Marillion has always been a bit of a musical conundrum. The group began in the ’80s as the heir apparent to Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis, but over the course of its unpredictable career has explored a wide range of styles to develop a body of work that defies easy categorization.
The veteran band’s latest release is ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made,’ and this time out Marillion delivers a mix of shorter songs with less elaborate arrangements, as well as several longer tracks that are among the standouts from this record.
The album’s opening track, “Gaza,” is also its centerpiece. A dramatic intro theme gives way to an interesting use of distorted guitar over synth pads, with electronic-style drums underpinning the track. The song has a cinematic quality, with a lyric written from the perspective of an innocent child growing up in the generations-old madness and violence of the Gaza strip, destined to repeat it. “You ask for trouble if you stray too close to the wall/My father died feeding the birds/Mom goes in front of me to check for soldiers,” Steve Hogarth sings in fine form. “It’s like a nightmare rose up slouching towards Bethlehem.”
Like most of the rest of the album, there’s an absence of long, showy instrumental sections. The musicians are using their instruments to create drama, tension and relief, rather than calling attention to their individual instrumental ability — though guitarist Steve Rothery turns in a soaring solo that aptly demonstrates the trademark blend of melody, tone and phrasing that has always set him apart.
“Montreal” is another long standout track, with a sparse verse like a sleepy dreamscape. It’s not progressive rock per se — progressive adult contemporary is probably closer to the truth, and the track probably could have been shorter and accomplished essentially the same thing. It’s saved by the buildup into a more energetic passage, where Hogarth jumps into the top part of his range to great effect.
The rest of the album is a mixed bag focused mostly on shorter songs. “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” features an oddly atonal vocal melody reminiscent of John Lennon — if Lennon had been the singer in a latter-day progressive rock band. Obviously the sounds can be made — the very existence of the album proves it — but Marillion has created a diverse sound palette, and not just a collection of weird sounds, either. These sonic choices serve the songs, for the most part. Marillion at its core is a song-based band, and its various production and arrangement elements exist to deliver those songs in their best and highest form.
“Pour My Love” is a fairly straightforward mid-tempo pop tune, but still rendered very, very well by the group’s restrained playing, beautiful instrumentation and Hogarth’s strong vocal. The verse of “Power” is almost musically reminiscent of the lost Marillion classic “Cinderella Search” in its minimalist approach before building into a classic Marillion track, while “Invisible Ink” is the closest thing to throwaway pop on the album. “Lucky Man” (no, it’s not a cover of the ELP classic) features a heavy, dark guitar riff but meanders a bit, without a clear melodic thread but with a reasonably strong chorus. Rothery redeems the track with yet another superb guitar solo — of which he seems to have been born with an inexhaustible lifetime supply.
The album wraps with “The Sky Above the Rain,” which, typically for this record, builds from a sparse verse into a bigger arrangement. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it other than being too long, but it feels like one too many of this type of track in the same place, though Rothery improves it somewhat with a Beatle-esque guitar solo.
In the end, Marillion might not have succeeded in making sounds that can’t be made — technically, that would result in an album of silence — but they have created yet another richly diverse album that demonstrates their continuing dedication to being a true progressive rock band; one that continues to move forward, instead of merely recapitulating old ’70s forms. There’s plenty here to hold the attention of old and new fans alike.