Christmas albums

REVIEW: We Wish You A Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year – Various Artists (2008)

WE WISH YOU A METAL XMAS AND A HEADBANGING NEW YEAR (2008 Armoury)

Yep, It’s another Bob Kulick album with various guests.  You know what you’re going to get.  Let’s not dilly-dally; let’s crack open the cranberry sauce and see what a Metal Xmas sounds like.

Generic!  A truly ordinary title track features the amazing Jeff Scott Soto on lead vocals, but it’s a purely cookie-cutter arrangement with all the cheesy adornments you expect.  Ray Luzier fans will enjoy the busy drums, but this does not bode well for the album.

Fortunately it’s Lemmy to the rescue, with “Run Rudolph Run”, an utterly classic performance with Billy Gibbons and Dave Grohl.  All spit n’ vinegar with no apologies and nary a mistletoe in sight.  I remember playing this for my sister Dr. Kathryn Ladano in the car one Christmas.

When Lemmy opened his yap, she proclaimed “This is bullshit!  How come they get to make albums and not me?”

Lemmy Kilmister, pissing people off since day one, has done it again.  You can buy the CD for “Run Rudolph Run” even if the rest is utter shit.

A silly “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by Alice Cooper echoes “The Black Widow”, but novelty value aside, is not very good.  A joke song can only take you so far, and Alice is usually far more clever.  (At least John 5’s soloing is quite delicious.)  And even though Dio is next, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” comes across as a joke, too.  Which is a shame because the lineup is a Dio/Sabbath hybrid:  Tony Iommi, Rudy Sarzo, and Simon Wright.  Dio’s joyless, dead serious interpretation is amusing only because of its unintentional dry humour.

Funny enough, Geoff Tate’s “Silver Bells” has the right attitude.  Even though Geoff is perpetually flat, his spirited version (with Carlos Cavazo, James Lomenzo and Ray Luzier) kicks up some snow.  That makes me happy, but it pains me to say that Dug Pinnick’s “Little Drummer Boy” (with George Lynch, Billy Sheehan and Simon Phillips) doesn’t jingle.  Ripper Owens, Steve More & pals team up next on “Santa Claus is Back in Town”, so bad that it borders on parody.

The most bizarre track is Chuck Billy’s “Silent Night”, with thrash buddies like Scott Ian.  Chuck performs it in his death metal growl, and it’s pure comedy.  Oni Logan can’t follow that with “Deck the Halls”, though it’s pretty inoffensive.  Stephen Pearcy’s “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” adapts the riff from “Tie Your Mother Down” and succeeds in creating a listenable track.  “Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree” is ably performed by Joe Lynn Turner, sounding a lot like a Christmas party jam.

The final artist is Tommy Shaw with John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”.  It’s an authentic version and while not a replacement for the original, will be enjoyable to Styx fans.

Christmas albums by rock artists are, let’s be honest, rarely worthwhile.  This one has only a handful of keepers so spend wisely.

2/5 stars

REVIEW: Marillion – Pudding On the Ritz – Christmas 2008

MARILLION – Pudding On the Ritz – Christmas 2008 (Racket Records)

This was the final fan club exclusive Christmas CD that Marillion issued for several seasons.  They switched to DVD for the next few years.  I think an album is more interesting than a DVD, but to each their own!

It’s the annual Christmas message first, an amusing one as usual, with the band goofing around for a bit.  The Christmas song in 2008 was “Little St Nick”, a tour de force progressive rock Christmas tune clocking in at over six minutes.  It appears to be unrelated to the Beach Boys song.  (Listen for the silhouette of “Hey Jude”.)  It could, in fact, be exactly what your progressive rock loving seasonal heart adores!

The next chunk of tracks are jams from the Happiness is the Road recording sessions.  Often these jams would have found their way into songs, but these are the best bits that did not.  “Singapore” has nice laid-back instrumental appeal, but then Pete Trewavas grabs hold of it and it starts sounding like a heavy Brave outtake.  Conclusion: Marillion should consider releasing more instrumentals.  “Jakarta” has some interesting screechy guitar, and vocals.  “Honolulu” goes rock and roll, boppin’ piano included, before heading into more progressive territory and back again.  “In Dorset” is quiet, but with Ian Mosely performing some seriously stupendous percussion stuff.  Fabulous music.  Finally, “In Goa” almost recalls “Black Night” by Deep Purple!

