Marillion: A Sunday Night Above the Rain – Review

When I think of Marillion, the first image that comes to mind is sincerity. It was the band’s sincerity that grabbed me the first time I heard “Afraid of Sunlight,” a nearly 7-minute story of celebrity and self-destruction that nonetheless ends with an invocation to hope, and again when I stood in the audience at the band’s weekend convention in Montreal last year. Lead singer Steve Hogarth likes to introduce the autobiographical “This Strange Engine” with the claim that the song is “perfectly true” – a sentiment that in fact captures all of what Marillion does and is. 

ImageThis is where the band’s latest live release, A Sunday Night Above The Rain, succeeds – it reveals the sincerity that has come to define Marillion. The live release is the band’s third installment from the 2013 “Weekends” in Holland, England, and Canada, and features Sunday night performances recorded at both Montreal’s Theatre L’Olympia and Centre Parcs, Port Zelande. The band performs their 2012 studio album, Sounds That Can’t Be Made, in its entirety, interspersing the more recent tracks with other songs from their 30+ year catalog. From the opening 17-minute prog epic, “Gaza” it’s clear that the audience is in for something special. When Hogarth cries “it just ain’t right” for the children of Gaza, you believe him. As the band moves into “Montreal,” you can’t help but note their admiration and appreciation for the city and its fans. And when they reach “Neverland,” a highlight of every Marillion show, the mood in the room borders on transcendent.  

The setlist showcases the band’s unique reimagining of prog music, weaving narratives and odd time signatures with contemporary rock elements in “Power,” Beatles-esque riffs in “Lucky Man,” and soaring, melodic guitar solos in “The Sky Above the Rain.” The lights and screen projections succeed in creating an atmosphere and story appropriate to each song, but also to the whole of the experience, elevating fans “above the clouds” if only for a few hours. When the camera pans to the audience, expressions range from joyful to dumbstruck. And the band themselves, having seen this in one form or another for more than 30 years, nonetheless seem genuinely surprised by it all. Every time.  

A Sunday Night Above The Rain brings those 30 years into a pitch-perfect two and a half hour distillation. From the abject power of “Gaza” to the tongue-in-cheek-I-forgot-the-lyrics-again “Garden Party,” any fool can see the bond that has grown between the band and its fans. And watching the show unfold, it is easy to see why.      

Gazpacho – Raising Demons

ImageThis bombing went on for five years. The Supreme Court never passed any judgment on it and the military speaks with pride today that five years of the bombing of Cambodia killed 16,000 of the so-called enemy. That’s 25% killed, and there’s a military ruling that says you cannot kill more than 10% of the enemy without causing irreversible, psychological damage. So, five years of bombing, a diet of bark, bugs, lizards and leaves up in the Cambodian jungles, an education in Paris environs in a strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau, and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime — including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America — set the Khymer Rouge out to carry out the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history. Spalding Gray, Swimming to Cambodia, 1987

These papers were supposedly some sort of manuscript or document or diary.  According to the story, he had been tracking a demon throughout history.  If the manuscript exists or not I have no idea.  That’s not the point.  It got me thinking, what would this manuscript look like, what if the story was true? What happened to the guy? It was supposed to be us trying make an album of what we thought that manuscript would look like and at the same time use that opportunity to look at evil. Thomas Alexander Andersen, Gazpacho, 2014

One of the albums that is so good that after the initial listens it has to wait for me to have time and peace of mind to give it a proper listen. Michał Pawłowski, guitarist/vocalist of newspaperflyhunting, on Gazpacho’s Demon, 2014.

Gazpacho’s Demon lives in shadowy place, vector-connected to other works in my head, where history seems to open up and then close back down, leaving the created work seemingly alone amidst a sea of ordinariness.  Set against the elegantly melodic, mid-tempo electric arrangements typical of Gazpacho’s other works, particularly Night and Tick Tock, and the elongated notes of Jan Henrik Ohme’s vocal, Demon is Gazpacho’s most effective demonstration yet of their approach to a music that is less concerned with genre and more interested in expression of thought.  Mikael Kromer’s accordion and violin interplay lend an earthy, acoustic grounding to the mix, while the rhythm section of Kristian Torp and Lars Erik Asp continue Gazpacho’s penchant for the deep groove, revealing a jazz past more commonly prized by generations of musicians growing up in Europe than in the States.  Combine these with the power brought by the electric core of the band, Thomas Alexander Andersen’s keyboards and Jon Arne Vilbo’s restrained, powerful guitar, and the heady result is a drama of sound, the actual sonic imprint furthering the narrative as voiced by Ohme.

