Monday, July 25, 2022

Vaguely Disconcerting: Marillion, "Real to Reel"

I was slow to come to Marillion, and I’m still not sure they’re entirely my bag. But there’s definitely something going on with them—something artistically creative and attractively bizarre. My first introduction to Marillion occurred while I was living in Boston during the late 1990s; a Newbury Comics staffer had slotted Marillion’s album Fugazi in the Fugazi section, perhaps as a joke, and I was momentarily confused. I did not buy the record, but it was evident from the cover design and label alone that it wasn’t the Fugazi I knew and loved. (The band Fugazi didn’t even form until 1986.)

A few years ago, I messaged my friend Chris, who’s the most progressive rock-oriented among my friends—in 2014, he recommended a couple Hawkwind records to me—“Your assignment today, should you choose to accept it, is to listen to Marillion's ‘Grendel.’” He replied, “Shall! Last time I tried Marillion, it didn't stick, but people change and grow!” That took me aback. If my friend most sympathetic toward prog rock doesn’t dig Marillion, what the heck is going on?

Turns out that I might not dig them entirely, either, but I wouldn’t—I can’t—dismiss them entirely. They are a mystery to me. This live album, originally released in 1984, was later reissued on compact disc as a double CD along with 1986’s Brief Encounter. This review focuses only on the Real to Reel CD in that reissue.

Real to Reel contains two songs—”Forgotten Sons” and “Garden Party”—taken from the band’s first album, 1983’s Script for a Jester's Tear. It also includes “Assassing” and “Incubus” from Marillion’s second record, the above-mentioned Fugazi from 1984. Add a couple of songs not released on albums—“Market Square Heroes,” the band’s debut single A-side from 1982, and “Cinderella Search,” the B-side to the “Assassing” single—and the original live album was a good survey of their work so far. This CD reissue also features a live recording of “Emerald Lies,” which originally appeared on Fugazi.

As a live recording, Real to Reel is slightly more miss than hit, and you might be better off listening to the first two albums. While the songs are there, as interesting as they are, the energy and intensity I hope for from live albums isn’t really present. (Though the crowd noise and participation in “Garden Party” and “Market Square Heroes” communicate some impressive audience enthusiasm.) The first four songs of the reissue CD—”Assassing,” “Incubus,” “Cinderella Search,” and “Emerald Lies”—were captured June 19-20, 1984, at the Spectrum in Montreal. The remainder were recorded during Marillion’s March 5, 1984, performance at De Montford Hall in Leicester, England. Both seem to have been relatively restrained and controlled performances. It’s not that the band performs entirely tightly, but there’s little chaos or risk of losing control. Regardless, ending with “Garden Party” and “Market Square Heroes” was a good call—the pairing makes a great finish to the album—a highlight, so it's worth making it to the end.

Highlights of the performance include Steve Rothery’s guitar work (at rare times reminding me of David Gilmour) and Mark Kelly’s keyboard playing—both requirements for decent prog rock. And one of the most fascinating and occasionally challenging aspects of the band and show is Fish’s vocals.

Fish, a Scotsman born Derek William Dick, joined Marillion in 1981 and stuck with the band through 1988. Extremely dramatic in his vocal presentation, he’s been described as similar to Roger Daltrey and Peter Gabriel (some fans compare Marillion to Gabriel-era Genesis, if you’re into that sort of thing), and Classic Rock magazine named him among “The 100 Greatest Frontmen” in 2004.

Throughout the performances, Fish brings no little high drama, with a theatrical vocal style that alternates between aggressively dramatic vocalization, sing-song accented speak-singing, and occasionally strident barking. Fish is most interesting when he’s not necessarily singing in the traditional sense, though the end result can get to be a bit much over the course of the record. (He’ll either grow on me or wear me down!) 

At its best during these sets, Marillion brings a more rock ‘n’ roll Pink Floyd and early Yes to mind. At other times, the band is vaguely disconcerting and somewhat threateningly confusing. Again, I’m not exactly sure what’s going on, but something is definitely going on.

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