Nightman Listens To – Marillion – Seasons End (Side A)!

Seasons End - Wikipedia

Greetings, Glancers! It’s a new day, a new album, and hark – a new singer! Some bloke without even the common decency to name himself after an animal has taken over from Mr Fishusss. I have no idea what this change inherently did to the band – does Steve Hogarth have a different type of voice, or vocal style, or lyrical style which forces the band to pivot? Is he a Fish clone? Do the band stutter in their creativity and take an album or two to get into the swing or things? I guess we’re about to find out.

I don’t enjoy bringing comparisons into the discussion while talking about unrelated acts, but it’s a simple way to baseline my thoughts alongside what was going on in the band. At some point the Fish ran away with the spoon, and at some point Steve Hogarth joined. Lets briefly mention three of my standard comparisons. Pink Floyd famously split from Roger Waters, deep into their career, and the remaining Pink Floyd releases are more ‘floaty’ than before. Iron Maiden had two albums with their original singer – a singer whose voice was more suited to their in your face punk approach. Once Brucey joined, his theatricality seemed to usher in a new era of more expansive, creative music, and when he left in the 90s, the new fella’s deeper vocal gave us a pile of crap. Nightwish’s originally singer was a classically trained opera singer and music fit the grandiose nature of Opera. When Tarja left, she was replaced by a more conventional rock vocalist – the music shifted moderately while remaining epic. Once Annette moved on and Floor joined there was another miniscule shift. Long story short – changing your singer will probably amount to a change in the sound of your music, it may not be monumental, it may not necessitate a shift in direction. It’s stunning revelations such as this which keep you flocking back to my blog in your ones and twos.

Before we get into the songs, we have to check out the album cover. Bit of a mess, right? A sepia or black and white stormy sea, what I assume is a planetary orbit zooming on either side of four central shapes. Top left, a silhouette of a feather floating in a dessert, top right a blue sky with a small flourish of colour (is that meant to be a jester’s hat? I’m looking at a small picture). Bottom right, a familiar painting of a jester sinking into a puddle (telling), and bottom left a lizard flicking its tongue while a fire burns brightly behind. Logo. Album title. I’m sure it all means something, something about saying goodbye to Fish, but it doesn’t exactly catch my interest – too much going on, and none of it amounts to anything.

I enter the album with some trepidation – new singer and crappy album cover – but as the opening track kicked in, I felt that the band sounded confident. Any time a new singer joins a band you love… it’s that opening vocal that you’re waiting for. That first listen can be unfair and difficult – you can instantly shut the thing off and suddenly hate the band if it’s not a positive experience. Maybe you need to give it a few listens, maybe you’re sold immediately. It’s a weird human phenomenon amplified by a million other moments of your life. Whether it’s the first single being released or holding on until the opening track on the new album… I empathize with the nerves. Having only been listening to Marillion for a few months, I’m merely curious to hear how this goes. 

They make you wait, too. It’s not exactly like when (another of my favourite bands) The Gathering changed their vocalist and then opened their new album with an instrumental, but there is a long drawn out intro with at least fifteen seconds of silence at the start. The music comes in waves – something I only picked up on after I looked at the album cover – but it’s a calmer sea. At about one minute the bass comes in, then the drums tip a tap shortly afterward, a measured intro which keeps me on the edge of my seat, unsure of which direction the song will take. Once the lead riff finally drops, it’s pure Marillion. I’ve heard enough of Rothery’s guitar now that it’s more or less recognisable and by this point he has nailed the Marillion sound. What’s clear, even if nothing else is, is that the Production is clear, the sound full, and the playing confident. We settle into a groove and Mr Hogarth makes his first appearance.

I moved back and forth on my thoughts on his vocals on my first few listens. These listens were more or less focused on him rather than the song as I tried to establish some sort of set opinion. Initially, I admit to hunting for comparisons – a cross between one of the 80s Rock balladeers such as Richard Marx, with the higher tone of Steve Perry, but with nothing distinctive to set him apart. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he felt like a composite of other singers, but of course I was comparing him against Fish, who was very much his own thing (even if I did look to compare Fish with others). Even after listening to the album multiple times I haven’t fully latched on to H – he’s clearly a good singer, I love the smooth highs he hits in this song, and I get the impression that his vocals probably won’t jar as much with me as Fish did on occasion. Still, a little generic. I’m fine with this for now and I’ll continue to gauge in future albums. 

