by Tom Johnson
When Marillion returned in 1991 with Holidays In Eden, their second album with “new” singer Steve Hogarth, long-time fans decried it as the death of their favorite band. The album was an abrupt shift, dropping the heavily Genesis-inspired prog-rock of their past for a much glossier, more commercial “pop” sheen.
With shorter, less involved songs, the emphasis drifted from the complexity of the arrangements and the density of former vocalist Fish’s convoluted, twee poetry to emphasize songcraft and structure. The change seemed a very calculated one by a band eager to move on from the limitations of their genre.
While fans initially balked that Hogarth wanted to turn the band into a pop-music machine, the album revealed more depth and emotion than the band had ever shown before, and it was clear from the album-ending trilogy “This Town/100 Nights” suite (as it has come to be known) that Marillion still had plenty of prog left in them, a fact they would more than prove with the following album, a 70-minute concept piece that was as anti-pop and anti-commercial as a band could get — as if the band simply wanted to keep fans happy.
Who would guess it would take them 13 years to get back to where they started out trying to change, with a cleaner, sharper focus and sound? after 1991, the band had fitfully been fulfilling its destiny as a prog-rock band as if constrained to the genre and desperately wanting to break free, but fearful of a backlash from fans.
The hints had been there all along: After Holidays, the band had included one or two “pop” oddities on each record, and in retrospect it’s become obvious that this was the direction the band wanted to go, but feared doing more than simply hinting — testing the waters, essentially. The evolution has been a careful, calculated one, as each release shed a bit more of that old Genesis-derived sound and has incorporated more of modern rock’s influences.
The culmination of this process came with 2004′s Marbles, the second album whose evolution was funded by fans before it even existed as more than ideas in the heads of the band members. The resulting album was an odd beast — a modern rock concept album with few of the pretentions of the prog-rock that is typically associated with the concept album. It wasn’t without flaws — the four, short title-track pieces serve virtually no purpose and, in spots, sound as if they were recorded on the fly with no time for corrections or overdubs, as is evidenced by Steve Hogarth’s struggling singing on the first installment.
Overall, however, it was without a doubt among the best work Marillion has done.