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 song 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!

Best Actress – 1980

Official Nominations: Sissy Spacek. Ellen Bursytn. Goldie Hawn. Mary Tyler Moore. Gena Rowlands.

That’s a pretty great line-up for any year, with mostly very strong performances across the board. Few of the films the performances can be found in are personal favourites and some of the films are both less memorable and less remembered than others. I could see three of these being respectable winners, but it’s difficult arguing against Sissy Spacek being the best choice. I’ve gone on the record plenty of times saying I’m not a fan of biopics and the Academy’s predictable, inevitable voting for these performances, but Sissy Spacek is one of the finest performers of her generation with this being up there are one of her finest showcases. It’s a film and performance made with love.

Nobody remembers Resurrection but Burstyn is suitably brilliant in it as the widow who discovers healing powers and becomes an overnight celebrity, a beacon of hope for the sick and religious alike, and an object of cynicism and ridicule from sceptics. It’s an interesting movie, and unusually not the sort of thing The Academy would usually go for. It doesn’t always hit the right balance between tone and subject matter, but the cast is great – Sam Shepard, Richard Farnsworth, Lois Smith, Jeffrey DeMunn. Goldie Hawn’s turn in Private Benjamin basically set her up for life while Mary Tyler Moore played against type in Ordinary People – as good as she is, it does feel like a nomination to prop up the film or to acknowledge her TV work rather than strictly role and performance based. Finally, Gena Rowlands earned another nomination working under her husband – I’m always pleased to see Rowlands nominated for awards because she was never a typical actress and she rarely picked traditional material. Both of these points ring true for Gloria.

My Winner: Sissy Spacek

The Silver Screen: Coal Miners Daughter - Second Home

My Nominations: Sissy Spacek. Ellen Bursytn. Goldie Hawn. Gena Rowlands. Angie Dickinson.

This should be fairly easy – I replace Mary Tyler Moore with Angie Dickinson from Dressed To Kill as the ill-fated housewife Kate who becomes the pray of Norman Bates a psychotic killer. She’s good, film’s good, all good. I’m not sure who else you would pick this year.

My Winner: Sissy Spacek.

Let us know in the comments who you would pick as winner!

Nightman Listens To Marillion – This Strange Engine (Part 1)!

This Strange Engine

Greetings, Glancers! At the time of tippidy tapping out this intro, Paul and Sanja have just released their episode about some of the non-Marillion albums which the Marillion boys released in the time between Afraid Of Sunlight and This Strange Engine. I was hoping I would have caught up with my posts more than I have, but between work and family and hunting down a draught of Pfizer to shove into my arm, I haven’t been able to listen to much. But I’m here now with my ears agape. But daddy, what is a strange engine? As a modern man and a filthy Humanities graduate, I have no conception of any engine – how they work, where to find them, or why they shudder and smoke when I throw handfuls of WD-40 at them. Full disclosure – as a fan of The Gathering, I have been accidentally referring to this album as This Strange Machine – because The Gathering has a song called Strange Machines. Did that require a full disclosure? Or any disclosure? Why am I still talking?

As always, I have next to no knowledge about the content of the album – but perhaps the artwork will uncoil the conundrum. The cover art is of a brown/bronze capsule type machine, looking like an old timey submersible used by Victorian era explorers (feat. Doug McClure) to plunge beneath the depths and trawl the ocean floor for evidence of some ancient Harryhausen-esque Atlantean civilization. It appears to be powered by a giant heart – is it feeding off blood, love, or some thermal-pumping energy sown only via the power of a troll’s beating life source? This doesn’t tell me much about what the album could be about – is it simply meant to be a nifty piece of artwork? Do the themes include a philosophical debate concerning man’s relationship and growing dependence on technology? Is there a bit about removing hearts and placing headphones on them, because hearts like listening to Marillion too? The artwork looks like a heart besieged on both sides by earphones. Or giant toilet plungers. I’m stalling. Have you watched Twin Peaks The Return yet? Why not – it’s wonderful. It has a tonne of strange machines and engines throughout – bizarre contraptions running unknown begotten tasks behind the veil of reality, contriving to fiddle with and control the outcomes of future and past, dishing out morality, and… well I didn’t get all of it. It’s David Lynch – we’re not supposed to be his level. Look. Still stalling.

Man Of A Thousand Faces, if you’re listening to the album on Youtube as I have been – is preceded by a lovely advert explaining how working for Lidl is like being part of a family, opens the album in a gentle acoustic fashion. It starts out in singer songwriter fashion and made me think of some of the post grunge era type American bands and solo artists who were around in the mid-90s who released those one hit wonder forlorn lighters in the air ballads. Those acts captured some of what made the Grunge bands successful, but made the internal anguish more quiet and palatable. The gruff edge in the vocals and the clean piano gave me ever so slight Springsteen vibes. This being Marillion, they Prog things up and stretch the song past its logical conclusion and take it to a different place – a more tribal, folksy ending. Was this another case of there being two songs and the band elected to smoosh them into one? Both parts are melodically similar enough to make me think that they simply wanted to extend the idea past the four minute mark and experiment with another new type of sound, rather than there ever being two distinct parts. As earthy as that ending is – filled with what appears to be a choir of children’s voices – it screeches to a halt with an electronic howl and swoosh. Is that the impact of machines on nature? I’m really pushing for that to be a thing with this album, but I’m sure it’s not.

Man Of A Thousand Faces is a song which made me stop in my tracks when I first put it on. Sometimes when I do my first listen of a new Marillion album, it’ll simply be a background kind of listen – it’s playing, but I’m not taking any notes and I’m not trying to absorb anything. I’m just letting it wash over me. The acoustic approach and the rougher edge on the vocals was different enough and unexpected enough for me to stop whatever I was doing and fully engage. That quality didn’t survive for the entire running time during that first listen, but it was powerful enough for me to remember it once I was ready for the next run through the album. While I enjoy the transition between the two halves of the song – H’s voice being sucked off (matron) like a rocket (there’s that thing about machines and nature again – just adding these brackets for Sanja’s sake as I know she loves them so much) – I much prefer the first half of the song to the second. Those childlike vocals are fine here, they serve their purpose, but that whole style rarely works for me. Add to the chanting rhythm and the tribal (I don’t like using that term, but I’m not sure if there’s a more appropriate word to use here) beats and it made me think of Michael Jackson’s more self indulgent moments on the likes of Will You Be There or that Enigma song Return To Innocence. Those are two songs I like, but being reminded of them here on a Marillion song felt a little…. off? More listens will presumably rub off these edges.

For one of the first times in the H era, I was very curious to read the lyrics for this one. They sounded more verbose, they felt more poetic. The title provokes the image of a liar or deceiver – someone with a different face for every person they meet. While we would usually assume this is a negative trait and associate with a back stabber or otherwise untrustworthy person, it can also simply mean that the person has been forced into behaving a certain way depending on their audience. This is something we all do – we all behave differently based on our environment or who we’re with, and that is a perfectly natural human, animal trait. In the context of this song, it feels more like H is either singing about himself or taking on the persona of another person with a band of followers – whether it be a politician or a rock star, or a religious zealot preacher. There are references to each of those in the first verse alone, at least in how I read it.

