Nightman Listens To Marillion – Brave!

Brave (Marillion album) - Wikipedia

Greetings, Glancers! We’re deep into Marillion’s second phase now, and from what little I’ve been told about this album – it’s dark, difficult, and different. Continuing with the way I typically start these posts, I check out the album art, the track list, and accidentally side-eye some of the peripheral album info on Wikipedia. I see the album was released in 1994, three years after their previous effort and right at the peak of Grunge. Kurt Cobain would die two months later, but the spectrum of Rock music had definitely tilted towards the more introspective side of things and away from the overblown and fun-loving years of yore. The Holy Bible was released in 1994. In Utero came out in 1993. There was something insidious in the water which led to a host of infamously dark releases.

The album artwork hints at something cold and intense – the extreme close up of what seems to be a woman’s face, with scribbled handwriting watermarked over the top – it’s a very Grunge adjacent image. The woman looks like a Gothic Winona Ryder or an Elfin Diamanda Galas (if it sounds anything like Galas, we may be in trouble). The band name and album title are etched in miniscule font at the top, almost out of sight, leaving you no opportunity to avoid the stare or the face in front.

Is it a double album? The track-list only features 11 songs, but a few of these are longer than the five minute mark. The total running time is over 70 minutes, so this could take a while. I don’t recognise any of the song titles and if anything can be gleamed from their names – lies, alone, hollow, hard, mad, escape, runaway… I probably wouldn’t have picked up anything from those names if I hadn’t already heard that this was ‘a dark album’, but obviously those words conjure some images and feelings. While we’re on the topic of feelings, I should probably highlight some personal bias – I’m a fan of so called ‘darker material’. All my life I’ve been instinctively drawn to more fringe or extreme forms of media – Horror movies, Heavy Metal,  my childhood enjoyment of gory myths and legends. Not that I’m deliberately trying to be an edge-lord, not that I’m unhinged or some dough-faced cynical pessimist, I simply enjoy music and fiction which touches or embraces those hushed emotions we’re not traditionally supposed to talk about. I generally find fans of similar material to be as well adjusted as anyone else – it’s the Country fans you have to watch out for.

I mention this not because I think I’m automatically going to love Brave due to personal preferences – quite the opposite. I have a history of being less than impressed by recommended dark offerings in Film and Music – everything from Nine Inch Nails to The Cure’s Pornography to all manner of nonsensical Metal albums which claim to be dark or bleak – they don’t do it for me. I tend to not be as invested in darker albums which deal with love or break-ups or subjects of that nature, as much as those which attempt to uncover the uncomfortable and the unspeakable – murder, mental illness, war, real world tragedies, personal destruction. I should add that I’m not looking to revel in these subjects, more that I want to understand those who have been impacted by them on a personal level to the extent that they needed to express those feelings publicly and artistically; many of the greatest artistic statements have come from places of pain and authenticity, or have attempted to push moral or cultural boundaries. If there’s any general rule I apply to these considerations, it’s that albums designed to try to sound dark tend to fail (for me), while albums recorded from a genuine place of pain tend to succeed.

I unfairly compare these works to The Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible, which is such a unique and uncompromising artistic statement of despair that nothing comes close to its power. I’ll have to separate myself from this bias, and while I go in knowing Brave is not meant to be an easy listen, I have a feeling that in the back of mind I’ll be thinking ‘yeah, but it’s hardly 4st 7lbs, The Intense Humming Of Evil, or Archives Of Pain. I’ll try as much as possible to take Brave for what it is and only compare it to Marillion’s existing work. I don’t know any of the context surrounding the recording of the album, or if any of that information helps to envelop the music in a haze of darkness, pain, or despair. There’s no point guessing any longer, lets just dive in.