There’s more still.  The final bunch of tracks was assembled by producer Mike Hunter with a Christmas theme in mind.  He decided to arrange the music around the poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas.  Thomas’ 1952 recording was a BBC staple.  Steve Hogarth does the reading for Marillion’s version.  For the next 24 minutes you’ll hear the poem over music that occasionally fits, but is often incongruous.  Whether you can get into it or not, It’s 24 minutes of Marillion music arranged in a conceptual framework.  That’s going to appeal to some of you.  Hogarth’s narration is top notch.

The added value of all this unreleased music, much of it seasonal in nature, makes this one of the better Marillion Christmas albums.

4/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Marillion – Baubles – Christmas 2004

MARILLION – Baubles – Christmas 2004 (2004 Racket Records)

And now we have arrived at the worst Marillion “Christmas” album. There had to be one, didn’t there? Unusually for a Christmas CD, this one contains almost zero seasonal content. Which, you know, that’s no so bad in and of itself. Unfortunately, the 2004 Christmas CD is all remixes.

Marbles-era Marillion went a little remix-happy.  They had singles remixes.  They had a fanmade remix album (Remixomatosis) with a bonus CD of also-rans.  They had a 12″ promo single under the band name “Remixomatosis” with even more remixes.    And for the diehards who had a fanclub subscription, the annual holiday album was choked with nine more of these fanmade remixes.

The only Christmas content is the usual “Christmas Message”…which is, due to the unavailability of the band, just a remix of previously recorded Christmas messages.  Amusing?  Yes.  Disappointing?  Indeed.

The liner notes explain that Marillion received over 500 remixes from fans, and Remixomatosis represented the winners as voted for from the band.  Baubles, then, are the best of the rest.  It starts well enough, with the “Ordnance Survey Mix” of the excellent song “Map of the World”.  This one is decent because it doesn’t just mix in more drum loops, but oodles and oodles of string arrangements.  It’s “Map of the World” reimagined for strings, but unfortunately suffocating some of the regal vocal melodies in exchange.

Next is the “Demystified Mix” of “This is the 21st Century”, which begins by reducing everything to basic piano and percussion, and then adds the bass and accoutrements.  The chorus has a strange floaty quality.  Then the “2.5 Hearts in the Groove Mix” of “Fruit of the Wild Rose” is like coming down into the mud.  Very little of the original song remains, drowned by lofty beats and bass.  The funky chorus is good but the rest loses the plot too much.

“Number One” is a cool song for remixing, and this one is interesting.  Fast synth and beats turn it into something new, a pounding dark dance number.  They call it the “Whatever Mix” but it’s better than the name suggests.  It blends seamless into the “No Monsters Remix” of “If My Heart Were A Ball It Would Roll Uphill”, which doesn’t leave much of the original song intact.  I would have called it the “Boring Disco Remix”.  Moving on, “When I Meet God” is still recognizable in form of its “Ontological Mix”, with changes made to the guitar and drums.  It’s a good alternate mix to the original.

The “Latino Freak Mix” of “Separated Out” is surprising.  Taking the heaviest song on the album and making it into a mambo?  OK, I’ll give you points for that.  It’s not my cup ‘o hot chocolate, but to each their own.  The normally wonderful single “Between You and Me” is put into a laid back snooze on the “Martini Mix”, a failed (if jazz) experiment.  Finally the CD gratefully closes on the “Hard Time Mix” of “Quartz.  That aptly describes how it feels listening to this whole CD front to back.

1.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Marillion – A Piss-Up in a Brewery / Christmas 2000

MARILLIONChristmas 2000A Piss-Up in a Brewery (2000 fan club CD)
MARILLION A Piss-Up in a Brewery (19 track download version released 2010)

Being a member has its advantages, and when joining the official Marillion fan club entails a free exclusive CD, you can always count on me to be on board.  Marillion’s third, A Piss-Up in a Brewery, was my first.  The original 12 track Racket Records printing (WebFree 03) is a treasure.  It was made available again to members of the Front Row Club subscription service in 2003, as Bass Brewery Museum, Burton, UK – 17th November 2000 (FRC-011).  CD has space limitations, but in 2002 a DVD of the full 19 song show was released.  Then in 2010, the audio (mp3 or FLAC) of all 19 tracks was made available for download.  Anyway you want it, you can get the complete performance as it was.

