There are some bands that evolve over time and you no longer can apply the usual “they sound like ____” or, the usual favorite, “they sound like ____ combined with _____.” They simply sound like themselves, and that’s what Marillion sounds like: Marillion. For a while in the latter part of the 90s, it was obvious they were very affected by Radiohead and the like, but they took that and ran with it, letting it soak into them to the point where the influence no longer stands out. They no longer resemble the Genesis-mimicking (among other prominent 70s prog giants) band they once were in the 80s. Played side by side, I think few would guess they were hearing the same band. And that’s a fantastic thing. Progressive, you might say. Rather than saddle them with the prog label that doesn’t suit them, I prefer to think of them as rock band with intelligently “prog” leanings. But they’re decidedly unusual – they’ve got an extremely emotive singer with an unusual, nasal voice, a gifted keyboard player who they’re not afraid to let loose on solos, and a guitarist that approaches David Gilmour in expressiveness. They have a tendency to write music toward the “pop” end of rock, complete with catchy hooks and beautiful choruses, then twist them around to the point that no radio station would be caught dead playing them. There’s a reason they successfully marketed a line of shirts on their site that read “uncool as fuck.” They are, and that’s cool.
We’re on the verge of getting another double-disc album out of these uncool guys. It’s really two albums in one. One disc is the more conceptual of the two, the other is a bunch of songs that didn’t fit the theme. They opted to put it all out there at once rather than wait, and for the big fans (like me,) they are putting together an extra special package to house the two albums in two separate books with special artwork for each. The little I’ve seen indicates this should be every bit the equal of Marbles, and that is saying a lot. To prepare us for the other part, you know, the music, the band has released the EPK (electronic press kit) on YouTube, and it really goes a long way toward explaining the Marillion “mystique.” Suffice it to say if you don’t “get it” here, you probably just won’t.
And if you’re really itching to hear the album, Marillion has paired up with Music Glue to leak the album a month early themselves. Music Glue does something unusual – they embed some code into WMA files that will allow the band to “communicate” with listeners every once in a while to just remind them about buying the music. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure how successful this will be when they also make available regular mp3s that don’t have this “feature.” I am not convinced too many downloaders are going to respond to WMA files. Most avoid them like the plague. I’m also pretty sure that Marillion’s sales come primarily from its existing, extremely dedicated fans, not from random, one-off sales like many artists who do get airplay. Marillion succeeds because they have perfected the strategy of The Long Tail. Live CDs, DVDs, special editions targeted specifically at hard-core fans, concerts at just the right times in just the right places, a small number of shirts, hats, and not a whole of extraneous junk to weigh down their own expenses that I see other artists hawking. It must work – they’re not superstar rich, but they must be well-off enough that they keep up at it and come back for more. And it must work for us fans, too – we keep coming back for more. Some bands, even their disappointing albums make you feel something special, and that’s what Marillion’s music does for me. That’s something amazing and rare, in my experience.