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Marillion - Clutching At Straws CD (album) cover

CLUTCHING AT STRAWS

Marillion

 

Neo-Prog

4.13 | 901 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
5 stars Sometimes you just get a gut feeling about a band's potential and I'm so glad I stuck it out with these guys because the payoff has been massively gratifying. I found their courageous debut to be a bit unsteady and amateurish at times but there was something enticing about it all that made me want to explore them further. The upgrade in the drumming department made "Fugazi" a pleasant surprise but it was the magnificent "Misplaced Childhood" that completely blew me away, thus confirming the honorable esteem they enjoy with the noble citizens of Progland. When I got this, their 4th and last album with the emoting Fish, I was wholly prepared to be underwhelmed. I didn't see how they could possibly equal their previous recording. I was wrong to doubt their ability. I'm happy to say that Marillion hit two grand-slam homers in as many at- bats. "Clutching at Straws" is just as great as "Misplaced Childhood" while steadfastly maintaining its own separate identity.

If there are any of the "old guard" (of which I am a member) reading this that have avoided investing in this group's work because of their frequent comparisons to Genesis I ask you to consider this: Do you think that, in the world of painting, Monet should be considered a plagiarist of Renoir because they were both impressionists? Of course you don't. The same principle applies here. If you love Genesis then you'll adore what Marillion has to offer. Trust me; in their prime these boys were terrific (I have yet to explore their post-Fish offerings). They may have painted with the same colors as their mentors but the resulting landscapes and portraits they created are unique and all their own.

The engaging "Hotel Hobbies" draws you inside their shadow-strewn tavern with Mark Kelly's droning synthesizer laying down a sturdy foundation for Steve Rothery's crisp guitar to flitter overhead briefly before Ian Mosley's drums explode into a charging riot, abruptly altering the song's direction and mood. Rothery delivers a ferocious guitar solo but it's Fish's stringent vocal that pulls it together when all is said and done. It'd be unfair to state that his words reflect some kind of a tired, saloon-as-a-metaphor-for-existence theme because that's overly simplistic and shallow. Fish as a lyricist is one of prog's most intuitive and literate and he doesn't disappoint here as he toys with the implied serendipity of a hotel lounge's "happy hour." He poetically presents the panoply of its patrons as plain folk "jostling for attention/as the sunlight flares/through a curtain's tear/shuffling its beams as if in nervous anticipation of another day."

They segue into "Warm Wet Circles" with its wonderful, melodic progression that carries the perceptive words aloft like a kite in a cool breeze. Fish describes a young lady at the bar with her jealous friends, enraptured in the throes of na´ve love. "She faithfully traces his name with quick bitten fingernails/through the tears of condensation that'll cry through the night/as the glancing headlights of the last bus kiss adolescence goodbye..." he sings. Suddenly the atmosphere changes drastically as an engulfing wall of fevered sound crashes down and Fish and Steve pour their souls into their performances, leaving you breathless in their wake. Completing this conjoined trio of songs is "That Time of the Night," a track that starts out like a dream state's soundtrack, then settles into a smart groove as Ian's drums and Pete Trewas' bass fall into a tight rhythm. Fish snidely remarks with conviction that "...if you ask me how do I feel inside/I could honestly tell you/we've been taken on a very long ride/and if my owners let me/have some free time someday/with all good intentions/I would probably run away." The band's scintillatingly smooth accents that slide through during the 2nd part are sublimely transcendent and the enormous scope of the final segment is awesome. Guest vocalist Tessa Niles adds an unexpected dimension to the poignant "warm, wet circles" line that resonates repeatedly like an accusing mantra and the subtle finale is a stroke of pure genius.

"Going Under" is a somber, captivating piece presented sans drums that has a slightly nostalgic "Trick of the Tail"-era aroma surrounding it. They set up a cavernous depth of field while Fish assumes the resigned attitude of a habitual drunk who muses "...can you understand it's the way I choose to be/everything seems so easy this way/but I'm going under fast/slipping away/am I so crazy?..." "Just for the Record" (is that a great title or what?) is a rocker that drives hard in 7/8 time on the verses and straightens out to 4/4 on the choruses. Kelly's keyboards shine throughout but his perky synthesizer lead is outstanding in particular. Here Fish acknowledges his own affinity for alcohol but he tries to convince us that "when you say that I got a problem that's a certainty/but I can put it all right down to eccentricity/it's just for the record, it's just a passing phase/just for the record I can stop any day..." (Yeah, right.)

