Twenty years ago, this month, Marillion released its album, THIS STRANGE ENGINE. It should be remembered that this is the fifth album to feature the voice and lyrics of Steve Hogarth. As such, reviewers still (not that the debate has eneded, even in 2017) had to compare the Marillion of Fish to the Marillion of Hogarth. While THIS STRANGE ENGINE earned its just share of good reviews, it also had reviewers crying that while Fish had innovated, Hogarth rested. AllMusic went so far as to label THE STRANGE ENGINE “ordinary.”
Granted, Marillion had just come off two of its most powerful and unrelentingly intense albums–BRAVE and AFRAID OF SUNLIGHT–but this should not lessen the power of THIS STRANGE ENGINE. Rather, it should add context.
Two other things must be remembered about THIS STRANGE ENGINE. It was the first post-EMI album, and it came only three or four years into 3rd Wave Prog, a movement the band had helped birth with BRAVE.
While THIS STRANGE ENGINE does not rate in the top five albums Marillion has thus far made, it is still a Marillion album, extraordinary by every measure.
Track One, “Man of a Thousand Faces,” nobly introduces the album, a mythic look at the rock singer or the religious leader–the man who must be something to everyone and everything. The song, not atypically, carries humor and melancholy.
Some have thought track two, “One Fine Day,” a nod or stab at soft or adult rock, but I think it’s much better to label (if we must) it simply romantic. Hogarth pleads for seeing the best in the worst moments of life.
Continuing the theme of goodness and our pursuit of it, track three, “80 Days,” sees Hogarth asking for us to see the best not just in the worst moments of life, but in one another, despite being “black and blue with bruises.” The song speaks to the deepest aspects of our common humanity.
Perhaps the most powerful track on the album, “Estonia” remembers the very real drowning of over 800 persons in a ferry accident in 1994. The salt water flows through the veins of the victims. “There’s only beauty and caring and truth beyond darkness.” This is not only the finest song on the album, it’s one of the finest songs ever written in rock. A gorgeous and deep-feeling ballad.
A kind of Celtic folk song, “Memory of Water” continues the melancholic tone of the album and the question of the essence of our life, its meaning, and, perhaps, its continuity or ending.
More of a pop-rock tone pervades and inspires track six, “An Accidental Man.” Why am I who I am? And, how do the accidents of birth shape our very view of that which surrounds us? Very post-modern lyrics to this rocker of a song.
The penultimate track, “Hope for the Future,” returns the album to a more calm, bluesy and acoustic atmosphere before becoming something altogether funky and different. I must admit, I don’t get the lyrics. Is Hogarth embracing some kind of occultish attitude about the world? I doubt it, but I’m not sure. This is–to me–the least attractive song on the album, but mostly because it detracts from what I feel the album is about.
The final piece, the title track, recaptures the mood of the whole album. At over a quarter hour in length, “This Strange Engine” is a prog master track. The lyrics retell the story of Christ, but in the modern world. Amazing things happen to and round the boy, and he lives a mystical, prophetic life, one that confuses, befuddles, and angers those around him. With this track, Marillion does every single thing Marillion does best.
By what standards reviewers labeled THIS STRANGE ENGINE “ordinary,” I have no idea. By Marillion standards, it’s excellent, if not their best. By prog standards, it’s excellent, if not their best. By rock standards, it’s excellent, superior, and extraordinary.