Rarely have we had so many request for a (roundtable) review of a specific record than for this new CD by Marillion. It took a while, but we're glad we're able to present this review within one month after the release of the album. When a band or label does not send you any promo copy, things like this tend to take a bit longer.
Anoraknophobia was reviewed by 4 DPRP team members, the results of which can be found below; 3 track-by-track reviews plus conclusion, plus one overall review. An extensive discussion about Marillion's current attitude towards progressive rock and their fans serves as a critical intoduction.
Bonus CD: Number One (2.48), Fruit of the Wild Rose (Demo) (6.20), Separated Out (Demo) (6.03), Between You and Me (Mark Kelly Remix) (5.08), enhanced video: Number One (2.40), Map Of The World (5.45)
Intro Rant by BJ
Never before has there been a band that seemed more ashamed of its past than Marillion. A past where Marillion became one of the leading bands in the progressive rock genre. A past where they were a true class act and acquired a huge and very loyal fanbase. A past where after the departure of charismatic frontman Fish they managed to find a more than capable replacement in Steve Hogarth. A past where they created, amongst others, an album called Brave, which is considered one of the modern masterpieces of progressive rock.
Personally, I can't really see what they're so ashamed of.
But in recent years Marillion seemed to have the urge to sound like bands that are far more popular (or hip) than they are, in the hope to become more popular as well. Because that seems to be their biggest concern; after Fish's departure their popularity has been steadily declining and the music press, especially in the UK, all but ignored their very existence. And judging from many lyrics by the hand of Steve Hogarth, that bothers them, or him, to say the least. So we had outings where they pretended to be Crowded House (1997's This Strange Engine), Radiohead (Radiation, 1998) and now they claim they have found the secret to the sound of Massive Attack. Some five years after it has been declared that Massive Attack's dub grooves aren't quite hip anymore either, but let's not get into that.
All to keen to shake off their un-trendy and not very commercial "progressive rock" label frontman Steve Hogarth started throwing with terms like rap, trip-hop, groove, funk and dub in a recent interview with the BBC. Music styles, which, to quote Hogarth: "will come as a shock to anyone who's expecting self-indulgent 20 minute epics about goblins".
Er? Did they ever do that? Can't really remember ever hearing that type of song from them, yet on their last three albums they did produce two songs which clocked in at over 15 minutes, and two more with a running time of 10. Now, talking of cliches, what kind of label did they expect that would get them? Not to mention the fact that on this new album no less than half the songs clock in at over 9 minutes and This is the 21st Century finishes with a 4-minute guitarsolo. So what was that about self-indulgence again?
In a different interview keyboardist Mark Kelly claimed that the loyalty of their fans has been exploited mainly by the record labels and not by them. True this may seem, with EMI releasing all those remasters and single-boxes. However, apart from the 3 studio albums and one live album that the band has released between their departure with EMI and this new album, no less than 12 albums have been released and re-released on their own Racket label (not counting freebies), and there are 3 more in the making, scheduled for release later this year.
Yet the biggest scheme of all came last year, and not from some record company, but from the very band itself. In order to finance the recording of the new album, the band asked their fans if they would be willing to buy the new album before it was even made. No less than 6000 answered in favour of the idea of paying beforehand, directly to the band, which enabled the band to profit from the sales without the loss of commissions to retailers and a record company. An outstanding idea this was, were it not for the fact that they decided to charge a price equal to the highest prices in British record stores. And with the unfavourable exchange rate of the British pound and the hefty postage fee that had to be added as well, this price worked out to be about 50% higher than what one would pay for any CD, anywhere in countries like Holland, Germany, France or the United States, not to mention Eastern European countries, where the band also has a vast fanbase.
And that's where their arrogance got at its height. "No, the album isn't expensive at all" "you obviously have no idea what it costs to produce a CD" "the pre-order version will contain a free bonus CD" "everybody who orders the album within a month will see his/her name printed in the booklet" - These were all excuses the band eagerly produced in various fanzines and discussion forums, but up until today they have not been able to respond as to why they had to price their album according to the highest prices in record stores, when they weren't using these record stores in the first place!