Marillion were invited to perform intimate gigs at the Bass Brewery and get their own signature beer.  They chose an acoustic format with new material, special covers and a guest.  They were hard at work on their new album Anoraknophia, “which you’ve already bought” said Steve Hogarth, referring to their innovative pre-ordering scheme.  The second gig was recorded for the fan club-only Christmas CD.

A quiet “Go!” begins and gently builds to the throbbing chorus, “Wide awake at the edge of the world.”  The second song also quietly builds from calm beginnings.  “After Me” is one of their most memorable pop melodies, infused with integrity from the start, and stripped bare in the brewery.  Then from their 1994 concept album Brave comes the single “Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury”.*  Intense songs for an intimate show.  “Lap of Luxury” smoulders, and as it burns, Steve Hogarth blasts for all he’s got.

The first big surprise of the evening was the Fish-era B-side “Cinderella Search”, albeit the shortened 7″ version and not the full-on five and a half minutes of brilliance from the 12″ single.  The amusing thing is when a spoiling audience member blurts out the title having attending the night before.  “Oh, there’s always one,” says Hogarth.  The singer had never performed the song before these gigs.  The acoustic setting alleviates any pressure to be like Fish.  It also enables them to seamlessly meld the song onto “The Space”, already popular in acoustic form.

“A Collection” is another B-side with dark subject matter.  It’s about “an uncle” with an interesting hobby, but it’s also an ironically bright tune.  “Beautiful”* and “Afraid of Sunrise”* both date back to 1995’s Afraid of Sunlight, a pair really made for the intimate setting.

New friend Stephanie Sobey-Jones on cello is invited onstage for a sombre “Sympathy”, both a single and a Rare Bird cover.   Cello also features on the new song “Number One”.  It had simple beginnings, explains Hogarth.  “I had some words, and Mark had some chords.”  Interjects Mark Kelly, “Three, actually. I’m not joking!”   The track takes a stab at the artificiality of modern pop music, but was only included on the pre-ordered deluxe edition of Anoraknophobia.  Simple, but extremely intense.  The cello stays for “Dry Land”, a favourite ballad from 1992’s Holidays in Eden (and even earlier).  The voice of Steve (Hogarth) rings true on even the most difficult note, while the guitar of Steve (Rothery) makes for a sweltering solo.

Back to 1987, and the old favourite “Sugar Mice”.*  Of all the old Fish classics, “Sugar Mice” is the one that Hogarth most easily adopts.  The scars that he is nursing at the end of the bar sounds like his own.

Yet still the humour is always there.  As they warm up for the Mexican-sounding “Gazpacho”, Mark Kelly asks “Am I in the wrong band?”

“You have been for years,” deadpans Pete Trewavas.

“Gazpacho” gets you moving as the concert enters its final third.  Away, yon darkness; the music stays largely celebratory from here, though the lyrics maintain some bite.  Elvis Presley, O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson were mentioned as inspirations for the lively song.  Celtic sounds invade “80 Days”,* an ode to the audience who clap along to every beat.  “80 Days” was always acoustic, and “The Answering Machine”* has existed in a popular acoustic alternate arrangement for years.  The brewery crowd clearly liked both very much.

A slew of covers are encore treats.  Crowded House’s “How Will You Go” (from 1991’s Woodface) is a brilliant song and choice.  There’s one more original (drummer Ian Mosely smokes on “Cannibal Surf Babe”) before they do Carole King’s “Way Over Yonder”* and The Beatles’ “Let It Be”.*  Rothery gets a bluesy guitar showcase on “Way Over Yonger”, though Hogarth has the soul credentials too, as “Let It Be” ably proves.

For a long time, I felt that the original Christmas 2000 release of A Piss-Up in a Brewery to be one of the best Marillion live albums, period.  It’s still magnificent in its full length, though perhaps they should have just made it widely available to everyone in the first place.  Maybe it wouldn’t have been a hit, but if they were on Santa’s good list that year, you never know.

5/5 stars

* Indicates this song was not on the 2000 Christmas release of A Piss-Up in a Brewery, but only the DVD and download versions.