Demon is nominally about the memory of a journal left by a man pursuing a demon across geographies and chronologies. This creates an interesting triple remove for the songwriters, as the story is less about the man or demon than the idea of the journal.  The brilliancy of Gazpacho taking this tack is hard to overstate.  The purity of a demon, a universal among religious or moral systems, balanced against the uncertainty principle that is humanity…and the messiness of a human chasing his devil as filtered through a diary (of a seer or a madman?).  What would such writing look like? How would I perceive it and where would I locate the demon, in the memory, the journal, the man, or the malignant spirit itself? How would I express it to someone else without becoming a demon chaser or a hellhounded man? I think what is so immediate about this record and the way Gazpacho engages its subject is that the story is entirely impressionistic, the images suggestive of the mirrors within the non-narrative.  I comprehend what’s going on in this album lyrically as a next-century response (or sequel) to the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.  Yet I would venture that our evils feel perhaps more deeply woven than they did five decades ago, our inability to find our demons and our continued need for the chase leading inexorably back to ourselves.

The tendency to dark drama in European metal is present, but in the place of a gray/black is a kind of constant waning light, a colored gloaming.  I’m consistently astounded by the ability of Scandinavian musicians to conjure qualities of light in the sounds they create, and Gazpacho’s talent for this on Demon is peerless.  As the lengthy I’ve Been Walking begins unfolding, with its crushing guitar matching the lyrical denial of our various versions of paradise, we see internal arguments on faith and evil’s meaning within it.  The Wizard of Altai Mountains follows, a radio-friendly reflection on following someone/something wearing “red pants and the ghost of a grin,” having to follow, despite a bone weariness and a sense of revulsion.  The accordion-driven outro to the song, given as much space as the lyric, reinforces the feeling that Wizard could easily be a Tom Waits tarantella, but where Waits would bring irony Gazpacho goes for something else entirely, a folksong sincerity that we’ve all but lost in modern music, except in progressive rock, which is one of that genre’s key strengths.  I’ve Been Walking then continues, embedding even more deeply folksong, like treasure in the buried, scratchy 78 verse:

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”

Not this tide.

“When do you think that he’ll come back?”

Not this tide.

“Has any one had word of him?”

Not this tide.

“When do you think that he’ll come back?”

Not this tide.

…and in its second section, with a guitar intro suggestive of Alex Lifeson’s intro riff on Rush’s Xanadu, the song contains one of the most richly gorgeous vocal melodies I’ve heard, delivering words like disconnected pieces of a puzzle.  Much is made of Ohme’s similarities with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, but Ohme’s voice is more a bowed instrument, sustaining notes and finding variations in them as they decay.  The sympathy between Ohme’s approach and the band’s is quite remarkable, and the album’s conclusion, Death Room (on the CD there is a “bonus track,” Cage, that isn’t on the LP), is where the risky length, over 18 minutes, pays off precisely because the band knows how to arrange its material with such great dynamic effect, including the most tasteful use of a gospel choir out of context I can remember.

This is a great record from a great band who remains at a summit of creativity, and leaves them to grapple with a demon of their own: what next?

Note:  A beautiful and thematically rich record deserves the kind of packaging Kscope has given to Demon.  For the CD version, its yellowing journal look, courier typeface, and booklet of lyrics does justice to the music.  I cannot comment on the LP.  I was going to pony up for it, but the bonus track Cage was not included, and unfortunately at this writing Kscope doesn’t clarify if LP buyers will receive the MP3 for free if they aren’t buying through Burning Shed, their distributor.

Gig Review: Anathema & Opeth, 15 November 2012

This was an event that I almost missed, because I was in a pretty sorry state on 15 November. I had been feeling fuzzy-headed and a bit shivery throughout the day; as gig time approached, I even thought about heading straight home from work to my bed.

Thankfully, I didn’t bail – but I was definitely questioning whether that was a sensible decision as I stood near the front of the crowd at Leeds Metropolitan University Student Union. And then Anathema took to the stage. Right from the start, the atmosphere was electric, with Danny Cavanagh geeing up the crowd even before they launched into their first song – I think it was Deep, from the Judgement album, although I’m not sure my fever-addled brain can be completely trusted on that. I clearly recall the next three songs, though: Thin Air, from 2010’s excellent Steven Wilson-produced We’re Here Because We’re Here, followed by Untouchable Parts 1 & 2, the opening tracks of latest album Weather Systems.

