Weekend Music: Brit Legends Marillion Bring Convention to Łódż

Marillion in 2016 (Facebook)
Marillion in 2016 (Facebook)

This coming weekend (7th-9th April), British progressive rock legends Marillion will be hosting a weekend of concerts at Klub Wytwórnia in nearby Łódż. Over three nights, the band will treat its faithful to completely different concerts (at around 2 1/2 – 3 hours each) covering their complete 35-year history, including several albums in their entirety. To call this a monumental occasion is to put it mildly. But if you’re not one of the faithful, and especially if you’re American, there is a very good chance that you remember Marillion only for a pair of mid-1980’s hits – “Kayleigh” and “Lavender” – and aren’t aware of the incredible career they’ve had since, as it’s existed outside the music business mainstream.

Now 18 studio albums in, their last personnel change was 29 years ago, when original vocalist Fish exited the band. A towering charismatic Scotsman and brilliant singer and lyricist, Fish was with the band for the first four albums, including their biggest commercial success, Misplaced Childhood, which contained the aforementioned hits. Replacing him was unthinkable at the time, but Marillion did the impossible by finding Steve Hogarth – an artist completely different than, but every bit (at least) the equal of his predecessor.

14 albums and countless tours later, the proof is in the quality of the music as well as the method of its delivery. In the 90s, frustrated by bad record deals with zero promotion, they virtually invented crowd funding (seriously – look it up!) and took complete control of their career in a way that is now common but had never been done before. You’re welcome, hipsters.

The latest Marillion album, Fuck Everyone And Run (or simply F E A R), is an intense five-song / 68-minute rumination on the socioeconomic and political state of the world, seemingly taking on everything from Brexit to Trump – an act of prescience by Hogarth since most of the lyrics were written three years ago. Like Phil Ochs’ All The News That’s Fit To Sing in 1964, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On in ’71, The Clash’s London Calling, System Of A Down’s Steal This Album, or Green Day’s American IdiotF E A R is a true protest album, and a perfect reflection of the time in which it was created. Not many artists peak in their fourth decade of existence, but Marillion are doing exactly that. And it’s paying off – F E A R is their biggest album in ages, debuting on the British charts at #4 – their highest placing in 30 years.

Here in Poland, it rose to #8, which may be a surprise to many, but this country has always had a special relationship with the band, going all the way back to their first visit in the 1980s. “We were shocked when we first came. The audiences in Poland were so great – there’s a passion here that’s unbelievable,” guitarist Steve Rothery told me last year in Warsaw when he dropped in for a solo show that featured not only most of his excellent instrumental solo album, The Ghosts Of Pripyat, but about 90 minutes of Marillion material, including an incredible rendition of the entire Misplaced Childhood album, to an ecstatic audience in a packed Progresja club (with vocalist extraordinaire Martin Jakubski, perhaps the only man in the world capable of perfect imitations of both Fish and Bruce Dickinson in tribute bands Stillmarillion and Maiden Scotland – and he has Polish roots!)

Every two years since 2003, Marillion have held conventions in different locations – mostly in the UK, the Netherlands, and Montreal, Canada. But this year, they decided to expand to some other territories where the fan base has always been… somewhat… fanatical. Hence, this year sees Poland (as well as Chile, another hotspot for the band), added to the convention itinerary. The shows themselves generally follow a pattern of one night being an album (or two) presented in its entirety, which is announced in advance – in this case 1999’s marillion.com, a title that may seem trite today, but at the time was a recognition that, between crowd funding, and utilizing the ‘net for exclusive merchandise including CDs, DVDs, and later, downloads, Marillion were miles ahead of their peers. For the last two decades, manager Lucy Jordache has navigated the hostile waters of the music business and seemingly done the impossible by carving out a niche for a band that has never been fashionable (there was once even a band t-shirt that bore the legend “Marillion – Uncool as Fuck!”)

The other nights are generally a surprise, but thanks to the double-edged sword that is the internet, the setlists from last weekend’s shows in Port Zelande, Netherlands, are easily ascessible.

But…no spoilers here!

Marillion in 2010 (Facebook)
Marillion in 2010 (Facebook)

Instead, it’s worth mentioning that the band, Lucy, and Polish promoter Piotr Kosiński and Rock Serwis have done a fantastic job of finding the perfect venue in Łódż (although, of course, I wish it was in Krakow.) The theater is connected to the DoubleTree Hilton Hotel – one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed in, and has a few different restaurants and bars inside. Leaving the building is optional, if one so desires. But then you’d miss the joy of shopping on Piotrkowska street – the longest street of shops in Europe, or the great restaurant square in front of the Manufaktura mall.

