Nightman Listens To – Marillion – Afraid Of Sunlight (Side A)

Afraid of Sunlight - Wikipedia

Greetings, Glancers! Last time we were here, I had some sort of idea of what Brave would involve. I knew going in that it dealt with dark and difficult subject matter, I knew it was divisive, and I knew that many existing fans struggled with it. For today’s album – Afraid Of Sunlight – I know next to nothing. I believe Paul and Sanja have mentioned that it sounds unlike anything the band had done to this point (though that has been said of quite a few of the albums so far) and I think Paul might have called it his favourite Marillion album…? Or the best…?

The artwork may suggest some of the secrets within. It features a semi-nude boy clasping a two-by-four, standing in front of a flaming ring. Is he about to enter the Royal Rumble, swinging his ‘staff’ a la Hacksaw Jim Duggan? Is he about to swivel, hop on a skateboard, and land a sweet jump through the fiery void? But what’s that stapled to his shoulders? Wings, you say? So the lad is a representation of an angel, looking suitably cherubic and forlorn with his eyes cast downwards in pity/sorrow/sadness/regret/disappointment. Has he just traversed some portal between dimensions, leaving an orb of flames in his wake? Did he then check out the state of humanity and say ‘nope’ before scuttling back through? Why are Angels always effeminate boys or muscle-bound A-List types? Biblical depictions of Angels are as monstrous, insanity inducing freakshows, specimens beyond description which defy our puny logic. It’s an eye-catching image, but time will tell how relevant it is to the album content.

Peaking at the tracklist – as expected there’s nothing I recognise. There is a title track, but also a song called Afraid Of Sunrise – similar song names by Prog Bands usually suggest some connectivity between the songs or hint that the album has an overarching Concept. The first two songs have quite interesting names – I’m already invested in whatever the hell Cannibal Surf Babe is, and I’m fairly certain I’ve seen a Troma movie with the same name. Beyond that, it’s a shorter album than Brave – not even an hour long. That’s still beyond the average 45 minutes for an album, but I’m guessing it’s short by Prog standards. If anything it should mean my posts are shorter – which we kind of need at this point or I’ll be in grave danger of falling irretrievably behind. Enough!

Gazpacho kicks things off with a Pink Floyd-esque intro – soundbites and sound effects. The spoken word piece sounds like a Beatle, and there’s some crowd chanting and a literal vocal introduction. The music reminds me of some of the more sampled moments by The Gathering and there is a slight Church atmosphere, like the sort of score you hear in idealised cinematic visions of Heaven or Church. This quickly gives way to a jangling guitar intro – heavy with the bass and twinkling. It gives distinct vibes of Ska,  New Order, and The Police – not three things I have much time for.

I didn’t have a lot of fondness for this song when I first heard it – my enjoyment has improved since then, but I would still rate it quite low alongside the other songs on the album because of those early impressions and comparisons I made. I’m not a huge fan of soundbites and spoken parts in songs, but in most cases I can tolerate those if they feel integral to the story or tone. There’s quite a lot going on in the song – it rarely feels grounded in one style; like a good prog song should, it shoots off in numerous different directions with only the barest of repetition, and the seven and a half minutes fly by. It’s a lighter song overall than anything we heard from the band last time around, hinting that they got all that pesky darkness out of their souls, and each instrument is notable in the mix – with the drums and bass standing out more than I would usually notice.

From what I gathered on my first casual listens of the song, it seems to concern media and fame. Gazpacho is what… a cold soup of some sort? Does it have another meaning? Looking more closely at the lyrics. The first verse suggests some of the prices of fame – it’s lonely at the top and the quick rise can lead to sudden excess and burnout. The second verse (chorus?) is the media or audience reaction, with people on the outside assuming the person in question was untouchable and unstoppable, yet as we know, the media loves a good story about falling from fame. The third verse touches more violent aspects – even though everything is seemingly perfect on the outside, people are still people, will argue, will fight, and will occasionally kill. It’s at this point I should admit that while reading the lyrics I accidentally saw that the soundbite is from a news report concerning OJ Simpson’s infamous escape. Which makes the song somewhat more clear, and tells us more about why the song is called Gazpacho. Was that word actually used in the case? I don’t know much about the case, beyond my form teacher bringing it up every day in School.

What’s with all of the boxing references throughout the song? Was this around the same time Tyson was beating people and throwing them downstairs? So there is more than one subject behind the lyrics. Nice use of the lingo in any case. The song ends with a suggestion that the famous can get away with anything – in the case of Tyson and Simpson… nuff said?

