The prodigal son has returned, and with biblical magnanimity, all is forgiven.
Marillion, the granddaddies of the British neo-progressive rock movement of the '80s and the early '90s, was widely credited with saving prog from the brink of extinction. Albums like Misplaced Childhood and Script for a Jester's Tear were masterpieces of their new style of prog, and in the decades to come, they will doubtlessly be recorded alongside the best of the big-5 of the 1970s. But after the departure of charismatic frontman Fish, Marillion's releases were good for one or two releases then fell into a slowly descending spiral until it plunged into the mediocrity of Anoraknophobia – and the band seemed doomed. Marillion had left home to seek its fortune, and in the collective opinion of much of the prog community, they failed.
So there were low expectations for Marbles, released in 2004 to the accompaniment of much pre-release marketing hype.
But behold the return of the prodigal! After floundering in the wilderness the band has finally found its new identity and with Marbles, they have delivered an excellent body of work. The music on Marbles is softer and more atmospheric than on their Fish-era works, almost spacey in parts, elegant and relaxing. The impeccable rhythm section is omnipresent but never in the way. Some songs are very approachable and a few are even (shock-horror) radio friendly! But despite those occasional pop overtones, each piece contributes significantly to the overall opus and you will find that this very cohesive record starts out sounding good, and improves with each listen.
Marillion's guitar work and keyboards were always excellent and that tradition continues – in fact Steve Rothery may be at his best ever here, sounding Gilmour-esque in places. There are long instrumental passages which occasionally build into lush walls of sound, yet at all times, there's enough space for each instrument to shine. Dave Meegan's production work is simply excellent.
We've read comments saying that the singing sound strained. Not so. Expressive, perhaps. Steve Hogarth's vocals have evolved into a relaxed but emotional delivery which is the diametric opposite of Fish's dark and angry timbre. The songs are still moody – some are deep – but Fish's desperate anxiety has left the band and they now come across as an altogether more confident act, comfortable with their impressive musicianship. A friend used the description "more ethereal and sublime than their earlier work". He's right, and he could have added more "sophisticated, mature, dreamy, stirring or plaintive",
Some of the song structures are sophisticated, all are deeply textured, constantly shifting, yet consistent to their message. Three of the 15-or-so songs are over 10 minutes long. There are 4 songs called Marbles I", Marbles II" and so on, each of which is a short 2-minute piece. You could program your system to play them one after the other, they form a sort of suite, sharing common threads, building up and pulling back and building again until "IV" ends exactly as "I" started. Dispersed as they are across the album, they add an elegant touch of sophistication. And then there's "Ocean clouds", a 17-minute piece that may be one of the better prog epics released in years. But beware: If you don't get the double-CD, you won't get this track. And you do want this track, so be sure to order the right version of Marbles.
Most of us were expecting Anoraknophobia Mark-II, and thank goodness, we didn't get it. Marbles isn't quite up to the standard of Misplaced Childhood, and it sounds nothing like Fish-era Marillion. It is close, in quality, to Brave or Afraid Of Sunlight. But judge this double-CD on its own merits – you will be pleasantly surprised.
Welcome home to the prog world, Marillion. You've changed but you're back – now stay put and don't leave us again!
The Invisible Man (13:37)
Marbles I (01:42)
Fantastic Place (06:12)
The Only Unforgivable Thing (07:13)
Marbles II (02:02)
Ocean Cloud (17:58)
Marbles III (01:51)
The Damage (04:35)
Don't Hurt Yourself (05:48)
You're Gone (06:25)
Drilling Holes (05:11)
Marbles IV (01:26)