Neo-prog band Marillion took their name from JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. They played their first show in London in 1978 – an all-instrumental lineup from which only drummer Mick Pointer was still around when they released their debut album in 1983. They added a significant new member each year – guitarist Steve Rothery joined in 1979, and vocalist Derek Dick, who took the nickname Fish due to his habit of long baths, joined in 1980. Keyboardist Mark Kelly joined in 1981, and bassist Pete Trevawas in 1982. Pointer was replaced by Ian Mosley after their debut album, going on to a career as a kitchen designer.
The band were initially compared unfavourably to Peter Gabriel’s Genesis – they shared a theatricality and long progressive songs. This was accentuated by the early b-side ‘Grendel’, uncomfortably close to ‘Supper’s Ready’. The band found their identity with their third album Misplaced Childhood, mixing longer suites with punchy pop singles.
In 1988, Fish left Marillion for a solo career and was replaced by Steve Hogarth. Hogarth has a gorgeous pure tenor but lacks Fish’s poetic flair. Some of the band’s output in the H era could still be classified as progressive rock, but they’re also closer to a mainstream rock band at times. Marillion are also known for pioneering crowdfunding in the internet era. They’ve never been critically hip, but there are plenty of enjoyable songs in their back catalogue.
I’m only planning to cover Marillion’s first nine albums, plus a couple of their most acclaimed later records. I’ve listed all of their studio albums below, but omitted a couple of projects of catalogue reworkings – Less Is More and With Friends From The Orchestra. I’ve also reviewed Transatlantic, a progressive rock supergroup with Trevawas on bass.
Marillion Album Reviews
Script for a Jester’s Tear | Fugazi | Misplaced Childhood | Clutching at Straws | Seasons End | Holidays in Eden | Brave | Afraid of Sunlight | This Strange Engine | Radiation | Marillion.com | Anoraknophobia | Marbles | Somewhere Else | Happiness is the Road | F*** Everyone and Run | An Hour Before It’s Dark
Script for a Jester’s Tear
Marillion had already built an audience with the non-album single ‘Market Square Heroes’ and Script for a Jester’s Tear was surprisingly successful, reaching the UK top ten. It was produced by Nick Tauber, who also worked with Thin Lizzy and Toyah – his polished production is an asset. Script for a Jester’s Tale drew comparisons with Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, although Fish’s lyrics are often based on personal experience and his Scottish, working-class background fuels some angst. These six lengthy tracks aren’t what Marillion do best, but it’s a solid debut with many memorable moments.
The record starts with the progressive rock of the title track, a lengthy rumination on Fish’s love life. ‘He Knows You Know’ presages the more succinct, pop-oriented material that Marillion would deliver on Misplaced Childhood. The strongest song is ‘The Web’, with its dramatic and tuneful opening, while ‘Garden Party’ lampoons the British upper class. Fish’s provides aggression on ‘Forgotten Sons’, a commentary on the Irish situation.
Script for a Jester’s Tear is an impressive debut, establishing Marillion as the leading player in the neo-prog movement of the early 1980s.
The difficult second album is a cliché that is more limited than rock folklore would imply. It does apply, however, to Marillion. Fugazi is a darker, more insular record than their debut – even the single ‘Punch and Judy’ is dark, addresses domestic violence. The band were in flux, going through a succession of drummers after dismissing Mick Pointer. Former Camel drummer Andy Ward, John Marter, and American Jonathan Mover all played with Marillion before they settled with Ian Mosley. Lead track ‘Assassing’ is written about dismissing a band member, but it’s actually about previous bass player Diz Minnitt. The recording process felt rushed, using ten different studios.
Fugazi is often considered the least impressive of Marillion’s Fish-era albums, including by Fish himself. In particular, there’s a weak stretch in the middle with ‘Emerald Lies’ and ‘She Chameleon’. Most fans gravitate toward the two lengthy tracks that close the second side – the closing refrain of “where are the poets” in the title track is one of the record’s most memorable moments. But generally Fugazi is light on memorable tunes – the singles are also less ebullient than usual.
Fugazi doesn’t break much new ground for the band and it features less memorable songs than the debut, but they’d cement their identity with their next release.
