The ‘M’ sections of music shelves worldwide have plumped up considerably over the last five years with the deluxe reissue series of Marillion’s first eight albums. Anxious fans quickly lap up each collectible volume and bask in the warm radiance of their new stereo and surround mixes, bonus tracks, live concerts, documentaries, and video content. Some of these fetching sets go out of print with astonishing swiftness, and balloon in price on the secondhand market, proving correct the old adage about snoozing and losing. The series is nearing completion with the seventh and latest instalment, 1991’s Holidays In Eden, due on 16 September (with only Seasons End remaining as the final volume sometime next year). A 3 CD + Blu-ray box and a quadruple vinyl LP collection are being simultaneously issued, with the focus of this review on the former.
New boy Steve Hogarth ushered in a sense of bonhomie upon joining the Marillion fold (following the airless claustrophobia of the band’s last fractured days with his predecessor) that was palpable on Seasons End, their first record together in 1989. And what Hogarth brought to the table in both writing and musicianship, he equaled in vocal prowess and stage presence, defying the odds and handily slotting into a role almost nobody thought could be filled.
But if Seasons End retained elements of the band’s past and hangovers from their abortive final writing sessions with Fish (and was even emblazoned with the famous baroque logo), Holidays In Eden, as their first album of the 1990s, was fashioned from a more contemporary style and forward-thinking ideology. The new decade was dictating a shift away from rock and pop norms and settling its gaze on the crop of young bands whose harder-edged sounds would soon spill over the landscape like mercury. Marillion had just enough clout to navigate these choppy waters, but times were tougher on some of their contemporaries who either folded or resigned themselves to futures of boutique status and day jobs. The writing was on the wall: it was time to shed the jesters, flowery lyrics, and ornate artwork of the past.
The new music produced in this lineup’s first full writing collaboration had flavours of their previous work, but was coated in a more stripped-down and commercially potable gloss. Certainly songs like the album’s title track and No One Can were crafted in a decidedly radio-friendly manner, as were songs like Cover My Eyes and Dry Land (both plucked from Hogarth’s previous band How We Live and ‘Marillion-ized’), which crisscross the rocking and soulful areas of his vocal range. Producer Chris Neil, well liked but normally more at home making smooth records with bands like Mike & The Mechanics, steered the Marillos out of their comfort zone with this poppier design, but the finished album was stabilised by weightier and less commercial pieces.
Leadoff track Splintering Heart was to become not only a beloved song in the canon, but a popular live concert opener with its long atmospheric intro and serpentine arrangement. The straightforward rocker This Town forms the first part of a trilogy, eventually leading to the sultry closing piece 100 Nights which features a knockout climax that’s every bit as dramatic as anything else in the Marillion catalogue; from the scorching Steve Rothery solo to the shiver-inducing vocals to the compelling narrative, told from the point of view of a serial womanizer.
And then there’s The Party, a poignant coming-of-age tale considered by many fans to be the album’s centrepiece, and embellished with rapid-fire poetic lines drawn from Hogarth’s own childhood experiences:
'She could smell the soil and the trees, And see the succulent light From the little fires in his eyes Pulling shapes out of the night She was enchanted...'
Rather a far cry from the fluffy and saccharine foundation that this album’s fiercest critics claim it rests on, no? Even the leftovers of the period had their strengths, such as the cracking cover of Rare Bird’s plaintive Sympathy, the upbeat rockers How Can It Hurt and I Will Walk On Water, and the chiming acoustics of A Collection, which masquerades as a sunny little ditty but soon unravels into a dark and creepy ballad, easily snatching that trophy away from The Police’s Every Breath You Take.
The Holidays tour produced some spectacular live gigs too, as evidenced by the complete Hammersmith Odeon concert spread across discs 2 & 3 of this boxed set. The entire new album was sprinkled throughout a rousing show that also included most of Seasons End and a smattering of old favourites from the Fish era. New additions like Dry Land and Waiting To Happen are played with emotional intensity, with Hogarth’s vocals in peak form and bathed in the lushness of Mark Kelly’s keyboards. The band deliver an outstanding Berlin – possibly the best version I’ve ever heard – and even the aforementioned A Collection gets a live airing (it’s still intensely chilling, in case you were wondering). And then there’s the warp-speed version of Slàinte Mhath that raises the question: How much caffeine was consumed prior to going on stage that night?
These complete live shows add a great deal of value to these sets, especially with a clear and balanced mix like this one has, which maintains the concert atmosphere without being overpolished. Popping snare drum and crisp cymbals ring out in tracks like The King Of Sunset Town and Lords Of The Backstage, as Ian Mosley locks in with the always brilliant Pete Trewavas and his impossibly melodic basslines to form one of the greatest rhythm sections around. They never seem to get the credit they are due for being the unwavering engine that has propelled Marillion for almost 40 years.
