July 29, 2021

WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT STRINGS, ANYWAY? – An observation, incorporating Marillion – With Friend’s at St Davids

I’m ambivalent about live albums.

I’m *really* ambivalent about “orchestral rock” albums

And Marillion are genuinely something of a conundrum.

Which if nothing else, stops rabid Marillion fans (who will by now already have the album anyway), from reading on any further.

Ever since the beginning of popular music, orchestrations have formed part of what got your grandparents moving round the family Dansette – from full-on Light Orchestra classics to the syrupy accompaniments for many a ’50s balladeer (and a surprisingly large number of their ’60s and ’70s counterparts. The advent of blues-based rock and roll provided a distinctly Establishment-free alternative to this, together with the apposite “Kids Running Wild! The Shame of It!” headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, and for a long while there was definitely an element of never the twain meeting. Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news, to quote the great, if slightly priapically politically incorrect, Chuck Berry.

And then came the Beatles. Actually, more specifically, along came George Martin. When Lennon, and probably more pertinently McCartney, went looking after their initial flush of success to find additional sounds and textures to augment the already fairly complex chordal and melodic structures of their songwriting, one of the areas they turned to, was orchestration, an area in which Martin was expert, and in this context proved to be innovatory – the bleak evocative string arrangement for Eleanor Rigby, the romantic unsentimentality of Yesterday.

But that’s the problem with innovation – you only get to do it once, then it’s not innovative anymore. Soon everyone (and their giddy aunt) needed the sheen of complicated respectability to shovel on top of their three-chord creations. And as the number of chords increased, so did the need to somehow “cross over” and court the attention of “serious” music aficionados. The early 1970s are littered with attempts to “fuse” classical and rock music, with – to put it politely – varied results. From Deep Purple’s Concerto For Group and Orchestra, through to the exercise in watching a two-year old smearing something brown on a wall and pointing happily at it that is Time & A Word by Yes, through to the progressive rock Mantovani of the Moody Blues, serious rock music and the classics resembled less a sleek unity of two musical forms, more one of the mutations found in John Carpenter’s The Thing.

(For the record, I can count on the fingers of one hand the orchestra/fusions I find listenable from this era – Five Bridges by the Nice, and, er that’s it. Maybe that should have read “on the hands of a one handed man”).

Which isn’t to say that bands couldn’t incorporate classical elements into their modus operandi – the way that, for example the more elite progressive bands used Mellotrons and to a lesser extent synths (Yes/Genesis/Crimson) in conjunction with remarkably intelligent arrangements (Gentle Giant) to produce stuff that was influenced by a more classical approach. But more often that not, rock with an orchestra ends up with the strings copping all the interesting guitar parts, or just duplicating them. And that’s not what I call decent orchestration.

Which brings us to Marillion – who at the time of recording this live album were basking in the renewed popularity of having a decent selling album (F.E.A.R) that was actually both relevant and listenable (and trust me that’s a duality that hasn’t often been the case in recent history).

I’ve always been torn about this band – I’ve seen them more times than I care to remember (it’s in the high teens I think), through both line-ups (the neo-prog Fish years, the post-Fish prog years, the “please don’t call us prog – we *really* sound like Radiohead” Hogarth years, as well as the recent years where the wheel has gone full circle and they are happily embraced as prog again. They’re a band that at their best have a knack for universally catchy melodies, and – for want of an overused cliché – a great hook. However, and latterly, they are equally capable of some of the most meandering musical passages it’s ever been my misfortune to sit through. Quite often on the same album. Occasionally, on the same song. It’s a common trait in bands nowadays – the ability to confuse “epic”, with “overlong, “atmospheric” with “will this ever end?”

With Friends At St Davids has this in spades – for every Hollow Man, and Fantastic Place, there are tracks which I’m sure Marillion aficionados adore, but for me are stretched beyond the point of no return – Ocean Cloud, The Sky Above The Rain being the main culprits in this.

The “Friends” – basically a string quartet with a couple of additions – are politely unobtrusive for the most part. Unlike say, the orchestra in Yes’s Magnification where the parts were written specifically so that the orchestra did a lot of the heavy lifting melodically and then duplicated that live, their function here is much more augmentative, and whilst it’s more James Last than Stravinsky, it’s inoffensive in the main.

The standout track here however by some distance, is the opener. Gaza stands as one of the most searingly open-hearted and plaintive descriptions of the human element of an impossible situation that I’ve heard, certainly ever heard from a band in this genre. Here the ensemble string playing locks into the band to particular dramatic effect, and for 18 glorious, emotional minutes, you could almost forgive them for anything. Almost….