Greetings, Glancers! Since my last Marbles specific post, the world has gone a bit mad (pun intended). It hasn’t been great for the last few years, between Recessions, Pandemics, Trumps, and Neighbours being cancelled, but then Putin entered the chat. If reading this distracts you from the shit for a few minutes, then I may go down as one of history’s greatest heroes. Since my last post, Paul and Sanja have done a couple of episodes of the lead up to Marbles and have reviewed the new Marillion album. I listened to the first and last 10 minutes of that review (I didn’t want any spoilers), was intrigued by the positive feedback, and disgusted by Sanja’s toxic gas emissions. Some things we don’t forget.
Fantastic Place continues the trend of smooth and relaxed music, being another laid-pack and atmospheric song with another spirited solo. I love Rothery’s central solo here not because it’s technically difficult but because it breaks and enhances the build up of tension which grows from the song’s glacial opening. I enjoy songs which have this stacking quality anyway – starting slow or soft and gradually adding further textures to subtly shift the sound through the gears until it a bombastic climax without you even noticing that it’s happening. Fantastic Place is a prime example of how to do this well – strings and synth, light percussive elements drifting the song outwards even as the melodies remain familiar, then backing vocals, additional drums, a twisting of the volume knobs – these elements continue to grow until the solo breaks the tension and shuffles us into the final couple of minutes. It’s another very strong song, another piece of excellent production.
Lyrically, we’re firmly in escapism territory, one of H’s consistent fall-backs. Even if you took away the repeated key lyric ‘take me to the fantastic place/keep the rest of my life away’, this yearning for freedom and escape is glaring. The more interesting question is to ask why he wants this escape – I’m not sure the lyrics show the writer in the most positive light. The opening verse suggests the end of a relationship, with the honest admission of wanting to own your lover and that ownership being one of the prime reasons why letting go is so difficult. Yet the second verse feels like finger-pointing – you screwed me down, you took my money, you forced me into drinking; it isn’t the sweet song of freedom yearning which the music may suggest.
By the end of the song, we’ve pivoted somewhat to the writer asking for (presumably) the person they’re breaking with to come to this fantastic place with them, because it’s a place where they can be completely open and honest, a place where understanding is natural and where struggles can be made transparent. The fact that the fantastic place is framed as an imaginary world casts a bleak and frustrating drape over the argument, the writer almost suggesting it’s impossible to get there, but the listener (perhaps naively) shouting that all you have to do is talk!
There’s nothing like a 6 plus minute song leading into an 18 minuter! Ocean Cloud would be the centrepiece of any album – it just so happens that Marbles is a beast of an album with multiple epics. What could be an exhausting experience and only one step of the overall Odyssey, is instead a wonderful jaunt into everything which makes Prog so exciting for people who enjoy Prog. Lets be honest – as Prog fans, do we not expect songs to stride confidently beyond 10 minutes? We certainly don’t want two or three 30 minute songs in a row, or 30 two minute songs. Both have their place in music of course, but Prog fans expect their artists to be adventurous, to be technically proficient, to take risks, and to push envelopes – to be confident and not shy away from writing and performing what 20th Century popular music has trained us to be afraid of.
You could spend an entire post, or podcast episode, on this song alone; at least then you could structure a valid response to the song rather than my on the fly waffling. I’ll get the stuff I don’t like about the song out of the way first, because there isn’t much. I don’t think the songs needs to be as long as it is – the section with the sound clips of the guy talking does nothing for me, and more than anything takes me out of the song. I understand why it’s there, and after Googling the lyrics and the history of the song, it makes sense. But I’d scrap it. It’s not self-indulgent, but I think cutting it would not do much damage to the song. Most of the backing instrumental, soundscaping is suitably airy, it’s honestly only the specific soundclip pieces I would remove – less than a minute in total. Or even just edit the talking out and keep the music.