As always, the Blu-ray disc packs a wallop, beginning with Holidays as both stereo and 5.1 mixes (man, it’s hard not to love Rothery’s guitar bouncing around the room in glorious surround sound) and various illuminating demos that show the album in its formative stages. Like Splintering Heart for example, with its fantastic rocking guitar intro that pre-dated the finished electronic version. Although I adore the album cut, it’s intriguing to imagine an alternate universe where they took the song in that rawer direction (i.e. before Neil put the kibosh on it). On the other hand, the track You Don’t Need Anyone feels less inspired and was wisely kept off the album, although it has its fans and has even surfaced in the occasional ‘rarities’ live set list. The eight minute mini-epic with a working title of… well, The Epic, is an early work-in-progress arrangement of the album’s finale featuring different lyrics and sections of music destined for the cutting room floor. These bonus tracks were previously available on the deleted EMI double disc remaster from 1998, and it’s nice to have these little pieces of history back in circulation again.
As for the remixes themselves, well they are a tricky business, aren’t they? It’s natural for people to have strong opinions when it comes to their favourite bands and albums (and they do). Some remixes seem exactly the same and leave the listener feeling cheated for buying the same thing twice. Others are so wildly different and have such arbitrary changes that they can only be considered butcher jobs. Sure, it’s a fun novelty to hear new sounds, but these are often albums we know like the back of our hands, and altering them too much tends to backfire. The ideal middle ground is to make sonic improvements while preserving the overall feel of the album; in other words, a new coat of paint, but please… not a new colour.
Fortunately Stephen W. Tayler (the engineer behind recent well-received reissues from Van Der Graaf Generator and Be-bop Deluxe) has achieved that balance with these new mixes, without those dodgy moments where we think ‘Whoa, that’s not supposed to be there!’ or ‘What happened to the backing vocals?’ Frankly, similar utterances have escaped my lips with some recent remixes (even on Clutching At Straws, where some of my favourite moments felt a bit muted). But as always, these things come down to individual taste. For example, I was pleased to find that the moody finale to Holidays now runs about a minute longer in this new edition. I also like how Tayler brings forth a more guitar-centric vibe to the album that seemed a bit buried in the original mix. So while there are a handful of minor tweaks that fans will easily pick up on here, most of them are to the benefit of the music, and in the interest of avoiding further spoilers I’ll leave those for people to discover on their own.
Something I do think is missing from these sets is a flat transfer of the original mix, as often found on other artists’ reissues. That seems an oversight; it’s nice to have both versions available without feeling the need to hang on to older copies. The video portion of the disc kicks off with the official promo videos for Cover My Eyes, No One Can, and Dry Land (in HD upgraded form for those hoping for clearer footage of Trewavas’ bouncing mane). Although rock videos were rarely great no matter who the band was, there may be a touch of nostalgia here for those of us of a certain vintage. I got a kick out of seeing these again, anyway. Bands don’t stroll along sea-sprayed cliffsides playing their instruments enough these days.
The 85 minute documentary Pain And Heaven is once again an honest and highly detailed look at the process of creating the album from all five members as well as producer Neil. With plenty of tidbits about each song, there is much to learn here, even for the hardcore Marillion fanatic. Although I do like when the band is all together chatting in a room, they can be quite insightful when interviewed on their own, as they are here. It’s interesting to hear which songs are each members’ favourites, often not the ones we might assume. There’s a high ‘re-watch’ factor to the interviews throughout this series, and the band’s eagerness and passion about all eras of their long career shines through in their recounting of these old tales.
As if all of this material is not exhaustive enough, a live German TV broadcast from the summer of 1991 is included, with the band in fine fettle storming through a lively 18-song set that balanced much of the new material with older classics. A terrific rendition of The Party features here, with Hogarth and Kelly facing one another on dual keyboards, and an explosive Hooks In You which closes the main set. Although the usual shouts for Grendel are ignored, the boys do toss in an unexpected deep cut in the form of Freaks, which kicks off a 35 minute pair of Fish-era encores that thrill the rabid German audience. As always, the included book rounds off this mammoth boxed set, providing further info, quotes, and photos, and proves a nice companion piece to the audio and video footage.
This was a unique time in Marillion’s history, as this lineup learned how to gel. The whiplash 180 degree shift to the dark and dense concept album Brave was just around the corner. And while that album is considered a masterpiece in the eyes of many a fan, there’s something to be said for a more carefree collection of songs like Holidays when the mood strikes. Of course, plenty of us recognize that a good song is a good song – regardless of whatever label is slapped on it by the intelligentsia – and remain wholly uninterested in the pointless ranking of art. Any way you slice it, Holidays In Eden features some great music, and was a vital and necessary stepping stone in Marillion’s first quarter. The bony fingers of time have been kinder to it than one might have predicted upon its initial emergence thirtysomething years and thirteen albums ago… before Brave, or Marbles, or crowdfunding, or Marillion Weekends, or Mark Kelly’s scalp tattoo (for those who remember). With the release of this sparkling new edition, perhaps it’s the right time to reassess this album, to enjoy its strengths, and feel no guilt – no guilt at all…