narrative of this blog has become learning how to write the blog, and while the mistakes are embarrassing they’re still an intermediate step towards something better.
The point is the nature of how I do the blog has been, and to an extent still is, fundamentally antagonistic to what needs to be done to write about an unfamiliar act like Marillion informatively. And Marillion is especially challenging because their discography is so extensive and their post-Fish evolution (up to this point) so rocky. The subheadings before each section of this post are my initial notes as I tried to find a signal in the noise and don’t necessarily reflect my current thoughts as I sit here writing the rest of it.
So we’re back to where we started. What have Marillion been up to in the ten years since acquiring their new vocalist?
RADIATION: More experimental. What is with the mixing (esp. Under the Sun)? What’s the DR? Rights itself somewhat at the end (A Few Words for the Dead). There’s a good album here struggling to get out.
About what you’d expect, all told. Their musical trajectory in the 90s was in broad strokes similar to Fish’s, with dissolution and reconstitution phases as they figure out where to go from here. The first two Hogarth albums, Seasons End and Holidays in Eden, feature quite a few traces of their earlier sound…on the positive side, we have Hogarth negotiating some rather Fish-esque lyrics, and on the negative side, we have quite a few songs right up there with Incommunicado in terms of how they’re held together with spit and twine and sheer force of will.
Later on there’s Afraid of Sunlight and This Strange Engine, firmly post-Fish and thus within Marillion’s reconstitution phase. Would that they didn’t also precipitate the band’s fallow period. Afraid of Sunlight has a very good second half, but the album’s theme of how awful it is to be rich and famous rock stars is rather embarrassing coming from a band who was long past its peak in popularity and was about to be dropped from their label. That goes double when in the last track Hogarth, who wasn’t there when Marillion was at its zenith, earnestly pleads that we unknown people who long for fame can handle its associated pressures and anxieties, as though he and his band are still on top of the world. This Strange Engine, meanwhile, has an excellent, ambitious first track, but after that spends the rest of its runtime attempting to recapture the magic of Man of a Thousand Faces with mixed results. This album hits rock bottom with An Accidental Man and Hope for the Future. The former is Hogarth whining that because he’s male he can’t be in touch with his emotions, which could have been reworked into an interesting take on masculinity if we trusted him to know anything about feminism in 1997; while the latter is the distaff counterpart to Fish’s Emperor’s Song, an exercise in children’s-show bounciness treading perilously close to saccharine We-Are-the-World charity single territory. It’s really a shame the album ends like this, because everything up till then is at least decent (and Estonia is genuinely moving). Also, the less said about Radiation the better.
In the middle of all this, though, is 1994’s Brave, which was the first true post-Fish album and the moment at which it becomes abundantly clear why Marillion slowly declined in popularity through the decade. It’s nothing to do with the album itself, an almost Floydian epic about alienation, isolation, depression, and insanity that in a lot of ways prefigures Fear of a Blank Planet and is generally regarded as the band’s return to form after spending the previous two albums flailing. It’s actually quite good. But let’s be real here; while a lot of bands were writing stuff like that at the time (cough-Parklife-cough), they didn’t couch those themes in the tragic tale of a young amnesiac girl who was found wandering the bridge where Richey James Edwards would ascend to godhood exactly one year after their album’s release.
Contrast with Misplaced Childhood and Kayleigh. This was a very accessible prog album with a few theatrical stadium anthems, released in a year when vaguely prog-inflected stadium anthems were A Thing, especially when sung by people who sounded quite, er, Fishy. The year after Misplaced Childhood would see the release of both So and Invisible Touch, so if anything Marillion were the beneficiaries of a brief, happy moment where the music they made converged with the tastes of the record-buying public. Thus, Fish onstage with Phil Collins.
Problem is, when you get lucky in that particular way, that level of fame is unsustainable, because the music you make after that brief collision will slowly fall out of sync with what’s popular. So of course Afraid of Sunlight and This Strange Engine didn’t do as well; the former was released right before the Battle of Britpop and the latter was released after Oasis swallowed mainstream rock whole and remade it in their own image. (And Radiation, meanwhile, was unequivocally a stinker, although a lot of that could be chalked up to lousy mixing. That said, even the 2013 remaster struggles to distinguish itself from the albums on either side of it.) Even if those two albums were as good as Brave, it still wouldn’t have arrested their decline.