A remarkable thing happened as the band began to play these three songs. Those earlier feelings of illness and discomfort dwindled into insignificance beside the strong emotions stirred up by the music: a sense of absolute joy, of being exactly where I ought to be, witnessing this. And there was a tear or two, as well – an inevitable response to the achingly beautiful and poignant Untouchable Part 2. Isn’t the transformational power of music a wonderful thing?

That euphoria persisted for the remainder of their 45-minute set, which seemed to come to an end far too soon. There was another track from We’re Here Because We’re Here, the powerful A Simple Mistake (Steven Wilson’s favourite, apparently); a failed attempt at playing Closer – thanks to an equipment failure, which the band took in their stride; a couple of other old tunes whose titles escape me. And then it was over, leaving me wishing fervently that they had another hour to play.

Now the fuzzy head was back with a vengeance. As the temperature rose and the crowd pressed in anticipation of Opeth’s set, I wondered how long I could last before passing out and began considering my options for an early exit. But again the discomfort subsided as I became increasingly absorbed by the music.

Let me admit at this point that I’m not an Opeth devotee. I have three of their albums, so I was able to recognise songs such as The Devil’s Orchard and Famine from latest album Heritage, or Burden from Watershed – but that left at least 50% of their set unfamiliar. Yet this didn’t seem to matter, in the end. I found myself enjoying simply being there, soaking up the atmosphere, admiring the power, precision and intensity of their performance. I had a great view, and the civilised volume levels meant that it was possible to hear how well they played, something that can’t be said for many of the gigs I’ve attended in the past.

In summary: an excellent evening, despite its inauspicious beginning.

Gig Review: Stabbing a Dead Horse, 30 October 2012

Last Tuesday evening, I took a short walk from my place of work to the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, that night’s venue for the Stabbing a Dead Horse tour. This unnerving title derives from the names of the tour’s participants: Trojan Horse, The Fierce & The Dead and Knifeworld. All three bands are leading lights of a vibrant ‘modern progressive’ movement here in the UK.

Trojan Horse opened proceedings with a cover of Neil Young’s Ohio before attacking their own material – four songs in total – with gusto. From the short and sweet staccato prog-punk of Fire from their latest EP through to the brooding 8-minute epic Mr Engels Says from their eponymous debut album, this was powerful, uncompromising stuff, played with an infectious manic energy by the Salford-based four-piece. I was particularly taken by the jerking and pirouetting of Lawrence Duke, who wielded his bass guitar as if it were an untamed beast, and by the mad dash of brother Eden through the audience during Mr Engels Says, as he attempted single-handedly to get us all singing the “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” lyric.

Then it was time for The Fierce & The Dead, who treated us to a masterclass in instrumental music drawn from their recent EP On VHS and from debut album If It Carries On Like This We Are Moving To Morecambe, with a new piece called Arc (Ark?) as a bonus. There is something very special about the aural landscapes created by this band. On the face of it, their sound is very sparse and modern, and yet somehow the solid groove created by Stu Marshall’s drums and Kev Feazey’s powerful bass combines with the hypnotic interplay of Steve Cleaton’s and Matt Stevens’ guitars to conjure beguilingly rich, intricate and expansive music. There was complete commitment on display here, and real showmanship, too – albeit of a less demonstrative kind than that of Trojan Horse. It was clear from TFATD’s interactions with the audience that they were having a blast, despite the low turn-out.

Headliners Knifeworld, performing as an eight-piece ensemble, brought the evening to a suitably exciting conclusion with a set drawing heavily on the terrific 2009 album Buried Alone: Tales Of Crushing Defeat and recent EP Clairvoyant Fortnight. It also featured an excellent new song, whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch.

Saxophones are relatively commonplace, but I’d hazard a guess that you don’t often see a rock band performing on stage with a bassoon. It’s a powerful symbol of just how unique Knifeworld are in their approach. I find it difficult to articulate just why I find them so interesting, but the fact that they are so gloriously unpredictable must have something to do with it. You never quite know where they are going with a song; heavy riffing can give way to a blast of Mellotron, then delicate vocal harmonies, then glockenspiel and sax, before guitar takes the reins again. A typical piece will feature unusual chord progressions and time signature changes galore. Any band trying to stuff that many ideas into a four- or five-minute tune is treading a fine line, but Knifeworld usually manage to stay the right side of it, leaving you exhilarated rather than exhausted.

The final verdict? A truly excellent night’s entertainment, and outstanding value for money at only £7 for the ticket. The only disappointment was that so few had shown up. I can only hope that the poor attendance doesn’t dissuade any of these bands from coming back to Leeds at some point in the future.