Personally, I don't know why I forked out the money to buy this pre-order. Maybe I still had some faith left in the band, even after three rather disappointing albums (although .com already showed some steps back in the right direction). I'd been a fan for nearly ten years, owning each and every item they have ever released, so I guess I just couldn't live with having to miss out on this special edition.
But it was good that I ordered it before EMI send an e-mail to the press, attempting to dare reviewers to write something different about the band. It stated, I quote: This is an important and contemporary album that is light years removed from anything the band have created in their past. It deserves to be reviewed in a manner that is both accurate and fair. So, our challenge to you is to firstly listen to the album. Then write a review without using any of the following words: "Progressive rock", "Genesis", "Fish", "heavy metal", "dinosaurs", "predictable", "concept album" Because if you do, we'll know that you haven't listened to it. Your call...
Now what kind of crap is that? After the departure of Fish Marillion briefly tried to go in to the commercial sounding direction like for instance their original influence, Genesis, did, but fortunately returned to their Progressive Rock roots with the brilliant Concept Album Brave. And if anything, at least their music has never been Predictable.
Marillion are all but dinosaurs, as they're not that old, nor extinct, nor have they ever been that big, really...
This e-mail didn't only offend me as a fan, it also offended me as a reviewer. Seeing that I write for the Dutch Progressive Rock Page, EMI here tells me that, as a fan of the band for a good 10 years, I'm not even allowed to write a review for this site, as the band doesn't want to have any association or whatsoever with that term. Well, not that I expected a review copy anyway - Marillion has denied the existence of this website just as eagerly as the average music press ignores Marillion - but still...
But that seems to be their new campaign though. Fight against the ones that like you and support you, and try to get in favour with the ones who don't and probably never will. And above all, claim time after time that you don't make prog. Tens of thousands of fans saying otherwise are clearly wrong...
Oh, and I dare EMI back though, by asking them to add this review to their treasured Anorak shrine as well. Your call...
So after all this shit that we had to endure from the Marillion camp over the past year, is it still possible to write a positive review? Strangely enough, it is!
After all, it is the music that counts, it's the music that (largely) makes the band, and in the case of Marillion it is definitely the music that turns (turned) people into fans.
And the music, for once, is pretty good indeed. Knowing that it would be a commercial suicide if they'd produce another Radiation, or Strange Engine, they teamed up again with producer Dave Meegan, with whom they had worked on fan-favourite albums Brave and Afraid of Sunlight.
Between You and Me
BJ: Album opener Between You And Me is a nice, poppy tune, which sounds like standard Hogarth-Marillion. All post '87 albums contained at least one of this type of tunes and in that perspective it's not a bad one. Just a light-hearted song with not much meaning. A nice album-opener in any case.
Ed: The album contains two rather straightforward rock songs, of which this is the first one. Not unlike on marillion.com the band temporarily puts you off track by starting with a quiet piano bit which suddenly switches to a full blown electric band. The track is both 'heavy' and accessible, thereby resembling tracks like Cover My Eyes and some of the rockers from marillion.com. And what's this ? Has U2's The Edge joined Marillion ? The guitar play definitely is an attempt to sound U2-like. As a matter of fact, this might even be a small hit, especially if the slightly more commercial remix by Mark Kelly from the bonus CD (with more emphasis on keyboards and sequencers) would be put out on single. A fading drum loop ends this nice tune.
BJ: Quartz is a more interesting track than the album opener. This is the new Marillion-sound they were talking about. Basically, the new Marillion sound is like the old Marillion sound but with some drum loops, but never mind that. An interesting track with nice lyrics and a delightful bass-sound.
The first half sounds quite like the track Mirages, which was written and recorded for the Afraid of Sunlight album, yet never used (it can be found on the remaster of that album). After a while Steve Hogarth starts to, what he calls, rap. It sounds a bit odd at first, but once you get used to it it's quite fun. After this bit of rap the track sounds eerily like an updated version of the middle-piece of Splintering Heart and the song drags on for a little too long (clocking in at just over 9 minutes) but is nevertheless very enjoyable and, indeed, very Marillion.
