A Marillion Opus, This Strange Engine by Darrin Cappe
“If Pink Floyd and Radiohead had a love child that was in touch with their feminine side they would be us”. That is how Steve Hogarth, or h as he is known, described how he would define the music of Marillion. It is an apt description because it does encapsulate exactly what the band is like. Not necessarily what they have always been like but what they have become. Originally Marillion was a Genesis influenced prog rock band which came to prominence in the 1980s which is not exactly an era known for its embracing of Progressive Rock in the traditional sense. So when you are writing 17 minute songs that mirror Supper’s Ready or make references to Jesters or Freaks or Cinderella or Chameleons you know you aren’t exactly dealing with people that are gunning for the top of the charts. However that was where they found themselves when the single Kayleigh from their 3rd album Misplaced Childhood went top 10 around the world. It was a catchy, lovely song which sat at the opening of an album that was 2 sides of continuous music; the first real progressive rock concept album of the decade.
Their next album was called Clutching At Straws and had a couple other singles that did well, Incommunicado and Sugar Mice. It was a wonderful loose concept album about the trappings of the excesses of fame plus a song about Bagels. The album in some ways mirrored the fracturing of the band from their Scottish giant of a singer name Derrick Dick aka Fish (I can’t speak for how the bagels fared in the divorce). One of the songs from the album was called Slainte Mhath and featured the line “This is the story so far”. When the singer and band split after the album, for some it was the end of the story all together. However for those who remained it would prove to be just the end of Part One. Enter h.
Picking up where the band had already begun on a new album, Steve had to fill some very big Scottish shoes. Like any band replacing their singer, some fans stopped listening at that point. For everyone else it has become something else entirely. Including that first Steve Hogarth fronted album, Seasons End, the band has recorded an additional 12 studio albums, 2 of which were double albums so 14 CDs of original material. They did four with Fish. They also did an acoustic reworking of songs as well. Beautiful albums, diverse from one to the next in style but similar in emotion and sentiment. Love, death, family, divorce, relationships, love, anger, war, love, water, boats, places, memories, childhood, love, growth, failure, success…some pop, some rock, some prog and something else every time. It is gloriously beautiful, melodic, insightful music for the soul and heart, played by phenomenal musicians and sung by one of the finest voices in music.
In 2002 the band did their first Marillion Weekend Convention in England which was followed by similar weekends in 2003, 2005 and 2007 in the Netherlands. These weekends were 3 day affairs where people would shack down at an event only location. The band would play 3 completely different sets of music, one night of which would include a complete album played in order. The rest of the sets were usually thematically defined in different ways each time but always comprised of both favourite songs and lots of seldom played gems. From 3 minute singles to 20 minute Epics…many epics. Fans would travel from all over the world to attend. South America, USA, Canada, Europe, Australia…normal fan behavior. In addition the band would do a Q&A session answering questions from the stage and then do a Swap The Band mini set during the day where people who had sent in audition material would replace a member of the band to play one of their songs with the remainder of the band; singers, guitar players, bassists, drummers, keyboards. An invitation to share the stage with their idols and become a part of the event.
In 2009 the band, having had a difficult time touring North America for various reasons, decided to stage an identical weekend in Montreal two weeks following the Netherlands weekend. People came from all over the world again to attend. On the last night of the weekend during the second last song of the night they played a song called This Strange Engine. The 15 minute title track from their 1997 album and what many fans consider to be in their top 3 songs by the band. It is a sweepingly beautiful, complex reflection of h’s childhood memories. A gloriously structured song with equal parts quiet reflection and heavy intensity building to an epic emotional pinnacle. During one of the intense build ups towards the last third of the song Steve’s midi trigger laced cricket bat screwed up failing to trigger the right parts and replacing them with squelchy honks and noises. The audience watched as he got angry to the point that when it again failed a few minutes later he threw the instrument across the stage which was something totally out of character for him. The band got kind of lost in the parts and couldn’t quite find the point of reentry to get back on course. Steve sat down on the drum riser with his chin in his hands staring out at the audience, every one of which had adrenalin racing through them just watching the intensity build. Then Steve did something that no one would have expected. Not something that hasn’t been done before by many others but done, what I believe, was for the purpose of finding his way out of a very uncharacteristic reaction for him. He walked to the front of the stage, turned around, stretched out his arms, and fell backwards into the arms of the fans who passed him over their heads to the back of the theatre, and back to the stage all to the sound of one of the most emotionally moving guitar solos you could ever wish to hear. He stood back up on the stage and wrapped his arms around himself in a gesture to embrace everyone in attendance who at that point had erupted into a phenomenal wall of applause and cheers the likes of which you just don’t ever hear at a concert. It was the single most amazing live music moment I’ve ever witnessed and it had people moved to tears.
You see, people cry at Marillion concerts. All sorts of people. People from Venezuela; people from Canada; people from the USA, Australia, men, women, straight, gay, single, married, divorced, mourning, loving people. They all cry at some point because their music has a very unique ability to do something that no other band I’ve ever listened to can do. It reaches into your soul and makes you feel emotions in ways that causes grown men and women to fly from all over the world to gather in a room and be touched by something that is very very hard to define. Writing about it sounds slight, and reading what I’m writing may sound twee but it is something that as a devout music fan I will gladly travel to, in order to experience it every and any time I can. I will do it because there is no other band that touches me in that way. No one even comes close.
The band continued with their tradition of these 3 day sojourns again in 2011 and then again just this past weekend where they opened with a song from their new album Sounds That Can’t Be Made called Montreal which is about the events from that first North American convention in 2009. What is amazing about them now is far more involved than just the music though. The band describes their fans as a family and in the past 4 years of social media interactions the people that I’ve met at the shows have become friends online. I may not agree with their political views or their religious beliefs but there is a connection that has developed by spending just a little bit of time with people at these shows. It might be breakfast with a French accented Austrian where neither can really speak the other’s language. It might be a conversation getting a drink or in the bathroom or waiting for the band to come on. But the moments seem to turn into connective tissue of the virtual world. The family the band speaks of has developed into the most wonderfully welcoming warm loving accepting group of people you could possibly imagine. It is like a microcosm of world peace set to the soundtrack of your life. So someone I met 4 years ago for 5 minutes and then 2 years ago for a day are now people that I spend the weekend with. And there are people I met on Sunday that I know I will spend time with the next time they play a convention. In some ways I feel bad for the band themselves. They have created something that has had a unifying positive affect on a vast number of people because of music, and it has created a community of friendships and an environment of belonging that just doesn’t normally exist. They have to put on the show, do sound checks and do interviews and sleep and rest and try to not get sick. They hang out with the crowd after shows, they attend fringe related band events and invite people up on the stage to play with them. They will take questions from the crowd and invite people up on stage to accept gifts or propose marriage. They will take the time to make you feel that your time with them is as important to them as it is to you. And they will stand on stage and explain why they truly understand just how special it all is in moments of unscripted sincerity and appreciation. They are a group of musicians who truly function in the manner that they express in their music. With love and intensity and humour and the desire to want the experience to be as good as and better than anything they or we could possibly expect. And they do it every single time they play live. I feel bad for them because they don’t get to experience the time in the same way that everyone who travels to attend the shows are able to. It is almost like they are emotional enablers of like minded strangers who are now family; the figureheads of a movement that reaches beyond borders, beyond styles, beyond politics and beyond beliefs. There is no other band like them on this planet and I truly believe there is no other fanbase out there that comes close. Every band’s fans are the best but these ones are the best of the best. See you all in 2015. I’ll be the one crying with joy…and maybe so will you.