‘I speak to machines with the voice of humanity’… am I on the right track with this John Conor/Skynet dichotomy? This chorus is filled with such comparisons and polar opposites – I quite enjoy lyrics which offer up two opposing images and pair them in this style, especially if they’re not the norms of love/hate. I’m not sure what sort of picture it is trying to paint though – that of a wilful contrarian, or that of a control freak? The second verse simply made me think of some evil controlling force manipulating people through time – lets just called it The Devil for ease’s sake. It’s something which has always been with us, and which has always controlled us.

The third verse brings things more up to date – there’s a reference to CNN at least, not that I took much from that reference. Here we seem to be on the more familiar ground of fame and celebrity again – reaching for too much too soon. The remainder of the lyrics are repetition with a few minor additions – voice of a snake, speak like a leader, talk to God – they don’t add much to make things clearer, but they fit with the few scattered thoughts and allusions I already conjured. The whole lyric wasn’t as ‘poetic’ as I was anticipating, but it’s definitely well written and again strikes that sweet or sour spot between being vague and being open to interpretation.

One Fine Day has something of the While My Guitar Gently Sleeps drawl to it – a similar slow pace and downbeat tone and there’s a vague comparison between the chord structure, but that’s a lazy way to potentially compare any two songs. One Fine Day simply has a vibe or unspoken aspect which made me think of The Beatles’ song. Even though it’s only the second song, it did give the impression of an end credits song. It’s definitely a rainy day contemplative song – even the lyrics support this idea. Even though on the surface this is a basic song – a handful of repeated chords switched up for the chorus – we do get brief piano interludes and a deep organ underpinning, and there’s a lovely string led middle section which leads into a guitar solo both laidback and fiery. H retains the rougher vocal style with some dashes of gravel at the right moments. Musically and emotionally it didn’t do quite enough for me to make it stand out and now that we’re past the point where the band has a bunch of songs I would struggle to call up in my mind if somebody asked me to sing a snippet – this feels a little plain and dull and won’t hold a place in my memory for long.

The lyrics of One Fine Day are more interesting for me than the music, even if I do have some picky issues with them. A pet peeve of mine is using ’cause’ or ‘cos’ instead of ‘because’. Every songwriter does it and I understand that it makes it easier to scan and to ensure the rhythm of your lines are in sync – it’s one syllable instead of three, so why not use it when the meaning is the same? Still, it does annoy me when it’s overused or when there’s a perfectly suitable replacement. In the first verse, ’cause’ is used when ‘but’ would have been a better alternative – that switch may modify the meaning of the line as read (we live in hope cause so far it hasn’t come/we live in hope but so far it hasn’t come) but that switch in meaning seems to make more sense too, given what the verse is talking about. The verse is about hope for better days, youthful idealism, so the ‘but’ closes the sentiment off neatly with a touch of reality.

I mentioned that musically, the song feels like one of pondering, and staring out the window on a rainy day. That’s precisely what the lyrics do – you can easily imagine the poor tortured poet staring from blank page to windowpane, delving into memory, questioning the future, struggling to put thoughts into words in a meaningful way. Most lines are brief – barely more than 6 syllables – and for me echo that struggle. There are complex issues and feelings, and as such the writer elects to almost shrug and dilute them down to their most simplistic and pure state, easily incapsulating them in snapshot one-liners without artistic flourish, and because these are issues and feelings we’re all familiar with, that dilution still works. While I do tend to prefer unique language and structure and imagery in lyrics, there’s a lot to be said for keeping things simple when they should be – simple and understood, while retaining a base musicality.

This is going to forever be remembered as the album that I kept finding strange comparisons in. Eighty Days for example recalls any number of 90s sitcoms and TV Dramas. Party Of Five was my main reference point here – I was getting visions of H and the boys acting out various daily suburban scenes just like any 90s TV show intro credits sequence, before spinning to smile at the camera as their names flashed on screen. All while this song played, of course. Eighty Days doesn’t sound much like the intro song to Party Of Five, but the jolly piano playing was enough for me to strike the comparison. Incidentally, Party Of Five shouldn’t have had such a fun and bouncy intro song because the show was as dark and depressing as an Eastenders and Prime Minister’s Question Time crossover.

Notably it’s another acoustic based song – I get the impression that the songs so far may have been written in a simple demo form by one member, then played to the rest of the band who decided that the song only needed the bare minimum instrumentation layers added on top. Eighty Days does not feel like a song crafted in the studio with different parts being added and switched around. I don’t think each band member wanted to force their instrument in (matron) as much as letting the song take its natural course – here’s the basics laid down in singer songwriter style with guitar and vocal, these empty spaces are where the percussion and keys should come in.

It’s another contemplative song, fitting with the singer songwriter vibe, and there’s isn’t a trace of Prog to be found. There is a strange synth solo in the middle (which features some very unusual high bass notes) but that’s not enough to push us into Prog territory. It feels like a sweet, summery single and the only thing stopping me from guessing that it was the lead single for the album is the fact that it’s maybe not a very ‘Marillion type of song’ and that it may have alienated existing fans while not being the sort of thing general music fans wanted to hear in… what year was the album released… 1997. Yes, the height of Brit pop, girl and boy bands rising to their peak, new emergence in R’n’B and EDM…. it’s difficult to see where this would fit beyond what I stated earlier about those one-off softer post grunge acts. Good song though, but in retrospective it seems a little out of time.

Fitting with the singer songwriter and contemplative thing, the lyrics are thought based once more. Again, we’re looking out windows and deep in thought about the people we see and the state of our own existence. It seems to be a touring song – talking about the toils of being in a band, being on the road, and the impact this nomadic lifestyle has on forming and holding on to any long term relationship. There’s a bit of consideration for the flip side – the love of visiting and seeing all of these wonderful places – but the focus is on the mental state such an existence can leave you in. The line ‘the friction grind of travelling/this is the neverending show’ is one of my favourites from this era of the band, summing up the feelings and reality of this life in both a matter of fact and poetic manner; you’re always going somewhere but it feels like you’re caught in the mud, grinding gears, and making barely perceivable progress, and you know that it’s all there is in your future… there’s no sense in me trying to explain because it’s all there perfectly in that lyric. 80 days… around the world in 80 days… there’s a bit of self mocking in the line ‘what kind of a man could live this way’ however that pre-chorus line gets progressively darker with each appearance moving from ‘I do okay’ to ‘I can’t escape it’ and ending on ‘and stay the same’.

Estonia is the mini epic to close the first half of the album. In reading about the song after taking my notes etc, I learned that it was inspired by the tragic boat disaster. During my first listens I was asking why the band was writing about a Country where most bands do not travel or tour to, but maybe there was some sort of connection to the tiring touring life and the country of Estonia – with the band selecting that country for the song because of how distant and foreign it is from England. Exactly like the Manics did with Australia. I should have known that Marillion would have something else up their sleeves as they have increasingly written about real world events. If I’m honest, I don’t remember this incident specifically. That’s maybe not so surprising as what 11 year old boy is watching the news? I do have vague memories of seeing sinking boat footage and reports from around that time, but I could be mixing those memories up with anything from oil leak disasters to plane crashes. There’s also the fact that here in Northern Ireland in 1994, most of our News was probably mostly made up of car-bombs and knee-cappings.

At a shade under eight minutes, it’s the second longest song on the album and one of the more progressive tracks thanks to the structure and orchestration. There’s the slow and sombre atmospheric intro, there’s the big emotive chorus, there’s the use of specific instruments and effects only at certain points in the song, and there’s the various instrumental and vocal breaks in the middle to give the impression of multiple songs smooshed together. It moves at a leisurely pace and retains a relaxed atmosphere even as it peaks in the chorus and wanders down its keyboard led instrumental off-paths. It’s a lovely vocal performance with the respectful amount of emotion given to the peak chorus moments and H doing a sweet and smooth falsetto. Is it the best song on the album? It’s my favourite at the very least.