Map of the World
BJ: The track with the most single potential is Map of the World, which Hogarth co-wrote with Cutting Crew singer/writer Nick van den Eede. It's another poppy tune but with a better vocal melody and more of a song-feel than Between You And Me has. This is the type of track that could have been on Holidays in Eden. I don't know whether that's positive or negative actually...Ed: The standard pop song on the album, comparable to tracks like 80 Days, still it's quite enjoyable, with nice guitar playing and a good melody. The sudden high-pitched outbursts in the chorus remind me of that band that did Letter from America and 1000 miles (The Proclaimers - thanks BJ).
When I meet God
BJ: When I Meet God starts with some synthesiser chords that make me wonder if I didn't put in some album by Jean-Michel Jarre in my player. Hogarth starts singing one of the most beautiful vocal melodies he's written in a long while and the whole thing just takes off - for the next nine minutes we're taking on a journey of serene beauty. Lyrically this is also a very strong song, this is vintage Marillion, undoubtedly the best song on the album.Ed: Every time I start this song I have the feeling like I'm listening to that cheesy Britanny Spears ballad that recently hit the charts. I don't know why, but fortunately the feeling fades fast and the song turns into what might well be my favourite on the album. I absolutely love the feeling of emotion and despair in Hogarth's voice in this song. It's so beautifully sad. Lyrically the song contains some interesting thoughts; the existance of multiple Gods, God being female or just some stars and gas, as well as the question why they/she accept so much misery in the world. The end of the song features snippets of news announcements of the crash of the Concorde and the fire at New Years day in Volendam, to illustrate the subject.
Musically the track is very interesting as well. It could have come straight from Afraid of Sunlight. The last section of the song repeats part of the lyrics in another melody and rhythm, also featuring something that sounds a lot like that keyboard twiddle in the beginning of Band on the Run by The Wings. The end sounds like one of the most Floydian things the band has ever done.
All in all a stunning track.
The Fruit of the Wild Rose
BJ: Fruit Of The Wild Rose is another odd piece. Again a lovely bass-sound and on the whole a very atmospheric piece. I quite like it, but I think this is one of those love/hate pieces. It's got some nice organ bits too and after a couple of minutes the whole thing changes when Steve Rothery starts a great, bluesy, acoustic guitar riff. It's a great track. One of the few songs where they are *truly*, erm, progressive.Ed: This song starts as a nice jazz-bluesy song, with laid-back guitar accompanied by Hammond organ. A much better attempt at trying to sound bluesy than that song on Radiation. The chorusses are once again full of emotion in Hogarth's voice. The trancy middle bit reminds me a lot of The Opium Den from Brave. After that section, a nice rhythmic riff is started on something that sounds like a cross between an acoustic and a steel guitar. After some minutes of delightful jamming the song fades out.
BJ: Musically Separated Out is the weakest tune on the album. It harks back to the Radiation days, but with chords that sound rather like Paper Lies, off the Brave album. Lyrically however it is one of the more interesting outings. Featuring fragments of Tod Browning's movie Freaks the lyrics somewhat follow the movie's outline (which is also nicely depicted in traditional circus tunes).
However, as Marillion's followers also call themselves Freaks the lyrics can get a completely different meaning. The Anoraknophobia concept can be found here too. It's not a crime to be different, to think different, to listen to different music. As is also elaborated in the liner notes, "the point of Anoraknophobia was no fear of it, anorak no phobia".
And ultimately questions like "Am I enough of a freak, to be worth paying to see?" are pure food for thought for the analysts on the Freaks mailinglist. Is Hogarth a worthy replacement of that tall guy they don't want to be associated with? Far fetched, I know, but the lyrics let themselves read that way...
This Is The 21st Century
BJ: The showpiece of the album is This is the 21st Century. For most of the track it just comprises of mellow soundscapes and a dub groove. This must be the Massive Attack sound they were trying accomplish. Yet with Hogarth's vocals (even though slightly distorted) this is also still unmistakingly Marillion. But in any case, they have finally managed to create a piece that is really contemporary. And, oddly enough, it's a good song too!
