Nightman Listens To Marillion – Radiation – Part 1!

Greetings, Glancers! Here we are, Marillion’s tenth album. Not many bands make it to ten albums these days, but I’m inclined to believe that bands which started out in the 80s are more likely to have made it to double figures than bands which started in the 2000s. More time to reach that target, I know, but how many bands who released there first album around 1999/2000 are even still going today? How many bands are able to or capable of releasing two albums in the space of a couple of years these days? That’s what Marillion appear to have done with Radiation, coming roughly 12 months after This Strange Engine (which itself came two years after Afraid Of Sunlight). 

At the time of writing this intro, I know nothing about the album beyond the tracklist and the fact that the 2013 Remaster cleans up a lot of the Production criticism which the original faced. Presumably it’ll be the Remaster I listen to on Youtube. Actually, it looks like there’s more to it as some tracks have been made shorter on the Remaster and have removed some interlude pieces of music. How strange. Am I going to have to listen to both? Balls to that, I’ll write about the Remaster and listen to the original once if I can find it.

The cover art makes me think of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Death, chess, marching etc) except that Bergman was known for dreary black and white rather than crystal oceans and blue skies. There’s a dude all cloaked up and shrouding his face with a flaming torch. It’s all a bit cult like – Hammer horror movies from the 50s or The Wicker Man. Is there something wrong his feet – in the picture I’m looking at his legs appear to end with wooden stumps instead of feet. Some of the letters in the text are highlighted – seems to be suggesting that this is the 10th album – and along with the album title and the beach backdrop I can surmise that maybe some themes may include health, heat or burning, pain, nature, environment, and good old water. How can water be a ‘theme’? As always, I’m clasping, so lets get into it.

Costa Del Slough is a funny name. We’re not a sunny nation, but we’re a nation of sun seekers. I can’t speak for Slough personally; I’ve never been and I’m not sure exactly where it is, but the Costa Del (insert name of random beach town) is something we say in Northern Ireland too. We are even less of a sunny nation than England…. roughly the same in terms of sun-seeking I would say, with the added bonus of more than 3 days of 20 plus degrees in a row likely to make us angry and long for a bit of drizzle. It’s more of an intro piece than a song – I can’t imagine this appearing in many playlists or in Live concert rotation as a standalone. Maybe the original was longer but this one is under a minute long. It’s pure McCartney. I don’t know if this was intentional, but it has that old timey dance hall number vibe which McCartney increasingly whipped out in his Beatle days. You could see Betty Boop appearing in a video for this. It’s too short to cause any offence or stay in the memory, but does work as a lead in to the next track.

The lyrics are effectively funny and also tie into the next track. I’m assuming the song is taking the piss out of sun-seekers and people who would sacrifice their health for a bit of sun… of all the ills in the world to write a song about, this is an odd hill to choose to die on but I’m guessing it’s painting a wider picture and introducing the wider themes of the album. Obviously the band has done Environmental songs before and maybe I was correct in my guesses based on the album artwork – surely they’re not going to do a whole album about, what, people arsing about in the sun while the world and the next generation burns? A light bit of satire to kick us off.

Under The Sun gets the album going 4Real, a straightforward rocker which doesn’t scrimp on energy or melody. I’m conscious of wanting to avoid calling out comparisons that I only I hear, but the opening riff did remind me of Kula Shaker’s cover of Hush and some other Britpop tunes. Britpop was on the wane at this point, but still popular enough that you could hear its influence in other artists – new and longstanding. There’s an undercurrent of funky keyboard bashing and I liked the opposing scales used in different places – the upwards scale whistle type sounds which are played in the chorus before the ‘under the sun vocal comes in’ which are countered towards the end of the song by the guitars working downwards through a scale. This creates a chaotic ending as both scales play at the same time – one climbing, one descending, each acting as a counterpoint to the other almost like two sides of an argument.

As straightforward as the song is structurally, that sense of chaos is ever present. The guitars scorch and screech from the first moment with significant overlapping and layering, and you have the underpinning of clattering drums, sudden pauses and shifts, and an unusual middle section featuring plenty of effects, battered keyboards, and wicky wicky wha chords. While it is quite noisy and messy, the lead ‘under the sun’ hook works very well and the verses are suitably bouncy – I can see this working well at a gig even if I don’t see it as one which would be in regular rotation.

