Brave

REVIEW: Michael Hunter – River (1995)

MICHAEL HUNTER – River (1995 Racket Records, 2013 reissue)

99% of people who stumble upon this review won’t know who Michael Hunter is, and that’s fine.  He’s one of Marillion’s crew.  He’s Mark Kelly’s keyboard tech, and he’s a producer in the studio as well.  This album came to be when Marillion were looking for some ambient music to open their Brave tour. The wanted to set the mood right for that dark concept album, played in its entirety.  If you own one of the live albums from that tour, (though not Made Again disc 2), then chances are you’ve heard a little bit of River.

According to the liner notes by Marillion’s Steve Hogarth, the album was composed and performed, not merely programmed!  The bits of music used are lifted from Marillion’s Brave, and other records, and re-composed into a 42 minute album.  There are no songs, but the music is divided into seven numbered tracks (I – VII).  There’s no point discussing them individually.  Sometimes you can’t even tell when one section has ended, and another has begun.  Sure, there are changes in mood and texture, but River remains a largely monolithic block of music.  It’s watery sounding, and very atmospheric.

RIVER ORIGINALI had River going when I was playing a computer game (called Lux, which is the same as Risk, but with infinite maps to conquer).  River felt appropriate to the video game setting, in fact it reminded me of some of the music in the old Rama video game from the 90’s.  Unfortunately the CD is mixed quietly by today’s standards so I had to crank it a bit to get the listening balance right.

Bits and pieces are familiar.  If you know Brave, then you have heard some of these keyboard and guitar sounds before.  It doesn’t feel like “Brave remixed” any way, however.  Somehow Michael Hunter used those sounds to actually compose an original piece of music that stands as its own work.

Fans started requesting that the Brave live intro music be made available on a CD, so Marillion released the Michael Hunter album on their own label Racket Records and made it available to order in 1995.  That sold out, and they re-released it as a Front Row Club optional release (FRC-006).  That meant that members of Marillion’s Front Row Club subscription service could get the album, but it wouldn’t be sent to them automatically.  They had to “opt in” to get it, since it wasn’t a “new release” but a reissue.  Some members already had it.  I did not, but for whatever reason I didn’t opt in to get it.  I considered it outside of the Marillion discography, and in many respects it is.  In 2013 it was reissued once more (each time with slightly altered cover art), and I finally decided to snag it as part of my annual Marillion website order.

I’m glad I did.  While I wouldn’t listen to this frequently, since I don’t often crave long ambient pieces, it definitely will come in handy.

3.5/5 stars

FRONT ROW RIVER

REVIEW: Marillion – The Official Bootleg Box Set Vol 2 (2010)

Part 2 of a 2 part series!  Missed Part 1?  Click here for Early Stages: the Official Bootleg Box Set from the Fish era.

MARILLION – The Official Bootleg Box Set Vol 2 (2010 EMI)

Spanning Seasons End through to Brave, Vol 2 of the Official Bootleg Box (Vol 1 is of course the Fish years) effectively captures what some believe to be the best years of Steve Hogarth’s tenure. You will, naturally, get some repeat within the 8 discs inside. You’ll hear “Easter” more than once. You’ll hear “Uninvited Guest” more than once. It is what it is.

Here’s a breakdown of the contents herein:

  • Discs 1 & 2:  Leicester, April 24 1990
  • Disc 3:  BBC Friday Rock Show, Workington, July 13 1991
  • Discs 4 & 5:  Wembley, London, September 5 1992
  • Discs 6 & 7:  Warsaw, June 15 1994
  • Disc 8:  BBC Sessions EP, 1992-1994

Obviously the BBC stuff has a higher fidelity than the other stuff. It’s called a bootleg box set for a reason! But the other discs still sound acceptably good. They are soundboard recordings, not audience recordings. Hogarth’s voice is a bit hoarse in Warsaw 1994, but that’s the reality of a live concert setting.  A reality that I love and embrace.

BOOT BOX 2_0003The highlights are many. “Sugar Mice” is always great, regardless of who sings it. It was also nice hearing “I Will Walk On Water” and “Sympathy” during the Wembley 1992 show; both are from the then-recent Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other compilation album. Attentive listeners will even hear Marillion strumming away on an embrionic version of “Made Again”, a full two years before it was released! You will get to hear all of Brave performed live in 1994. I liked the moment in the Warsaw show when Hogarth asks security to go easy on the fans, “they are not animals”.

Some people bitched that it’s not a full length CD, but I dug the BBC Sessions EP.  It’s just a four song acoustic EP, but it sounds amazing. Today, Marillion have a ton of acoustic work (Less = More, Unplugged at the Walls, Los Trios Marillios to name some of many), but this is the earliest acoustic set that I think I’ve heard. The only problem is, it’s mastered way louder than the other 7 discs. Kind of jarring when you have them on continuous play and you have to jump for the volume knob!

The box set includes each CD in its own fully illustrated cardboard sleeve, as well as a booklet. The box itself is slim but sturdy.

If you’re a Marillion diehard, you will obviously want to somehow save enough pennies to add this to your collection. Even though I have already somewhere in the neighborhood of…God, I don’t know? Over 50 live albums from the Hogarth years alone? Many of them 2 and 3 disc sets? I’ve lost track of how many I have, and that doesn’t include their download-only instant live albums! But this is still a great package to own, especially because the older live Hogarth albums are getting harder to find. (Don’t know how you’d get a copy of Front Row Club #1 at this point, for example.)