The only thing is that this track drags on for a bit too long as well. Not that the music (either the sung part or the long guitar solo at the end) isn't good, but it just continues on and on without really going anywhere. And this is the third track on the album that lasts for more than 9 minutes without too much excitement going on.
Ed: This is the 21st Century was already revealed to the general public several
weeks before the release of the CD since it could be downloaded in MP3 format. I really liked
the song and it was quite a revolutionary sound for the band. Not that the song wasn't clearly
recognisable as being a Marillion composition, but because of the approach of the music;
an almost trance-like dreamy atmosphere combined with a nice drum loop, a groovy bass line
and almost psychadelic Floydian 'watery' guitar play reminding me of Estonia. I really liked the track.
When playing the album I was quite surprised to find that the actual full version of the song was several minutes longer. This track suddenly proves that quality and quantity are not the same thing, since the additional minutes don't have any substantial added value. The track already lacked rhythm and melody changes, but it wasn't a real problem in the 7 minute version. After seven minutes however, it does get a bit boring. I would have preferred it if the band dropped the last 3 minutes and had used those to include the fine ballad Number One on the CD instead of moving it to the bonus CD. Nevertheless, the song remains a highly enjoyable and daring piece of work.
If My Heart Were A Ball It Would Roll Uphill
BJ: This is the 21st Century was the third track on the album that lasts for more than 9 minutes without too much excitement going on. Probably because of that, the last song, If My Heart Were A Ball It Would Roll Uphill is a bit too much to digest.
It's another one of those love/hate songs and this time I opt for the second choice. It sounds quite like a longer (though more daring) version of Under the Sun off the Radiation album. I just don't like Hogarth's singing on the song and the many tempo/atmosphere changes make it a bit too fragmented. Oh, and what is that hint of Chelsea Monday all about? I couldn't really figure out what the relation between the two songs is.
The first part of the song is driven by a nice rough guitar riff. The middle part is a quiet floating part (not unlike segments in This Strange Engine and Interior Lulu) which strange enough features the same whisper as in the oldie Chelsea Monday ('she was only dreaming'). What's this ? Fish referring to Fugazi in the last track of his CD and Marillion to Chelsea Monday in the last track of theirs ?
The third part features a trick that the band has pulled a couple of times already on tracks like Hard as Love, King, This Strange Engine and Interior Lulu; the monotonous singing that increases in strength and works towards a climax. This time Steve Hogarth uses seemingly unrelated one syllable words (hard ball dream love now roll fall clown stain truth space time, etc).
The most apparent thing about Anoraknophobia is that it's an excellent piece of teamwork. While there are few truly gripping instrumental solos, the interaction of instruments and vocals provides such completeness, that it's really not necessary to shed tears on this fact. This is very apparent in that Pete Trewavas and Ian Mosley are at quite a few times more highly present than Steve Rothery and Mark Kelly, with groovy bass lines or (remarkably) convincing drum loops. This, of course, is not meant to belittle Rothery's and Kelly's contributions. It's just that they're less dominating overall than on some of the earlier albums with Hogarth. From the ambient rhythms of This is the 21st Century to the uptempo Between You and Me, all pieces fall together in clear, close structures. A victory for recording, mixing and production skills. Nice to have Dave Meegan back.
Steve Hogarth is quoted above making some degrading remarks about long, epic tracks. I wouldn't have minded a 15 minute opus again myself, but I frankly don't feel the material on this album would lend itself well to that goal. While I frankly enjoy every song on Anoraknophobia, they all lack the melodic variety, intensity and brilliance to work as longer tracks. That would require a thorough rewriting process and the addition of new melodies, solos, time changes, etc. As they stand, most of the songs above the nine minute mark work very well, but would probably get a bit boring if stretched another five to ten minutes.