REVIEW: Marillion – The Jingle Book – Christmas 2006

scan_20161213MARILLIONThe Jingle BookChristmas 2006  (2006 Racket Records WebUK membership CD)

Gather ’round the glow of your computers children, and get your hot chocolate in hand, for it is time for a look at another Marillion Christmas CD.  The Jingle Book is a doubly clever title, for Marillion’s Christmas song for 2006 was a cover of “That’s What Friends Are For” from The Jungle Book. A surprising choice, it is rather movie accurate and partly acapella.  There is also the traditional and always silly Christmas greeting from the band.  In what may also be a Marillion tradition, this short message requires multiple takes!

The bulk of the CD is a live set from Poland in 2006.  The festival setting lends this CD a different atmosphere than other live Marillion discs.  From the sonics to the feel, The Jingle Book doesn’t work like typical Marillion sets.   There are only a few long bombers, lots of singles, and no tracks earlier than Seasons End.  Decent quality audio will satisfy all but the pickiest of fans; remember this amounts to an official bootleg.

An ass-kicking “Separated Out” was chosen for opening position.  This song, among Marillion’s most energetic, would have got the crowd’s attention.  Drummer Ian Mosely is a monster on “Separated Out”, which is immediately followed by the band’s hit single “You’re Gone”.  The mosh pit vibe gives way to ethereal dance.  Floating like smoke in the air, “Fantastic Place” and “Easter” are rolled out in powerful performances.  Talking is minimal though Steve “h” does attempt some Polish.

Afraid of Sunlight is given a nod with the ballad “Beautiful”, and progressive epic “Out of this World”.  “Beautiful” is as lovely as its name, and has the feeling of celebration.  The mood darkens immediately on “Out of this World”, as there are very few positive songs about nautical disasters.  Steve Rothery’s immaculate guitar tone sings its own song, sad but hopeful.

The beat picks up with the electrifying “Accidental Man” from This Strange Engine.  As a highlight from that often overlooked album, “An Accidental Man” does not get showcased often, and this organ-heavy take is satisfying.  Boppy Beatles-y single “The Damage” (from Marbles) is sheer delight.  With genie now out of the box, “Neverland” begins a long slow climax.  As one of the most dramatic of all Marillion epics, “Neverland” haunts the air like burning incense.  Then like a halogen light, Rothery brightens it up with his un-immitatible string magic.  Consider the heart that “h” puts into his singing here, combined with Rothers’ liquid guitars, and this could be the best ever live version of “Neverland”.

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Rolling into the encores, “Between You and Me” and “Cover My Eyes” exude glee and positive vibes.  There is much common ground between the two albums those songs are taken from (Holidays in Eden and Anoraknophobia) so it is unsurprising that they work together so well in the encore position.  A brilliant pairing, crisp and refreshing like Sauvignon Blanc with a healthy avocado salad.

As with any past Marillion Christmas CD, you can’t buy this anymore and the chances of stumbling upon one in the shops are nil, even with the help of all of Santa’s elves.  However you can still download it and the others by joining the official Marillion webUK fan club.  Members receive three thick, glossy full colour magazines, the Christmas CD, and other downloadable content.  Worth thinking about, or adding to your Christmas list.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: Marillion – Merry Xmas to Our Flock – Christmas 2005

scan_20161204MARILLION Merry Xmas to Our FlockChristmas 2005 (2005 Racket Records WebUK membership CD)

Every year, like the most reliable loyalty program in the world, Marillion reward their fanclub members with a special Christmas release.  Each one has exclusive music on it, some more Christmas-y than others.  The main exclusive on the 2005 Christmas release is a live set by “Los Trios Marillos”:  a stripped down trio version of the band.  Los Trios does acoustic versions, usually for radio sessions, and consists of singer Steve Hogarth, guitarist Steve Rothery, and bassist Pete Trewavas.  These 13 tracks were recorded in Washington DC for XM radio, featuring a wonderful cross-section of Hogarth-era favourites.