Cannibal Surf Babe is something of a shark jumping moment and I worried that the band had lost the plot. While I enjoyed the first song, it was a clearly different approach from Brave. The second track takes this even further as it doesn’t sound like anything they had done to this point. It feels like a joke song, down to the title, down to the lyrics, down to the pastiche music. It made me think of those strange one off songs which every big rock band or artist seems to drop and which inevitably becomes divisive within their fandom – Carouselambra or Down By The Seaside by Led Zeppelin, Jagger and Bowie with that Dancing In The Street disaster? A lot about this song irritated me first time around –  the faix whispered, faux American accent vocals, the spooky theremin, the WEEEEIIIIIRRRRD, the handclaps, the silly keyboards, the spoken parts. But I assume it’s all tongue in cheek, right? Just a bit of fun, right?

On the plus side, the melodies are fun, it’s fast paced and light, there’s a Beatles influenced backwards guitar solo, and the lyrics are amusing. It’s refreshing that the band is playing around with different sounds this deep into their career, and it’s an accurate send up of a surfer rock song, complete with Mr Wilson references and Beach Boys oooh ooooh harmonies. There’s maybe even a little touch of Bowie in the vocals and lyrics?

Speaking of the lyrics, they’re a teenage fantasy, a collection of Carry On liners with a US slant. If you hadn’t worked out that the song’s a bit of a piss-take from the music, then the lyrics confirm it.  Having said that, the choice of words and the images they conjure are a cut above the likes of AC/DC, Sid James, and other horny counterparts, as well as being genuinely funny in places – ‘nothing she said could be defended’ offering up thoughts up some hot young thing with incredibly dubious opinions. I’m guessing the song can be taken at face value, or in a variety of other ways. The second verse made me think of any number of movies – the seductive killer alien in Species (or later in the experimental Under The Skin), the Tetsuo inspired Return Of The Living Dead III, or even the genetic horrors and AI morality tale of Splice and Ex Machina. As for what someone who’s just had sex with a Tyrannosaurus Rex looks like…. I’d rather not imagine such gooey, stretched pulp.

Thankfully Beautiful gets us back on track. There’s no doubt it’s saccharine, that the keyboards and overall tone seem eternally lodged in the 80s, but regular glancers will know I’m a sucker for a good power ballad. This one differs from your standard romantic or pained content by actually being about something – a return to the environmentally conscious themes the band have tackled before. It’s a return to the commercial pop sound of Holidays In Exile and as such, it’s quite lovely. I’m not sure I’d play it in front of my mates, for fear of being ridiculed and/or knee-capped but I imagine it’s another lighters up, sway sideways brother moment when performed live. For such a sweet, gentle song, I don’t have a lot to say about it. I expect that this one is both a fan favourite, and one which may get a fair bit of ribbing or dismissal for fans of the band’s heavier or more progressive efforts.

As I read the lyrics, it’s less certain that the song actually is about the environment. Certainly you could apply that read, and it’s probably the most accurate, but for a five minute song there isn’t a huge variety to the lyrics. We have the opening few lines, and the rest of the song is vague repetition. You could interpret the leaves turning brown and being trodden down as… anything you like – beautiful things, people, places. The other offering in those opening lines is the cynicism of appreciating beautiful things, and the perceived shame and embarrassment others may put upon you for enjoying them, while those cynics prioritize material objects. Like the music, the lyrics are plain, straightforward, but the whole product works.

Afraid Of Sunrise takes the band again into new territory. Like a lazy late Spring day, lying atop a bale of hay anthropomorphising the clouds and dreaming of School’s end but also dreading, I don’t know, the Saturday morning TV shows like Going Live being replaced by their shitty Summer counterparts. The song opens with bouncy videogame bass sounds. There’s a specific game that sound is making me think of, but I can’t quite put my finger which game, or level, it is. Throughout there are a lot of tinkling twinkling guitars and pastoral flute type parps which I assume are actually keyboards – each piece adds to that feeling of a laid-back care free day. Given that the song is called Afraid Of Sunrise I’m sure there’s more to the thematic content.

Around the halfway point there is a departure into a different key which pushes the song briefly into a different tonal space. The flute sounds are replaced by more tension driven strings and the vocals fill up with more echo and reverb – it breaks up the song and offers just a hint of apprehension, something more darker, something not quite right threatening to darken the day. The vocals are largely restrained – even when hitting the bigger notes there’s the sense of holding back a little which again feeds into that laid-back atmosphere. On the vocal front H reminds me, not for the first time, of the little known band Haven and their singer Gary Briggs. Here’s a link to one of their songs – Briggs doesn’t have as deep a tone as H, but it’s a comparison I’ve felt numerous times, and Afraid Of Sunrise is a song similar enough in style to Haven’s usual music. Haven were probably accused of being somewhat bland and unadventurous, especially with their second and final album, but the emotive nature of their debut ignores any lack of originality – I could argue the same for Afraid Of Sunrise. While it is newish territory for Marillion, and while they’re playing with different sounds again, it’s a safe song. It’s safe compositionally and it’s a soft rock/pop song with little or no Prog influence. There are enough little moments which spice the whole thing up – the rapid percussion in the closing minute and the unnerving increase of instruments in the final moments even as the song is fading out. It’s a song I fully enjoyed in the short term, but I’m not sure if it has the legs to always interest me in the future, and there are things I was expecting which never came such as harmonic vocals to fill in some of the space between the lines.

