Happiness is the road

The new Marillion album has been sitting on my desk for the past several days, waiting for me to find the right time to give it a listen. Few bands, very few, in fact probably only this band, needs the perfect moment to strike for a first listen. So it’s not that it’s been waiting for me, but that I’ve been waiting for me. So tonight I gave it the inaugural spin. I lit a candle, plugged in my elf-like Gyongju paper lamp, turned out the lights, poured a Sam Adams, and played Happiness Is The Road (pt. 1). Holy shit, it’s goddamned beautiful.

For those unfamiliar with Marillion, they’ve been around for 30 years. In that time, they’ve put out 15 studio albums. They’ve had two lead different lead singers in that time, but the rest of the band has remained intact since 1984. They have a unique way of surviving, and I don’t use that word lightly. Being a band that struggles to get airplay, press, or any respect in the fashion-oriented entity known as The Music Business, they decided to do it all themselves. They operate completely in house. They have their own recording studio, they manage themselves, run their own website, and they retain all the rights to their music. They have a kind of operations chief in Lucy Jordache, but it’s more like a big family. What fuels this engine is their fans, which are among the most rabid in music. This is a fanbase that pre-orders their albums in order to finance the production costs (in essense, acting as a record label advance). This is a fanbase that once fronted the money so the band could tour in America.

The music has evolved quite a bit, while still retaining the feel of their breakthrough 1985 album, Misplaced Childhood. This was the first album I bought by them. I remember the video on MTV and they kind of reminded me of Genesis (a common observation). But they were way better than Genesis. Over the years they’ve also been compared to Pink Floyd, Radiohead, late-period Talk Talk, and others. But comparisons don’t mean shit. The fact is, they don’t sound like any of those bands.

If I was to choose a word to describe them I would say “cinematic.” Listening to a Marillion album is like starring in your own movie. Put an album on the iPod and go walk around a dark urban neighborhood at 2 am and you’ll swear Ridley Scott’s filming your life. At their best, Marillion doesn’t make songs. They’ve tried on occasion and usually fail. Marillion makes albums that have dramatic changes in mood that kind of shift and pull you in different directions emotionally. This is introspective, bombastic, alcoholic music, dark and wrenching, but also uplifting and spiritual.

Marillion during the “H” era (singer Steve Hogarth) is maddeningly inconsistent. I’ve finally figured out that the pattern is that every other album is a great one. Two albums ago was Marbles, one of their best ever. Last year’s Somewhere Else was a rather pedestrian album of uninspiring but pleasant enough pop songs. So I figured they were due this time around.

I sat down in my cozy couch and hit play. Now granted, this is my first listen. I’ve heard it once and that’s it. But right away I knew it was going to be great. The first song I remember being piano-based and moody with some really nice chord changes and great vocals. Then it blended into the next song and I heard something you don’t normally hear with Marillion — layered vocal harmonies. It was then that I realized how lush this album sounds. It’s gorgeous sounding, at least as good as the engineering on Afraid of Sunlight, and probably better.

All the songs on HITR Pt. 1 run together seamlessly. There were so many changes in dynamics and atmosphere that I don’t know where songs began or ended. The whole thing was sequenced so nicely, and the music is incredible. What’s interesting is that mood seems to be more important than instrumentation here, and that’s a good thing. The band sounds like a band, with little soloing. Guitarist Steve Rothery is usually at his best in his Gilmouresque mode, taking you on a flight through the clouds. But here he’s all texture. All the tiny little keyboard sounds and sound effects gave everything a dreamlike quality. And H’s vocals were crystal clear and cutting through beautifully.

As I type this I know I’m not saying what I want to say because I can’t say it. I don’t know how to describe it. All I know is that the album sounds fantastic. And I’m a tough critic when it comes to these guys. It’s an unbelievable album. I’ve got my soundtrack for the winter season.

Thanks fellas. Now I’m curious to hear what Pt. 2 sounds like.

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