I'm not sure this can be put correctly, as Marillion has engendered one of the more enigmatic problems in modern progrock. If I say they've become increasingly 'romantic', it sacrifices the many Romanisms present, and if I say they're 'Romantic', then I slight and downplay their earlier Fish incarnation and it's more aggressive manifestation. Perhaps it's best to just fall back into the Byronic and let the matter lie in the combo's oft surprising classicalist and even chamber mannerisms.
The "problem" has been Steve Hogarth, Marillion's second vocalist, the one who brought a new and more refined elegance brilliantly adapted by the rest of the band. The guy's been a provocative creative, welding mainstream melodicism to a normally rebellious mode in a genre that has historically spit on convention a bit too much for its own good—hence nervous stances in the field re: Alan Parsons, Saga, and others. But the singer's a drop-dead serious artist despite the trivializingly gunshy regard of what prog likes to call its critics. Hogarth has set a lot of hair on fire in the magazinic and e-colloquy files, and I, for one, couldn't be happier.
This 2-CD release illustrates the irresolvability of the conundrum all the more vividly. The truth is that Marillion has actually become more an assemblage of innovators than it had previously been. As glorious as the first five LPs were, they were irrefutably derivative of the high holy days of Genesis. Early Marillion doesn't merit the neoprogressive tag acquired, a pejorative and not the categorical distinction knotheads (e.g., Jerry Lucky, Gnosis, Gibralter) claim it to be, and the Mark II version is likewise undeserving, transcending the grotesquely mistaken term in many many ways.
Hogarth started out as prog's Steve Perry (a great singer despite so much radio shlaga from Journey) but has gradually come to acquire the somber introspection and existential position of Talk Talk's Mark Hollis and Japan's David Sylvian sans that pair's enervated and dispirited overload. These two new discs marry all three—Perry, Hollis, and Sylvian—into Hogarth's dominant timbre. Vol. 1: Essence starts out hazily, foggy, moody, repressed in cuts appropriately titled Dreamy Street, Essence, and so on. That setting prefigures a plot leading to Woke Up and core revelations stepping into more sparkling atmospheres and outbursts of an energetic resurrection vastly more confident…even while hemmed in by the griefs of the real world, a theme retaining its vision while morphing.
There's a philosophical underpinning here. Hogarth not long ago checked into the doctor's office with road exhaustion. Rather than prescribe the usual pharmacopia, the doc handed him a copy of The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle's best selling tome, which sigh! puts me in the unenviable position of having to aver that, having listened to the guy live, Tolle's a lightweight. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones? Cool. Chogyam Trungpa? Excellent! Even, God help me, Neale Donald Walsh…but Tolle? Oy! Ah well, different strokes for different folks and the wearied Marillion figurehead got much from it.
The Power of Now opened up the singer to new paths, and this highly introspective set is the result, autobiographical and pandetermined simultaneously. Against its mate, though, it forms what may be the culmination of the Brave sound: angsty, mellifluous, pensive, and gorgeously embroidered in subdued pastels offset by keening lines of upwelling emotions. Volume 2: The Hard Shoulder is another beast altogether, jumping right into a driving Thunder Fly offset with atmospheric oases. The CD collects songs as a normal release might, most of Marillion's efforts otherwise being conceptual threads, and readily shows more recognizable 70s antecedents greatly tailored to speak newly. The opening track The Man from Planet Marzipan is punchy as hell, an infectious rhythm trapping the listener deliriously into offset beats and floating keyboards, a sharp break from Essence.
The entire set's meatier and a good deal more propulsive, the yang to Essence's yin, lush as all get-out and vaulting, muscular. The perpetually dreamy colorations are still there but this time as backscatter to the assured and oft audacious foreground. Those who might've been disaffected with the proliferent mellifluities of the last 10 years will find much to cling to. The synth-orchestral swells alone in "Asylum Satellite #1" will quicken the heart of every progfan alive, recalling Spring, Pink Floyd, and the hallowed mellotronic elders, while Steve Rothery is, if anything, even more experimental in his tones and effects than has previously been the case during a long evolutionary refinement of approach. I will in fact venture to say that Shoulder is the release that finally reconciles and indexes the old Marillion with the new, which should bring exclamations of surprise from even the most grizzled reactionaries.
Listen carefully for Sgt. Pepper's styled passages along with strains of Marvin Gaye, Pet Sounds era Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren, and number of prime era influences very subtly incorporated. In the final analysis, the disc shows Marillion poised for yet another phase in its increasingly popular history. They've gained a fanatical base of fans who've happily funded releases by purchasing in droves as much as a year in advance, a partnership that finally re-launched the group back into the charts as radio realm contenders not to be taken lightly. For those, then, who predicted the ensemble's demise upon the debut of Season's End (1989), I can only say, as Twain did, that the rumors were greatly exaggerated, especially in view of this Phoenix-like epiphany. And we all know which laugh is the best…though I predict there will only be smiles the entire two hours for everyone here.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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