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Marillion - Script For A Jester's Tear CD (album) cover

SCRIPT FOR A JESTER'S TEAR

Marillion

 

Neo-Prog

4.22 | 1418 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
3 stars My first safari into the jungles of Neo-Prog occurred about a year and a half ago and it was a total disaster. I bought "Dark Matter" by IQ and I was so underwhelmed and disappointed by it that I kept my distance from the entire genre until I could get over the heebie-jeebies it gave me. But this band called Marillion continued to intrigue despite their dubious labeling. Here in my neck of the woods (the USA) they get nary a mention in the media and I never even knew they existed until I discovered this site and found that they are quite well-respected by many whose opinions I respect. Ever in search of music that will knock my boxers off, I finally took another trek into this odd corner of Progville and grabbed up their highest-rated CD, "Script for a Jester's Tear." While it didn't generate any WOW! moments for me, at least this time I don't feel like I got ripped off.

First of all, it's their debut and those can be tricky affairs, as we all know. Secondly, they released this very progressive album in '83 when the once-mighty spirit of prog was suffocating, caught in the strangle hold of the viral scourge known as MTV. You gotta give them props for having the jumbo-size spheres to create something that was obviously a case of swimming against the pop tide. Thirdly, anyone who sounds as much like Peter Gabriel as Fish does is inevitably going cause the group to draw a host of understandable comparisons to the "Nursery Cryme" and "Foxtrot" era of Genesis. But, in his defense, I don't get the impression that he's imitating PG at all. He just has that kind of voice, coupled with a very theatrical delivery. And I find the band's music to be much more representative of early 80s New Wave than classic symphonic rock. Plus, the keyboard work is exceptional from beginning to end and the intelligent lyrics are literate and meaningful.

However, in my book a group is only as good as its drummer and whether it was just inexperience in the studio environment, acute indigestion or whatever, the percussion section is the albatross draped around the neck of this album. There's also a lack of compositional imagination in a few places where it seems like the group was satisfied to just coast along, something that the truly great ones hardly ever did.

"Script for a Jester's Tear" is a splendid way to start. A quiet, subdued intro allows lead singer Fish to set the dimly-lit aural stage with sorrowful lines telling us that he's "once more in the playground of broken hearts," a place many of us have visited all too often in our lives. Soon the band jumps in and one of the things I like right off the bat is the refreshing brightness of the production. (Alas, If only Genesis' first four ill-engineered albums could've possessed that redeeming quality!) It definitely makes the journey through the CD a lot more enjoyable. Steve Rothery's fuzzy guitar rides are nothing special here but the music is engaging as Fish sings about being "yet another emotional suicide/overdosed on sentiment and pride." Dynamics are always an admirable trait to display and when they back off to make room for some uncluttered space in the middle section it keeps things from getting stale. They emerge from the other side in a half-time motif where Mark Kelly's keyboards sate the room with a great big, full sound that surrounds Fish's passionate vocal as he asks his lost lover "can you say you still love me?" It's heartbreaking to witness the honest and sincere pain he conveys.

The powerful "He Knows You Know" is next. It has a slick Alan Parsons Project aura about it that makes it instantly accessible and, while the chord progression is nothing we haven't heard numerous times before, the striking vocal performance makes this tune the high point of the proceedings for me. The song is about addiction and the tie-in with the previous cut lies in the fact that the protagonist doesn't realize that his substance abuse is the reason his woman left him behind. Again, Kelly's dreamy keyboard textures and tones are wonderful as they support the dramatic singing of words like "when your conscience whispered/the vein lines stiffened/you were walking with the dead" and "you learned your lesson far too late/from the links in a chemist chain." Some may think Mr. Fish is emoting way over the top here but considering the subject matter I don't think it would have worked any other way. So far, so good. This is pretty decent stuff.

But maybe I spoke too soon. During "The Web," the drum set deficiency surfaces and the whole atmosphere is affected. The unusual arrangement on this track involves a lot of changing time signatures and shifting tempos, requiring steady and supremely confident leadership from the drumkit to pull it all off. Mick Pointer may have acquired that talent further along in his career but here he just doesn't have the chops and the tune suffers accordingly. The poignant lyrics describing the poor sap's self pity and withdrawal from society ("I'm the Cyclops in the basement/I'm the soul without the cause" as he stares at "faded photos exposing pain/celluloid leeches bleeding my mind") are almost wasted because of Pointer's distractingly weak patterns wavering underneath. Steve's fine guitar solo and Mark's excellent keyboards keep it from being an embarrassment.

"The Garden Party" is burdened with the same flaw but this time it arises from Mick's dragging the groove. He's following the group instead of blazing the trail for them. It's a shame because this is an interesting number on all the other fronts. Fish's colorful description of a ritzy soiree belies more of the problem-addled, jilted beau's jaded opinion of the world his former lady love inhabits than a true observation of it. His sarcasm literally slithers across the notes. "Couples loiter in the cloisters/social leeches quoting Chaucer/Doctor's son, a parson's daughter/where why not and should they oughta" and "chitters chat and gossips lash/posers pose and pressmen flash." You don't often find clever rhymes like that in Progland. I adore Kelly's sharp keyboard accents that follow the softer segments and his synthesizer lead is a treat but the rhythm section never locates a "feel" and it leaves me unsatisfied.

"Chelsea Monday" has a slower pace and the song's conventional beat is better suited to Pointer's skills but the somewhat pedestrian chord progression becomes tiresome after a few minutes. Perhaps it was designed to be no more than a smooth, uncomplicated platform for Fish's acrid, biting vocalizations. In that case it works. Here he describes his former object of affection in jealous, unflattering terms and it only serves to emphasize his deplorable insecurity. To him she's become a "catalogue princess, apprentice seductress/living in her cellophane world in glitter town" who is "drifting with her incense in the labyrinth of London/playing games with the faces in the neon wonderland." In other words, she's moved on and he hasn't. It's not a great tune but better crafted than the two that preceded it.

That seems to signal the abrupt end of the sad jester's story because the closer, "Forgotten Sons," is unlike anything that came before it. Here the singing performance is outrageous and near-histrionic as Fish immerses himself in an effective anti-war anthem that is complex, moody and somewhat challenging to dissect. After a rocking start the band segues into a more eccentric movement where stark spoken words ramble over a lone, distorted electric guitar. A Steppenwolf-like psychedelic section ensues over tepid, unsure drumming before a crowd chanting ominously above a military march takes over, creating an unnerving, tension-filled atmosphere. Once again it is the keyboard mastery of Mark Kelly arriving like the cavalry in the nick of time to save the piece from overindulgence and insanity. His melodic, cavernous wall of organ and synthesizers gives the album a spectacular fadeout that helps to make it all worthwhile.

I'll admit that I didn't warm up to this album immediately but somewhere around the 5th or 6th spin I started to discover its charms so my advice is to let it grow on you a bit. There's a lot to like. If you're a fan of early Genesis then Fish's affected vocal style shouldn't bother you at all and along the way you'll discover that Mr. Kelly does an extraordinary job on this recording. (I've noticed that the band changed drummers before their next go-round so I figure I must be right about my assessment of Mike Pointer's inappropriateness as the guide for this group.) If anything, this CD has made me reconsider the whole Neo-Prog category and I'll be a lot more open to exploring it further in the future. During the dark ages of the horrible MTV plague, when our kind of music was as hard to find as Jimmy Hoffa's body, Marillion kept the prog fires burning and they deserve a medal of honor for that accomplishment alone. "Script for a Jester's Tear" is no stunner, but important nonetheless and pretty darn entertaining. 3.2 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |

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