See the source image

Bridge as an opener, does what an opener should do; it introduces us to the overall tone of the album, giving an idea of the theme and the sound which we’ll be with for the album’s running time. It’s clear that we’re moving in a direction of soundscapes and textures – the opening melodies are created via a mixture of traditional keyboards and more modern studio trickery. You can’t put your finger on what these sounds are or what is creating them, but it sets a mood. There is a somewhat harsher production, although this comes more to the fore in subsequent tracks. The recurring HRRRRNNNMMMM sound which opens the album, it sounds at once like an aircraft crashing overhead on its way to deliver some apocalyptic payload, and a guitar bending a volume knob twiddling. What it most reminded me of was… the videogame Siren Head (I believe there is a movie now too) which depicts these giant robotic sentinels trampling through forest wastelands, and giant speakers/sirens for a head. This is the sort of sound I would expect such creatures to make. 

The song is definitely a mood piece, stepping definitively away from the commercial pop sound of the previous album. What mood it is meant to convey, I’m still unsure. It is forlorn, it moves into a more quiet second half for a brief vocal melody which fades off the end of a cliff as if giving up a thought mid-sentence, allowing the final moments of the song to form the intro of Living With The Big Lie. As the bulk of the song is a texture of sounds and not my usual forte, I don’t have much else to add. The lyrics give little doubt as to what the mood of the song should be, as they depict a woman on a bridge, peering over the edge, while cameras go off and police ask questions… it’s obvious what we’re talking about and upon reading them for the first time I wondered if the rest of the album’s narrative was going to be of a suicidal woman recounting her life before stepping forwards or not. Incidentally, there is a highly divisive and shocking documentary called The Bridge which details those who have lost their lives at the Golden Gate bridge’s ‘popular suicide spot’. Hearing a song like this draws clear parallels. Having listened to the album multiple times before reading a single lyric or understanding the subject matter, it certainly made me re-evaluate some of my first time thoughts. 

The gloomy, almost claustrophobic tone continues into Living With The Big Lie. It’s a ghostly, light intro with a soft vocal, a song which eventually finds some edge and volume. I tend to hunt for melody as my first magnet in a song – these opening tracks don’t have a lot in the way of melody, or vocal melodies at least, but this goes roughly unnoticed because of the atmosphere grabbing attention and enticing production overdubs and tonal shifts. This song pulls itself in different directions with chaotic overdubs, anguished echoed vocals, scratchy guitars, and sudden moments of introspective calm – conflicting sounds imitating a tortured mind. It’s a grittier sound from what we’ve been used to, although it does recall some of the darker moments on previous albums. I like what is done with the guitars in the first half of the song – it sounds like harmonics with added reverb and other effects, making the notes sound like a keyboard. One of guitar tones near the end (there’s a lot of overlapping parts) reminded me of the famous filtered sound from Nirvana’s Come As You Are. There’s a deceptive amount of musical content going on as the song progresses, and it’s easy to miss much of it on a cursory listen. 

The song, assuming it is following the narrative I suspected from the opening track, covers the birth and first days of (presumably) the woman on the bridge. It reads like one third prose, one third poetry, and one third diary entry – ‘it all began’ sounds like the opening narration for Jim Henson’s Storyteller or Jackanory, then dipping into the assorted imagery and near haiku stylings of ’empty winter trees/How space feels/Love of the soft flowers and the sky’. 

It’s quite a long lyric – long in the sense of the number of individual verses rather than being some rambling soliloquy. It starts out as a largely pleasant series of images and feelings, confusion is stirred in, then those images take on a darker turn as maturity and experience come into play. ‘The beauty of your mother’s eyes’ is simplicity, warmth, innocence, and your world view honed in on a protective force of good, but then we get the ‘thunder of jets’, ‘drugs in the food’, ‘attitude of authority’ – a succession of inescapable lessons which dampen our early experiences and show us the first snarls of an outside world ready and willing to bite. There’s no single issue or big bad acting as the target for our ire, rather it’s a cynical and realistic perspective of the world – perspective being the key word. 

