Fake Plastic Trees

REVIEW: Marillion – Unplugged at the Walls (1999)

On the 25th of June 1998 a strange thing happened.

A group of like-minded people arrived at England’s sea and airports and made their way to a small town on the Welsh border.  The came from Brazil, Mexico, North America, Australia, Japan, Israel, Germany, Holland and Spain.

They came to have dinner.

…they also came to see a band.

 

MARILLION – Unplugged at the Walls (1999 Racket Records – Racket 10)

What’s your favourite acoustic album?

We all know the big “unplugged” performances, but between the cracks fell the web-only release Unplugged at the Walls by Marillion.  Only available via their website, this remarkable album was recorded while Marillion were working on their 10th record Radiation back in 1998.

While recording in Oswestry, Marillion struck a deal with the “best restaurant in town”, the Walls.  Now independent, every penny counted.  In exchange for free meals, Marillion agreed to play some acoustic sets at the Walls.  The idea grew and people came from all over the world to hear new songs and tunes that had never been played acoustically before.  They stripped down and re-arranged songs, added some surprises, and the result is one of the best Marillion live albums ever made.  Out of over 100!

Sampling tracks from the five Hogarth-era albums, no oldies were to be found.  Plenty of singles though:  “Easter”, “Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury”, “Hooks in You”, “Eighty Days”, and “Beautiful” which opens the set.

While Marillion have always been top-notch musicians, in an unplugged setting such as this, Steve Hogarth is the standout performer.  Whether whispering or letting it all out, Hogarth is never less than spellbinding.  He is always in complete command, with every ear on him.

The highlights are many, but Marillion’s version of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” may surpass the original.  That’s all because of Hogarth.  Nobody can touch him.  He gets more intense as the song builds.  When he sings “I could blow through the ceiling,” you truly believe it.  The track is so good that they eventually used it as the B-side to “These Chains”.

“Abraham, Martin and John” (Marvin Gaye) is a track Marillion have since released on other live albums, but this gentle version is fantastic.  This one sports some beautifully warm electric guitar tones courtesy of Steve Rothery.  Marillion also cover “Blackbird” (The Beatles, but you knew that) and do a damn respectable job of it.  Instead of birds chirping, you get the sound of diners cheering!

The new songs premiered that night were the already-acoustic “Now She’ll Never Know”, and “The Answering Machine” which, over the years, has been popular both electrically and acoustically.  “Now She’ll Never Know” is the quietest song of the night.  “Answering Machine” meanwhile is one of the most upbeat.

They also tackled the surf-rocker “Cannibal Surf Babe” which did just fine unplugged and stripped to the basics.  “The Space” received a completely new, jazzy arrangement.  They played this version many times over the year, but it’s a bit of a slog compared to the rest.  The closer “Eighty Days” is jaunty and receives a massive response from the crowd, as does “Gazpacho”.  Appropriately enough, the Walls had gazpacho on their menu that night.

Speaking of which, the menu is included as part of the booklet.  It does indeed sound like the best restaurant in town!  “Salad of black pasta with marinated seafood and prawns.”  Wow!

This album was reissued in 2018, giving everybody a chance to get one.  You should.

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Marillion – Radiation 2013

RADIATION 2013 FRONT

MARILLION – Radiation 2013 (Madfish)

Radiation (stylized as Radiat10n, Marillion’s 10th studio album) was another controversial Marillion album. Much like This Strange Engine and marillion.com, Radiation did not have that universal fan appeal that magical albums like Brave seemed to have.  It confused some of the staunchest of Steve Hogarth followers. It is unlike any previous album, but still rooted in the progressive experimentation that Marillion are known for.  Just had that modern twist to it…just enough weird stuff with samples going on to turn off the fans who felt like they were just hanging along for the ride after This Strange Engine.

I remember Tom saying to me, “This Strange Engine…was that the one that sounds like Hootie and the Blowfish?”

Perhaps in reaction to that, Radiation had a heavier, noise-saturated mix.  The band always said it didn’t come out the way they initially heard it, and always had hopes to remix it one day.  Now 15 years after its release, Radiation 2013 is a revisit to the original album with that fresh remix the band had always talked about.  It is packed in a handsome Madfish box, all the original artwork contained within, housed within a brand new cover by the same guy who did the original.

RADIATION CD

The original album itself has always appealed to me.  I tend to like the underdogs.  Born Again, after all, is my favourite Black Sabbath record.  My favourite Motorhead is Another Perfect Day….

Let’s start by talking about the original album.

Opening with a cacophony of orchestra noise, a campy distorted melody follows. Hogarth is warning us of global warming, a topic he visited 9 years earlier on “Seasons End”. “Under The Sun” follows this intro, with lyrics such as “It used to rain, dreary and grey, most every day but not anymore!” Looking at the bright side of global warming from the British point of view! A haunting ghostlike keyboard melody underscores this aggressive yet sparse tune.