Returning to the song beyond the vocals – it’s a jubilant opening track. I don’t know if the intention was to show people, maybe specific people, that ‘they could still do it’, but it’s a confident statement. Melodic, dynamic, and with a euphoric chorus. One thing did gnaw away at me with continued listens, stay with me, with regards to the chorus melody. On the vocal ‘some go up’ he sings a G-A-G note series (and follows up with a G-B-A-G), but I kept expecting G-A-F#. This probably won’t mean much to anyone but the more I fixated on this the more I kept noticing it and questioning why the drop to F# wasn’t made. 

The guitars seem to use similar pedals and effects as on previous albums and the instrumentation is similarly layered, and the band remain willing to allow songs to flow in different directions. It’s around the five minute mark that the song seemingly abandon the central verse chorus structure and move into a softer mood piece. This is a brief two minute detour before we return to the chorus and fade out. It’s a solid opening track which admittedly took me a few listens to get fully on board with. 

Lyrically, I don’t know if I’ll spend as much time, or need to spend as much time talking about as I did with Fish. The song takes the appearance of a story with a simple rhythmic meter. There isn’t much room for extended description given the roughly eight syllables per line, unless you extend the idea over multiple lines. Extension doesn’t seem to be of much interest, at least in this song. I don’t know if this is another Concept album but this song didn’t strike me as meaning an awful lot on its own. Possibly the two dates mentioned are the key to unlocking what it’s all about – if indeed it is about anything. On the surface it’s the story of some bloke, a puppet king, possibly a magician, possibly someone dangerous. This story doesn’t really go anywhere and instead becomes some vague lyric about balance, fate, and circumstance. Mostly it feels like a bunch of words there for the sake of meeting the commitment of having vocals.

Easter is a sweet little song with a sweet little ear worm melody, almost folk style in its approach. I don’t recall another Marillion song which sounds like this – it’s 100% a ballad, musically, while any previous Marillion ballads spun off in enough different directions for them to be considered something else or something more. There’s a great guitar solo – every time it looks like it’s going to end, it shifts and continues on for a few more bars and in the background the surrounding music flows from the gentle sway of the main melody to darker more ominous places and finally onto the ‘do do do’ section. My first note on this song went along the lines of ‘Easter? Sounds more like Christmas – like Mistletoe & Wine’. There are moments in the chorus and ending which have a similar sway to Sir Cliff’s seminal festive hymn but this initial comparison quickly faded from my mind with further listens. With a name like Easter, with the folk style, and with the mention of Ireland, I’m guessing it’s another Irish influence song or that the lyric will somehow discuss Ireland’s history or current state. When you hear ‘Easter’ and Ireland in the same sentence, you automatically think of the Easter Rising if you’re from here. Or if you’re me, you just think about Chocolate. I’m mostly happy the band didn’t go down the hackneyed route of ‘having a fiddle’ and adding Irish instruments to make the thing sound more ethnic. Mostly because I can’t stand Irish music.

Lyrically, it isn’t hackneyed either, but it does seem to be about Ireland and uses enough familiar terms that it’s simple to grasp these references. I’m always curious when people see Ireland as this green place – to me it’s a very grey place, and especially once Autumn and Winter hit and much of the green becomes sullen brown and even more depressing. Any time I’ve been away for extended periods, the green does strike me when I come back. I must be accustomed to it by now. I don’t know who Mary Dunoon or her boy are, or if they are anyone at all, but it’s an Irish name and this reference leads into mentions of freedom, questions, borders, division, wires and guns. It’s all well meaning and if you’re going to write a song about Ireland, as mentioned in a previous post, it’s probably best to not pick sides. From a creative point of view – yeah, it’s fine, nothing leaps off the page as a stunning or particularly engaging turn of phrase, but the words server their purpose.

The Uninvited Guest is the band at their most conventional. They sound like an American rock band. I’ve heard so many songs with similar melodies and rhythms – true or not they always make me think of solo artists branching out from a successful band, like there’s just enough of familiarity from what the person did in their previous band, enough of the band and enough of their own voice, but it clearly shows what is lacking and missing when the two are apart. What’s interesting is that this isn’t the solo – this is the band. This is more what I would have expected Fish to come up with, except with Fish being Fish I wouldn’t expect any of his solo stuff to sound as pleasantly commercial and generic as this does. No, I’m still not going to listen to Fish’s solo albums.