If there is a key refrain or word within the lyric, it’s ‘I got used to it’. All of the confusion, all of the stuff we deal with, all of the expectations, all of the things we’re not good at – you get used to it. It’s a sink or swim attitude – you cope or you drown. If all you know is being knocked about, then that becomes the natural state. It’s a psychological state of acceptance I see a lot in myself – I can’t do anything about any of this stuff, so fuck it. But not ‘fuck it’ in a dismissive way ‘well I’m just going to ignore or avoid these things’, but more of a sad state of realisation that this is how things are and this is how things will always be, so keep your head down and let it happen. I’m in no way qualified to talk about these issues in an intelligent coherent way beyond my own feelings and experiences – sadly few people are – but I have empathy. Not necessarily to recognize it in others, but to try to understand. 

Into young adulthood and things are progressively worse – ‘I was made to feel worthless’. This could conjure up any number of interpretations, from the well trodden idea of the big city swallowing all hopes and dreams, to the more recently topical issues of the #Metoo movement. The narrator continues to look outwards – from Mum’s face, to School, to the big city, to war-mongering politicians, religion, the media – but it’s okay, because that’s just how it is, and you get used to it. I very much read the lyric as this person, through circumstance, through hardship, through loss of innocence, taking on a jaded view of the world and that this view will go on to inform her opinions and decisions, and ultimately be one piece of the puzzle leading her to a bridge. As mentioned, it’s something I recognize in myself and I have to be careful to ground myself in other perspectives and not pass it on to my kids. 

There’s a little segue between Living With The Big Lie and Runaway Girl –  a series of voice clips and effects which you can kind of make out. I make out multiple voices, one distressed woman saying what sounds like ‘hate everybody’ and ‘all my friends’ before trailing off. I’m sure a decent set of headphones would uncover more. That sound clip, while potent, it feels a little excessive at this point in the album. It sounds like someone in the immediate midst of anguish – could be the middle of an argument, could be the aftermath of a breakup, could be a total breakdown. Two songs in and based on the way the previous song did a good job of building and exploring, that clip felt like a sudden tip over the edge. Maybe its purpose is just as an example of the person’s mindset at any given moment of depression, but it felt a little out of the blue or extra, as the kids say.

Rothery offers a little more of a jangle to his guitar tone, but than shadowy atmosphere is still clear. I enjoy organs in songs – it’s such a powerful and versatile instrument which can increase a song’s grandeur or give it a funereal vibe. Certainly the opening tone of the song is one of sadness and monotony, hinting at the need to run away. I enjoyed the fake build up around the minute and a half mark – building as if to a chorus which would release tension, building to a chorus which I was unsure would be driven in a positive or more angry way – was it going to a chorus showing the joy of a Runaway Girl escaping monotony and sadness, or the anger of needing this escape. The fake out instead forces us to relive and continue the monotony, with the music building, building, then dropping with a shrug back to the verse. The repeat this trick a second time, then decide to avoid a chorus altogether and replace it with an instrumental led by a flickering, screeching solo, closing out with a fiery, pissed off vocal. 

Lyrically, Runaway Girl reads at first like a thousand teenage cliches – the isolation, adolescent angst, and confusion. It’s another expansion of the lead character’s story (or how it is imagined to be by the narrator) as she struggles for identity, freedom, place. Many of the lyrics are questions, often what we are left with after someone goes missing or takes their own life, with the chorus being a deliberate blanket assumptive statement – Runaway Girl/A real wild child/too bad. The last lines hint that all of the running away, homelessness, starvation, mistreatment, loveless hook-ups are all due in part (or at least favourable to) the treatment she has received at home – treatment which is suggested to be violent or sexual. 

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

Three songs in and it’s a good place to pause and mention the comparison which has been nipping at me – it’s not one which will mean much to many reading this due to the band in question not being widely known – but this album has a hell of a lot in common with The Gathering’s output, particularly the more ethereal moments of their seminal How To Measure A Planet? album. For Paul’s benefit – think mellow Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree with female vocals. For everyone else, think OK Computer with female vocals. Or Portishead’s Dummy with a little edge. Very similar production, similar in mood, and even the guitar tones have more in common than not. It’s an album to slip away to in the dark, headphones on – I’m not sure if that’s advisable with Brave yet. The main difference between Brave and How To Measure A Planet? (which I highly recommend everyone to go purchase and/or listen to after reading this) is that The Gathering’s album doesn’t deal with such dark material and instead revels in isolation and the idea of floating away, entirely alone, in space and doesn’t treat this as something terrible, rather a beautiful, inevitable part of life. It’s a masterpiece, and a tragedy more people don’t know it – when you search for it on Youtube, results for ‘How To Measure A Plant Pot’ are suggested first. I see no reason prog fans wouldn’t like it, unless they only like bands with big manly men up front.

