Issue 2008-046: Marillion - Happiness Is The Road Vol. 1 / 2 - Round Table Reviews
Marillion - Happiness Is The Road
Volume 1 ~ Essence
Tracklist: Volume 1 ~ Essence Dreamy Street (1:59), This Train Is My Life (4:47), Essence (6:25), Wrapped Up In Time (5:03), Liquidity (2:09), Nothing Fills The Hole (3:20), Woke Up (3:37), Trap The Spark (5:39), A State Of Mind (4:30), Happiness Is The Road (10:01), Half Empty Jam (6:46)
Marillion - Happiness Is The Road
Volume 2 ~ The Hard Shoulder
Tracklist: Volume 2 ~ The Hard Shoulder: Thunder Fly (6:20), The Man From Planet Marzipan (7:51), Asylum Satellite # 1 (9:28), Older Than Me (3:08), Throw Me Out (3:58), Half The World (5:05), Whatever Is Wrong With You (4:13), Especially True (4:34), Real Tears For Sale (7:32)
Tom De Val's Review
Even the most ardent fan of modern Marillion would be hard pressed to say that last year’s Somewhere Else was their finest hour. Although I would disagree with those who leapt on what became a bandwagon to say it was their worst release to date, it was definitely something of a mixed bag, and whilst it included some great tracks, it suffered from a lack of flow and the fact that the band seemed to be on auto-pilot for some of the time. Given this evident lack of new ideas, the news that the band were working on a double album to be released just a year or so was a surprising one – if the band didn’t have enough good ideas for fifty minutes of material for which they’ve had three years to prepare for, what on earth would they be able to scrape together in a third of the time to fill up double the length? Yet against the odds Marillion have managed to come up with two albums which are both better than its predecessor, work well either as separate entities or listened to in their entirety, and whilst not perfect shows their creative spark is far from being extinguished.
That said, those that didn’t like the musical style the band displayed on Somewhere Else are unlikely to be swayed by Happiness Is The Road, as much of the material is probably interchangeable, as you’d expect really given the short time period between releases. In particular, those yearning for a return to the band’s progressive rock roots, or even those looking for more up-tempo and in your face material, won’t find it here. Instead, the band appear to have mastered the style for which they still seemed to be searching for on Somewhere Else and have embellished upon and refined it here. Consistency is the name of the game, and they seem to have (bar a couple of mis-steps) found it on Happiness Is The Road.
Although both the discs that make up Happiness Is The Road share some similar traits, there are some subtle differences to be found. The first disc, Essence, is more of a mood piece, being in general a more laid back affair with each track running into the other, some existing more as linking pieces than recognisable songs in their own right. The second disc is more an album of individual songs, although it still flows well; there’s also a little more variety on show.
Essence starts with Dreamy Street, all sparse piano and ethereal vocals, very much in latter-day Talk Talk mode, before it morphs into This Train Is My Life. An early stand-out, this is one of those slow-burning, intensely emotional and passionate numbers Marillion can pull off so well – I was reminded in parts of the intense Beyond You from their classic Afraid Of Sunlight. The only niggle is Hogarth’s overuse of a rather fragile falsetto, which unfortunately proliferates throughout the album. It’s on show again in Essence (the track), but on the flip-side Hogarth’s vocals on the subdued verses, and his passionate intonation of the main chorus line ‘choose life, choose living’ are spot on. This is another highlight of the disc, with the big-band like ending and a good if rather muffled solo from Rothery providing icing on the cake.
The next few tracks definitely serve the album rather than stand out as individual songs, although Nothing Fills The Hole stands out as an interesting take on soul music, sounding rather like a very English and restrained version of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough! Woke Up is well titled, dragging the listener out of their (very pleasant) slumber with some power chords from Rothery – the first time (bar a few restrained solo’s) that he’s particularly evident in the mix. In contrast, the emotive Trap The Spark sees Mark Kelly very much leading from the front, with piano being the dominant melodic instrument; some of the melodies reminded me of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to "A Fistful Of Dynamite". State Of Mind picks up the pace again, before we get to another highlight, Happiness Is The Road itself. Following an extended, very minimalist but atmospheric introduction, the song gradually builds – again, it reminds me of something that would fit snugly onto Afraid Of Sunlight. Over an almost cod reggae-ish beat, coloured by shards of guitar, Hogarth moves from an almost scat delivery through ‘proper’ singing to finally unleash the simple but effective chorus line. This is a quality tune that sits alongside the title track of Somewhere Else as one of the band’s finer latter day tracks; like that song, there is some keyboard work that could have come straight from (the song) Season’s End. It’s a pity that the song perhaps goes on a minute or two too long, and also that it is followed by the rather throwaway Half Empty Jam, meaning that Essence ends on a slightly anticlimactic note.