It’s not a bad song, but it is one of the most forgettable for me. This could be anyone – it could be a song by any of the solo artists I’m listening to as part of my Iron Maiden Members non-Iron Maiden listen through. Too plain, even with the ‘cuckoooo’, and very far from anything the band has done till this point. Like they’re aping a stadium rock band but feel very uncomfortable doing it, or like they’ve been pressured into writing a hit that the hair metal fans will enjoy. 

At least the lyrics are somewhat disconcerting. I don’t think there was any intention behind the song sounding like a serious of sexual threats, but there’s something unsavoury in the undercurrent. Beyond that, it seems to be about… demonic possession? Inviting an evil presence into your home? 13 is a spooky number… Banquo was a ghost… no idea what a fifteen stone first footer is, but I got an image of a giant foot flopping about on its own. Then there’s a bit about cheating, a bit about moral conscience personified, a bit about disease… does it eventually turn into something about AIDS or sexual disease as a ‘ha ha, you probably shouldn’t have cheated’? Who knows. 

Seasons End. The title track. The centrepiece. Until I reached this song, during my first listen of the album, I was steering towards the opinion that the album, if not the band, had lost the thing which had made them special. With Fish the driving force behind the lyrics and seemingly other creative decisions, the three songs so far were trending towards the more derivative side of Prog and into conventional rock. The band no longer felt like this enticing oddity, the naughty loveable dunce in the corner of Prog’s classroom. The first three songs made the band look like they were sitting somewhere near the back of the class – not at the front getting all of the attention, not in the middle following the trail everyone else had blazed, but a little lost and uncertain of things, squinting to follow along with the Prog 101 notes on the overhead projector. Not to belabour the metaphor, but they were starting to sound like just another band, another person in class with nothing particularly interesting to say. The moment the title track came on, I had to re-evaluate my opinions.  

Some songs have that ability to instantly grab you at first listen; maybe you’re doing something innocuous like waiting in line at the supermarket, flicking through TV channels before bed, or lying in a half-sleeping state while the radio dribbles goodnight kisses through the headphones. You catch a snippet of a melody or a voice and you’re snapped back to the moment with everything else fading out and it’s just you and the song. It’s happened to me many times over the years. This is as close an example as Marillion has come so far. I was zoning in and out of the previous tracks and not fully engaged, but that A minor opening guitar using a similar delayed effect tone as was  used on the previous album caught hold of me. I think I listened to the song five times in a row before moving on to the next track, and played it another few times before staring the album over. Long story short, I like it. It was the key to unlocking this album.

Given that I’ve already written two paragraphs without actually saying anything, I don’t want to add much more. It’s a good vocal performance – the highs can be a little scratchy and close to breaking point (something I usually love in my singers) but it’s the funeral synth, the lovely melodies which feel at once like a freezing night but also being huddled around a fire looking into the darkness of such a night, and the simplicity of the chords and structure. It’s exactly the sort of song I would have loved on the long dark night drives home when I was young, or sitting near the fireplace with my headphones on in my own little world while the rest of the family were watching TV. Wanky I know, but there’s no sense in lying about your feelings. I could happily cut the song before it enters its final few minutes – those minutes extend the mood of the song and take it in a more experimental direction, but I’m not sure they really add anything not already covered in the first five minutes. I’m struggling to think of another Marillion song I’ve enjoyed or listened to more till this point.

On the lyrics, I think you could easily just read this as a Winter time song if not a full blown Christmas one. I suspect there is more to it – the sense of things coming to an end and rather than a Season being part of a cycle it seems more like a punctuated final stop – this is the final season. It’s a bit of a stretch to read this as some anti nuclear war song, though I couldn’t always shake that sentiment while I listened. It more obviously feels like a warning about environmental mistakes, pollution punching holes in the ozone, and making sure we are leaving a liveable world behind for future generations, one similar to the one us and our ancestors grew up in. It’s a subject area I don’t remember them covering yet, but the music mimics the sombre mood of such a topic. 

cover art for Script For A Jester's Tear - Side 1

Back to another episode of the podcast. At time of writing this exact sentence you are reading (which is being written a few days after the previous paragraph), I have listened to the End Of The Fish Era episode, but not the Introducing Steve Hogarth episode. Probably by the time I post this post I will have heard that one too, but I wanted to wrap this album up by focusing on the two Seasons End episodes first. So this album gets the dual episode treatment – must be plenty to say.

