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.