I can’t pass by Estonia without mentioning a selection of the personal comparisons I felt. The one I suspect most people might understand – Estonia’s chorus (at least the vocal melody) is quite similar to Iris by The Goo Goo Dolls. You could switch out some of the lyrics in Estonia’s chorus with ‘and I don’t want the world to see me’ from Iris. I’m not suggesting anything beyond a simple melodic comparison, but with Iris coming out in 1998 and This Strange Engine in 1997, it’s another of those odd, innocent, coincidences which pop up every so often in music. Elsewhere, in keeping with my regular plugs for The Gathering, the triplet B-E-G guitar part which runs through Estonia reminded me of The Gathering’s The Mirror Waters piano intro. Same three notes, except played on piano. And on a higher register. And not looped. At least their later acoustic version. Some of the guitar moments and tones also reminded me of Duran Duran’s 90s hits Ordinary World and Come Undone. Enough!

Once I learned of the boating tragedy which the song is named after, I was keen to see if the lyrics outright called out the even or if they were only loosely ‘inspired’. If I had gone in to the lyrics without knowing the context, I would not have guessed that the song was about or was borne out of the event after H met one of the survivors. There are slight allusions to water – ‘salt water runs’, ‘watery world spins’, but I would have simply taken that as being H’s obsession with water again. Dude must be thirsty. Rather than being about the event itself, it feels more like an ode to the survivors and those who didn’t make it, an honest attempt to push back against survivor’s guilt, and when considered alongside the music it’s a genuinely emotional, tender, and respectful dedication. Having, thankfully, never been through such an unthinkable tragedy I can’t possibly understand the loss, grief, and potential guilt felt by those who have, but I can empathise with the pain and the fear and I can feel the attempt to portray all of these emotions in the lyrics; the guilt of ‘if only if only’ and ‘not this way not this way’ accentuated as a pleading mantra; the admission in ‘we won’t understand your grief’, and the hope of the entire chorus. Beautiful song.

Between You And Me (@BYAMPOD) | Twitter

Lets head over to the BYAMPOD This Strange Engine first episode and hear what Paul and Sanja make of it all. Paul introduces the episode by saying he’ll be having a guest coming up – the host of the H/Marillion Podcast. He’s not a member of Marillion but runs the Podcast and speaks to H every week. I haven’t listened to that podcast at all, for fear of spoilers and not understanding any of it. Can you have spoilers in music? Apparently Marillion have been (has been?) in the studio, prepping for their new album, and the lads have been adding update vids on Youtube every Monday. Paul is a bit concerned by the announcement that the songs are up-tempo, and it worried that after a five year wait they might release an album that he won’t like. I know what it’s like. The Manics have a new album coming in September this year, and their first singe (Orwellian) was just released. It’s… okay? Like anything I enjoy it increasingly with each listen but, lets be fair, it’s hardly amazing. Paul mentions something about a sound that can’t be made… I once made a sound that can’t be made – it sounded like a dog barking backwards. I’m not sure about having low expectations being a good thing because the only way is up – that’s the positive spin – but my concern is that those low expectations are met. I thought it would be shit, and lo, it was shit.

Paul’s going to get into some personal history with this album, at least in terms of where he was with the band in 1997. This was the first post EMI album, released with Castle (Raw Power of course a Stooges song and album) and was the first of a stepping stone series to what they would achieve in the 2000s. It sounds like the fans had stopped caring considerably by this point – it happens even with the best bands, but typically the best bands will always find new followings. The album did sell very well, neither did the singles, to the extent that Paul wasn’t even aware of one of them being a single at the time. It does indeed have a horrible brown cover – Twin Peaks tho. The Internet, and associated fan gubbins, started to pick up steam yet This Strange Engine was a black hole of press. The online fan community was building and the band members were aware. It has taken till now for Paul to realise that he was disappointed by the album and worried that his love for the band had gone, or that the band had ‘lost it’. As someone new to the band with no personal association or… cognition to be dissonant from… my feelings since listening to the album are of being underwhelmed. Songs I like, but beyond a few moments ‘flat’ does seem like a good term to use. I still have the second half of the album to write about, but I already know what I’m going to write having listened to it enough times as the first. Even the songs I liked most, they didn’t hit the highs.

Paul goes through a list of the other albums released in 1996 which were adjacent to what Marillion were doing or which were signs of long term bands reinventing themselves. I’m not a fan of Blur, but at least they switched up their sound, I’m not a fan of Spiritualized but did somehow see them live once. I love Dummy, but I don’t think I ever heard Portishead’s self titled album. The opening track of Mansun’s album…. as much as it sounds like something from a Bond movie I can see some Misplaced Childhood comparisons there, and Ok Computer we all know. Bands were pushing themselves, Marillion felt a little stale. Do bands need to always experiment, does a band always need to reinvent themselves? As a Metal fan… lets just say bands have a habit of finding what they’re good at and keeping at it. I’m less inclined than most to always want bands to innovate and improve in the broader sense, but I’m always excited and impressed and enjoy it when they do. I’m drawn to bands because I like their music, and if they keep playing that music then I’ll still be happy. That’s a very simplistic way of stating things and doesn’t really account for those select artists we all have that we have a much stronger love/obsession for us. They become like children and we want them to always be the best version of themselves. Marillion has been going for what, five decades now? You can probably name on one hand the amount of artists who are still going five decades in, while keeping fan happy, while innovating, and doing it successfully. The million monkeys approach to writing…. I’m not a fan of this jamming style personally. I do prefer the approach of someone having a more or less complete idea for a song, and everyone else working to grow that idea. Ironically, that’s what I felt like This Strange Engine was. Counting Crows is the perfect example of the sort of sound I was trying to explain while writing about Man Of A Thousand Words. The best approach (as with most things in life) is the Jeet Kun Do way – absorb your influences, and spit out something new which is definitively you.

Paul and Sanja later make a comparison to children, at which point all their kids wake out of the house. It’s an interesting feeling for me because I have difficulty finding people who love music to this extent in my life. When you’re younger it seems like more people and more peers feel this love more acutely, but when you get older and more important stuff comes along, music becomes an after-thought. But I’m still there having all of these feelings and being unable to share them with anyone. I sometimes struggle to get on with or really understand people who don’t have a similar passion. Is that a spoiler for an upcoming podcast from me? Lets be serious, I’m too lazy for that. We’re an hour in, so it doesn’t look like we’re getting to any of the songs today. My Part 2 post may be a biggie if we’re covering the whole album in the podcast. As a new listener to Marillion, and as a superfan of other bands, I understand what Paul is saying about giving an honest opinion. As much as I love the Manics, they’ve done their fair share of shite too. What’s the benefit of lying to yourself? Where’s the harm in going against the crowd? Criticism often makes me re-evaluate my own position and opinion about things, often making me think more of songs I dismissed or possibly less of my sacred cows. That’s enough for now – I’m off to Lidl to claim my free bag of Golden Gummy Bears from the App. As always, go listen to the album yourself, go listen to the BYAMPOD yourself, and buy Paul’s album. I’m poor.

Nightman Listens To – Marillion – This Strange Engine (Part 2)!

