Nightman Listens To – Marillion – Marbles (Part 1)!

Marbles (album) - Wikipedia

Greetings, Glancers! I’m writing this post on 1st October 2021. It has been a while since the last ‘mainline’ BYAMPOD episode – the guys have been busy with Digi Live, a Kickstarter for the 2nd Season of Digitiser The Show, and various other Youtube antics. In addition, there has been a lot of Marillion news recently and a tonne of Marillion.com based letters to Paul and Sanja. As such, we’ve had several interim BYAMPOD episodes including the bumper 50th Episode in which the first 50 listeners each received 50 pies of their own choosing (I went for Lemon Meringue).

Has it been roughly a year since I started this Marillion journey? That feels about right. It has been a year of listening to ‘new’ music in the form of Marillion, but also in the form of a bunch of other artists and albums I either missed first time around, missed because I wasn’t alive yet, or missed because it’s relatively new and I ignored. It has been a strange year nostalgia wise too, with many of my favourite artists releasing new music. The Manics recently released their 14th album which earned them only their 2nd Number 1. Anneke Van Giersbergen released The Darkest Skies Are The Brightest earlier in the year and Alice Cooper released his retro styled Detroit Stories. Iron Maiden dropped another mammoth tome a month ago, and Radiohead have been unveiling some cutting room floor treats from the Kid A/Amnesiac era. Tori has a new one coming, though I don’t think I’ve listened to her last one yet. Hell, it even looks like Guns ‘n’ Roses are about to release a new album (even if it will likely be made up of unreleased bits and bobs from Chinese Democracy). Finally, as if there was any doubt remaining, Natalie Imbruglia confirmed that she’s unquestionably the greatest pop star of her generation with her recently released Firebird. Sure I come into this with a little bias given her White Lillies Island is one of my all time favourites, but Firebird is lovely, varied, emotive pop with the wisdom she brings to a genre almost sapped of it.

Sadly, it’s not all good news. The news emerged that Greg Glibert, lead singer of The Delays, tragically lost his long battle with Cancer. Greg was a unique talent, creating some of the most summery, shimmering indie pop/rock/whatever you want to call it, this side of The Beach Boys. The first two albums by The Delays are beautiful, joyous slices of life which never failed to put a smile on my face, and their subsequent two albums are pretty great too. The Delays are my soundtrack to Summer drives with the family. I don’t see how anyone who may be reading this and enjoys music wouldn’t love them. Greg had one of the finest voices in music and by all accounts was a wonderful human – poet, artist, brother, son, father, husband. He was also beloved as ‘one of the good guys’ by hundreds in the music business and the wider world of the famous, and it’s fair to say that as a mere fan I’m devastated by the loss. Those who actually knew him must be beyond heartbroken. Knowing it was coming doesn’t make it easier, but Greg had known for the last couple of years that… well, lets just leave it with one of the last poems he wrote –

Death makes a crown of love,

A mantle to take across the threshold

as a sign of accomplished living:

You are loved,

You have loved,

You have lived.

None of this has anything to do with Marillion, so let us return to the subject at hand. I still need to go back and update my Anoraknophobia posts with my BYAMPOD comments once those episodes are ready, but if I’m honest, I’m done with Anoraknophobia and I’m keen to get stuck in to Marbles. Beyond Misplaced Childhood, I’ve been led to believe this is the Notorious B.I.G.G.I.E. A double album, maybe the best of the H era, maybe the best album they’ve done so far. That’s all I know about it – hype. I don’t know if there’s a change in musical approach, tone, genre, or if it’s simply the band hitting their stride or perfecting the formula they’ve been tinkering with. Does the title mean anything? A concept album about the old timey game of flicking each others’ balls? A collection of songs about (in)sanity? An affectionate term for H’s favourite Spanish coastal town? Lets see if the artwork can shed some light.

It’s another close up of a face. It’s another picture of a boy. Is one half of his body tanned or darker hued than the other? He’s holding a couple of marbles up in front of his eyes. I used to do that trick of sticking a 10p into my eye and sort of squinting to hold it in place, becoming a sort of more pervy-looking Popeye. Then I remembered how germ ridden 10ps are and that looking pervy isn’t generally a turn on for most people, or socially acceptable in polite circles. It’s fine? It doesn’t tell me much, and I think I’d have preferred some striking artwork instead of another photograph. Like a drawing of Popeye, marbles in eyes and a maw filled with spinach, staggering out of a pub atop a pier with a speech bubble drooling from his lips howling ‘Yuk yuk yuk, I can’t stands no more’. Or an actually funny quote. Look, I don’t plan this shite, just go with it.