That’s not all, of course!  Marillion deliver their traditional Christmas message at the start of the CD, campy and tipsy.  Bonus points if you’re from North America but can still translate everything the band says.  It takes them a few takes to finally get it to their, err, satisfaction.  “We hope you have a really good Christmas, don’t get too drunk, and we’ll see you next year.”  Then, “That’s not written down at all!”  Usually these albums include a brand new studio Christmas track too, and this time it’s the celtic “Erin Marbles”.  It’s a hyperactive Irish jig with mandolin, tin whistle, squeezebox, fiddles and bodhran.  Calling this a Christmas track is a bit of a stretch, as it is basically the song “Marbles” from the same-titled album done up for fun, mixed with a medley of Christmas tunes.  There is no question it’s fun for the fans, but nobody except fans will “get it”, so it’s not really useful for mom’s Christmas mix CD this year.

The Los Trios set commences with the downer “Hollow Man” which is an abrupt change of moods.  The was recorded live with an audience, but they are so quiet during “Hollow Man” you could hear a pin drop, which makes the song that much more haunting.  It is performed solo by Hogarth only accompanied by piano.  “It’s a little early in the morning to be singing,” says Steve.  Fortunately things become upbeat if only for a little while on “Cover My Eyes”, a song that is brilliant acoustically.  If you have heard Marillion’s piano treatment of this single, then you will recognize this arrangement.  It might have been too early to sing that morning, but Steve manages just fine, including the high “pain and heaven” section that challenges every mere mortal.  Rothers and Pete join Hogarth at this point for the B-side “The Bell in the Sea”, which Steve mis-introduces having lost his place in the set list!  It’s live radio, folks.  This is the jazzy bass-oriented acoustic version that the band had been performing since at least 1998, very different from the nautical epic original.  They then return to the song that H was beginning to introduce, “Runaway” from Brave.  It was the song that kickstarted the whole concept of the album.  It is a dark and emotional band and fan favourite, but stripped down to a trio format, it is even more delicate.

The first of four songs from the most-recent Marbles is the dancey hit “You’re Gone”.  Acoustically  it is a different animal, but just as beautiful.  The focus isn’t on the beats but on the melody.  Another song that is completely altered is “Dry Land” from Holidays in Eden.  It is slowed down with a gentle electronic pulse as it rolls softly.  “Fantastic Place” from Marbles flows naturally from there, and Rothery’s solo is absolutely supernatural.  The set really moves at this point, with minimal talking.  “This is the 21st Century” from Anoraknophobia burns quietly but strongly.  On album it percolates with unusual electronic effects, but live it simmers with the hot tone of Steve’s guitar.

“Easter” is a bright light in the set.  This version starts very quiet, slow and understated.  It’s an inventive take, and it slowly builds to the resemble the original, though it ends early.  “Marbles 1” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself” are the last of the new songs presented, and the audience get right into it.  “Don’t Hurt Yourself” has to be one of the best songs Marillion has ever written, and the clapping crowd energizes it.  “Don’t Hurt Yourself” was one of many highlights on Marbles, but here it is head and shoulders the winning track.  A wonderful performance of an exceptional track.

Old favourites end the radio session:  “Answering Machine” (from Radiat10n) and “Man of a Thousand Faces” (from This Strange Engine).  “Answering Machine” should be very familiar, as this acoustic mandolin and guitar arrangement has been recorded many times before.  The handclapping crowd returns to finish “Man of a Thousand Faces” with class.  This song has always been acoustic, so this does not tread far from its roots, though it is shortened for the trio format.

You can’t buy this CD anymore and the chances of stumbling upon one in the shops are nil, however you can still download it by joining the official Marillion webUK fan club.  It is well worth it.  You get three thick, glossy full colour magazines, this year’s Christmas CD, and access to download all the old ones and much more.  Worth thinking about, or adding to this year’s Christmas list.

4/5 stars

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GALLERY: I am once again a Marillion Web UK member

 

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Greetings!  Last month, we took a detailed look at four of Marillion’s annual Christmas releases:

A Collection of Recycled Gifts (2014)
A Very Barry Christmas (2001)
Christmas 2002 – Santa and his Elvis (2002)
Somewhere Elf (2007)

With the exception of A Collection of Recycled Gifts, these Marillion CDs were a free gifts exclusively for members of the official Web UK club.  I ceased subscribing and collecting a few years ago when they switched format to DVD releases.  Video is way further down on my collecting priority list.   In 2014, however, I learned they switched back to CD!  A double CD in fact: a live concert recorded in Chile called (heh heh) Chile for the Time of Year!