Now for a final look at the songs individually. Not to be too repetitive, I've struck a lot of remarks from my original review that resemble the observations made above by my colleagues, and will focus on some aspects I found most interesting myself. I mentioned Indie before. That's because the larger part of Between You and Me reminds me of commercially successful early nineties Indie Rock from the likes of James and Jesus Jones. There's been a lot of debate on Marillion's musical direction the last few years and they've often surprised, though it was to be expected not everyone would or could be pleased at the same time. Yet in the debate I kind of missed the musical direction I've found at times apparent, which gets shoved in your face in the first track of Anoraknophobia; that's Indie Rock. Of course, Indie Rock is a category as diverse as progressive rock, but if taken as a feeling more than as a pure collection of elements, some Indie does seem to have found its way into the Marillion sound in songs on the last two albums.
Perhaps the least complex track on the album, Map of the World evokes feelings connected with both the times of Holidays in Eden or This Strange Engine. A nice piece of pop, but that also makes it the least interesting of the new tracks. Catchy melody and accessible (but a bit boring) lyrics. There's nothing to safe it from mediocrity. This stands out as Steve H.'s only lyrical piece that doesn't deliver the goods. Quite the opposite from the lyrically gripping Quartz, for instance.
It seems to me quite a few very distinct comparisons to earlier material are being made concerning Anoraknophobia. I'll add my two cents. When I Meet God starts in the vein of Born to Run, but also refers to Out of this World. A seemingly very simple track that gains strength with each listen. Hogarth at his best, both vocally and with gripping lyrics. Towards the halfway mark it builds up in intensity, then slides into a different melodic segment as in The Opium Den, then slowly works its way back to the core melody. With The Fruit of the Wild Rose it's time for some nice grooves. Excellent use of bass to set the atmosphere, but Rothery and Kelly covering it with lovely instrumentation. A bit jazzy. Again there's room for a comparison with Brave, Hogarth edging toward The Slide in this instance. This is reflected in the entire instrumental section that follows and closes the track.
Some more words on the movie connection in Separated Out. With it's excepts from Tod Browning's classic 1932 shocker Freaks, speculation is already mounting over the connections with fans and fanclubs. While this seems obvious, focus through the excerpts does seem to be one the female lead in the film, who at the very end gets turned into famous (or infamous) chicken woman. There may be lyrical layers to this piece not discussed as of yet. It's further interesting to note that public outrage forced the movie to be withdrawn from distribution. That's seems a link that's closer to the current discussion on the relationship in the triangle Marillion-fans-music business.
I could say a lot more about Anoraknophobia, but nothing that's not already been said above (probably with far more eloquence) by my compatriots. So in closing I'd like to state that this must Marillion's most consistent album since Brave, but it's also the only with the least highlights and, from another perspective, the least low points. Overall the quality of songwriting and performance is very good, but there's no This Strange Engine or Interior Lulu. In that the album is more like Radiation. I wonder if this will strenghten the album's appeal. The mentioned older tracks made some of the other material on their respective albums look a bit pale by comparison, but those other tracks have grown on me since. It remains to be seen if the material on Anoraknophobia has as much staying power, or whether they are like attractive paintings you tire of after a looking at them a while.
If you are one of the people who thinks that Marillion has not produced any thing worthwhile since Brave, then you might be one of the "anoraks" of which the band seem afraid. Personally, I think that the neo-prog bashing in the booklet is slightly over-done, but I can understand their counter-reaction to everything people have been saying and writing over the last decade. Anoraknophobia is, after all, Marillion's twelfth album, and the eighth one without Fish. The cover depicts nine anorak clad figures with coat hangers. The figures remind me of the Eskimos in the old Nintendo game Ice Climber. In the booklet, there are funny descriptions of the band members, including their anorak clad versions. The only thing which is slightly embarrassing are the misspellings of names like Agent Scully of the X-Files and director Wim Wenders.
With this album, Marillion have proven that they are as strong as ever. Sure, it is not neo-prog, but then it was never intended to be. There is nothing wrong with neo-prog (I am a big fan of that genre myself), but if you are exclusively a neo-proghead, then you are an "anorak" and this album was not written for you. For everybody open to interesting music, regardless of genre (or subgenre), then this is definitely worth to check out. It is both more mainstream and more progressive than Marillion has been before. And as stated (a couple of times by now), hat off for Dave Meegan and Stewart Every for the excellent production. This is one great album. Now I am just beginning to long for the next Radiohead album as well.
