It's always a pleasant surprise when you pre-order something, forget about it, and then find it sitting on your door mat. A case in point being "Happiness Is The Road", Marillion's 15th studio album which arrived this week. I'm a terrible person. I only have one other Marillion album, and that is "Script For A Jester's Tear", their very first album from 1983. The problem is that I like a lot of music but there is only so much I can listen to and/or afford to buy, so I have to spread my net wide, not deep. So what possessed me to order HitR?
Part of it comes from the fairly unique model that Marillion use to make their material available. The recording was financed by a pre-ordering scheme whereby fans ordered about a year in advance and in return received a special edition box-set with book-style special artwork containing both volumes. They used the same approach with previous albums "Anoraknophobia" and "Marbles". On 19 September they made HitR available for free on peer-to-peer file sharing networks as 128 kbit/s WMA files. In return, Marillion asked down-loaders to provide their e-mail address so that they could be offered merchandise offers and also the option to download the tracks as 128 kbit/s MP3 files without DRM. For fans the album was also available as a 256 kbit/s high-quality download by purchasing "Front Row Club" credits from the band's website. From October 2008 HitR was available in a physical media format via mail order from the website, and on 2 February a retail version was released on CD throughout the EU. All of which, I think, is quite interesting. Now I know some Marillion fans and they reckon HitR is brilliant, and one who saw the recent tour was also blown away by the album material that they performed. Hence, I decided to dip my toes back into Oceania Marillion, but being an Ancient Mariner I waited for the CD version. Can't be doing with all that file downloading malarkey!
Conceptually, the album takes its cue from "The Power Of Now" by Eckhart Tolle, which basically expounds the philosophy that happiness can only be found in the now, rather than obsessing about the mistakes of the past or what might happen in the future. Hey, this is a prog-rock band, so why not?
So, to the album itself which is actually two album-length CDs respectively entitled "Essence" and "The Hard Shoulder", and having a total playing time of 110 minutes, a bit more if you count the not-very-well-hidden track of 6 minutes. On first listening I caught elements of Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, David Bowie, Runrig, Japan, and yes, a tiny bit of Genesis. Now the strange thing about Volume 1, "Essence", is that that it's not so much a collection of tracks as a soundscape, one track segueing almost seamlessly into the next, and as such it's actually quite dull, but if you listen to each track separately from its neighbours they are self-contained little gems. The album opener is "Dreamy Street", a piano-led piece, just a gentle intro that ends with an ultrasound of the heartbeat of Steve's son, Emil Handryziak Hogarth. After the briefest of pauses we are immersed in "This Train Is My Life" with its "Heathen"-era Bowie guitar work and hard rock edge. Next comes "Essence" itself, the first real prog-rock track with energy and variety between the sections, constantly building, yet ultimately going nowhere. "Wrapped Up In Time" starts with clock-like effects and chimes, there's a wind blowing in the background, then we're into dreamy keyboards before launching into a Runrig type of tune. Track five is "Liquidity", a sort of instrumental interlude, and then we're into "Nothing Fills The Hole" a woozy, soulful tune overlaid with Hogarth's broken-hearted vocals, excellent guitar and drumming. "Woke Up" features strong guitar work and literally causes the listener to sit up and notice. Hogarth's vocals attain a degree of theatre that has been missing so far. Reminds me of Peter Gabriel. There's a sort of Who riff but played on keys instead of guitar. Then an eastern styled outro leads straight into... "Trap The Spark" which starts with strong piano work before petering out into pleasantness. "A State Of Mind" which put me in mind of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" when it starts off, then it heads into "Then There Were Three" territory. Exceptional drumming and a great guitar solo. The penultimate track is the title track, "Happiness Is The Road", a gorgeous 10 minute epic. It starts with gentle keyboards then really kicks in after about three minutes with a jazzy section, then a menacing Floyd finale. Lastly, we get the 'hidden' track, "Half Full Jam", originally entitled "Half Empty Jam" on the download version, it reflects its own lyrics "I used to be half empty, but now I'm half full." A track that build into a Doors like climax.
Volume 2, "The Hard Shoulder" is the Yin to volume 1's Yang. A collections of stronger tracks with much greater variety that don't work as a soundscape. The whole work is akin to "Tubular Bells", with the conceit expounded in one long track which is then followed by a clutch of tracks that wouldn't sit easy within the greater work. Anyway, we kick off with "Thunder Fly" a throw back to the 60s vibe of The Beatle's "Paperback Writer" with some Peter Tork (The Monkees) style synthesizer sounds. Next we have a duo of very strong tracks. "The Man From The Planet Marzipan" starts with a nod to Japan (the band) before settling into a Bowie-esque mid-section, then resolving into rising keyboards a la "Nursery Cryme". "Asylum Satellite #1" is full on prog-rock starting with Porcupine Tree-like guitar work, before ending in an extended "Space Oddity" sequence. At this point I apologise for referencing other bands. I don't mean to disrespect Marillion's music or call it derivative, but I don't have other Marillion reference points apart from SFAJT, which doesn't quite seem to be in the same league anymore. Back to the album and we lay back a bit with the more genteel "Older Than Me" featuring a bit of Glockenspiel. Three minutes of tinkling, so a reflection perhaps of "Liquidity" before diving into the surprisingly poppy "Throw Me Out" with its ticking clock/metronomic beat and "Eleanor Rigby" strings. We're on a roll now, and next up is "Half The World", an Oasis-like series of chord progressions but overlaid with a structure that reminds me, somehow, of "Red Shoes"-era Kate Bush. Superb drumming from Mosley, and great vocals from Hogarth. "Whatever Is Wrong With You" was released as a single in 2008 and is a very strong track, a contemporary pop song, moody, and with a sing-along chorus. The music takes a step back for "Especially True" when the limelight falls on the lyrics and Hogarth's broken-hearted vocals. The last track on this volume is "Real Tears For Sale", a folksy, prog-rocker, and a down-beat ending to a fine album.
This is not an album for the faint-hearted. This is almost two hours of music that demands to be listened to very carefully. This is the M&S of music. I'm a new Marillion fan.
As a parting shot, I have to say that I'm not an advocate of Tolle's philosophy for the transformation of consciousness. It's all a bit vague and repetitive, simply a repackaging of existing spiritual values. Being an old hippy I found myself more moved by Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" on a day to day basis, and Bach's "Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah" for when I'm feeling more spiritual. But hey, the rest of you are only a product of my imagination so I don't care if you agree with me or not.