This is followed by the pounding of “The Answering Machine”, a classic that is often performed unplugged these days.  The original album version is completely different, and I hear so much joy in Ian Mosely’s drums to just be sheerly having at it.

“Three Minute Boy” is supposed to be about Liam Gallagher.  It is another great song, and this one in a slower tempo.  It also has a haunting quality, and Steve Hogarth sings his ass off.

The very quiet “Now She’ll Never Know” is next. It’s a little simpler than the earlier tracks, partly because bassist Pete Trewavas is on guitar this time. Hogarth sings like a spectre of himself, fragile and weak, hiding.  It’s an awesome performance.  Then, sampled strings introduce the single “These Chains”, a late-Beatles-y ballad with a dramatic chorus.

The next track is the very Floydian “Born To Run”, regarding the “people of the north”. Never has Steve Rothery sounded so David Gilmour. Yet another classic guitar solo to add to his list of many, a showcase piece. “Born To Run” is a slow track, mournful yet also hopeful.   Ian Mosely used the subtlety he is known for and classes the song up several knotches.

Suddenly, the gothic keyboard crashes of “Cathedral Walls” assail the unguarded listener. Hogarth, his voice reduced to an echo, whimpers the lyrics. It sounds as if pain and anguish are wracking his body. The choruses are dense and powerful. This is by far the heaviest moment on the album, yet unexpectedly punctuated by quieter breaks.

The final song on the album is the 10 minute epic “A Few Words For The Dead”. It is very minimalist to start, but builds up to a barrage of vocal melodies by the time your trip is done. It is not an easy track to swallow but is worth the effort.

(The original Canadian CD had two bonus tracks: the incredible “Big Beat Mix” of “Memory of Water”, from the last album, and an unplugged rendition of “Estonia”.  These two bonus tracks are not on this version of Radiation.  I only mention it in case you were wondering. The “Big Beat Mix” was also available on the single for “These Chains”, along with an incredible cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”.

RADIATION 2013 CDAs for the Radiation 2013 remixes?  There is no way, absolutely no way, that they can compete with my feelings for the original album that I know and love.  I spent 15 years with this album.  There is no way any remix could ever compete with that, in terms of love, familiarity, and meaning.  Having said that I also think the original, noisy mix is perfectly suited to these songs, and plenty awesome at that.  I love it.  It’s different.  Here’s some thoughts and memorable moments regarding the remixed versions.

“Under the Sun” – Cool guitar solos, more guitars.  More keyboards too, and a full, complex mix.  Lusher, more audible harmonies.  The song drags on a bit too long though.

“The Answering Machine” – Just as heavy and massive, but clearer.  Still features that distorted lead vocal.  Also goes on longer, with previously unheard lyrics.

“Three Minute Boy” – Additional keyboards, not drastically different.

“Now She’ll Never Known” – Possibly the best of the remixes so far.  Sounds as if, “Ahh, this is what it was meant to be like!” Makes the original sound muffled under a blanket.

“These Chains” – Very natural sounding, possibly the least messed with.  You can hear a guitar part at the end that mirrors the main melodies in a very Beatles-esque way.

“Born to Run” is completely different, a whole new vibe.  Now, instead of being a mysterious, a sunset-stained blues, it is a slow dance.  I definitely prefer the original version of “Born to Run”.  This is nice as an alternate take on a truly great song, but the original just has so much vibe.  The guitar solo is still chilling, though.  Spine-tingling.

“Cathedral Walls” is also inferior to the original.  It has lost its other-worldliness in favour of sonic clarity, an uneven trade.  There is also no “These Chains” reprise before going into “A Few Words for the Dead”.

“A Few Words for the Dead” remains hypnotic, has some more depth to it.  But the original mix was already really interesting and good.  I don’t think much was gained from the remix.

There are a few other associated albums related to this one, if you like it, that you can get from marillion.com:

Unplugged At The Walls. A double live unplugged CD, recorded in a restaurant during the mixing of Radiation. It features live versions of tracks like “Now She’ll Never Know”. It’s also where the “Fake Plastic Trees” B-side was lifted from.

Fallout: The Making of Radiation. A 2 CD compilation of song sketches, unfollowed directions, unfinished and finished ideas.  One disc is a complete album demo, the other, snippets of sketches.  Its cover art is featured inside Radiation 2013 as well.

Radiation will always be a favourite of mine.  It’s nice to finally have the remix of the album, instead of just wondering what it would be like.  Now I know.  And honestly?  Curiosity has been quenched.  Now that I’m not curious anymore, I know it will only be played a fraction of the times I will still play the original.

Radiation:  5/5 stars

Radiation 2013:  3.5/5 stars for the remix, 5/5 stars for packaging and album quality