This Strange Engine
Greetings, Glancers! Diving in to Part 2, we open with Memory Of Water. The moment I read that title, I thought of the rather lovely piece of music from a fellow Neighbours fan called Memories of… Yeah alrite alrite, I know Neighbours, Harold Bishop, Mrs Mangel, hardy har, but I like it. I’m not sure if the actual piece of music from Neghbours is called Memories Of, but that’s what dude who did a cover of it has called it. The thing is, I’ve always referred to it as ‘Memories Of Water’, because the same dude who did the cover has another Neighbours piece called My Knees Go To Water, and both are wrapped up in my mind as parts of the same thing. Why does any of this matter? It doesn’t, they’re just rather lovely pieces of music which soppy old me gets emotional to while hearing and thinking back to sad moments from Neighbours. Feel free to ridicule me in the comments Memory Of Water is a lonesome, forlorn song with a brave opening – vocals only before the horn synths join. Trying to not sound like a dick, but the band absolutely nail the sea shanty melody with this one. Before I knew what the song was called, those opening melodies made me jot down the note ‘pirates/sirens/fisherman’s friend/handsome Pete’. Handsome Pete was a bit character in The Simpsons who would hang out at the harbour and dance with an accordion if you chucked him a Quarter. It feels like either an atmospheric album opener or an interlude between more impactful songs. I suspect many won’t like this one, but it did strike a chord with me and I could see myself sitting near the sea, legs swinging off a ledge, watching the water and thinking about the past. Maybe the song’s biggest problem is that you can’t talk about it without sounding like a dick. The song doesn’t go anywhere and there’s not great emotional high or melodic hook to grab, but it holds that position of being a quiet, introspective song without need of flourish. I like it, but I fully expect most people to dismiss it. In fitting with some of the, admittedly self-imposed mythological imagery I impressed upon the music, the lyrics have a touch of the Fantastic about them, conjuring silly sights such as wood nymphs frolicking my glades and enchanting men away from certain demise to a deeper sorrow. As if that wasn’t nonsensical enough, it’s capped off with the line ‘you’re freckled like a speckled egg’ which is about as ridiculous as lyrics get. Short song, not much to the lyrics, but I enjoyed it. An Accidental Man is a big boy, trousers down Rock song. It’s trying to be at least, but for me it falls apart in the chorus. Good riff, great intro verse full of energy and promise, but fails to deliver the anthemic chorus it needs. Not only that, the chorus feels like a watered version of the verse which in turn dampens the power of the verses. Credit to the slower, little experimental moments – those would work in a song which didn’t have the potency of this song’s intro. They do at least take the attention away from the disappointing chorus, and we do have an organ solo slapped in the middle. This seems like a song which was built off the initial riff but the band couldn’t quite work out how to extend that riff and verse into a full song – which sounds odd to say given the song is over six minutes long. On the lyrics front, when I first heard An Accidental Man I thought the song was about a collection of circumstances beyond our control – we have no choice how or where we’re born and the environment we grow up in influences our opinions and often sets our lives on an unavoidable path. I think the song can absolutely be read that way given the mentions of being ‘taught from much too young’ and how an ‘accident of birth’ holds you to a certain point of view. Reading the lyrics it becomes clear that the song is likely more about gender and the pressures which environment and circumstances can have on a person’s identity. I don’t think gender identity or politics was something which was discussed much in the media in the 90s and it isn’t something you saw coming up too much in mainstream music. You did have bands such as Placebo challenging traditional notions of gender, possibly Marilyn Manson broke some ground on that front but I’m not a fan of the dude or his music so I can’t say for sure, and of course the Manics have always spoken frankly about this in interviews and in songs such as Born A Girl. As it the Marillion style, there isn’t anything overt, the lyrics are not done for shock value or in a disingenuous way, but I think there are enough hints to suggest gender identity is what the song is about. Hope For The Future gets us back to the more acoustic sounds of the first half of the album. H goes for a more Bluesy vocal approach, there’s a touch of the ‘Bon Jovi trying to be cowboys’ to proceedings, but then the song takes a complete left turn into something altogether more zany. And that’s before it goes all Jamaican. That first zany left turn is refreshing, and I’ve been trying to figure out what song it reminded me of. I narrowed it down to it being a song I knew that I didn’t like, but I struggled to name the precise song. In the end, while it’s not 100%, my best guess for the song which this section reminds me of is You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon. Cannot. Stand. That. Song. It goes into some sort of Caribbean space which was quite amusing initially, but gradually became irritating. I don’t hate it, and credit again for trying some new sounds, but I’m not sure if this was the band trying to make a genuine artistic statement or just someone shouting ‘Dyer Maker was one of Led Zep’s most interesting, most hated songs, we should do that!’ For the record, I love Dyer Maker. I don’t love this. It stands out, it is different, there are interesting instrumental choices. But like I always say – just because it’s interesting, doesn’t mean it’s good. I’m going to go ahead a Rosicrucian Pope is some sort of fish… Jamaica is famous for fish. See, it all fits. Wait… fish? Is this a song about Fish? The band’s hope for the future is for Fish to come back? Something about The Illuminati? Obviously I did Google Rosicrucianism and went down a rabbit hole for a while – interesting stuff. What a strange song though – musically and lyrically – that part about palindromes whispered deep in the midst of the jangling stuff and lines which seem to be about some sort of Mystic or Prophet finding arcane knowledge and gaining forbidden earth-shattering knowledge. It’s all a bit silly and funny and silly. We close with the title track, and it’s a biggie. It’s the song I’ve listened to least on the album, not necessarily because of it’s length, but more because it’s right at the end and by the time I get to the album I’ve already checked out and want to do something else. Is it their longest song so far? It’s over 17 minutes long (not if we remove the laughing nonsense at the end), so we assume we’re firmly back in Prog territory. I could be wrong, but so far the feeling I’ve had with the Marillion epics is of different songs spliced together to make something longer. That’s fine, but speaking for myself the songs I love which reach the 10 minute mark and beyond feel more planned, more natural. In short, they don’t feel like different parts pulled together but feel like one seamless plotted out journey and even though that journey is linear and has been plotted out it doesn’t mean the journey is any less surprising. Lets get it out of the way – This Strange Engine is a great song – a breath of fresh adventurous air which stands apart from the rest of the album. I won’t say it sounds like the band taking chances, because they’re supposed to be a Prog band and do that anyway, but it does sound a little like a reminder that they haven’t forgotten their roots. Most of the different parts work on their own, and I guess they work as a whole, but those transitions aren’t as smooth as I would have liked. In fact, in many places they are not transitions as much as dead stops before the next part begins. It feels more like an overture for an album that we didn’t get – bits of songs that I’d love to hear but which don’t appear elsewhere on the album. Paul mentioned in Part 1 of the BYAMPOD Ep that the band sounded almost out of ideas with this album – maybe this is where most of their ideas went. I’m not going to break down the entire song, but I’ll call out some of the more notable moments for good or bad. I felt like the opening was too sudden and should have had some sort of musical build up – the song didn’t come to life for me until the minute mark, but the majority of those opening minutes lacked a melodic or emotional connection for me. Those connections were made after the 2nd minute once the piano kicks in. I don’t like how this section ends, but I do like the energy and impetus of the next. The Kashmir style strings in the middle – good. The ‘Triumph Motorbike’ line – fuck right off. I have no explanation for it, but something about that line felt so badly timed or misplaced that it’s like a Cov Id test right up my nostril every time. The ‘Montego Bay’ section into the ding ding dong downwards keyboards notes followed by the smooth tapped, near synth guitars is glorious. The intro music to BYAMPOD I’m guessing was a little influenced by this solo? I would have liked that section to burst out of the solo into something new immediately, but it does a bit of a musical Montego Bay reprise first. I can’t say I love H’s vocals in places – at some points he’s as good as he’s ever been, elsewhere the yelps and affectations don’t hit the mark. Most of the closing vocal section does work – it’s all a bit Jeff Buckley Live – the laughing definitely doesn’t work for me. I will always laugh if I see someone laughing on TV or in real life – can’t help myself – but when I hear it in a piece of music it sounds decidedly creepy and… not right. Lyrically I think the song is more coherent than the music – less dead stops, more like a consistent journey. I initially thought the lyrics were tied to the previous song, beginning as they do with a child being born in a Holy place. I thought this was going to chart the life of this kid who grows up to be the prophet character from Hope For The Future, but these lyrics remain mostly rooted in realism. They do chart a life but I’m at a loss for most of the references. A holy woman and a holy place suggests a Convent, but the red coat and the bulldog? Do Cardinals wear red coats, or am I confusing Cardinals with Imperial Guards from Star Wars? Is the Convent