That’s the only negative comment I can muster. I do prefer the opening minutes of the song to much of the second half – but the second half is excellent too, not because we have recurring motifs and melodies from those opening minutes but because the music takes on a darker, more threatening slant with guitars and drums which reminded me of the Kid A – Hail To The Thief era Radiohead. The roughly 10 – 13 minute section is some of the best stuff on the whole album.
Which leads nicely into the good stuff, of which there is an abundance; that solitary sole voice intro, which feels simultaneously like an ending, and the cautiously comforting words of a campfire bandit inviting you to gather around the warmth to here the sorry story of his life; the eerie and forlorn mixture of guitar and gull reminding me again of Rooster by Alice In Chains; the layering of keys and synth bloops; the unexpected switching from minor to major and the fluid move back; the leisurely pace laden with confidence which proudly screams ‘we’re doing this at our own speed and you’re gonna fucking love it’; the string and cello sounds around the 13 minute mark; the little peaks which foreshadow greater peaks; the placement of tasteful and varied solos; the guitars starting at 5.12 for which there is no earthly or logical reason why they should be so devastating, but they are. The magical power of music. There’s more to it, but you get the idea. It’s, and we all know it’s an overused and essentially meaningless term in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a masterpiece.
What’s it all about (Alfie)? I know what the top layer of the song is about, having Googled the lyrics and learning of Don Allum’s escapades across the Atlantic Ocean. Real life blokes going off into the unknown for some symbolically heavy journey seems to be a recurring them for Marillion. Have they done a song about Scott heading to Antarctica or some guy climbing Everest? Or me, tackling their entire Discography for needles Blog purposes? It’s all very interesting, but it’s the subtext I’m more curious about.
We can read much of the song as being purely about Allum, but it seems clear that while H admires/envies the guy, he’s also comparing. We know at this point H dreams of escape, and what could be more freeing than sitting in a yacht in the middle of the ocean, alone for months? The first verses examine this internal struggle of being pulled back to the sea even though he knows how dangerous it is, but we can read this as temptation on H’s behalf by almost literal Sirens. But to have a mistress he’s allowed?
As detailed as the lyrics are, I don’t have much more to say about them. They read like a story, a series of memories with that ever present pull of the sea underneath. I was sure that I was mishearing ‘cream puff’ and that I would ridicule myself when I read the correct lyrics. But no, he does sing ‘cream puff’, which may be the only instance I’ve heard of that phrase being used in song. There’s a bit about getting one over on the bullies, there’s a call-back to The Invisible Man – always entertaining when an artist’s song mentions another one of their own songs, the lyrics neatly play with various water based metaphors to draw comparisons with emotions, people, sexual urges, and from start to finish there’s a tonal interplay between the lyrics and music where each changes to suit the needs of the other – it feels like an uncommon amount of effort was put into making the song feel like a coherent whole where no individual aspect was left untethered from any other. A song doesn’t get to be a masterpiece without this level of attention.
Now that we’re all caught up, and I’ll inevitably fall behind again, lets hear what Paul and Sanja make of it all. As you may have read on the socials, Sanja unfortunately contracted Covid again, and the trip to Poland to see Marillion was cancelled. If you want to know why… well you’ll just have to Patreon it up, won’t you. I recently got a pay rise, so I’m sure I can chuck them a quid. Then again, milk now costs 14 pounds a litre or something, so everything is on the rise. I’m not poor, but it’s another thing to have to go online and register for and Paypal for, and…. look, the depths of my can’t-be-arsed-ness know no bounds. But all that extra bonus material – BYAMPOD, Digi, and other – is very tempting for someone who has been reading Digi since the early 90s.