Any traces of disappointment are soon eroded by the opening trio of tracks on disc two, The Hard Shoulder – three of the strongest songs the band have penned in the 21st century. Thunder Fly kicks off with a rocky, organic vibe, with some stabbing Hammond organ work from Kelly, the up-tempo verse contrasting nicely with the hazy, atmospheric ‘chorus’, which in its conjuring up of atmosphere vaguely echoes the classic Out Of This World. I like the way the verse and chorus sections gradually change and compliment each other as the song progresses, whilst Rothery’s bluesy, emotive solo on the outro caps things off nicely.
The Man From The Planet Marzipan is another strong piece, this time incorporating some of the trip-hop influences the band started to incorporate around the time of Marillion.Com, especially in the keyboard sound and in Hogarth’s initially distant and robotic delivery. This combines well with a fat, almost funky bass sound from Pete Trewavas in the verses, before Hogarth’s more familiar melancholy croon takes over for a trumpet-laden fanfare of a chorus. As expected with Marillion, the song builds and subsides, taking plenty of twists and turns. I was reminded of the Marbles track The Invisible Man, not because it is particularly similar but because to me it has the same kind of vibe, and is an equally strong piece.
Things if anything get even better on the very moody, almost psychedelic epic Asylum Satellite #1. Its a song with lots of atmospheric synth backdrops but one that features plenty of space (pun intended!) for individual instruments to shine, not least Rothery’s hazy, blues-tinged guitar work and some electric piano work from Mark Kelly that recalls the late Rick Wright’s work with Pink Floyd during their mid-seventies heyday. The effects used on Hogarth’s vocals, where his voice seems to float, disembodied, over the instrumentation during what passes for the chorus, are also well utilised.
It’s hard to keep this quality up, and the album does momentarily slump with the twee, slightly cringeworthy ballad Older Than Me, but Throw Me Out is an interesting track - with its accordion-led intro, vaguely old-time music hall feel and vocal harmony-drenched chorus, its one of the few songs that actually does remind me a little of something one of the modern ‘indie rock’ bands Marillion are constantly accused (unfairly in my view) of trying to emulate, in this case the masterful Elbow (and there’s no shame being compared to them!).
The jingle jangle of Half The World is pleasant enough, as is the vaguely edgy-sounding Whatever Is Wrong With You – although typically for a modern Marillion single, its not really representative of the album its taken from. Better is the emotive Especially True, whilst the band ties things up nicely with a strong closer, Real Tears For Sale. Here the main attraction for me is less the main body of the song – which is catchy and effective enough – but the break in the mid-section where the band conjure up another of those atmospheric instrumental pieces which they seem to be able to do so effortlessly, with Kelly’s hypnotic piano work and Ian Mosley’s controlled yet dynamic percussive work anchoring the song, whilst Hogarth’s distant vocal which appears later has an almost ghostly feel.
Overall, I feel that Marillion have bounced back from the relative disappointment of Somewhere Else to create a couple of albums that I feel are bound to please at least the majority of their fan base – although admittedly not those yearning for them to turn the clock back ten, even twenty years – for them, its definitely time to move on. Neither album is perfect – persistent niggles might include Hogarth’s rather weak overall vocal performance (and the overuse of that damned falsetto!) and the lack of much of that famed Steve Rothery guitar sound - and you could make the argument that there’s a classic seventy five minute single album in there somewhere - but that misses the point a little, especially when talking about Essence, which gains its strength from its consistency, and is more than the sum of its parts.
Apparently these albums are to be sold separately, but to be honest most fans will buy both, and I’d find it hard to recommend one over the other; both have their strengths and (relatively minor) weaknesses, and compliment each other well. It will be interesting to see which of these songs make it into the forthcoming live shows, which, given that the band seem to have re-found their creative spark, should be a treat.