I don’t know how many episodes the guys are going to do on Marbles based on its length. They’re talking about cutting down both the length and numbers of the letters and emails – I’ve done my bit by refusing to send any – but the thing is over 90 minutes long so I’m guessing they might top two eps. As such, I don’t know how many songs to include in my posts. The clever thing would be to simply edit my posts once their episodes are available, but I’m not that clever. Looking at the track list I’m going to go with the first two songs for now. If they cover more in their first episode, maybe I’ll edit my posts to match. In which case this paragraph is entirely redundant. Keeping it in though. Lets go.

It’s now 23rd of November and I haven’t posted about Marillion for a while so it’s time to get this Part One out into the world. First off – carving 4Real into a tree? I get it. 

The Invisible Man is my kind of Prog. Long, experimental, thought-provoking, but with heart and melody underpinning everything. Where Prog can lose me is when I feel detached from the music and the meaning; Songs can be long for the sake of being long, but lose coherence or purpose. Songs can be experimental within the traditional scope of the genre and within the traditional scope of the artist, but if the experimentation is too sharp a departure from what made you love the band, then you can lose that personal connection. If it’s your first time hearing the band, then the experimentation can often feel like, well, an experiment, rather than a song. It’s a fine balance and there’s a place for both approaches and outcomes – I enjoy both, but I am drawn more to those experiments which feel like an extension of what the band already offers. Songs being thought-provoking… Prog has a reputation for beating listeners over the head with words, sounds, emotions, ideas, and can seem like a closed boys club from the outside, but sometimes songs which claim to be thought-provoking are nothing more than a collection of thoughts which mean something to the writer but nothing to the listener. Finally, if there’s no emotion and only plain or boring melodies, then you’ll lose me from from the outset.

So yes, The Invisible Man is my kind of Prog – the good kind. It’s a fantastic opener and ticks all of my boxes, but as with any Prog it does still take some time to bed in. I was engaged and curious from the opening moments of The Invisible Man but by the end of its bubbling crescendo I was sold. There’s a moment around the four minute mark (which the previous minutes have been building too in a chilled but other-worldly instrumental) right after H sings ‘Amsterdam’, that everything coalesces and makes sense. It’s a goosebumps moment, the coming together of the underlying guitars and the – I’m not sure if it’s keyboards or Rothers using one of those little ring finger tools which can increase your guitar’s sustain and make it sound like a synth or Theremin. The confidence which I touted on the previous album is front and centre in The Invisible Man, but it’s not the sort of yelping bravado of an attention seeker. This confidence is comfortable and natural. It’s the confidence of simply, unquestionably knowing you’re good, perhaps without even realizing it. It’s the confidence of ‘if you build it, they will come’.

The opening couple of minutes have plenty of twists, feeling like a trip in the physical and metaphysical sense. In the numerous times I’ve listened to the song I couldn’t find a musical anchor – a recurring riff or melody, a standout lead instrument, and for a song to be this good without that anchor is all the more impressive. Without that anchor songs can fly off in any direction and become nothing. Moments do flit in and out – ‘I have become the invisible man’ is repeated at various points but as more of a passing face in the crowd you might recognise than a solid anchor. I went off to check out the written score for some of the instruments because I’m curious about how all of this works. It’s less complex than it sounds when you follow the chords but where the transitions land and where the additional instrumentation and production expand the soundscape beyond the core structure is where the interesting magic seems to happen. In essence, you could play this song without much effort solo with a guitar or piano but it wouldn’t have anywhere near the same effect of awe and mystery. It’s cool how the song leads with predominantly G – F type chords, then the little transitions add in subtle D and E shapes before transforming to a lead D and A form and finally into E and B. Then it clatters it all together for the final moments. I’m not sure what that actually means, but I like the little clues in each lead which seem to set the listener up for where the song is going next.

