Every so often a new album comes down the pike that reminds me of why and how I got obsessed with this music stuff in the first place. Marbles is definitely one of those. From the opening of "The Invisible Man" to the last chimes of "Neverland" Marbles is an atmospheric, evocative, lush, soaring highlight reel of a record. Lots of bands and albums promise the apocryphal "musical journey" but only a few actually deliver the way Marillion have here. This might well turn out to be the best album these guys ever made.
The words "sounds like" and "Genesis" will never appear side by side in a review of a new Marillion product again. Those comparisons are long and thankfully dead. Instead, try and picture what might happen if you took Unforgettable Fire/Joshua Tree era U2 and put them on a steady diet of Pink Floyd, Talk Talk, Radiohead, Spritualized and Sigur Ros. That would put you in the ballpark.
It's also worth mentioning that Marbles is one of the most thoughtfully and creatively packaged musical products I have ever purchased. The two discs come in a hard cardboard sleeve about the size of an old 45 that houses a hardcover book of images, lyrics and the names of lots and lots of people who thought enough of this band to buy their new album before the band had finished recording it. That faith has been rewarded in spades. This isn't just album of the year stuff. It might be album of the decade stuff.
(All Album Reviews by Epilepticgibbon)
Marillion have a very loyal fan base and I should know because for more than ten years I have considered myself to be a definite part of it. I was one of the 12,000 fans who pre-ordered Araknophobia, almost a year before it actually came out, raising the funds which enabled it to be recorded in the first place.
With Marbles the band once again used the pre-order system to finance the album but this time some of the money went into a massive promotion campaign. Once again, I was one of many fans (13,500 this time, I believe) who bought a rather expensive special edition version of the new album seven months in advance and for my money I got the two disc version of the album enclosed within a 128 page hard-cover book in a carton sleeve. The book contains all the song lyrics, a load of flashy Hipgnosis-style artwork, and the names of all the loyal fans who pre-ordered the album before January 1st, 2004, with my name amongst them.
As I said, I have the two-disc version of the album and there is a one disc version of the album that you’ll find in the shops, though I’ll say more about that later. One thing that Marillion said in their attempt to get fans like me to pre-order Marbles was that it was some kind of work of genius, not only a classic Marillion album but an outright classic rock album, and many fans have thrown superlatives at the album, suggesting that it may be the band’s best album thus far.
Well, for a start, let’s cut through all that hype and lazy (if not downright crazy) talk by saying, in as an objective fashion as I can muster, that this doesn’t even come close to being the best album of Marillion’s career so far. If nothing else, it’s far too early to comment on that anyway as an album cannot be said to be the best of a band’s career until it’s been given ample time to settle, but even with that in mind I would say that there are far too many below-par tracks on Marbles to lead me to describe it as a classic album.
One criticism I have with the album can be pretty much summed up by something Steve Wilson (of Porcupine Tree and occasional producer for Marillion) once said about writing short songs being more difficult than writing long ones. He was basically saying (and obviously I’m paraphrasing) that good progressive rock epics are relatively easy to write because you can just mix together a series of interesting tunes, add a few blistering solos, and then throw in a few unexpected time signature changes, and it seems to work, but writing a really great short song (like “Eleanor Rigby”, “Losing My Religion” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) is extremely difficult, perhaps because there’s no obvious formula to it. And I think it applies here to Marillion because they’ve tried to write some prog rock epics and, for the most part, they all work, but they’ve also tried to write some shorter, more commercial, pop/rock songs, basically singles material, and for the most part they don’t work. That is a generalisation but I think it’s a broadly accurate one. I ought to say that I think Marillion are capable of writing great short songs and have often done so in the past, but there’s very little evidence of that here.
So, how does this two disc version of the album work? Well, first off, scattered across both discs are four short songs (all between one and two minutes long) called “Marbles I to IV”, that develop around a common theme and give the album its title. In each of the four Marbles tracks singer Steve Hogarth reminisces about the things he used to do with his marbles when he was a kid. This theme of having, playing with, loving and eventually losing one’s marbles is supposed to be symbolic of something… or at least I think it is. It’s not a particularly mindnumbing concept, the tracks are musically inoffensive but not particularly exciting, and on the double album they are too far apart to create any sense of a real theme (this may not be true on the single CD version, of course).
The rest of the tracks are fitted around the Marbles quartet, and I’ll start off by talking about the tracks that (IMHO) don’t work too well. “Genie” is the first of these, a dull, directionless mainstream number that may in fact be one of the worst songs Marillion have ever recorded.
Three tracks that are better than “Genie” are the three singles off the album “You’re Gone” (reached no. 7 in the UK singles charts), “Don’t Hurt Yourself” (reached no. 14) and “The Damage” (not sure where it reached). However, as most songs are better than “Genie” it’s not saying very much. In the order they appear on the album, “The Damage” is the only out-and-out rocker on the album but unfortunately it sounds like a rather messy and confused mix of The Beatles and 1990s indie Brit rock; “Don’t Hurt Youself” seems to be trying to appeal to Crowded House fans, an attempt at creating a sing-a-long anthem, but unfortunately it relies on touchy-feely lyrical cliches – some days I like this track but other days I hate it for its outright conventionality, its repetitiveness and its lyrical truisms; “You’re Gone” has grown on me over time, though I still feel that the use of the drumloop on this track is a rather obvious attempt to sound modern and cutting-edge (it doesn’t work because it’s the same kind of drumloop used by George Michael at the start of the ‘90s!), plus the track (particularly this full-length album version) is far too repetitious and drawn out for its own good.
Okay, that’s the bad stuff out the way, so what about the good stuff? Well, “Ocean Cloud” at nearly 18 minutes is the longest epic on the album and is also one of the longest tracks Marillion have ever recorded. Many Marillion fans are wetting themselves over this one and it is a very good piece of prog rock with many highlights, but it is rather too long and seems to run out of ideas several minutes before the end.
Much better are the two epics that bookend the album, “The Invisible Man” and “Neverland”. The former track shows touches of Radiohead within its first few minutes but later draws quite heavily on Pink Floyd and Marillion’s own Brave album, while “Neverland” is more straightforward in that it’s got few of the frequent changes in melody and tempo that feature in “Ocean Cloud” and “The Invisible Man” but it’s still definitely an epic in terms of its length and tone.
Other tracks that I really dig include “Fantastic Place”, which is probably my favourite on the album, a bitter-sweet but generally uplifting piece of classic Hogarth-era Marillion, “The Only Unforgiveable Thing”, which is cut from the same cloth as “Fantastic Place” but is much darker, starting and ending with a church organ and dealing with some uncomfortable lyrical themes in-between, and “Drilling Holes”, a sort of psychedelic, experimental Sergeant Pepper-esque number.
And there you have it: not the classic that Marillion promised, Marbles is, for the most part, far below the (admittedly high) standards set by the previous two Marillion albums, Marillion.com and Anoraknophobia. In Marillion’s favour, they have tried to experiment with numerous new musical styles here, it’s just unfortunate that many of those experiments have produced distinctly disappointing results. Marbles is great in places, but this two CD version of the album has too many below-par moments to make me want to return to it that often.
Best tracks: “The Invisible Man”, “Fantastic Place”, “The Only Unforgiveable Thing”, “Drilling Holes”, “Neverland”.