Edwin Roosjen's Review
The gaps seemed to grow bigger each time, but now we have only had to wait one year for the new Marillion album. The quality in output has not been a constant factor, so every new Marillion album is by me, approached with some reservation. Marbles was a welcome return, but last year's Somewhere Else was a step back again and for me that last album lacked inspiration and Marillion had become much more ambient and mellow to my liking. Happiness Is The Road is a double album, the first is called Essence and the second The Hard Shoulder. This package containing both albums will only be available for pre-orders, after which it will only be available as two separate items. Once again Marillion thought up something new for a sales stunt, and I'm not even speaking about the downloads they provided on the internet, but after all it is still the music that counts.
The ambient style from Somewhere Else is continued, especially on the first disc. Dreamy Street is merely a short intro but sets the tone for this disc. The ambient music of Essence requires a dark and mellow surrounding to be played at. The sound on this album also reminds me a lot of the mellow side of Afraid Of Sunlight and Brave. This Train Is My Life clearly underlines that statement, the sound is clear and warm. On Essence it slows down more than I would like, although towards the end it livens up a bit. The same can be said for Wrapped Up In Time. Liquidity is a short instrumental piece, just like there were present on Marbles. Nothing Fills The Whole has a nice chorus but it is only sung once in the middle of the song, however, the rest is so mellow I almost fell asleep and the last minute of this song only features some bass and mumbling. Now I also know why the next song is called Woke Up, as they finally woke up and presented a decent song on this first disc. Barely three and a half minutes before Trap The Spark puts you back to sleep again and only at the end of State Of Mind you will slowly wake up. Which is not a moment too soon because Happiness Is The Road is one song that really stands out on this first disc. The first three and a half minutes are again a bit too mellow, but the rest of the song is outstanding. Steve Hogarth's voice is full of soul, the sound is awesome and huge. This is the Marillion I want to hear. The first disc also bares a secret track called Half Empty Jam, for your sake I hope you do not find it, it is absolutely horrible.
The second disc does not start with a blast however Thunderfly certainly suits me a lot more than the mellow stuff on the first disc, showing a lot more power and no more whispers and mumbling. The Man From Planet Marzipan contains a funky bass line, a very jazzy centrepiece and an ending that reminds me of the Marillion that made the masterpiece Brave. Asylum Satellite #1 is the longest song on disc two, sadly in contradiction to the first disc it's not the best song on this one. It's very bluesy with many good, long solos from guitar and keyboards, but the pace is too slow - as a shorter ballad it would have been much more suitable. Older Than Me is just that shorter ballad and normally it would have appealed to me, but again after so much mellow music it becomes just one more song that is liable to put you to sleep. Throw Me Out nicely builds up in a music style that reminds me of The Beatles, where just when it becomes interesting and I want to hear more, the song is over - now I wish this one was the longest song on this disc. Half The World is more lively, but Whatever Is Wrong With You is the song where I finally hear something I really like. This song finally brings some "Hard Shoulder" into this album and looks like Marillion kept the best for last. Especially True is not as catchy but still holds a lot more power than the rest on either albums. Real Tears For Sale is a good closer as it contains a guitar solo from the ever so brilliant Steve Rothery, an ability he showed way too little on these two discs.
Marillion has continued the style of Somewhere Else but gained a bit more from the quality of Marbles. The music has turned more mellow and ambient, especially on the first disc. The second disc is the better of the two but still not completely to my satisfaction. Songs like The Man From Marzipan, Whatever Is Wrong With You and Especially True are clearly more to my liking. Just like with many double albums it would have been better to grab the best songs and make it a single disc output, although in this case I even don't think that would have resulted in an album that I will listen to dearly. Marillion has chosen a different musical path than I. These albums will be loved by die-hard Marillion fans, of which there are still a whole lot, but sadly I am not one of them anymore.
Jim Corcoran's Review
Back in the nineties I used to go to the poetry slam in Worcester, Massachusetts. One night when I was there on of the poets voiced his opinion that the poet Charles Bukowski had a lousy editor. Bukowski has over 100 books in print, including six novels, hundreds of short stories and thousands of poems. So much of his work has been published it makes one wonder how much editorial restraint was involved.
The same can be said about the inclusion of all the tracks on Marillion’s new release, Happiness Is The Road. It is available for purchase as a two disc set online from the Marillion website, Marillion.com. The individually titled discs, Volume 1: Essence and Volume 2: The Hard Shoulder, are available for individual purchase at brick-and-mortar retail shops in the USA and Poland only, from online retailers, or from the Marillion website. Upon listening to all of the twenty tracks of both discs it was obvious to me that enough weaker songs could have been left in the hopper by producer Michael Hunter to make a single CD, as was recently opinioned by one of the DPRP writers in a flurry of emails between us leading up to this Round Table Review.