I was mishearing the first line in the lyrics as ‘It is to rain’ – Google tells me it’s ‘It used to rain’. ‘It is to rain’ I prefer – it works as both an overly dramatic Latin/French phrasing which suggests exasperation at the fact that is is constantly wet and grim, and as a prediction of the future state of the weather. ‘What’s it going to be like tomorrow – weather guy says it is to rain’. None of that fits with the song though, which is talking about rain more as a memory rather than the current and future state. It used to rain, but now everything is sunny and warm and perfect and too sunny and too warm and terrible. It looks like we’re in some post-pollution end game where there’s no turning back for the world as the polar ice melts but no-one seems to care. I’m going to guess the ‘going to the beach on the Northern Line’ is meant to be a joke of some sort – North usually suggests coldness, at least in terms of England’s geography, but in this new warmer world you do head North for a day at the beach. That’s probably a stretch, but it seems like an odd thing to write without there being some meaning behind it. Ironically, it is the North of Northern Ireland where people travel to for a day at the beach (15 minutes from me meaning our Summers are overpopulated with ‘chip eaters’). Of course it all ends with the sea coming up the street, but everyone is still having fun under the sun. The moral of the song… please recycle?

Thematically, it’s a continuation of the opening track, but with a more serious bent. It’s also a continuation of what is, lets be honest, my favourite Marillion song so far – Season’s End. Environmental concerns are not something which seem to be brought up in music all that often, which is perhaps surprising in today’s Woke world. Historically it’s not exactly the sort of sexy subject matter which sells records, but everyone from Led Zep and The Beatles and many of the folk singers of the 60s onwards, up to the likes of REM and Michael Jackson have written notable hits on the topic. That Marillion was doing this in 1998 and earlier is a testament to their cultural awareness and I always respect bands who aren’t only singing about love and/or sex. It’s not as powerful a song as Season’s End is to me but while Season’s End felt mournful and resigned to the fact that the planet is DOOMED, this was written from a more satirical or cynical perspective.

The Answering Machine continues the high energy and rock sound. There is a lot going on again in terms of texture and soundscapes – I’m sure the production of this one was a pain – but you would still class it as a straightforward rock song from a structural standpoint. I’m not sure what Paul makes of these two songs given he’s not typically a fan when the band positions themselves as a rock band rather than a Prog band, or whatever odd mixture Marillion is. I will say that the weird sounds and the overall mix do their best to elevate the song beyond standard fare. The sudden intro, straight in with the vocals and energy, is unusual for the band and the cartoon alien/robot sounds flashing around behind the guitars show the band is still tinkering with new ideas even if they don’t appear to be truly pushing themselves creatively. There are Celtic rhythms buried under the sound textures giving the song the feel of a jig, and H has a few spoken parts and plays around with different vocal styles. It’s not a disjointed song, but like the previous track it does feel chaotic in places.

H is up in the sky looking down at the world – there was a lot of that in This Strange Engine – and he’s separated his self into different parts again; ‘…My feelings and I…looked down on the city from up in the sky’. I was about write that all we needed was something about drowning or a lake and we’d have the traditional H lyric, but then I saw the word ‘water’ in the very next line. The song does have some interesting phrases – ‘heartbreak of a statue’, ‘bulletproof mirrors where your eyes used to be’, but we’re left with the question of who or what is ‘the answering machine’. My best guess is that it’s simply another part of himself or his conscience, some private part of himself where he can speak and record the truths that he’s never going to tell anyone else. This of course gives the song a sad and dark tone which doesn’t exactly bit with the bouncy jig nature of the music. I think it would be too easy to say that it’s some type of love song with the narrator traveling the world to reconnect with someone they had fallen away from, and I instead see the song as H simply trying to come to terms with himself. He’s travelled the world, he’s trying to find that person he once was, but too much has happened that the past and present can never reconcile. Though it probably is a break up song.

Three Minute Boy marks a turn in the album. It’s the point I begin to connect with the album – the first three songs were unremarkable and didn’t have a huge impact on me. Three Minute Boy musically embraces the darker tone of the lyrics and is as such a slower ballad instead of an up temp rocker, though it does have a brief rock breakdown before the epic outro. In terms of quality, it isn’t a huge step up from the first few songs for me, but it does feel more like Marillion doing what they do. There’s more of a Progressive element, the production is less chaotic, and while it follows the path of chucking a lot of different layered sounds into the mix, those parts are given more time to breath and stand apart. We begin as a sorrowful piano led piece and close with a Hey Jude coda perhaps echoing the journey of the character behind the lyrics. Those first ‘yeah/hey’ vocals leading into the ending along with the string type synths around the two minute mark gave me Duran Duran vibes again – something I called out for one of the songs on This Strange Engine but this seems like such a strange comparison I’ll assume it’s only something I’m picking up on.