Returning to Brave, and possibly it’s centrepiece, Goodbye To All That shatters much of the niceties we’ve been presented with so far. It’s a bit of a beast, a chanting, industrial monster offering a tempestuous odyssey from relative piano calm to percussive dissonant booming, and a breathless array of emotion and texture in between. That transition around the second minute into an echoing sequence sounds like a literal descent into a dark place (struggling to avoid hackneyed Greek Myth analogies), with the backing instruments stripping away their natural musicality and instead performing screeching downstrokes like fingernails clawing down a tombstone, leaving the drums to keep any semblance of form. It probably won’t interest anyone else, but I found this very similar to a section of Gold Against The Soul and Nostalgic Pushead (Manics again) right down to the sound effects and the adopted American accent for the vocals. That moment is followed up by a spine-tingling swell of vocals/vocal sounds which gives a echoing, epic pained sentiment. Anyone who follows my music posts regularly knows I love a sudden layered vocal swell to give the impression of a choir.

This sequence peaks with a suitably blistering guitar solo, petering out to an exhausted repose. It’s another section which gave me distinct The Gathering vibes, and it shows the balls of the band to comfortably remain in this space for several minutes and let the song puzzle its own way back to a recognizable place – this would typically be seen as dead air, but for more adventures artists and prog bands it’s an integral part of cementing mood and texture. When we eventually do return to a regular vocal and melody, those closing moments have greater impact thanks to the maelstrom of relative silence we’ve passed through. It’s one of the more harsh songs in the Marillion discography, and the three songs preceding this one… as different as they have sounded they are all unmistakingly Marillion. More and more it’s Rothery’s guitar tone and style which is the most recognizable component for me, followed by the keyboards.

Goodbye To All That transitions seamlessly into the first obvious Single of album (turns out it’s not even a Single). Hard As Love is as close to a traditional old fashioned rock song as Marillion have come – right down to a name which conjures images of cock-rock superstars.  The album so far has not had songs you would consider as Single material, but that hasn’t made it any less appealing. Perhaps it’s not as immediate as some, especially after the previous album, but I imagine Marillion fans aren’t looking for a quick fix but a long term drip-feed of goodness. The vocals blast out like Springsteen in the opening seconds, begging to be heard from the most obscenely sized stereo you can sling over your denim-clad shoulder. Musically and vocally it sounds out of place on a first listen, but a deeper delve into the lyrics unveils its truer nature, and subsequent listens shine a light on the song’s softer moments as the highlight. The indulgent string bends and transition into a twinkling piano section around the three minute mark may be one of my favourite parts of any Marillion song so far.

The song is almost seven minutes long – not exactly single fodder with that length – but it could have been edited down somewhat, even to only include the harder edged sections. I’m not generally a fan of heavily edited singles, especially when they turn the song into something entirely different from the album version, so that probably would have been a horrible idea. With a title like Hard As Love, coupled with the trad rock stylings of the verses, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was some ill-advised AC/DC knock-off. On my first listen of the album that’s exactly what I took the first half of the song as – confusing me as to why there was such a stark left turn in the content. Multiple listens soon clarified any such misgivings, and the lyrics further shot down notions of misogyny or trad rock nonsense. I’m not positive from which perspective the lyrics are coming from. It’s a tad vague – I get the sense that H’s lyrics are more about creating a mood or feeling than explicitly barfing details on a plate for us to lap up – but it does leave the song open for empty interpretation. It’s a guessing game where every answer could be as right or wrong as the next. The gist seems to be that… love is hard… and maybe each verse deals with anticipation or entitlement or some sort of struggle. Verse one; somebody wants someone, but shucks – love is hard. Verse two; more of the same, with extra maths. Verse three; a little more creative detail – are you sure you still want me, you’ve heard about the pictures, right? My assumption for the middle verses was that love is being equated to addiction, then we suddenly shift to religion for the final verse. Is it the main narrator speaking throughout – a series of people wanting something from her, wanting to save her, with an air of prostitution throughout, the person dehumanized to a commodity.