To, like, the three people reading this who are not familiar with Marillion, here is some historical background on the band. They were formed in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England in 1979. Guitarist Steve Rothery, bassist Pete Trewavas, keyboard/samples/effects man Mark Kelly and drummer Ian Mosley have been with the band since 1984. With original lead vocalist Fish they released four recordings. Fish departed the band after the Clutching At Straws tour in 1987. In stepped new vocalist Steve Hogarth bringing in a decidedly different vocal sound to the band with the release of Season’s End in 1989. During much of the ensuing nineties the band worked with songwriter John Helmer. For recent releases the band has not worked with an outside songwriter.
The band has gained industry acclaim over the past decade for their innovative use of the Internet to reach out to their fans and finance the recording of releases and even to finance tours (This Strange Engine, 1997).
Like Marbles and Anoraknaphobia before that, Happiness Is The Road comes in a special-edition Internet-order only two-CD deluxe version. Both discs fit together in one slipcase. For this review I downloaded all the new tunes from www.musicglue.com, as I had not received my Internet order of the release at the time of this review.
The first CD focuses on light, atmospheric tunes with Mark Kelly’s skilful keyboard playing dominant throughout. The track Essence starts off with some dark arrangements and then brightens in tone, and by the end of this song Marillion, to paraphrase the early nineties song, had their hooks in me. Wrapped Up In Time features a trip-hop beat and with a contemporary drum loop section has some single potential comparable to that of You’re Gone. Hard-core fans may be taken aback by the many shorter, tighter tracks. On Anorak in the UK, Hogarth joked about Answering Machine being “the shortest Marillion song ever recorded”. Perhaps he was only half-joking. Short and long alike, the tracks on Essence satisfy, with the emphasis on quality, not quantity. For those who need the epics we get the title track Happiness Is The Road, a ten-minute piece featuring a compelling ambient intro and a reggae groove.
The second disc features edgier, riffy material. It’s a mixed bag, with a lot of the rock-based tracks recalling the Marillion.Com release. Many of the songs are not composed with much originality and did not strike my fancy, however I did like the cinematic epics Asylum Satellite #1, The Man From Planet Marzipan and Real Tears For Sale. The lyrics in the latter talk about a woman shaving her head, perhaps a reference to Britney Spears, who they covered on the Friends live CD?
Happiness Is The Road will obviously appeal to fans of Hogarth-era Marillion and perhaps even some Fish-era fans. Hopefully it will grab the ears of some newer fans as well. Overall, the whole affair is acceptable, well produced and certainly better than the abysmal release Somewhere Else. However, I would not say that
Happiness Is The Road is as good as the masterpiece Marbles. Happiness Is The Road shows a band evolving and continuing to learn, and my best piece of advice to give Marillion would be with future releases to lend a more critical ear to what gets included on each release.
Dries Dokter's Review
It's not a big secret that Marillion's Somewhere Else did not impress many people. The surprising direction of Marbles left fans in confusion: some naming it a masterpiece and the best that Marillion ever created, while others were utterly disappointed by what they called the worst Marillion had ever put on CD. Somewhere Else did not bring the two groups together although it was kind of disappointing to both. And to be frank: Happiness Is The Road will also not be the album that gain Marillion back the fans that turned their back from Marbles. It's a bit too much like the previous albums, not completely because it is a bridge from Marbles to the older Marillion albums, but: it is a very good album. Although the album will be available as a double album, the separate CD's will also be available: Volume 1: Essence and Volume 2: The Hard Shoulder .
The first track on Volume 1: Essence is Dreamy Street serves as an intro to the next track and it is little more than that, it's not worth much and is a song that is not really going anywhere. But This Train Is My Life has an atmosphere and melody that remind of Afraid Of Sunlight and of course that is a good thing. It indeed makes this one of the better tracks of the album as the build up is good and the song has a nice climax. The next track, Essence, is also a good track that emerges from silence and builds up towards a heavier ending. In between it becomes a quieter track with Steve Hogarth singing nice and calm (and actually pronouncing the words which he does not do that all the time). Wrapped Up In Time has a very nice start and then seems to decline instead of build up, for me the song just meanders on for a while and ends then. The atmosphere and melody are OK but just a little too uneventful.