I re-subscribed just in time to get it.  And it has arrived, along with the 48 page glossy Web UK magazine.  This is a heavy mag, printed on good quality paper.  It’s nice that some bands’ fans still value such niceties.    There are four issues per year.

Below are a selection of pics.  For more on the Web UK, and a better way of life, visit marillion.com.

 

REVIEW: Marillion – Somewhere Elf (Christmas 2007)

SOMEWHERE ELF_0001MARILLIONSomewhere Elf (2007 Racket Records Christmas CD, free to Racket Club members – webfree 10)

This is, believe it not, Marillion’s 10th Christmas album of 11 total. From 2009 to present, Marillion have issued annual Christmas DVDs (which I do not collect) instead of CDs. Of their 11 Christmas albums, I have physical copies of nine. I am missing the first two, which were later reissued for purchase in mp3 format, and that is all I have in my collection.

(Note: in 2013 they released a new digital Christmas single, “Carol of the Bells”.  This song has since been issued physically on the new “best of” Marillion Christmas CD entitled A Collection of Recycled Gifts which just arrived at LeBrain Headquarters yesterday!)

The reasons I selected Somewhere Elf to review are two: 1) The included Christmas carol is hilarious. 2) The rest of the songs are taken from an invite-only rehearsal performance at Marillion’s headquarters, The Racket Club. The set largely consists of newer songs from Somewhere Else and Marbles.  The CD also contains the annual Christmas message from the band (6:22 long), partly apologizing for the previous year’s “amateurish and shambolic” message!  This soon degenerates into joking, mistakes, re-takes and acoustic Christmas jamming, so obviously the quality level has gone up this year.

Track 2 is the official 2007 Christmas song, “Let It Snow”!  This is a kazoo-laden drunken carol with new lyrics.  “The Aylsebury roads are closed, Let it snow let it snow let it snow!”  Hogarth’s campy vocal isn’t my cup o’ tea, but it’s all clearly for laughs.  They segue into “White Christmas” before returning back to the singalong.

Found some booze in a flight case,
And I’m afraid that we’re all shit-faced,
So I guess that we’ll have to go,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

This one made it to one of my annual Christmas CDs that I give out to friends one year.

The live rehearsals might be more interesting to some.  The intimate setting means Marillion play mostly mellow, dramatic songs.  They commence with “The Last Century for Man”, a new song from Somewhere Else.  This is another one of Hogarth’s environmental commentaries, set to a slow dance this time.  An effective song, the seriously bummer lyrics are punctuated with the sarcastic chorus of “So God bless America, I mean it!  God bless the UK, I mean it!”  Elsewhere he says to “Climb into the car, I know that makes you happy.  The sound of your laughter will get you so far.”  Without turning this review into a debate, a song like this is a bit of a slap to the face, a wake up call.  I don’t have a problem with that.  Additionally I think it was one of the better songs from Somewhere Else.

SOMEWHERE ELF_0004“Afraid of Sunlight” is a song that doesn’t need much rehearsing, but I don’t mind hearing this bombastic ballad again.  One of H-era Marillion’s strongest songs, “Afraid of Sunlight” is a personal favourite of mine due to the quiet verses and explosive, anthemic choruses.   Hogarth is understated, and then wailing in top voice.  Then from 1997’s This Strange Engine is the old concert standby “Estonia”.  I always get a little bored during this long mellow trip, but it does benefit from this intimate setting with just the fortunate few fans.  They applaud politely between songs, contenders for the luckiest people in England at that moment.  A third long slow bomber, the title track from Somewhere Else, is another favourite of mine.  There are some Steve Rothery solos here that rank among his best.  Live, dare I say better?  This dramatic tension-filled song is one of the highlights of their recent career.

The Marbles album is represented by two excellent songs: “Neverland” and “Fantastic Place”.  Much like “Somewhere Else”, “Neverland” is a long dramatic piece with different sections and moods.  It’s not an easy nut to crack, but worth getting to know.  This live version is intense, and again Rothery is the star.  After that much drama, there can’t be much air left in the room, but “Fantastic Place” soars.  It’s a bit of a brighter number, beginning quietly, but culminating with the kind of melodic guitar work that Rothery does best.