in some peaceful, idyllic mountain and lake spot? There’s a mum, there’s a Dad far away and missing home, there are smells. There is loneliness. Memories of a time before birth. Is there the suggestion of an AI in all of this – I’m probably making connections to various movies and TV shows I’ve seen which have no bearing on this song whatsoever, but is there something about this life being an experiment? The latest in a long line of experiments to, I don’t know, create the perfect person or some balls, but reboot the thing when it fails leaving the latest version of the ‘human’ with some fragmented memories of past lives. Once again we’re left with a lyric which it seems we can let our wildest imaginations run away with. I’m curious to see what Sanja makes of it all and if she made a narrative out of the album. The most I can get out of these lyrics are the connections to themes we’ve encountered throughout the album – identity and self, confusion, innocence and guilt, and lets just say man and machine again because I haven’t mentioned that for a while. This may be one of the most cryptic instances of an H lyric so far, though I’m sure Paul will explain the inspiration behind it all. The most logical explanation should be that it’s about H himself, his own issues with his different personalities and, his own sacrifices and the sacrifices of those around him. And then he gets murdered by bees. No idea. It’s an unusual album, all told. There are a couple of standout songs I’ll probably listen to again, but it feels more like a collection of curious and experiments. Lets head over to the podcast to see what Paul and Sanja have to say about each song.
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We begin with some additional history of the band – namely another greatest hits which seems to be a better collection of tracks than their previous effort. The band produced This Strange Album themselves – a good way to save money and perhaps have more control over the overall sound and tone. Sanja thinks Man Of A Thousand Faces is a strong opener and guesses correctly that it’s about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey tome. Not sure how I missed that as it’s fairly obvious now she’s said it. Did I mention the book in a previous post. I must admit I haven’t read the whole thing, but skimmed parts of it at University. As someone who loves myths ancient and modern, it’s something I should track down and give a go. Paul was surprised by the sound of the song on his first listen, something I did feel and mention myself. Paul says it may be his favourite song to see live and then goes on to give H’s explanation for the song. Sanja got a very 90s, bluesy vibe from One Fine Day – the 90s thing stood out for me on the first track so with this song I simply took the sound as a facet of the album’s production and the era it was recorded in. Neither are too keen on the song, Sanja thinks it’s pretty, Paul thinks it’s fine, boring, and doesn’t care what any of it is about. Eighty Days is a song dedicated to the fans, apparently. Paul is more aligned with what I thought it was about – the pain and occasional delight of touring. It’s another boring one for Paul in that it doesn’t make him feel anything. He hates the synth solo, Sanja loves it. In a surprising turn, Paul doesn’t like Estonia either even though it’s the fan favourite of the album. Sanja is surprised by this, given she finds the music and lyrics beautiful and touching. Paul does like specific moments – the atmospheric opening, it’s pretty in places, and he’s uncomfortable saying he doesn’t like it due to the subject matter and because it’s a fan favourite. It’s the simplicity of the sentiment which Paul struggles with. I get it. Grief is absolute torment. Loss is exactly that – loss. You don’t get that person back. While sentiments like these can be a comfort for most against the incomprehensible mourning and suffering people go through and while I certainly wouldn’t be cynical enough to tell someone who’s grieving ‘no, they’re not looking down on you, they’re gone forever’, this is a difficult subject to convey in a song. I think if you’re going to write a song about a tragedy like this, or any sort of death or loss, it makes sense to ground it in honest sentiment, but there’s no way to not make it sound simplistic. My wider family (and my family is stupidly huge) are fairly religious and would use their faith as their strongest comfort when someone dies. My Grandmother died a few years ago. She had lived with her youngest daughter, Heather, who sacrificed her own life, career, relationships ever since she was basically a teenager. My Grandmother wasn’t very mobile in the last ten years or so, and spent most days in the house on the same chair, relying totally on Heather for everything. They were basically joined at the hip. While the family was large and mostly lived nearby, meaning there was always someone dropping in to visit, Aunt Heather still was unable to be with her partner or even attend a family Wedding or Birthday party for more than a couple of hours because she knew she was needed at home. When my Grandmother died, it was obviously terrible for everyone but especially her given their closeness. The silver lining was Auntie Heather could finally begin living her own life. She was still relatively young (48-49) and could begin plans for decorating the house and looking forward to getting married herself. A couple of months after Granny died, Heather felt ill at a party. A quick visit to the Doctor revealed a particularly aggressive Cancer and that there was nothing anyone could do about it. She died five months to the day after Granny, one day before her Birthday. One of the last things she said was that she wouldn’t have wanted her life to be any different, and that the Cancer was a sign that Granny must need her in Heaven. How do you respond to this, her most personal sentiment? Being naturally cynical and a bit of a dick, this is the sort of thing I would laugh off if it hadn’t happened so close to me. The whole thing is a mess and we’re all as ill equipped to deal with loss as we are with related discussions and contradictions. There seems to be little wiggle room in writing, whether it be for a song, a movie, even for a book, between either utter gloom or cheap sentiment. Telling things in a matter of fact way would likely make for a hollow and boring product. I’m sure there can be nuance. Buffy’s The Body is still the most realistic, perfect, representation of grief I’ve seen beyond feeling it myself. In any case, the song doesn’t do much for Paul, and that’s perfectly fine. On to Memory Of Water and Paul telling us that the song was reworked numerous times before its final state. As expected, neither Paul nor Sanja think much of it – a nice enough interlude, but nothing memorable. No ridiculing of the speckled egg line, which I’m disappointed by. Accidental Man Sanja went in an opposite direction from me, nailing the gender stuff first, then expanding to thinking about hiding your truest self. It sounds like it’s a mixture of all of that stuff. It seems like I am an accidental man, though I’ve always been quite happy to revel in my fingers up to masculine stereotypes. I cry watching The Body every single time. Hell, I cry watching Youtubers react to The Body. Why is crying not a masculine thing? Blue clothes? Deep voice? Beards, beers, and hunting bears? It’s all bullshit. I draw the line at football, what sort of chump doesn’t like a bit of footy!? To be fair, football’s the only sport I’m interested in, and I watch about 90% less than most fans. Paul loves the lyrics, isn’t a fan of the music, and says there’s a more pop oriented version out there which he enjoys more. We then learn that Hope For The Future is considered by many Marillion fans to be their worst song. Sanja is surprised by this, but I get it. Going back to Dyer Maker by Led Zep – I’m on a few Zep fan groups on Facebook and some of them come awfully close to good old boy, Harley riding, flag waving, MAGA wearing, everything after the 70s was shit, nonsense. It’s one of the songs which gets a fair bit of ire from those fans, probably because it’s not a big riffy riffy, blasting drums orgy fest. It’s a silly, light but of Reggae influenced fun. Once again, I love it. I’ll never fault a band for trying something different. If you’re going to try something different, you have to commit to it so that at least some of your fans will enjoy it. With Hope For The Future I’m not sure if it was meant to be a joke, an experiment, or whatever, but it never shakes the tone of being a bit of a piss take. No matter what, it looks like the fans didn’t appreciate it either way. I don’t often pick the obvious song as my favourite by whatever the band – with Led Zep All My Love is my favourite – a song dismissed by many (beyond its inspiration), and I rate Mr Moonlight as one of my favourite Beatles songs – one hated by most Beatles fans. Sanja likes Hope For The Future and thinks it’s a lot of fun and Paul appreciates how unique it is. Oh well, Paul doesn’t have a clue what this one’s about, that’s a bit disappointing too. We close on This Strange Engine. I don’t listen to the Marillion podcast, so I’d like to know what it’s about. It’s about H’s dad and his sacrifices, which I believe I did mention as my most obvious interpretation. Paul’s not a massive fan of this one even if it is his favourite on the album, but says this was a template for some of the bigger, better songs which would come later. Paul thinks it shouldn’t be on this album necessarily and isn’t a fan of the song originally stretched out to 30 minutes by silence, with the assumption being that the band pretended they made a 30 minute song to wow long term fans, only to have a song half that length. I mean, it’s still 16 minutes. It’s clearly the ‘best’ song on the album, but I get the band being pissed off by certain labels and wanting to do their own thing. Paul says the next two albums are more interesting, if not better. As mentioned somewhere above… I usually take ‘better’ over ‘interesting’. Though both is best, please. He summarizes by saying it’s a beige, boring album that he doesn’t and has never had much to say about it. I’ve managed to fill two blog posts about it at least. Sanja’s more positive about it and both say there isn’t a bad song versus some better albums which did have crap songs. These things happen. Let us know in the comments what you think of the album, and don’t forget to go check out the BYAMPOD for yourself!