And now we arrive back at 18 October 1999. Tom Ewing’s Popular tells me Christina Aguilera is at #1 with Genie in a Bottle, duking it out with Britney in a distant ripple of the Oasis-Blur rivalry. Topping the Rock Singles chart is Def Leppard with Goodbye, a long holdover from the hair metal days. Marillion are four years gone from being dropped by EMI, are on their third self-released album via a distributor that by all accounts aren’t doing them right, and are stuck with a label that couldn’t cough up the money for a North America tour. They still manage to release an album, about half of which Steven Wilson co-produces. This record barely grazes the charts and doesn’t even come close to reaching the UK Top 40.
I don’t often comment on the stuff on the album that’s not the actual music, but…just look at that album art. A long-exposure photograph of a girl holding a computer in the middle of a busy city intersection at twilight. The exact adjective I used upon encountering the album art for the first time was “Oasis-ass.” And that title, too. From the perspective of twenty years later, having a title like that feels like the musical equivalent of stodgy old Peter Mannion protesting that he’s “modern.” So I’m already of a mind to think of this thing in terms of “is this Britpop?”
So, is it? Not really. The music in general owes more to Radiation and This Strange Engine and Marillion’s evolution as a band than any trends that were in the air at the time. That said, like Alternative-Era Porcupine Tree, if they wrote something like Rich or Built-in Bastard Radar or Tumble Down the Years five years earlier, and released it as a single, there’s a nonzero chance that lightning would have struck twice and the press would have had a few words to spare for the band’s “reinvention” and sudden swing back to hipness.
Instead, we get an album generally regarded as one of Marillion’s weaker efforts. I question this stance somewhat. marillion.com doesn’t have the conceptual sweep of Brave, or even the more modest thematic ambitions of Afraid of Sunlight, but neither does it have the stumbling of their first two Hogarth albums or the truly atrocious production of Radiation. From the perspective of 1999, this is mid-tier Marillion more than anything else, about what you’d expect when a progressive rock band makes an album full of songs with more of a modern pop sensibility. These are, at root, good pop songs with a slight progressive sheen on them, and from that perspective it makes sense why this album would have a cool reception amongst the more prog-oriented faithful.
But then we get to the final two tracks. The last song on the album, House, is a stab at trip hop that sounds less like straight trip hop and more like very minimalist trip hop-inflected jazz, and the only song on marillion.com that explicitly nods to any current trends (the previous year saw the release of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and Portishead’s Roseland NYC Live). The trumpet and the echoing pianos in particular are quite chill and lovely, the whole song a rather unprecedented stab at pure atmosphere. It’s probably my favorite on the album.
The other song is Interior Lulu, which is your typical Long Marillion Song/Suite, and would be otherwise uninteresting for our purposes but for one line. Toward the end there’s a line that goes “thank God for the internet,” with a particular ironic/skeptical inflection. But those five words were an incantation if there ever was one.
Back again we go to 1997 and the North America tour that might not happen. Enter Jeff Pelletier, a Massachusetts optical engineer, who organized a fundraising drive on Marillion’s message boards (on which keyboardist Mark Kelly was a regular) to bring the band across the pond when their US label couldn’t. The goal was $30,000. They made almost twice that.
Clearly, then, despite Interior Lulu’s blather about how technology turns people into alienated zombies, this was a band that was very well aware of the positive potential of the internet (exhibit B: that they even had message boards in 1997). This successful experiment in crowdfunding before it was crowdfunding must have been rolling around in their heads after they fulfilled their contract with their distributor and once again found themselves adrift.
So when the time came to make a new record, the band went to their fans once again and asked who’d preorder an unrecorded album, and fortunately, quite a lot of them did. Another crowdfunding campaign started, and the money it raised got the album recorded, and brought them back into EMI’s good books. Although the result, Anoraknophobia, is clearly inferior to its predecessor and shows the limits of their sound more than it moves anything forward, it still was a landmark in its own way, in that it gave the heretofore financially floundering band a way to exist in the new century. Marillion would go on to crowdfund the majority of their albums in the following years. Thank God for the internet, indeed.