A studio version of “Faith” was finally released on Somewhere Else, but the song saw first release on Before First Light, a live DVD from 2003.  It was one of many songs initially written for Marbles, but its lullaby quality did not fit the vibe.  “Feel inside the atoms where the science breaks down,” sings Hogarth on what amounts to a statement on reality, love, the universe and the human experience of it.  In a 4 1/2 minute pop song.  Is it any wonder why the mainstream shies away from these guys?  Too cerebral.

The set closes with “See It Like a Baby”, a rocking upbeat new track that they were hyping at the time.  Here in an acoustic guise, I think I prefer it to the original album version.  It’s a little more special, and the acoustics chime clear inside the walls of the Racket Club.  It’s also the shortest song they played at this very special gig.  I’m glad special shows get commemorated and made available to people in this way.  People who are truly fans got an opportunity to own a CD of a concert that only a handful witnessed, and will probably never be physically issued again.  That’s mana to the collector.  Since this CD was intended as a Christmas gift to the loyal, I rate it:

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Marillion – Christmas 2002 – Santa and his Elvis

MARILLIONChristmas 2002 – Santa and his Elvis (2002 Racket Records Christmas CD, free to Racket Club members – webfree 05)

This is the fifth of 11 Christmas CDs that Marillion released free to fanclub members.  I have physical copies of nine, and legal downloads of the others I am missing (the first two).  I thought the 2002 installment, Santa and his Elvis, would be make for an enjoyable review.

The intro “Christmas Message” seems to be delivered by an intoxicated band, recording in October!  Laughing and doing voices, the members deliver their own personal Christmas messages to fans, if you can make out what they’re saying.  For fans only!  Then of course the band do an Elvis classic, “Lonely This Christmas”.  Although it’s not too polished (it was recorded live in the studio) it does have some pretty cool performance moments.  Hogarth’s singing is like butter but Steve Rothery’s guitar is delicious.  Then, as a surprise, they do it again as a Pistols-esque punk version.  Very cool.

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Some recent live tracks round out of the album.  From 2001 in Manchester is “Fruit of the Wild Rose” representing the then-new Anoraknophobia.  This laid-back steamy number is extra slinky live.  At almost eight minutes, it’s the longest track here.  Surprisingly, this transforms into a heavy version of “Cannibal Surf Babe” and the two songs become one. Merry Christmas, indeed.

Then it’s off to a 2002 radio broadcast, with the two lead tracks from their new single:  “Between You and Me”, and “Map of the World”.  These tracks exemplify the new sound Marillion were going for at the time.  They are concise, powerful pop rock songs featuring light experimentation with loops.  I recall they were listening to a lot of Massive Attack and Radiohead at the time, among other artists, and usually this kind of modernization doesn’t work.  Marillion pulled it off.  They managed to combine the more melodic rock sounds of Holidays in Eden with a modern ethic without sounding too contrived.  As much as I prefer the progressive, darker side of Marillion, they do write really great pop rock from time to time.    It’s not like they sold out; there’s enough good playing here to satiate the old fans.  These are the singles, after all.  “Map of the World” is a particularly lush, excellent song.

The radio broadcast continues with an older track from Radiation, “The Answering Machine”.  This is a song that exists in two separate live guises equally well: acoustic and electric.  The original album version was electric, and that’s the version played here.  I’ve become so used to the acoustic version that hearing an electric one is music to my ears.  This dense rocker smokes in this version, a bit faster than usual.  Then finally a duo from Afraid of Sunlight:  the title track, and its epic closer “King”.  “Afraid of Sunlight” fits well with the set, because it too benefited from drum loops back in ’95.  It remains as powerful and classic as ever, though Steve Hogarth’s voice is raspy and hoarse in spots.  As for “King”, it sounds intimate, bare and incredible as ever.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: Marillion – A Very Barry Christmas (2001)

A VERY BARRY CHRISTMAS_0001MARILLION – A Very Barry Christmas (2001 Racket Records Christmas CD, free to Racket Club members – webfree 04)

From 1998 to 2008, Marillion released annual Christmas CDs exclusively to members of their fan club, for free.  Each one was different from the previous, but you could count on some cool unreleased music every year.  Of the 11 Marillion Christmas CDs, I have physical copies of nine, and legal downloads of the others that I am missing (the first two).