Best Foreign Film – 1980

Official Nominations: Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears. Confidence. Kagemusha. The Last Metro. The Nest.

Official Winner Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears also holds the title for most cliche Russian movie title ever. It’s also very Russian in its style and form – not impenetrable for other viewers but not 100% coherent. It feels to me like an overly long drama, centering on the lives of three women who want to succeed in Moscow. The film’s second half focuses on the later life of one of the women, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary here. Istvan Szabo’s Confidence is a gripping POW film while Kagemusha is one of Kurosawa’s later return to form movies. It’s about two brothers, ostensibly the rulers of a clan in trouble, who find a lowly thief who looks exactly like one of the brothers. They decide he could be a useful political decoy and lo and behold the brother is killed so the decoy takes over. There’s a lot of political intrigue and a multitude of characters and battles, but it’s all about the look – the way Kurosawa composes every shot in gorgeous colour.

The Last Metro is Truffaut again, his final film of any great success. Catherine Deneuve and Heinz Bennent star as a husband and wife who own and work in a small Parisian theatre during the Occupation in WWII. Deneuve must hide her husband while keeping the theatre running, avoiding Nazis, and dealing with the attentions of Gerard Depardieu. It flaunt’s several of Truffaut’s favoured styles and themes and may be a shade too long, but is otherwise great. The Nest makes for interesting and uncomfortable viewing, kind of like a reverse Lolita in which a lonely old widower and a lonely young teenage girl begin a relationship which becomes increasingly intense, the ‘twist’ being that the girl acts like the adult or force and the man becomes childlike and subservient. It’s good, but likely a hard sell for most.

My Winner: Kagemusha

Kagemusha, 40 Years Later: Akira Kurosawa's Overshadowed Epic

My Nominations: Kagemusha. The Last Metro. Cannibal Holocaust. The Changeling. City Of Women. Death Watch. The Gods Must Be Crazy. Inferno. The Long Good Friday. Out Of The Blue.

An abundance of foreign treats for a new decade, ranging in quality admittedly – some of these I’m adding more by their reputation or influence, others in the hope that others will go watch them. Nevertheless, they’re all good. Starting with The Changeling – it’s a film I came late to in horror though its one most in the genre have a lot of fondness for. It has a great look, a few chills, and a good lead performance by Scott – there are better films on the list though. Staying in Canada, we have the cult Dennis Hopper movie Out Of The Blue. It has two strong leads in Hopper and Linda Manz as a father and daughter – she is a precocious punk wannabe while he is a con stuck in prison as she runs wild – it’s gritty and rough and hard and interesting for punk fans.

Back to horror, and you can’t talk about the Foreign Films of 1980 without mentioning Cannibal Holocaust – possibly still the most notorious video nasty of all time. I can’t go so far as calling it tame by today’s standards as it remains one of those films that will leave an impression on anyone who watches – you may feel as if a little piece of yourself has been stolen, or you may feel as if your eyes have been opened to new cinematic possibilities. It’s gruesome, it has plenty of shocking moments and violence, and of course the real animal cruelty is enough to put anyone off – most viewers may want to watch the version which cuts that stuff out. Having said that, it has a gorgeous score, it’s well directed, and it’s incredibly influential. It’s gruelling in the same way as Texas Chainsaw Massacre is and speaks to the primitive and progressive in us all. Dario Argento provides a somewhat classier Italian horror offering with Inferno. As is generally the case with Argento movies, the story can be muddled and takes a back seat to the visuals. While not as immediately captivating as Suspiria there are sets dressed up in such grim lighting that individual moments will leave a lasting impact – whether it’s the haunting stare of a woman, or the sight of rats swarming a man.

Moving to Sci Fi – Death Watch from France features an appealing Western cast to suck in a wider audience – Harry Dean Stanton, Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Max Von Sydow – and it is based on the British sci-fi classic The Unsleeping Eye. Set in a world where death by sickness or disease has essentially been wiped out, a woman named Katherine learns she has an incurable disease and becomes an overnight celebrity sensation. In a move which, I’m fairly certain has already been seen today, a TV company offers her a tonne of money if they can make a reality show out of her final days. It’s a little overlong and somewhat dated in look and tone now, but the cast and core conceit keep it relevant and watchable today. City Of Women takes a light approach to its alternate reality – a world where a womanizer finds himself trapped by a range of angry women. Once again this would be a great film to see realized in modern form today, but it’s doubtful we’d see a version as witty and provocative and certainly not as fantastical as Fellini’s version, and any version would be subjected to savage criticism by all sides.

It’s difficult to find anyone who has seen or heard of The Gods Must Be Crazy, but the South African film was a ridiculous success becoming a worldwide hit falling slightly behind The Empire Strikes Back. It’s an incredibly short-sighted movie in terms of racial and cultural issues, even for 1980, but alongside other riotous comedies of the period it fares very well. The Long Good Friday takes another cultural minefield – 1980s Northern Ireland and its relationship to the British gangster scene – and fares much better by taking the view that you’re probably going to get all sorts of fucked up if you become embroiled with any of the groups involved. It’s a taut, non-patronizing thriller which doesn’t need to be overtly stylish to entrap its viewer.