The guys start with a bit about alternate track-listing – something which has always interested me but is sadly less important these days with Shuffling and hoverboards and whatever other futuristic nonsense the kids have these days. I must have been listening in the wrong order too. What is the right order? Who knows. In any case, Fantastic Place was the initial standout for Paul. We hear a snippet from the band about the song pushing the band out of their comfort zone and how Rothers was pushed to create a more emotional based solo – I mentioned the solo as a highlights, so it must have worked. It feels like a traditional Marillion song, but apparently it was a difficult one to get right. We hear about the different click tracks and audio engineering the band deals with when playing live – this is always interesting, but I think it’s par for the course in most established bands – and how many notes, and words, and beats, and songs the band have to remember while playing live. Some bands struggle with this the longer they exist and the more songs they write, so recalling the less frequently performed songs can be tricky. That’s what rehearsing’s for, plus it’s your job so at least try to be competent at it.
There is a bit of mumbling, which I felt was a deliberate approach similar to the lisping I mentioned in another post. People may have been pissed off because it’s not so obvious to the point that it feels like it could have been a mistake rather than a choice. Whatever the truth, it didn’t annoy me. Not like the lisping did. It’s rare for mistakes to get through to the final product without the band and the producer being aware of it – as listeners, we are not the experts no matter how technically proficient we may be. Another producer or musician will pick up on things that your average listener may miss or misunderstand, but most instances these ‘mistakes’ are aesthetic preferences or purposefully left it.
Paul and Sanja mention the theme of escape again, which is plainly obvious from the lyrics. Sanja says the song takes a stark shift from a closed off place to an Eden of freedom and confidence. Sanja wants one of the lyrics printed on a t-shirt, which reminds me of my ‘I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing’ t-shirt which I bought recently and which has already garnered some interesting looks from passers-by on a Sunday morning. Paul and Sanja both initially thought the song was about adultery, but that it later becomes a more realistic depiction of a relationship being hindered by real life. There’s the yearning for a relationship to work, but perhaps the admittance that it never will. It feels like Paul has a similar sad view of the song as I have – it never felt like a happy song, a song saying ‘we had our problems, but now we’re good’. It’s a song saying ‘We’ve had our problems, they haven’t gone away, I wish they would because look at how amazing we could be – but these problems can’t be solved’. Sanja was reading a more positive future, which may be the truth, but it struck me as a hopeless admission.
On to Ocean Cloud and Paul starts out by saying how cinematic and narratively powerful it is. The way the song feels like the ebbing and flowing of weather is something which struck me on later listens, but it’s absolutely there. It’s surprising to learn that some people didn’t like Ocean Cloud at the time – I would have thought this would have been right up your traditional Marillion fan’s alley, unless those fans were looking for something for guitar heavy? All of these future songs they mention I haven’t heard yet. It definitely feels coherent, even though there are distinct parts. I can’t say I’ve had many water-based dreams – probably for the best as I don’t want to wake up with moist garments and sheets. Being away from people is great -whether that be on a beach, in the desert, in the oceans, or like me just in the house, inside my head, or walking at night like a weirdo.
We hear about Don’s journey and H’s fondness of these stories – both the escapism and romanticism of such adventures. Wait a minute…. H… H Rider Haggard…. now it all makes sense. Paul and Sanja both love the lyrics, their poetry, their evocative nature. I was never picked last for any sport in School, mostly because I was faster than everyone, and because there were a handful of people who were entirely inept, but I was among the last picks. Unless we’re talking gymnastics, for which I was always sought out by the PE teacher as the person to demonstrate a move (which I’d never done before), yet over the course of my 7 years at this School he never bothered to learn my name. H’s quote about stronger, fitter men is interesting. I can understand that even if I’ve never felt it myself – I think I’m comfortable with my own abilities and lack thereof, and have never been competitive about anything or felt threatened in such a way. I’m great!
With that shameless crap out of the way, we can wrap up for another week. I need to get writing about Side 2 because at this point (even though I’ve listened many times) my only note is ‘The Damage is pure Muse complete with Matt Bellamy vocals’. Come back next week for more on that bombshell. As always, go listen to BYAMPOD and give the guys likes, reviews, and all the other algorithm volumetric shenanigans!