I don’t know how Paul and Sanja are dividing up their podcast episodes for Brave, but I think I’ll slap a moratorium on this post for now. I think Hollow Man is supposed to be considered under the first half of the album, but look at how much I’ve written already. I have a feeling I will split my Brave thoughts into three posts – the second post will either close out the album with the third left entirely for podcast musings, or the second and third will both include some song thoughts and podcast stuff. My thoughts on the album to this point – it has mostly avoided the apprehensions I outlined concerning dark albums – the lyrical and thematic content is certainly not sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, but the music isn’t as caustic or off-putting as I was anticipating. It’s still Marillion, it’s still eminently listenable, and it shows a progressive step of (I don’t want to say maturity) songwriting  beyond what was apparent on Holidays In Eden. The hits are missing, and while that’s not a bad thing, the ability to write those hits is something any self-respecting band should have in their pocket. Otherwise you’re probably not going to get very far. Maybe the second half is more hit-heavy. 

Feel free to skip over  or ignore the next couple of paragraphs as they don’t pertain to the album directly or my thoughts on it, but it’s the elephant in the room and possibly it’s going to be brought up in the Podcast. Trigger Warnings for Suicide. Suicide is something that, when I was young, was seen as something only the ultra famous or viciously unstable would consider. Naturally, part of that misunderstanding is due to the wonderful innocence of youth and inexperience, but as you grow and learn and experience, and as you go through shit yourself, you see that it’s not some random or rare event. I knew peripherally of several people who, before I turned 18, had killed themselves. By the time I was in my twenties, I personally knew a few who had lost there lives in this way, and many more who had considered it. I went to a fairly large school by Northern Ireland standards (maybe a hundred in my year) but as segregated as we allowed ourselves to be, pretty much everybody knew everybody else by name or face. I was on friendly speaking terms with three people in my school year who have killed themselves. Once you see the statistics, once you feel the loss yourself, it’s easy to get angry about the state of Mental Health services in this country and all of the other various preventable issues which contribute to this spiral. It’s easy to get angry when people and politicians are fighting over a history or a divide which simply does not matter anymore – at least not when weighed against the lives lost each year in this actual, ongoing battle. It’s easy to get angry when the word ‘suicide’ is continually used – a word which has a criminality attached to it. Every country has a too-high rate of people losing their lives in this way, and while Northern Ireland is by no means the highest, it’s still shocking for a place with a limited population. Everybody knows somebody, right?

I made a point earlier about melody being the immediate and obvious hook for listeners – it is often the more challenging albums which do not feature obvious melodies. That doesn’t mean they are not present, it may simply mean you need to spend more time with each song before they’re uncovered. Not to make an over-simplified comparison, but isn’t that a bit like people? Maybe it takes spending time with someone to see their strengths and to understand and appreciate their flaws, the pain they have undoubtedly suffered. Maybe we need to spend this time with each other, to communicate, and find a way to help bring us out into a bright new morning and bright new day. Sometimes when we do, the results are that much greater. I’m as guilty of treating music (and people) in this passive, distracted way. We’re not necessarily inherently selfish, but we all have our own shit to deal with and a limited time to play with. It’s important that we allow ourselves to breath, then maybe we can listen and absorb, understand and help. I’m wildly out of my depth in this topic and I don’t want to make any ridiculous generalizations or simplifications, and I hate writing or talking like this because it comes off as sappy or self-serving or misguided, and given that I write in a spur of the moment way… well, it’s the sort of topic demands more respect than my half-assed blogging can provide.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Brave, and as always give the BYAMPOD a listen!

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