The only thing that the album is really lacking is melody. Especially the vocal melodies aren't really innovative, and on the whole, most tracks continue on just a few musical ideas. Solos are rare, if not non-existent and in that context it's really Steve Hogarth's album. More than ever has Mark Kelly been sent to the background, prominent with atmospheric soundscapes, yet hardly noticeable. Steve Rothery actually joins him for most of the album and there are only very few occasions where his guitarplaying stands out. Last to note is drummer Ian Mosley; he never came off too well on the Dave Meegan produced albums, and Anorak proves no exception. The rhythms are solid as ever (though often sampled by a drum computer) and Mosley refrains from any musical fireworks.
Then the artwork. The Special Edition pre-order package comes in a beautiful book-style digipack with a 40-page booklet, which, apart from the 8000-odd names of the first people to pre-order the CD (including Sherlock Holmes, Bilbo Baggins, Obi-wan Kenobi and others), is actually quite a good read. It features the lyrics to the tracks as well as liner notes by all band members about the recording of the album and the decision-making involved with the unusual way of funding the album. They admit honestly that they were taking a big gamble and the pressure they were under to create an album worthy of that incredible fan-devotion. A stunning number of 12.674 people have pre-ordered this package and the band realises that they must pride themselves very, very lucky with this.
The Special Edition also features a bonus disc with demo versions of a couple of tracks, a remix of Between You And Me and a track which isn't featured on the album, Number One. This song was also played at the acoustic Bass-museum shows last year and featured on the free Christmas 2000 CD. The finished studio version doesn't differ much from the live version, but is nevertheless a nice addition.
Finally there are two video tracks on the bonus disc as well. A rather boring recording clip of Number One and a more documentary-style video synchronised to an early version of Map of the World.
I'm still not sure whether this special edition fully justifies the hefty price, but it certainly isn't a rip-off either. At least the band kept their word that it would be a special collector's item, and a good album with that, too!
So to get back to that statement again, "we don't make prog!". What on earth would you call what you just produced then? In my books this is prog, and prog at its (almost) best. Progressive Rock contains the words "progressive" and "rock" and I still can't see any other way to read them. The band has made a huge progression in their musical style (and a regression to making good music) and it still falls under the category rock!
After all, there is no way a Massive Attack fan, who doesn't know Marillion, is ever going to buy this album, so who are they trying to fool anyway?
In conclusion I'd like to say that musically they are definitely back on the right track. Now if only they could do something about that attitude...
Marillion claims that their new album is extremely different from their other stuff. Is it ?
Yes and no. Yes, the approach of the arrangements in certain songs is more contemporary and
'modern', including drum loops, grooves, bits of rap, U2 style guitars, etc. No, because
beneath this 'sauce' it's still Marillion.
Is this not a progressive rock record ? Yes and no. No, it isn't in the sense that the (UK) critics describe progressive rock; copying pretentious seventies bands. Yes, because the record is progressive in the true sense of the word; mixing different styles of music and blending it to a new form. Yes, since it still features some trademarks of progressive rock; the tempo changes, the variety of melodies within one composition, the typical guitar and keyboard usage. This record is progressive in the same way as Porcupine Tree is progressive. I must therefor disappoint the band; if it looks like Marillion, if it feels like Marillion and if it sounds like U2-meets-Massive Attack-meets-Marillion it must still be Marillion.
Still, coming back to the 'attitude problem' which BJ already discussed. I really don't get it. At one hand Marillion seems to be - quote - a band who have gone way past caring what the cynics believe. They seem to take a certain pride in being 'separated out' and appear with intentionally silly outfits in the new promotional pictures. Recent T-shirts sold through merchanidise proudly claim 'Marillion - Uncool as F**k' and 'Marillion - Fashion Unconcious'. All this pride in being different ..... How does it match with the almost pathetic attempts at being liked by those who ridicule you ?
Oh ... did I mention that I quite like the record ? Especially Quartz and When I Meet God.