My Winner: Kagemusha

Let us know your winner in the comments!

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

Review: Tokyo Vampire Hotel

What the balls!? I feel like I could begin any post about Sion Sono with that time-honoured phrase, and I could probably just end the review right there. That wouldn’t be fair to the madcap artistry of Sono, or his fans, or anyone who stumbled upon this very odd Amazon Prime show from the Japanese master. Having been a fan of Sono’s work since the late 90s or early 2000s, a part of me wants to get all of these posts out of the way so that once his first US movie is released – the upcoming Prisoners Of The Ghostland In starring Nic Cage – people will have a nice spot to find reviews of his other work. And party because everyone Tom, Harry, and Dickhead who has never watched a foreign movie in their life is going to jump on the bandwagon, assuming Prisoners is going to be as wacky and successful as I’m hoping. 

A very brief intro to the dude if you’re new here, or to Sion Sono; he’s a Japanese movie and TV director, and he also writes. He is one of a batch of very interesting and unique Japanese filmmakers whose work divides opinion and is frequently controversial, bewildering, and critically acclaimed. If there’s one aspect which sets him apart from his peers, I would offer that it’s his use of music and editing – songs and recurring score motifs feature heavily in his work, and he frequently breaks rules and fourth walls with his editing and directing techniques. Most people will know of his work either by name or by notoriety – Suicide Club (famous for its opening shot of school girls leaping to their deaths in front of a train), Tag (already meme bait thanks to its wacky intro where a bus of school kids and teachers are sliced in half by an invisible force), and Tokyo Tribe (an unusual Japanese hip hop musical). He started out in the 80s as a director of ‘Pink Movies’ and has tried his hand (successfully) in most genres you can think of – straight supernatural horror with Exte, poignant drama in The Land Of Hope, thrillers with Cold Fish and Himizu, fantasy courtesy of Love and Peace, and of course whatever the hell Love Exposure (arguably the best film of the last twenty years) is. While he recently did a show with Netflix – the unsurprisingly controversial (and good) The Forest Of Love – he worked with Amazon Studios first on his 9 part series of whatthefuckery known as Tokyo Vampire Hotel.

The title tells you the basics – there’s a hotel in Tokyo used by vampires – but within minutes (and throughout the entire running time) the plot becomes grossly overcomplicated, confusing, and increasingly bizarre. But don’t worry – it’s purposefully silly, it has one fanged tongue firmly in the corner of its mouth, and it’s ridiculously violent and perverse; in short, it’s wonderful. It will be difficult to write about any of this without getting into spoiler territory, but I’ll do my best to summarize the premise without giving too much away – it’s enough to simply say that there are tonnes of characters whose significance wax and wane drastically, and that certain story elements and twists are introduced which may be important and others which seem important but aren’t. A. Lot. Happens.

We begin with a young girl called Minami who is out with her friends one night. Out of nowhere, a violent gang enters the restaurant she’s in and murders everybody. They apparently let Minami live. Then a rival gang comes and there’s a huge shoot-out – everybody wants this girl. Turns out the gangs are from rival vampire clans and a prophecy foretold the importance of Minami, sort of explaining why they are fighting over her. Meanwhile, there’s a fancy pants party going on in an exuberant hotel. It’s an Invitation only affair, and while some of the guests seem to know one another, most are strangers who think they are being selected for some sort of game or dating show. Our host – Yamada – is a charismatic vampire of some respected standing and he informs the guests that they have been purposely selected because of their hyperactive libidos, and that in a few hours time an apocalyptic event is going to end all life on the planet. The sex fiends will be the last surviving people on the world and it will be their job to shag as much as possible and have as many delicious babies as possible so that the vampires have a never-ending food supply. That’s about the gist of everything, but a succession of new plot reveals and characters lets us know that there’s a hell of a lot more going on under the surface – literally.

It is a confusing show and I wouldn’t hold it against anyone who bows out early. Anyone already a fan of Sono should stick around, and anyone who becomes curiously invested in any of what’s going on – the story, the characters, the punk tone, the gorgeous and zany look and feel of the things – will be rewarded with layer after layer of bonkers goodness. Everything about the show is wildly over the top – the acting, the violence, the seedy nature, the secrets. Sometimes in a show like this you need an anchor to keep you grounded – maybe you find that in Minami, maybe you find it in the vampire K, maybe it’s your need to find out what the hell the point of any of it is – for me it was simply to enjoy living inside Sono’s brilliant, demented mind for another few hours. The story has plenty of moments of intrigue and the characters who come and go at a moment’s notice all have their charm, but it’s how Sono squishes all of these aspects together in an apparent middle finger to form and expectation which kept me watching until the end. If you’re looking for a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and end which follows the outlined premise you’ll probably be disappointed, but if you’re after a big pile of wacky stuff to laugh at and tell your mates about all punctuated by moments of sublime cinematic beauty, then Tokyo Vampire Hotel may be for you. There’s nothing like it on the market now – I’m not sure if there has ever been anything like it – and there’s no-one quiet like Sion Sono.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Tokyo Vampire Hotel!

Best Writing (Original) – 1980

Official Nominations: Melvin And Howard. Brubaker. Fame. Mon Oncle D’Amerique. Private Benjamin.

Be honest – how many of these films have you, or has the average person heard of. Fame should be a given, Private Benjamin is probably there too. There others? Unless you were there at the time and an Oscars nerd most people won’t be aware of the other three nominees. That’s not to say they’re not good choice or good scripts, but it does suggest that better or more viable options were overlooked. Melvin And Howard won a number of Awards this year – it’s a fine standalone and it hasn’t aged as badly as even some of the bigger comedies of the era. Even so, it’s not that funny – it’s the light sort of self serving humour The Academy always falls back on when they absolutely have to nominate a Comedy. It does get credit for being one, maybe one of the first, of those biopics about some random person with no discernible talent who meets with a stroke of bizarre luck, or whose story is so offbeat and little known that it just about deserves to be told.

Brubaker is a lower tier prison movie – by this point we’d seen a lot better and we would see better again in the future. Not happy with winning Best Picture, Robert Redford had to through his acting hat into the ring with this one but up against the titans who were nominated, Brubaker got relegated to Best Writing. The category was a little different in 1980, but given that it was clearly based on a book and it not an original story, it shouldn’t really be here. Fame tried to bring back the Musical by focusing on a younger set of characters and audience. It’s tolerable, cheesy, dated as hell as all Musicals tend to be within a few years of release. It doesn’t do nearly enough to rally against the dangers of fame to impressionable youth and those scavengers ready to exploit them. At least it broaches these topics and it’s merely a collection of songs and dances in pretty clothes. It’s not strong enough to be here.

Mon Oncle D’Amerique – you always know The Academy’s desperate or up to some funny business when it nominates a foreign movie here. Both Resnais and Depardieu were high on the list of ‘lets give these guys awards’ for The Academy which surely played a part in this being nominated, but it is a fairly interesting film both for the topics discussed, the real life people involved, and its structure. French Philosopher and Scientist Henri Laborit is the lead character, taking the audience on a virtual tour of his brain (and by extension the human psyche) via connected fictional stories. It’s the sort of nonsense you could see Charlie Kaufman tackling now. Private Benjamin is one of those classic fish out of water stories, elevated by a few funny moments and a star turn by Goldie Hawn. It’s a crap selection of movies all round and I’m not sure any deserve the nomination, never mind the win. I’ll go with the most entertaining one.

