By Chris Anderson
Marillion: F*** Everyone And Run
On their 19th studio album, Marillion continues to stand in a class all its own. Few bands ever get over the loss of their lead singer – Marillion not only got better for it but here we are, some 27 years (and fifteen albums) later, and they are creating some of the most vital work of their career. Their latest album, which is also known as F E A R, is a biting, often terrifying statement on the current world, a world that is in the midst of some sort civilization-shifting turn of events. This album, over the course of six tracks, works out some of those scenarios, both ideal and otherwise. The arrogance of governments, the random acts of violence that have become commonplace, the bewilderment of the rational-minded citizen, as well as an idealized, hypothetical, peaceful world – these are all topics at the forefront of this album, delivered with grace and aplomb by Steve Hogarth, one of the finest and most emotive vocalists in all of rock.
The five-part suite, “El Dorado”, opens up the album, and is a treatise on greed and money as a motivating factor in the basis of civilization, while “Living In F E A R” turns the tables and envisions a world where “we’ve decided to risk melting our guns…as a show of strength”, a world where violence and greed is no more, a world where peace is put into play, if for any other reason than to prove a point, to show that we as a species are above anything else (if only humankind could get over itself long enough to try and pull this off…but that is better saved for a different conversation). Much of this album is centered around an “every man for himself” mentality, versus a “we’re all in this together” one, and that is spelled out in the exquisite five-part suite, “The Leavers”, while “White Paper” describes a bleak, totalitarian world. This is a world that is explored more fully in the four-part “The New Kings”. These “kings” are driven by money and power and will gladly risk security to continue buying and controlling the world. “Greed is good”, they say. “We’re too big to fall/we’re too big to fail” they say. Sound familiar? As it does, this soon gets all too real and we end up thinking back to greener times, to times when you “thought that you mattered”, when you belonged to “something bigger than you”, in a country with “a national anthem that you could sing without feeling used or ashamed”. This is heavy stuff, but given the times we are in, none of this is particularly far fetched.
Hogarth gives the performance of his career, both as a singer and a lyricist on this album. Unlike much of what is considered “prog”, where the oft-muddled point is to create clever music with lyrics that fill in the gaps, the emphasis here is on the lyrics, and the meaning behind the words. That is the most important point of this album. The music, as crafted and as sophisticated as it is, exists to support the lyrics and their sentiment. In places, this music is tender; in others it is majestic; sometimes it’s catchy, sometimes it just flows. Whatever it does at any given time, it makes perfect sense and is the result of a band that knows precisely what it is doing. While Marillion still has a good 10-15 years left in them, at the end of the day this album is going to go down as one of the most important works of their career, and it will most certainly top my list of albums of this year.
Bob Weir: Blue Mountain
While Bob Weir has maintained a solid and extremely busy career with the Grateful Dead, and its various offshoot bands, he has never been a prolific solo artist. In fact, there are only two other albums that have his name on the front cover – 1972’s Ace, which is basically a Dead album in disguise, and 1978’s Heaven Help The Fool, a slick, overproduced pile of yacht rock that is best left forgotten. Uneven albums with side bands like Bobby & The Midnites and Ratdog did very little to up the ante, which is why this album comes as such a surprise, and a welcome one at that.
A chance meeting with singer/songwriter Josh Ritter and members of The National, a couple of years ago, sparked an idea to collaborate on an album of “cowboy” songs and the result is one of the freshest, yet most logical records you could imagine coming from this legend.. Most of the lyrics were supplied by Ritter, who also co-wrote all of the music on this set (along with producer/guitarist Josh Kaufman), and these songs really sound like they could be sung by him as well. They just feel like Josh Ritter songs. Adding Weir’s voice, however, takes them to a whole new place, and adds further legitimacy to them.
One thing to keep in mind is that these are not Dead songs and there is a good chance that these may never become Dead songs. These are folk songs, as American as music could be, and while that of course was the underlying factor in the songs of the Grateful Dead, I don’t think that is the point of this album. This is an album that sets Weir apart from what might generally be expected of him, while not sounding too far fetched. One thing that separates these songs from a typical Weir song is the simplicity. Bob always liked to inject some kind of complex musical equation into his songs that would make them sound simple while being almost maddening to play. The complexity of these songs, however, is found in the years of experience behind these melodies, and in the haunting palette that these band arrangements offer. Much like Johnny Cash’s “American Music” series, this album is a late-period masterpiece.