After countless Genesis comparisons with their first two records, Marillion found their own voice with their third album. Fish’s poetic musings are paired with punchier music – there are a couple of long progressive suites, but also concise pop songs. Crucially, Steve Rothery’s guitar provides more hooks than before – memorable motifs like the ‘Heart of Lothian’ riff and the ‘Lavender’ solo are reused elsewhere on the record. Misplaced Childhood was improbably successful for a progressive rock album in 1985 – as well as topping the UK charts, it also contained two top-five singles, ‘Kayleigh’ and ‘Lavender’. Despite its accessibility, Misplaced Childhood is Marillion’s first concept album, Fish inspired by an acid trip to revisit his own childhood.
The long suites are good, especially the moody ‘Blind Curve’, but it’s the more succinct songcraft that stands out. ‘Heart of Lothian’ uses one of my songwriting tricks, ramping up the tension and holding the chorus back until the song’s triumphant conclusion. ‘Kayleigh’ sounds like a deserved hit single. The album also withholds one of its key cogs to the end; ‘Childhood’s End’ is the thematic crux of the record and also one of the most memorable songs with its propulsive chorus and incisive guitar from Rothery.
Marillion establish their own style on Misplaced Childhood – a perfect balance of arty lyrics, accessible pop, and progressive rock.
Clutching at Straws
Marillion sustained their peak with their fourth album. It’s darker than the previous effort, a concept album about a 29-year-old singer struggling with alcohol. It was essentially a flimsily disguised story of Fish’s own issues. The band were worn out with constant touring, and Fish was relying on substances to escape the constant grind. The cover art is set in a bar, featuring Fish’s literary heroes like Robert Burns and Dylan Thomas, mostly with their own issues with alcohol. Clutching at Straws is darker in tone than Misplaced Childhood, and the songs are shorter.
Clutching at Straws is the furthest from progressive rock of Marillion’s Fish-fronted albums, yet opener ‘Hotel Hobbies’ stuffs a bunch of musical ideas into its succinct running time. It starts with an eerie opening, Fish backed with Kelly’s synths, before the rest of the band explode – there’s a great Rothery lead guitar line, while Trevawas’ bass is funky and Mosley’s drums hit hard. ‘White Russian’ is impressively intense, while ‘Slàinte Mhath’ has a melody that resembles an Irish drinking song. Tessa Niles provides prominent backing vocals on ‘That Time of the Night’ and ‘The Last Straw’. The singles aren’t as memorable as their counterparts from Misplaced Childhood but ‘Warm Wet Circles’ is enjoyably intense.
There’s much to enjoy in Marillion’s subsequent records with Steve Hogarth, but their final two records with Fish are their career peak.
An overworked Fish gave the rest of Marillion an ultimatum – if they didn’t fire their manager he’d leave the band. Astonishingly, the group sided with their manager – Fish left for a solo career, and the group hired Steve Hogarth as their new vocalist. Hogarth was previously in the new wave band The Europeans. Some of the material for Seasons End originated from an attempted fifth album with Fish – Along with Hogarth, John Helmer writes lyrics for Seasons End and would continue working with Marillion through the 1990s. The songs are generally strong, but like many albums from the early CD era, it outstays its welcome, with 9 songs stretching over 50 minutes.
Standout track ‘Easter’ doesn’t outstay its welcome – it utilises Hogarth’s emotional voice, while Rothery’s guitar solo is also filled with emotion. Without Fish in the band these songs are more issues-based than before – ‘Easter’ is about Ireland, the title track addresses global warming, while ‘Berlin’ is titled after the wall that would be pulled down shortly after the album’s release. Singles ‘The Uninvited Guest’ and ‘Hooks In You’ provide some needed energy, although I prefer the cuts that open each side – ‘The King of Sunset Town’ is pretty yet foreboding, while ‘Holloway Girl’ showcases the higher end of Hogarth’s range.
Seasons End successfully integrates a new vocalist into Marillion – this lineup is still intact 15 albums later.
