This is the album that set me on my current vector of progressive rock fandom.
I’d been a fan of Marillion in the 80s, having enjoyed the albums with Fish as the vocalist, but I felt they’d kind of lost their way with Brave. Meanwhile, I’d become less interested in popular music during the 1990s, and by the late 90s most of my music purchases were jazz. But all that changed when I found This Strange Engine in the used bin.
This album is widely disliked by Marillion fans, which I don’t understand at all since it seems more like the much-revered Fish-era albums than any other album produced during Steve Hogarth’s tenure as vocalist. Its arrangements and performances are tight and strong, with clear melodies and a great sound texture. The main complaint I hear is that it’s somehow more pop and less prog than earlier albums, yet it certainly seems no more pop to me than Misplaced Childhood or Clutching at Straws (both great albums). Neo-progressive groups like Marillion are all about fusing pop and prog anyway, and This Strange Engine is neo-prog at its best.
The album is bookended by two longer songs, which are also the standout tracks of the album: “Man of the Thousand Faces” is a really cool song whose first half is primarily acoustic – driven by guitar, piano and Hogarth’s vocals – and then segues into a loud, electric section, which chugs along to the sound of Pete Trewevas’ bass guitar. I’m not the biggest fan of Hogarth’s vocal style, but he has a strength and clarity on this track that really carries the song.
The title track closes the album. It’s reminiscent of Marillion’s earliest albums when keyboardist Mark Kelly would from time to time just be turned loose on his synthesizer, and he has a great solo here, as well as some of his more distinctive work mixed into the arrangement. I don’t think he’s ever sounded as good on the albums after this one. It opens with Hogarth speaking quietly over the opening notes before opening up into the initial melody, but it’s one of those prog tracks which cascades from one movement to the next across brief transitional moments, a common structure for a prog track but one which I know many people used to standard pop music structures find jarring or even pointless. Me, I love it, as it gives the band space for more ideas and more freedom to express those ideas. It ends with a repetitive melody which starts quietly and builds to the song’s climax, in much the same manner as the first track.
If “This Strange Engine” – the track – has a flaw, it’s that the last 15 minutes is dead air followed by a brief, pointless bit of laughter. I edited that part out when I loaded it into my MP3 library.
(I am, in general, not very attentive to lyrics when I listen to music. To me, the vocals are simply another instrument, and a lyric needs to have some je-ne-sais-quoi to grab my attention. Although the lyrics – generally by Hogarth or by lyricist John Helmer – are interesting at times, usually I just register that they seem evocative, which underscores the imaginative and often epic quality which I appreciate in progressive rock. So don’t look for insightful comments on the lyrics here – it’s the music that I enjoy.)
I tend to think of the other tracks as being shorter pieces sandwiched between these two monsters, but some of them are nearly as long as the 7-1/2 minute running time of “Man of a Thousand Faces”.
The up-tempo songs are a lot of fun: “80 Days” is a pretty straightforward song which maybe explains the pop leanings that some fans don’t like about this album. On the other hand, “An Accidental Man” is a nifty, up-tempo track with droning vocals over a neat guitar riff. The lyrics have a sharp feel which give the track an additional edge. “Hope For the Future” has a vaguely caribbean sound and some punchy horn backing, and is just fun to hear.
“One Fine Day” is a slower, melancholy track with some nice melodies – including a solid guitar solo – which I enjoy when the mood strikes me. “Memory of Water” is the other slow track, almost a cappella, which doesn’t have much in the way of melody and isn’t really my cup of tea. “Estonia” seems to be the best-loved track on the album by many other fans. I think it’s pretty good, very atmospheric, with moody synth work by Kelly and some nifty (what sounds like) Mandolin backing as well.
I never get tired of listening to this album. It may not be perfect, but its high are very high, and most of it is quite strong. If you know me and ever wonder what I enjoy about progressive rock, a lot of it is right here: Long tracks that develop one or more musical ideas at length and in depth, and complex, engaging arrangements.