The edgy "White Russian" adopts a demonic, waltzing-with-Beelzebub motif to accompany Fish's exasperated vocals as he condemns the senseless violence perpetrated by homegrown terrorists brandishing Uzis as if they were cap pistols. "Where do we go from here?..." he solemnly asks. This multifaceted number features striking guitar lines from Steve, a sudden ascent into a lighter space midway through followed by a deep, growling movement and a ghostly, ironic music-box coda. "Incommunicado" is next and it is spectacular. The infectious energy and Mark's bright synth solo is exciting enough but when the bottom falls out on the bridge it's this progger's wet dream come true. I kid you not. It's a river of sunshine. Combine that with wickedly sarcastic lyrics about fame and you've got a classic on your hands and in your ears. "I'm a Marquee veteran, a multi-media bonafide celebrity/I've got an allergy to Perrier, daylight and responsibility/I'm a rootin'- tootin' cowboy/the Peter Pan, the street credibility..." he sneers. Beware; the echoing "incommunicado" refrain at the end is as communicable as the Ebola bug in a hot zone.

"Torch Song" is a well-placed ballad that still has meat on its bones courtesy of Mosley's strong drums. It's a vividly transparent ode to Fish's weakness for drugs & drink in which he justifies his excesses via a desire to light his candle at both ends and go out like some of his tragic heroes. "Read a little Kerouac and it put me on the tracks/to burn a little a little brighter now/something about roman candles fizzing out/ shine a little light on me now..." he sings. Mark's flowing piano comes in to lead you into "Slainte Mhath" with its Who-ishly bold, punchy attack, Steve's prickly guitar effect and a raw intensity that never lets up. No watering hole is complete without its own cadre of war veterans and here Fish relates "... you listen with a tear in your eye/to their hopes and betrayals and your only reply/parading their anecdotes tired from old campaigns..."

The beautiful, expertly-structured "Sugar Mice" is now my top Marillion song (and they have a boatload of good ones). Everyone in the group is brilliant from start to finish but it's Fish's brutally honest vocal that makes it soar. He captures the essence of a cowardly man who has abandoned his family in favor of a love affair with the bottle. "Well, the toughest thing that I ever did/was talk to the kids on the phone/when I heard them asking questions/I knew that you were all alone/can't you understand that the government left me out of work?/I just couldn't stand the looks on their faces saying 'What a jerk'/so if you want my address it's number one at the end of the bar/where I sit with the broken angels/clutching at straws and nursing our scars..." he whines. The image those self- pitying words project in my mind is numbingly heartbreaking and real.

The driving, straight forward cadence of "The Last Straw" makes it an excellent album closer. After a couple of rounds of the stirring verse/chorus pattern they unleash a bridge that expands like a swollen river flooding over its levees. Fish's prognosis of the band's growing cancer is right up front as he cries "we're terminal cases that keep taking medicine/pretending the end isn't quite that near/we make futile gestures, act to the cameras/with our made up faces and PR smiles." Rothery's slashing guitar resurrects the rock momentum and initiates a build to an amazing fade out where once again Ms. Niles catapults the track into the nether regions as she screams above Fish that they're all drowning while desperately clutching at straws. She giveth goosebumps.

The title says it all. Straws are quite useful for stirring mixed drinks and hoovering up Peruvian marching powder and if you're aware of the sordid early history of Marillion you know there was no lack of either of those applications in their daily rituals. While bad habits damaged their health and personal lives and eventually led to a divorce of the group and their charismatic front man, somehow their vices didn't ruin their ability to write and record exemplary music. Chalk that up to youthful stamina, I guess. Nevertheless, they were still as doomed as the rudderless Bismarck. Yet they fought through their differences and their final album with Fish is no shabby collection of half-finished snippets and demos bundled up to complete contractual obligations. On the contrary, they went out together in grand fashion. It is a masterpiece of progressive rock that deserves widespread recognition and accolades for centuries to come.

Chicapah | 5/5 |

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