Holidays in Eden
EMI steered Marillion toward pop producer Christopher Neil, who’d recently enjoyed sizeable Billboard hits with Mike & the Mechanics’ ‘The Living Years’ and Celine Dion’s ‘Where Does My Heart Beat Now’. Neil told Marillion that they were his son’s favourite band and that his son would never forgive him if they made a crap album. The mood of Holidays in Eden is dominated by three pop singles – ‘No One Can’, ‘Dry Land’, and ‘Cover My Eyes’. They all follow a similar sonic template – pop songs with the epic grandeur of Joshua Tree U2. They’re not bad songs but they feel a little shoehorned into Marillion’s oeuvre – two of the tracks originated from Hogarth’s pre-Marillion bands and it’s difficult to imagine Fish singing lovestruck lyrics like “there’s something of you/In everything that I love”.
The rest of the record is more progressive and more substantial than you might expect from the singles. ‘The Party’ has some terrifically foreboding music, even though the lyrics are disappointingly low stakes. Punters who bought Holidays in Eden for the pop singles may have been surprised by the lengthy, moody ‘Splintering Heart’ or Rothery’s lengthening soloing on ‘100 Nights’. Of the pop singles, ‘Dry Land’ is very strong, showcasing H’s vocal dexterity,
The singles ‘No One Can’ and ‘Cover My Eyes’ feel like an undignified break from Marillion tradition, but Holidays in Eden is a more substantial record than those songs indicate.
Marillion pivoted 180 degrees away from the pop dalliance of Holidays in Eden, crafting an ambitious progressive concept album as its follow-up. The concept was developed from a news story that Hogarth read about a teenage girl found wandering by the Severn Bridge, a popular suicide spot. It was recorded in Marouatte Castle, France. Brave marked a change in fortunes for Marillion – it was their last record for a couple of decades to reach the UK top ten. The dense concept record didn’t initially gain much acclaim – it doesn’t help that it starts tentatively and the best material is on the second half. It’s since been recognized as one of Marillion’s best records.
In particular, ‘Runaway’ early on in the tracklist feels like a weak point – it’s dull and didactic. But Brave warms into its work and there’s a series of terrific songs on the second side – ‘Paper Lies’ and ‘Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury’ are great rockers. The LP edition ends with two different vinyl grooves – ‘Made Again’ is an excellent redemptive ending. Best of all is ‘The Great Escape’, utilising Hogarth’s emotional voice for an emotional centrepiece.
Brave largely fulfils its lofty ambitions, an excellent return to progressive rock from Marillion.
Afraid of Sunlight
Marillion’s eighth album is difficult to pigeonhole musically – it’s the sound of a band comfortable in their own skin, free to make music outside of expectations. The songs are linked thematically, exploring the dark side of celebrity – the title track is about self-destructiveness, while ‘King’ is about Elvis. ‘Out of the World’ was written about speed record holder Donald Campbell – the song inspired diver Bill Smith to retrieve the wreck of Campbell’s Bluebird in 2001.
It’s fun hearing the band try whatever they feel like – ‘Cannibal Surf Babe’ is a Beach Boys pastiche complete with Theremin, while ‘Out of This World’ is delicate and ambient. While these songs are lengthy, they don’t outstay their welcome – the chiming riff on the opening ‘Gazpacho’ is endlessly enjoyable. Hogarth’s typically sentimental on ‘Beautiful’, but it’s lovely anyway. The title track is also an emotive ballad, but it’s supremely magical – the middle eight is particularly strong. ‘King’ is a terrific closer too, tense and brooding.
Afraid of Sunlight was the first Marillion album to chart outside the UK top ten, and EMI dropped the band, but it’s one of their stronger efforts.
This Strange Engine
In between their EMI years and crowdfunding their own records, Marillion spent three albums on the Castle label. This Strange Engine is the first from this micro-era. There are traces of progressive rock, especially the lengthy title track, but there’s far more jangly pop-rock. There’s prominent acoustic guitar on tracks like ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ and ’80 Days’, and even balalaika on ‘Estonia’.
The record is bookended by two of its strongest tracks – ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ is enjoyably jangly, while ‘This Strange Engine’ tells the story of Hogarth’s father changing careers from sailor to miner. In an era when Coldplay and Travis were popular, songs like ’80 Days’ could probably have enjoyed airplay if they were attached to a different name. ‘Estonia’ was written after Hogarth met the only British survivor of the 1994 maritime disaster when the ferry Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea. There are weak tracks – in particular, ‘Hope For The Future’ marries inspirational lyrics with an unbecoming reggae flavour.
This Strange Engine is a satisfying fresh start for Marillion after more than a decade on EMI.