Are A sides always Greatest Hits? Paul begins by explaining H pushed that band into new territory, or beyond their comfort zone. Is making a Prog band more commercial and making more simple songs pushing out of a comfort zone? I suppose technically – they are comfortable with Prog, but you could argue that bands are Prog precisely because they’re comfortable with pop/simple music and want to expand into more difficult territory. Enough!

Poor Phil makes an appearance in the Podcast again – we all had a Phil, right? I had a Simon, who wasn’t quite a Phil, but I did used to go to his house specifically to get the chocolate biscuits I wasn’t allowed at home. Or sometimes his Grandmother, who I don’t believe was called Phil either. I didn’t pick up on the feather being from a Magpie. Paul gives his thoughts on the album artwork, more from the perspective of them feeling like an unfair appropriation of Fish imagery. It sounds like Sanja’s opinion on the cover is similar to mine. Nobody likes brown.

Sanja likes the opener – already familiar with H she was comfortable to be back with his velvety voice. Incidentally, when I was in St Lucia I did have an exotic laxative. Unintentionally as our guide decided to climb a tree in the jungle to grab a mango or some such, slice it open with a knife produced from God knows where, and slip a segment into my mouth. I’m not sure his hands have ever been introduced to soap. Enough!

I did go out of my way to try to avoid comparisons with Fish in this and the next post, but some comparisons are inevitable, especially in this first non-Fish album. Paul says how unique H’s voice is – to be fair I’ve only heard a single album by him so far, but while I found him a strong and diverse singer, I did find myself thinking he sounded like a composite of any number of other singers. Again, you can’t help but look for these comparisons when experiencing something for the first time. We’ll see how I feel in the future. Apparently his lyrics ‘grow’ but here he is something of a guarded writer. 

I picked up on the band feeling rejuvenated, particularly in the first song, but it’s obvious throughout. This is, subjective statement coming, the truest manifestation of what Marillion is. Again, I’ll judge for myself once I catch up with other albums. Paul doesn’t need a laxative when Sanja is delivering great theories like what she thinks the first song is about. To be fair to Sanja, I didn’t pick up much from it. Apparently the dates refer to Tiananmen Square. Okay, still the words didn’t give me much. Paul doesn’t particularly enjoy the lyrics either, so we’re all on the same page. I don’t know who John Whatshisface is either? Is he some other bloke who joined the band?

On to Easter, which was not necessarily written for Marillion. Yeah, they do sound like a completely different band but there’s enough o the band there to stop it feeling like some out of place solo track. Ah right. Yes, us English Lit graduates pronounce it ‘Yates’ and I’m aware of that poem – so if Yeats was a favourite poet and it’s named in honour of him – fair enough. The lyric again wasn’t specific and in general just seemed to cover some stuff about Ireland. Paul likes it, thinks it’s a little overdone or overplayed, though recognises it as a Marillion classic. We all have songs like that. I haven’t watched Outlander yet – too many kilts. Paul says it’s simply a love letter to the Irish. 

Paul doesn’t like Uninvited Guest. I called it forgettable, Paul calls it boring. Yeah, it’s just meh. Even with the ‘cuckooo’. Yes, it’s a bouncier track in the context of the album. Would I skip this? Well, I think the album only has two songs I’d have on a playlist. Actually, as you’ll see in my next post, I have heard that Bell In The Sea song and pretty much make the exact same statement as Paul. Is the song about AIDS? One nil to me. I absolutely got the humour from it, it’s very silly. Yeah, I can understand the ‘trying to be Fish’ with the lyrics. So that’s what the first footer refers to, and who. Nice. It’s funny, and juvenile, but lets all try to get along.

Seasons End, I hope the guys like this one as much as I do. Or more. Yes, I picked up on that apostrophe after writing my bit about the song. It was a grower for Sanja, while it was an instant win for me. It never really needed to grow on me because it was there from the start. So the last few minutes was a bit of a loose faff – still could do without it. It’s a bittersweet backstory for the song. The whole thing is lovely. Paul took time to warm to the song too. I can’t imagine the outro being all that exiting live, but Paul says it is, so there you go. 

That’s about it for today, folks! Let us know your thoughts on this one in the comments!

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