DECEMBER ALBUM OF THE MONTH
It seems to be becoming a bit of ‘a thing’ for rock bands to make a foray into the orchestral space and, for me, it often doesn’t work. But the new album from Marillion is a masterclass on how to do it right – in both substance and style.
What Marillion get right with this immersive and compelling new album is the orchestral music is not a bolt-on. The music from their archive has been chosen that would lend itself to an orchestral dimension, and the blend between the band and their friends from the orchestra is seamless. We don’t have symphonic bombast or orchestral karaoke here – what we have is Marillion music re-seen through a new lens, with the additional orchestral flourishes adding a subtle, new dimension to the experience. It’s clever, measured and totally natural.
Working with Marillion on this album is the wonderful string quartet “In Praise of Folly” joined by the brilliant flautist Emma Halnan and the gifted French Horn-ist, Sam Morris.
The album’s merits though go beyond just the orchestral dimension. The choice of songs is inspired. Some of the band’s extended opuses and lesser known album tracks meet together in one place on this album – songs that all deserve to be better known. It’s also intriguing to see alternative and re-recorded performances of much-loved songs. They’re faithfully done, but many have a new edge and life to them. It’s not about being better or worse than the originals, it’s sometimes just nice to experience an alternative take.
The opening track ‘Estonia’ opens the album delightfully. ‘This Strange Engine’ has always been a favourite of mine from the band’s catalogue – and this album puts ‘Estonia’ front and centre. The vocal performance from H on this song is also exceptional. ‘Fantastic Place’ I was a little nervous about listening to at the outset – the original from ‘Marbles’ I regard to be the reference take and I feared a remake might be something akin to spray painting over a Picasso! That said, the band’s new take – with orchestra as part of the band – offers a compelling alternative interpretation.
‘A Collection’ – originally only a B side – blossoms into new life on this album. The new band and orchestral re-working gives the song far greater warmth and completeness. And whilst Marillion are well known to many for writing complex, long songs – the art within their simpler short songs should never be overlooked or under-estimated.
Like ‘A Collection’, ‘The Hollow Man’ also is more three-dimensional on this album. I remember when ‘Brave’ was originally released, being a bit perplexed that ‘Hollow Man’ was chosen as the single. For me it was one of the weaker songs on the album – but here the song is fuller and has more depth. This is a case in point on the art here of working together the rock and orchestral textures. On face value, the changes to this song are subtle but the impact is quite dramatic on how it lifts the overall personality of the song.
One of the big treats with this album is the opportunity to revisit and indulge with some of Marillion’s finest long songs. Having followed the band for many decades, I don’t think all of their long, complex songs always work: But when they do work, they do so quite brilliantly. ‘This Strange Engine’ for me is one of the greatest pieces of music as art the band has done, and ‘Ocean Cloud’ is another widescreen opus. Both these pieces are as long as they need to be and they present widescreen sonic experiences that were creatively conceived and sophisticatedly executed – they could be modern day versions of orchestral suites. To have these songs on the same album is a masterstroke and they showcase what makes this album work so very well. The orchestral contribution adds light and shade, new shades of colour but it never detracts or dilutes the band or the original essence of the songs. ‘This Strange Engine’ and ‘Ocean Cloud’ could rightly be called modern masterpieces. This is not music to dance around the kitchen table to while the Shepherd’s Pie is cooking – but if you give it time, dim the lights and play it loud, this music will take you to somewhere special. There’s not another band around doing music like this – and with the drama and clinical quality that Marillion delivers.
Listening to these two tracks on the album, one is also reminded of the natural connection between modern prog – or widescreen as I prefer to call it – and the classical genre. The use of extended sections and of musical interludes to bridge separate sections together has a lot of natural similarities with orchestral suites.
‘Sky Above the Rain’ is another welcome addition to this album, the highlight of the ‘Sounds That Can’t be Made’ album and, as a song, spiritually orchestral in its inception.
Marillion is a band that has been on a long journey since the late 80s. They’ve stayed true to their music identity through a long period when rock wasn’t cool and where critics too often seemed to pass judgement without even listening to the band’s music. For those that still think of jesters and drummer boys, remember too that this is the band that invented crowdfunding and has, over the last 30 years, built up one of the most impressive recorded catalogues anywhere in the rock scene worldwide. Marillion are proof that sticking to your guns pays off. On the back of a huge fan army, ‘Marbles’ gave the band two hit singles, FEAR crashed into the top echelon of the Official Album chart, and this month they play two sold out shows at the Royal Albert Hall. Their new album ‘With Friends From the Orchestra’ captures a band on a creative high, confident and comfortable in what they’re about and – after all these years – still wanting to push the boundaries and do something new. ‘With Friends From The Orchestra’ captures well the spirit of a band entering a new Golden Age and – despite all they have achieved – you are still left with the sense that the best is yet to come.
‘With Friends From The Orchestra’ is Released 29th November
The album is available in CD, Vinyl and download formats.
As album of the month we’ll also be playing tracks from the album on the rock show for the month of December
PRE – ORDER
To discover more about the band and pre-order the new album visit www.marillion.com
- A Collection
- Fantastic Place
- Beyond You
- This Strange Engine
- The Hollow Man
- The Sky Above The Rain
- Seasons End
- Ocean Cloud
Some band interviews available online at greatmusicstories.com for listen again
12 November – Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
13 November – The Sage, Gateshead
15 November – Cliffs Pavillion, Southend
16 November – St David’s Hall, Cardiff
18 November – Royal Albert Hall, London
19 November – Royal Albert Hall, London