Liquidity is a bridge to the next track but the moment the music starts sounding interesting the songs ends - a pity because it sounds very promising. Strange enough it does not really fit as an intro to: Nothing Fills The Hole, the next track which is not a bad song, but not too good either. Hogarth mumbles some words, Rothery and Kelly scatter some tones around and that's why the song does not really appeal, nothing is really happening. Quite the opposite is true for Woke Up, it is a very good song! References to the atmosphere of This Strange Engine. The structure is simple refrain, chorus, refrain but done in Marillion style that's a good thing. Not a masterpiece, but certainly a pleasant song. Unfortunately Trap The Spark let's what seemed to be building up with Woke Up, ebb away. Again it has a nice melody but seems a bit too stretched out a bit too long... Then again it does have that nice melody.
Volume 2: The Hard Shoulder starts of with State Of Mind, a nice track with a catchy melody and finally some of Rothery's guitar's (but no real big solos). Happiness Is The Road at first sounds like one of those tracks that just goes on and on without a clear destination, but not this time, it does start out quiet and lays done an atmosphere, not a melody. But from that a real sign emerges. The song does hold the tension, it's clear that more is to come. At around three and a half minute the song becomes more up tempo and in the end you will find yourself singing along: "Happiness iiiiiiiiiiiiiiis the rooooaad". If you are not a big fan of Hogarth's mumbling type of singing it will probably not be your cup of tea, but it still is a good song.
The lyrics to Half Empty Jam are a nice find, the melody is OK too, but not for more than six minutes. That's the length of this song which is too long with too little happening. Thunder Fly might best be described as yet another Cannibal Surf Babe type of track, but it's just too simple and poppy for a Marillion track. However in the final two minutes of the song, it suddenly happens: finally a real guitar solo! It does not make up for the rest of the song, but, it is a tasty solo. Following this The Man From Planet Marzipan starts of with a catchy keyboard riff that keeps popping up again and again throughout the song. At first this track might appear a bit dull, but it does get better after multiple spins and once the structure is unveiled it is actually one of the better tracks on this album.
Asylum Satellite #1 is the track with the most prominent Rothery sounds and a build up, that keeps your attention and of course makes it a very good song. In fact it is one of the better Marillion tracks here. The opposite must be said of Older Than Me, a song with especially the vocals prominently present, but lacking a beginning, middle or end. Whilst Throw Me Out is swingy, jazzy, catchy, but not something Marillion should put on an album. Half The World is catchy building up slowly, not too complicated - nice but no more than that.
Whatever Is Wrong With You - it's almost what Marillion should be asked, because this song proves they do still have it. A nice build up, guitar riff, keyboards, a refrain, a bit heavier and up-tempo. Grabs your attention from the first note and keeps the tension to the very end. Without a doubt the best track of the album. What took you so long, whatever is wrong with you? Especially True has a nice melody, nice lyrical flow, nice guitars, another great song, which is then followed by Real Tears For Sale, yet another one of those songs that make this album worthwhile. Clear structure, moving from quiet to up-tempo and back to quiet again. A very distinctive Marillion song, without being a copy of an earlier work.
In general this review might sound a bit critical and negative, however this is a pleasant album (or albums) and even after weeks of listening, can still be enjoyed. Then again Marillion have long been the flagship of progressive rock and that comes with certain expectations. However this album should be judged on it's own merits and because of tracks like This Train Is My Life, Essence, Woke Up, Happiness Is The Road, The Man From Planet Marzipan, Asylum Satellite #1, Whatever Is Wrong With You, Especially True and Real Tears For Sale then the verdict should be a positive one. One might keep waiting for another Brave or another Seasons End but living in the past is not a good thing. Marillion understand this perfectly and delivered a good album today...
Based on the list of tracks Volume 2: The Hard Shoulder is the better of the two discs, but it is advised to buy the 2 CD version: both albums are worthwhile.
TOM DE VAL: Essence: 8 out of 10 / The Hard Shoulder: 8 out of 10
EDWIN ROOSJEN: Essence: 6 out of 10 / The Hard Shoulder: 6.5 out of 10
JIM CORCORAN: Essence: 8 out of 10 / The Hard Shoulder: 8 out of 10
DRIES DOKTER: Essence: 7.5 out of 10 / The Hard Shoulder: 8.5 out of 10