Marillion will forever be defined as a progressive rock band, but their fanbase is more analogous to that of Phish or the Grateful Dead in its fanaticism – these are people who travel to as many gigs as possible, and they think of each other as family. There will be people at the Łódż convention from all corners of the globe, and they will greet each other for the first time as though they are long lost relatives. Because they sort of are. So much so that a documentary film, Unconventional, was made about the entire phenomenon.

As you might have guessed, I consider myself a member of this ‘cult.’ Although I’ve never attended a convention before, my love of the band dates back to their first EP, Market Square Heroes, in 1982. At the time, I was the night manager of an, um, “adult theater”, which just happened to be located in a section of downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania called Market Square, so even though I was well aware that their Market Square was nearly 4,000 miles away from mine, when Fish sang, “I’m a Market Square Hero, feeding the beat of the street pulse”, it became a rallying cry.

But more than any personal meaning, the existence of Marillion was proof that the genre of progressive rock had been given a new lease on life despite every music publication’s and pundit’s attempts to kill it off. Punk was supposed to be the death knell for any attempt at intellect or sophistication in rock music, and by 1982, there appeared to be very few new artists trading in anything resembling progressive rock.

But every action requires a reaction, and just as punk had appeared to take down rock’s dinosaurs, an entire scene was now building in Britain to bring progressive rock back to life. Originally called the New Wave Of British Progressive Rock by the British press, the movement also included such greats as Pendragon and IQ, both of whom are still active, and revered in Poland.

And then came “Kayleigh”, and MTV, and just for a minute, it seemed like Marillion might make it into the big leagues in America, just as they’d done in Europe. Of course, it wasn’t to be, and after the next – and best – Fish-era album, Clutching at Straws, the singer left for a solo career.

Let me be candid about this; at the time, this was the most devastating musical event in my life since The Beatles’ breakup when I was 10, or Peter Gabriel’s exit from Genesis 5 years later. Clutching at Straws was not only a musical masterpiece, but lyrically brought something new to the genre of progressive rock.

Historically, prog rock had been the province of fanciful stories of Olde England (Genesis, Jethro Tull) or completely impenetrable verbiage (King Crimson, Yes), and along came an album that reflected the reality of our lives. It was the 80s, after all, and when Fish sang of bars full of seedy characters, drugs and booze in excess, and the feeling that we were all to blame for failing at life somehow, he was singing about us. We (and by the way, by “we”, I’m talking about the handful of my friends and others I met following the band around on tour – a cult of sorts) realized that this was truly the first band that WAS us – our age group – with the same influences growing up, now looking down the barrel of 30 wondering when the knowledge of how to adult would kick in (spoiler alert: it never does.) “We’re clutching at straws – we’re still drowning,” as the last line of the album reminded us. It was cathartic.

Fish was irreplaceable. A change was in order, and Marillion found in Steve Hogarth a completely different kind of vocalist and writer, with a new positivity and soulfulness. While always maintaining the foundation of progressive rock, the music of Marillion has cast a much wider net in the years since, from love (and lost love) songs to crunching hard rockers to the sweeping cinematic epics that they’ve perfected. Of course, there will always be those who speak wistfully of the ‘Fish Era’, but as Rothery told me, “we would never have lasted more than another album or two,” with their original vocalist, who has gone on to an excellent solo career in his own right – particularly, unsurprisingly enough, in Poland.

This weekend’s opening acts are three very different artists that represent some of the best in Polish progressive rock. WALFAD (AKA We Are Looking For A Drummer), from Wodzisław Śląski, will open the weekend on Friday, and perhaps bear the most stylistic similarity to the headliner, particularly on the episodic 18+ minute “Leaves”. Sunday night support will be provided by the excellent atmospheric space folk of Fredyryk-nominated singer/songwriter Fismoll.

But my personal favorite of the three is Tides From Nebula, the Warsaw outfit that is one of the most original instrumental guitar bands I have ever heard. Unlike most instrumental rock music, they focus on melody and composition rather than individual athletic musical technique, and their sound is completely their own. Over the course of four albums since 2009, they have crafted a musical language that manages to blend the layers of lush distortion of British shoegazer pioneers My Bloody Valentine with the technical precision of Rush. Their command of layering different guitar effects is astounding.

I was first introduced to their music in concert, at the 2015 Metal Hammer Festival in Katowice, and they instantly stood out on a bill that included prog and metal giants like Dream Theater, Riverside, and Collage because they are positively unique and hypnotic live. Since then, they’ve released Safehaven, their best album yet. This is music complex enough for the cerebral progressive rock listener, heavy enough for the metal crowd, shimmery enough for the shoegazer, and even trippy enough for the raver.

I have no doubt that all three of these artists will win a new audience outside Poland this weekend.

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