1998, not rated
I’m interested in hearing this record since it’s the earliest studio album I haven’t covered. The band seem to have disowned it – it’s not on Spotify. The band tried to use different sounds – Rothery borrowed a guitar from XTC‘s Dave Gregory and played without his usual delay and chorus, while Kelly played a Roland synth and avoided string sounds. The album is reportedly harsher sounding that the rest of Marillion’s catalogue.
1999, not rated
I like what I’ve heard of this record – it seems like a more successful attempt to extend Marillion’s stylistic range, adding more atmospheric textures. The lengthy ‘Interior Lulu’ is a fan favourite, while ‘House’ had the working title ‘The Massive Attack Song’.
2001, not rated
Marillion’s first crowd-funded album. I’m interested in reviewing it sometime just so I can try out Hogarth’s challenge: “It deserves to be reviewed in a manner that is both accurate and fair. So, our challenge to you is to firstly listen to the album. Then write a review without using any of the following words: ‘Progressive rock’, ‘Genesis’, ‘Fish’, ‘heavy metal’, ‘dinosaurs’, ‘predictable’, ‘concept album’. Because if you do, we’ll know that you haven’t listened to it.”
Marillion financed the recording of their thirteenth album, but fans financed the promotional campaign. It was successful – the single ‘You’re Gone’ cracked the UK top ten, their biggest hit since ‘Incommunicado’. The album was ineligible for the charts because a pair of stickers contravened the chart rules. Marbles was issued in two different editions – a single CD for retail and a double-CD for the fan club and website orders. In either edition, it keeps up its momentum over a lengthy run time. This era of Marillion are great at moody, atmospheric songs. The brief interludes, where Hogarth tells the story of losing his toy marbles as a child, work beautifully to tie the album together.
The record’s bookended by two lengthy songs; ‘The Invisible Man’ simmers with some tortured Hogarth vocals toward the end, while ‘Neverland’ is gorgeous piano balladry. ‘Fantastic Place’ epitomises what works for this era of Marillion – a melodic and atmospheric tune about the theme of escape, something often touched on during the record. The expanded edition keeps up the quality level – ‘The Damage’ rocks harder than most of the subdued tracks on the main record. ‘Ocean Cloud’ is gorgeous, although the lyrics are a little distracting: “I’ve seen too much of life/So the sea is my wife and a sweet ocean cloud is a mistress I’m allowed.”
Marbles is impressive, Marillion thriving beyond the boundaries of progressive rock.
2007, not rated
I don’t see this one discussed much and have never heard it. ‘Faith’ dates from the Marbles sessions.
Happiness is the Road
2008, not rated
Happiness is the Road became a double album – the second disc, The Hard Shoulder, was recorded first. The group released it via filesharing networks in exchange for fan’s email addresses. It’s seemingly one of the most beloved Marillion albums that I haven’t covered.
Sounds That Can’t Be Made
2012, not rated
Judging by the track times, Sounds That Can’t Be Made seems like the band’s proggiest effort for a while. It opens with a 17:30 minute song about the Gaza conflict.
F*** Everyone and Run (F E A R)
Hogarth’s political concerns have become more dominant in Marillion’s music over the past decade. The title F E A R reflects what Hogarth perceived as an “every man for himself” philosophy pervading society. The album’s dominated by three lengthy suites – ‘El Dorado’, ‘The Leavers’, and ‘The New King’. Hogarth’s voice sounds more weathered than before, which suits the pessimistic tone of the material. As has often happened in recent years to established acts, the fragmented music scene allowed F E A R to peak at #4 in the UK, at that time Marillion’s best placing since 1987.
The most memorable section of the record is ‘The Gold’ section of ‘El Dorado’, where the gentle electric piano contributes to a Pink Floyd feel. ‘The New Kings’ suite covers greed and the oligarchy – the part when Hogarth uses his higher register to sing the album’s title is effective. Often F E A R is more focused on lyrics than on music – on paper it sounds didactic, but it works in practice.
Marillion have made more musically rich albums, but F E A R is still engrossing.
An Hour Before It’s Dark
2022, not rated
An Hour Before It’s Dark peaked at #2.
10 Best Marillion Songs
Heart of Lothian
The Great Escape
Warm Wet Circles
Afraid of Sunlight
This Strange Engine
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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