My Winner: Private Benjamin

See the Cast of 'Private Benjamin' Then and Now

My Nominations: 9 To 5. The Big Red One. The Blues Brothers. Caddyshack. The Empire Strikes Back. The Fog. Heaven’s Gate. The Long Good Friday. Used Cars.

The problem with this category this year is that there’s no stand out. There isn’t a single film you can point to as having the originality and the the dialogue and the one-line zingers you would normally expect a winner to contain. What you do have is you pick of comedies to choose from. Rather than go through each, as in truth they all strike the same anarchic nerve and each have their classic zingers – The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, Used Cars – each have more memorable dialogue than any of the official nominees, while 9 to 5 surely deserves a nod if Private Benjamin gets one. I’m no fan of 9 To 5, but fair is fair.

That leaves us with a selection of unlikely heroes which were never going to be nominated. Heaven’s Gate had no hope even before it was released, and it was such a disaster that it basically destroyed the Auteur system until the 90s Indie scene offered some new hope. Upon re-evaluation, it’s a damn strong movie. It’s no Deer Hunter, but had the original vision been allowed to be seen, and had the thing been kept on budget, the last 40 years of cinema could have been very different. It plods, it’s bloated, but it’s somehow worth it. The Big Red One has seen less re-evaluation and is both less famous and less infamous than Heaven’s Gate, a Sam Fuller War movie with an interesting cast and one which questions the value and human cost of war before the swath of Vietnam movies would ask the same questions later in the decade.

The Long Good Friday is that rare example of a British gangster movie which I enjoy, and an Irish crossover movie which doesn’t embarrass. It didn’t make a huge splash in the US, but was popular enough that it set up Bob Hoskins for life. The Fog sees John Carpenter continue the unbelievable run kicked off with Assault On Precinct 13. It’s the perfect campfire ghost story blown up for the big screen, a terrific example of a simple, hokey premise given weight, drama, and scares thanks to a script which keeps things simple yet offers some self aware smarts over a decade before that became the norm.

My final choice is hardly unexpected. As the sequel to A New Hope, Empire had some big shoes to fill. The script more than lives up to the original by complicating relationships, offering new characters, worlds, and languages, peppering the movie with one-liners still in regular use today, and providing more of what people enjoyed about the first movie. Plus there’s the small matter of one of the greatest twists in movie history. As much as a Star Wars fan as I am, I would like to pick something else here – but I don’t see any other viable choice.

My Winner: The Empire Strikes Back

Let us know which movie you would pick as winner!

Ranking Drones – Muse

Drones: Amazon.co.uk: Music

By the time Drones came along I had mostly stopped caring about Muse. I still bought it on day one, but I probably waited a few weeks before listening to it, and maybe only listened to it twice in that first year. Part of that is down to how I consume music. I’m still a CD guy when it comes to buying, and I very rarely use stuff like Spotify for new music. I used to convert my CDs to play on Ipod, but by 2015 I’d slowed down on this nonsense too. Plus I’m old, and I struggle to care as much about music unless it has some immediacy for me at a melodic, emotional, or conceptual level. Drones didn’t appeal to me on any of these levels, it didn’t jump out at me screaming to be heard; it cowered in the corner shouting military slogans. Having survived a stint in the military in my youth, such things are ridiculous to me. It’s also a case of having heard the same riffs, the same approach to music and melody, and the same type of songs done better before, plus the band and their thematic content somehow seemed more juvenile and adolescent than ever. There are still a few decent tunes in there – it’s still Muse for Bellamy’s sake – so of course they’re not suddenly shit, but as a whole due to where I was and the overall samey nature of the thing, it comes across as distinctly average.

  1. Revolt.
  2. Mercy.
  3. Aftermath.
  4. Reapers.
  5. The Globalist.
  6. Dead Inside.
  7. Psycho.
  8. The Handler.
  9. Drones
  10. Defector.
  11. JFK.
  12. Drill Sergeant

Let us know what you think of Drones in the comments!

Happy Ending

Happy Ending: 3/Good

As the title suggests, this does sound happy, one of the very few songs in the Manics catalogue that sounds genuinely content. It’s another very simple song with simplistic, poor, repeated lyrics from the Lifeblood/There By The Grace Of God era, and at the time felt like a possible goodbye from the band. The band seemed like they wanted to go in one direction musically, but there was an uncertainty over whether they could convince themselves and fans of this direction, so possibly they would just pack it all in instead. Happily they didn’t, and we are left with this curious, piano driven pseudo-goodbye, pseudo-dedication. The melodies are amicable enough, Bradfield hits some high notes and while the song reaches for those crowd-pleasing chorus peaks the piano makes it feel more like a Coldplay song in places. It rarely goes beyond ‘yeah, this song sounds nice and nothing else’ but it’s enjoyable enough in small doses to keep it higher than average for me, with extra points because the band sound like they are content. 

The Story Of The Song: I’m not sure if the band has ever talked publicly about this one, but based on what they were going through at the time – the downgrading from Stadium chart toppers, the changes in musical and stylistic direction, the boredom Wire was always mentioning in interviews, and of course the lyrics themselves, it seems reasonable to assume they had this planned or written as a thanks and good bye song. It’s a little too soppy in one way for a band as angry and punk as they are, but it does fit. If it was meant to be a goodbye, I’m surprised they released it at all.

Let us know your thought in the comments!

The Password Is Courage

The Password is Courage original film poster | Movie Poster Studio 1184

If there’s anything to learn from The Password Is Courage it’s that Dirk Bogarde was a bad-ass. Check out any biography or discussion of his past, his own part in World War 2, and many other antics; bad. ass. The Password Is Courage was by no means the first POW movie, but it’s one of the most underrated and lesser known, with an opening 10 minutes which must rank among the most entertaining I’ve seen in the genre. Make no mistake, this is neither gruelling nor overtly political, or even particularly serious, sharing more similarities with something like The Great Escape. 

The film opens with Bogarde’s Sgt-Major Coward and cohorts already in a POW camp. We don’t get to see this camp actually being as horrific as we know they could be (there were of course limits to what movies could show and what audiences could tolerate back then) but we know the Allied soldiers want freedom. Coward consistently makes a nuisance of himself and is trying to look for ways to escape – on a forced march he slips away and hides in a farmhouse. Unfortunately for him, this farmhouse is already about to be taken over by the Germans as a hospital – luckily, the Germans are idiots and they mistake Coward for an injured German soldier and award him the Iron Cross in a particularly amusing scene. All of these antics are merely set up for his actual escape as he is quickly recaptured and sent back to his POW camp. A brave move to have a fake-out escape in the opening moments and which takes up a fair chunk of the running time.

The rest of the movie follows Coward continuing to lie, cheat, and steal his way from Camp to Camp – pissing off both Germans and Allies equally in his search for freedom. He gets a friend, he meets a pretty lady, and there are moments of both action and humour. The film never comes close to striking a serious nerve and while I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a jolly romp through the worst period of the 20th Century so much as offering a clearly fictional more light-hearted take on the audacity, bravado, and luck of some of those involved.

Let us know in the comments what you think of The Password Is Courage!