Today in 2014, Marillion have released a new “best of” compilation CD of their Christmas tracks called A Collection of Recycled Gifts.   This CD also features new material, but it will be most fans’ first chance to hear some of these songs.  I thought that would make an excellent occasion to review a selection of the most interesting volumes of the past Marillion Christmas CDs.

I decided to start with 2001’s A Very Barry Christmas.  “Barry” was their mascot during the Anoraknophobia period.  This was their fourth Christmas CD, and the second I received.  The content on this installment includes Christmas music, specially recorded acoustic versions, and unreleased remixes.  (The reason I’m not reviewing the third Christmas album, the first one that I owned, A Piss-up in a Brewery, is this.  It was later reissued as a regular live non-seasonal DVD that I can review any time.  And I will, because it’s great and that one remains my favourite of these Marillion Christmas releases.)

The album commences with “I Saw Three Ships”, a studio recording of the traditional carol.  Of Marillion’s Christmas music, this is my favourite song.  When it opens you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a vintage outtake from Clutching at Straws or Seasons End.  In fact there is even an echo of “Easter” in some of the instrumental melodies.  They also segue into “O Come All Ye Faithful”, keeping things delicate but electric.  “I Saw Three Ships” is, in my opinion, an undiscovered gem of the Marillion back catalogue.  Then, even though it’s not listed as a separate track, Marillion’s annual Christmas message is included at the end of the song.  This time only Mark and H showed up.  They describe “I Saw Three Ships” as a Christmas carol hybrid, and I agree with that description.

Then, onto the presents!

A VERY BARRY CHRISTMAS_0003The first batch of songs are taken from a 2001 acoustic session at Marillion’s home base, the Racket Club.  Every tune is a brand new song from Anoraknophobia, giving fans an early opportunity to hear acoustic renditions of the new material.  “This is the 21st Century” is reduced to piano and voice (presumably both by Steve Hogarth).  It works well in this setting, even though the album track is long and complex.  “Between You and Me” is complete with the whole band, including keyboards and drums, rendering a catchy sorta-unplugged version of their new single.  “Map of the World”, co-headliner of that same single, is the stronger of the two songs, but not necessarily in this setting.  I think “Map of the World” works best with all the bombast and vocal glory of the studio version.  It needs to be let loose, like the character in the song who wants to see the whole world.  “Separated Out” was originally the heaviest song on Anoraknophobia.  It’s certainly an interesting choice to do acoustically, but I like the way it builds.  It’s actually quite cool.

“Number One” is an interesting selection, because it was first unveiled on 2000’s Christmas album, the aforementioned A Piss-up in a Brewery as a preview of Marillion’s new music.  The studio version was later included only on the limited deluxe edition of Anoraknophobia, so it’s a bit of a hard song to come by.  The cello part is captured nice and beefy, and this ode to artificial pop singers is flawless.  The thing about Hogarth’s lyrics is, he’s not really bitching and complaining.  Indeed, he compares the precision of a #1 pop performance to that of a figure skater aiming to hit a 9.5.   What he does is use his words to get you thinking about the subject, and I like that.

The album closes with three remixes.  From the difficult to appreciate marillion.com comes the jazzy dubby trip-hop of “House”.  This interesting remix by Marc Mitchell spends a couple minutes just focusing on the muted trumpet, which is never a bad idea.  This is a 12 minute remix and it runs the gamut, but it certainly proves that Marillion can and do anything they want musically.  Also from marillion.com is “Go!” remixed by somebody called Size 9 Cooperative.  It has been robbed of its lightly throbbing pulse; it has sadly flatlined and been reanimated as a dance-bot.  This is, quite honestly, terrible.  If I was doing a joke remix of a song in order to make fun of remix cliches, this is how it would sound.  This is one Christmas present you’ll wish you could return to the store, only to find you weren’t given a receipt.  An instrumental mix of “This is the 21st Century” is more my speed.  This is the album version stripped of lead vocal and laid bare.  I enjoy this kind of track because you can really hear the interplay of the instruments.  With Marillion, that is never really boring.  This is a full-length track by the way, all 11 minutes of the song.  Treated instrumentally, it has a nice ambient quality that would work well on an album such as Pink Floyd’s recent Endless River.

3.25/5 stars

 

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