Out of the lyrics I picked out before Googling them, ‘fingers in desire’s crack’ certainly stood out for all the wrong reasons and the bit about a ‘day-glo Jesus’ I picked up on because I think it comes up again in a later song. I noticed enough of the other lyrics to get the impression that the song is possibly about travel… there’s a sense of movement, of driving, with references to roads. Songs which reference driving, as long as they’re not complete nonsense, tend to be about escaping something or finding something. The ‘dressed in black/no turning back’ would suggest the former, while the first verse certainly tells us that we’re on the road heading indistinctly away. The rest of the song follows suit. I had to search what an Agave flower was – tied to the name drops of Nevada, Great White Way, and possibly Phoenix, are we escaping to the border? Could the song be OJ’s escapades? I’m guessing not as it sounds far too laid back for something so dramatic as fleeing from the law, but is it about some other real life ‘escape’? There isn’t enough detail to provide me with any more informed guesses. I’m sure the podcast has more to say.

Between You And Me (@BYAMPOD) | Twitter

The podcast opens with some pre-divorce insults. I struggle to get comfortable too, especially in bed. It has been a while between episodes, but probably not as long as my posts are taking. I do see that there are three episodes on this album so that usually gives me a chance to catch up (as I write these podcast thoughts after I’ve written my album thoughts). I haven’t revisited any album yet, but I’ve listened to plenty of songs again – mostly Kayleigh, Script For A Jester’s Tear, and Cover My Eyes. In my defence, I do listen to a lot of other crap, watch a lot of movies, read a lot, and of course have a family and a full time job – getting to this. takes. time. So for anyone who is reading and looking forward to my posts – thanks, sorry, and keep reading!

Knocking out albums rapid-fire isn’t really something which happens much anymore, is it? It wasn’t the norm in the 90s at least. If we look back to the 60s and 70s, The Beatles, The Stones, and everyone else – those guys frequently released 1-2 albums each year. Marillion did it, under a fair amount of pressure from what it sounds, although it followed the trend of not getting much marketing traction or commercial success. I was wondering if there were two different album covers, because when I googled the image both came up – but I assumed the day glo Jesus was maybe the back cover. Oh, it was the back cover. There you go. I can’t say I noticed any brown. I think there is a ‘The Brown Album’ already, by Ween or someone. A quick Google says there are several. Not by Ween though.

I didn’t get the overall sense that this was a Concept album. There is connective tissue, but not enough. Bearing in mind the Concept albums I know really lean in to a story and theme and connectivity in music and lyric. The songs and their varying sounds push against the notion of a consistent sound. Apparently the (loose) concept is fame, its dangers, being sick of it, while H’s marriage was on the rocks too. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but I have this weird thing about fame where there are people I’d love to meet and there are people I look up to that I have met or seen on the street, but I go out of my way to not talk to them. I’ve seen some of my most loved musicians walking around the city before a gig, and as much as I’d love to spend the next 6 hours being best mates, I cross the road and ignore them or at best give a nod as I walk by rather than bum-rushing them into a corner and begging for an autograph. I am nobody and I don’t like being disturbed when I’m doing my own thing, and especially when I’m walking by myself I’ve accidentally walked past some of my best mates and not noticed they’re there because I’m in my own head.

We talk a bit about OJ and Tyson and the others who had fallen apart in the 90s. This was post Cobain, this was post Richey Edwards (no idea if Marillion knew who he was), and was the first batch of Michael Jackson stuff coming out around this time? There was certainly a spotlight on FAME at the time as some of the greats were falling from grace or indeed losing their lives. I admit I didn’t catch the Afraid Of Sunlight as being afraid of the spotlight, but that seems very obvious now based on Sanja’s interpretation. Turns out this episode is not going to go through the songs as the guys have spent time talking about the album as a whole, with Paul saying it’s one of his favourites and Sanja still infected by Brave’s dark wonder to fully get on board with the overall lighter and accessible Afraid Of Sunrise. Hey, I could do 24 episodes on The Holy Bible. Easily. Lets go straight into the next episode. Concise is great? You’ve come to the wrong blog.