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Marillion – Sounds Live (2012)

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MARILLION – Sounds Live (2012 Racket Records/Abbey Road LiveHereNow/EMI)

This is one of those “Instant Live” type discs.  While the discs have art pre-printed on them, they are CDRs.  There is no track list on the case, probably because the setlist wasn’t set in stone!  (I have a Slash “Instant Live” style disc with the setlist printed on the back, which was completely wrong, as the singer had a sore throat and they had to change up the set!)  The label is Racket Records/Abbey Road LiveHereNow, licensed to EMI, but even though Racket has their name on it, you can’t buy it from them.  You can buy it from Abbey Road Live, however.

The show was recorded on 16 September 2012 at the Forum in London, on the Sounds that Can’t Be Made tour.  The sound quality is excellent!

Marillion bravely opened the show with “Gaza”, the powerful, swirling, 17 minute new song from Sounds that Can’t Be Made.  I don’t know how many new fans were in the audience that night, but if there were any, they must have been in utter confusion and shock.  Hogarth delivers the song with all the passion he can muster.

Not letting up for a moment, Marillion follow this monster with another 10 minute epic:  “This Town/100 Nights”.  Incredible.  And once again, H imbues the song with so much emotion it literally leaks out of the speakers.

“This next song is a strange song,” says H, regarding track 3.  “‘Cause everybody claps along at the beginning and by verse one, they think ‘Shit, you can’t clap to this, it’s far too sad and tragic!”  And that is how H introduces the Marbles top ten (#7!) single, “You’re Gone”.  An upbeat pop-prog track with a drum program accompanying Ian Mosely, this was probably a good selection to follow two epics in a row!

My favourite of the new songs follows:  the title track from Sounds that Can’t Be Made, a simply great catchy Marillion track.  My only beef here is that I can hear pre-recorded Hogarth backing vocals.

And then…another 10 minute track?  The incredible “Neverland” from Marbles is up next, a personal favourite, and seemingly a crowd favourite too.  This one defines the word “epic” as far as I’m concerned.  Powerful, too.

From the 2007 Somewhere Else album comes “A Voice From the Past”, not one of my personal favourites (also not one of my favourite albums).  This is followed by “Power” from the new album.  “Power” is one of the better songs from an album I just haven’t wrapped my head around yet.  In live form, the chorus soars.

Disc 2 begins with yet another Marbles classic:  the soft and uplifting “Fantastic Place”, a personal favourite.  Steve Rothery’s solo is sublime.  Another personal favourite follows, the incredible “Real Tears For Sale” from the very dense Happiness is the Road album.  It’s an album I’ve never fully absorbed, but this song is incredibly powerful and at times is even reminiscent of older works like Brave or even Script in parts (listen to the flute-like keys).

Another new song, “The Sky Above the Rain”, is one that is really starting to grow on me.  This is the last of the new songs played at the London gig.  It’s 11 minute long, and it begins lullaby-like before H’s passionate, melodic vocals begin.  There’s a sadness, but also a brightness to the music; truly the blue sky above the rain.

It’s into the classics now!  “The Great Escape” is an undeniable fan favourite, and I never tire of hearing it.  What did surprise me was the resurrection of the lengthy “A Few Words for the Dead” from the underappreciated Radiation album.  I’ve always been fond of Radiation (it was the first Hogarth-era album I heard)  but this track is absolutely a challenge.  Over 10 minutes long, it builds very, very slowly.  As the closing track on a challenging album, it was perfect.  As an encore at a Marillion concert, it’s extremely brave and mind-blowing.  This is one of the best live versions I’ve heard.

The only Fish-era song played is “Sugar Mice”, but it is one that H seems comfortable with.  I will never tire of this classic, even though H lets the audience sing the first half of the song for him!  Rothery’s anthemic solo is the centerpiece of the affair.

The final surprise is that the show closes with the morose “Estonia”, from This Strange Engine.  H dedicates the song to the family of Neil Armstrong.  I’ve never been particularly fond of this dour song, although it has been played in concert many, many times over the last 15 years.  Obviously, many fans “get it” and love it.  I’m not one of them, so for me, Sounds Live ends with a thump rather than a celebration.  I would have preferred something like “Garden Party” or “Easter”, but I’m not complaining.

Speaking of “Easter”:  Conspicuous by its absence is any music at all from Seasons End.  You can’t fit ’em all in, and tour after tour, Marillion have always changed up their setlists.  You will never see the same Marillion concert two tours in a row.

While Marillion have dozens of live albums (especially when you include the 43 Front Row Club releases), this one is a valuable inclusion in the canon as the first physical live release of Sounds that Can’t Be Made songs.   I don’t know how frequently I will return to it, given the amount of live stuff I have, but I did enjoy it.

4/5 stars

Disc 1:

  1. “Gaza”
  2. “This Town/100 Nights”
  3. “You’re Gone”
  4. “Sounds that Can’t Be Made”
  5. “Neverland”
  6. “A Voice From the Past”
  7. “Power”

Disc 2:

  1. “Fantastic Place”
  2. “Real Tears For Sale”
  3. “The Sky Above the Rain”
  4. “The Great Escape”
  5. “A Few Words For the Dead”
  6. “Sugar Mice”
  7. “Estonia”