There are different levels of intensity in the song, seemingly moving from an airy tone to one of disembodiment and on to anguish and anger. I love the introduction of the backing vocals (are those synth too?) as the song becomes more pained through the ‘Autumn light’ section, eventually exploding into a more quiet phase, answering the various ‘what can I do’ questions. It’s one of the better, maybe the best, examples of Marillion melding plot and music. The lyrics by and large echo the changes the music takes, or vice versa. It seems like a song which would have been written with a great deal of partnership in getting the story across via the words and the music. Lyrically I was imagining a literal ghost (or soul, if you like) wafting through the streets in search of its hosts former haunting places and familiars. We begin with the concise and beautifully put explanation of how this out of body state has happened – the world slipped away while I was distracted and now my body is gone but my eyes remain. This being H, it does feel a little stalker-ish in places. I get this is likely another break-up song with the feelings of displacement coming from falling out of the routine and fixture of being in love and being in a relationship. It’s a different metaphor from the same themes of House. It’s another example of the language, the words themselves, not needing to be poetic while forming poetry from the images conveyed and the form used. Anyone can read the lyrics and feel moved without reaching for the dictionary or misinterpreting a connection personal to H or some subtle cultural reference. I also appreciate the little nuances between the tense delivery, constantly jumping from ‘I shout’ to ‘I will hear’ to ‘I am’ to ‘I’ll feel’ and eventually onto ‘If I close my eyes I can see’.

I could waffle on about this for ages but I don’t want to bore anyone further. I’ll leave it with me noticing some slight parallels with this and What Dreams May Come – the book and the movie, although those deal less with a break up and watching or imagining someone moving on to a new relationship as The Invisible Man does. The Invisible Man goes straight into my playlist. Marbles I doesn’t. At least not immediately, at least not on its own. It starts with this relaxed Jazz Club (nnnnice) vibe which isn’t really my thing, but it’s short and leads neatly into Genie. I’ll ask the obvious question, assume the obvious answer, but not do the obvious thing of actually checking for myself – has someone edited all the Marbles 1, 2, 3, 4 into a single track? People do that all the time when bands split up a song into different tracks, or even when the songs were always meant to be separate but were given the same name for whatever reason. I assume someone has done that and it’s probably out there on Youtube. Maybe I’ll check it out some day. Part 1 is nice enough, but too much of a come down from the opener – maybe it would work better coming after Genie? It does remind me of something I meant to talk about earlier – H’s singing on the album. It’s a little different. He seems to be curling his tongue more when he sings to give that faux Grunge warble, but even worse he’s doing one of the things which irrationally pisses me off – singing with an affected lisp. If he had been doing this on other albums I’ve either forgotten about it or not noticed it, but it’s plastered all over Marbles (or should I say Marblesh?) from start to finish. I’m sure this won’t annoy anyone but me but it’s one of those things which has always got on my nuts. I don’t mind if it’s in one or two places, but it’s there in the first track and it’s all over Genie (out of the boxzssh). Unless you can’t prevent yourself from doing it, it seems like such a bizarre choice for a singer to make. Itsh a shame, becaush Genie izh ssuch a lovely shong elshewhere. See?

But more on Genie in the next post. I made the guess that the name Marbles was likely related to losing one’s mind – or marbles. It’s a word ripe for metaphor, and the idea of sanity has been covered a million times in music. Some of my personal favourites being Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Dark Side Of The Moon, and Alice Cooper’ From The Inside in which Alice doubles and triples down on the number of metaphors and ways to refer to someone as ‘mad’. Great album though, and one of the best examples of gatefold artwork you’ll find. Part 1 of Marbles is childlike enough in its music and lyric that someone could take it literally as someone is sad that they’ve lost their favourite/last marble, but it’s obviously showing how someone’s sanity has been steadily shedding and now some incident or trigger has caused the final break, the last marble and ounce of sanity and inspiration to disappear. In any case, I like the metaphor and the song is short enough to not really do any damage.

That’s about it for now. I’m going to post this, probably before the guys do their first Marbles episode so I’ll have to circle back and leave my episode comments in a later post. For now, let us know your thoughts on Marbles as a whole, on the two songs I’ve covered, on my stupid hatred for lisp singing, and anything else you want to get off your chest!

Tell it like it is!

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