We kick off with Gazpacho, a song Sanja thinks is fine – enjoys the bass, enjoys that it’s different from Brave, not much else. Paul reveals that the spoken part is in fact an actor reciting a John Lennon quote. Sanja’s interpretation is of someone whose fame is such that they feel they can do anything, but on this one occasion they go too far. For the fame to addiction/crime ratio…I’ve always felt it’s dramatically increased when it happen when you’re not ready or expecting it. Not that you can ever really be ready for it, but look at the classic Hollywood child actor thing – they have the world at their feet at such a young age that it’s perfectly natural that they’re going to be all sorts of fucked up in adolescence and adulthood. Sanja mentions the 27 Club. Paul mentions some famous people he has met who are clearly hiding their troubles or worse. Whether that’s the privileged nature of fame and the box-checking exercise of going from meeting to promo to interview endlessly, or something which speaks to the trend that its the more sociopathic among us who get into these lofty positions – being outside of it all I can’t say I’m too experienced in dealing with my betters. I will say that in my line of work, with its archaic hierarchical structure, the same feelings apply and I’ve had plenty of chats with senior types who are not so good at hiding their true nature. My feelings can be summed up by that scene in Audition when we see the lead actress at home alone, smiling when the phone rings – we see her true state. When in front of the crowd or the camera, it’s all a show, but when you’re home alone and the lights are out and the clamour and din is gone, what’s left but you?

Sanja hits it on the head. The older I get, the more amazed I am at how young the kids are who get the fame. When I was that age I have no doubt I would have been as sucked in as anyone else, but the fact that I was already grounded and sceptical of fame in advance would hopefully have countered some of the more dubious antics. When I was younger and making music and hoping for stardom – it wasn’t the stardom I was after, I wanted to create and I was making stuff that I enjoyed hearing or reading or seeing, and I wanted the people out there who may be like me to potentially enjoy it too. Sadly that means being part of the monster. This blog is as much of a creative outlet as I have these days, not that I put any serious creative effort into it, but the most important thing is that I enjoy it – and maybe someone else out there likes to read it every so often. But I won’t equate writing a blog with a thousand followers (many of whom are bots) to being an A lister, so lets get on with it. To close, there is a history of the ‘best musicians/entertainers’ not wanting any of the fame – it’s like the old saying about people who want to be on the radio as a DJ – the worst thing you should say in an interview is how much you love music, because you’re there to sell a product, to sell the station and to do as your told – music has nothing to do with it.

Sanja doesn’t know what’s going on with Cannibal Whatsisface. We all laugh at the Steven Wilson bit. It’s a bit of fun, can’t see me ever going back to it. Paul loves it. I can see the reasoning if you’re not a fan of the straight rock songs, as this is a silly slice of silliness. On to Beautiful, which Sanja does love. Sanja was confused by the lyrics, believing that the world currently holds beautiful things on a pedestal – that’s not incorrect as the world does do this, but I definitely read it as calling out the hypocrisy and shallow nature of what is placed on the pedestal over and above the more fragile, natural things – or as Paul says, the fact that we are all beautiful. Paul sees Beautiful as a more major version of the pop oriented ballads they’d done before, having not enjoyed it upon release. No mention of the environment though.

On to Afraid Of Sunrise, which was a single set of lyrics which became two songs. I’ve never been on a Great American road-trip, though I have driven the wrong way up several roads outside Chicago on numerous occasions, and got last trying to make my way back to my hotel. Damn block system – why do you need a Dunkin Donuts and a Wendy’s on every single block? I appreciate and understand the love of space. It’s something I enjoy, and have always imagined living in a house on the edge of a fjord with no-one around for miles, like some Stringfellow Hawke weirdo. Even the simplicity of walking around the town or city at night when there isn’t anyone around – the place takes on a different atmosphere and character. Here in Northern Ireland it’s not difficult to find space – I spent my childhood Summers in an area known as the Mourne Mountains where my parents came from. As much as I ridicule my own Country, there’s no doubting some of the natural beauty of that area and it’s easy to go wandering and feel completely isolated in the most positive way. It’s nothing on the scale of what the US has of course, but as social as our species is I think there’s an innate need for exploration or some nomadic need to be out in the middle of nowhere and nothing.

Turns out there may not be a single plot or driving force(pardon the pun) behind the song. Paul does share any explanation from the writers, instead saying it’s another song which is designed to evoke a feeling and atmosphere rather than being about ‘x’. In truth, when I go to the US I always stick on the Classic Rock stations – because we simply don’t have anything like that over here. Even though I know every song inside out, they somehow feel different while driving in America. That’s where we leave things today. I’m off to cut the grass. Let us know in the comments what you think of Afraid Of Sunlight and don’t forget to go listen to BYAMPOD!

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