I would argue that the outro is a little too long, taking the song to close to the six minute mark when a solid five may have put the same point across. There is time for a hefty solo and extended guitar shenanigans, and the aforementioned rock and roll breakdown which ties the two central parts of the album together is a interesting little curio which somehow works well. This is the song I’m most curious to hear if there is any background story. The lyric itself works as a story and it seems both personal, satirical, and it could have been based on any number of artists in history. The first verse sounds like the memory of a one-hit wonder song, here today for a moment’s success and hype, then gone tomorrow. In the second verse we delve into the the person behind the one-hit wonder, a kid who grew up apparently dreaming of fame and suddenly achieving it, yet that fame was entirely based upon a single three minute song which was written as a bit of a joke. You hear those stories every so often by bands who write a throwaway piece of fun which ends up becoming the song which defines them.

The chorus further suggests the fleeting nature of fame and how transitory it all is, with the good times rolling beneath his feet, with it leading only down a one-way street it’s impossible to return from. My assumption in the next verse is that the man who wrote this three minute song just happened to meet a woman in a similar position – she made a movie people half remembered – and they fall in love. Or sort of in love, the language used tinged with sarcasm – ‘measured up’, ‘giggled’, ‘la la la’. The ‘three minute’ metaphor comes around repeatedly with more bite on each successive line – he becomes a three minute millionaire suggesting that he was lucky and perhaps undeserving, he’s referred to as a ‘three minute kid’ suggesting naivety, innocence, and/or immaturity, and he’s surrounded by fleeting, ambulance-chasing three minute friends. Those last few verses hammer the nails home – nothing to hold on to or look forward to, no escape, no money, girlfriend leaves, talent and confidence shot, media hounding him. The final line I’m not sure which way to read it – it could be a positive in that his next song gets in at number 2 on the charts, but I think that’s too much of a sudden shift back to optimism. Possibly it’s only semi-hopeful in that his song is successful, but his girlfriend is gone and he no longer cares about music so the song’s success is meaningless. Most likely though is the logical bleak conclusion – the girlfriend has simply left and latched on to a new three minute boy, and this new person has written their own song and is just about to ride the same wave of success as our narrator had before. As I said, I’m keen to hear if there was an element of truth or reality behind this one.

Now She’ll Never Know is maybe my favourite on the album. Probably my favourite. There are clear Thom Yorke vibes in the vocals, something which is always going to work with me. Not to compare myself with a professional who has sold millions of records, but he kind of sounds like me here too. This ticks plenty of my boxes – bloke with a high pitched voice, soft and subtle, pained and personal, dripping with melody and emotion. It’s pleasingly understated and has an uncomplicated production which opposes the previous songs. While there are backing sounds and eerie noises and wavering synth, and while those strengthen the song, if you were to strip all of that away and leave just the vocals and guitar the core power and quality of the song would still be there. Even with these positives, I do think the song peters out towards the end and could have done with a touch of shaving here and there to keep it closer to four minutes. It’s a plain song from a structural perspective, and the melodies and vocals are so light and airy that you risk becoming boring the longer you run on. Due to it being quite a plan and uneventful song, I don’t have much more to say about it – it’s lovely and hopefully it doesn’t lose its impact on me over time.

Lyrically it could be the partner of the previous song, the dirty cousin you hide your best toys from when he’s coming to visit because you know picks his nose and probably scratches his ass. Not that the lyrics falter in quality, just that there’s an indirect relationship between the songs with this lyric getting into the nitty gritty of the breakdown between two people. That opening verse sums up the feelings of anyone who’s ever been in an emotional fight and is trying to piece it all together. There’s a lot of guilt, there’s confusion in the disjointed half-finished thoughts and lines. There’s the feeling of stupidity too – ‘now she’ll never know what anyone could tell her’ – stupidity on both sides is how I’m reading it, on one for making a mistake, on the other for not seeing the mistake or being prepared for it. Nothing more than a sad breakup song, but one with particular poignancy and with universal all too recognisable lyrics.

I’m going to leave this post here for today – at the time of writing, Paul and Sanja are getting over their Covid issues and haven’t released the first Radiation episode. It sounds like it was a particularly nasty bout of the illness, so ease yourselves back in to everything! I’m keeping out of mouth range from everybody until it’s safe to go outside without face condoms – so roughly the year 2525 (if man is still alive). That means I get this post earlier, that post two will only look at the remaining songs, and that I’ll do a podcast thoughts specific post to close out the album. For anyone reading this and wondering what the hell I’m on about – go listen to the previous episodes of BYAMPOD as Paul and Sanja listen to and discuss each Marillion album in order, with assorted guest and bonus eps and goodness. Then come back here and let me know thoughts in the comments!

Tell it like it is!

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