It’s odd isn’t it, the amount of importance we put on being ‘cool’. Of course, the pressure on us be perceived as cool can be crippling in our teenage years, but it’s something which can continue to linger throughout our twenties, and for some of us, well into our thirties and beyond. Of course, what is perceived as cool is a matter of perspective too. From the brand-hungry 90s, to the hipsters of today, what is cool and what isn’t cool is often a matter of fierce debate.
Marillion have always struggled with the concept of cool. A Progressive Rock act that rose to prominence in the wake of Punk, a music scene almost purpose built to scorch the earth of prog, in their first five years they found themselves sharing the albums charts with all manner of New Romantics, Synth Poppers and over-coated Post-Punk types. No matter which way you slice it though, Marillion, although they had a rapt and ever-growing audience during their early years, just weren’t cool and it’s something which has eluded them ever since.
For their first four albums, Marillion were fronted by the towering face-painted presence of Fish, whose lengthy lyrical journeys the rest of the band draped their muso-wizardry around. For all the rest of the band’s technical ability, it’s difficult to argue with the perception that Fish was Marillion’s biggest and best asset during their formative years, so when he quit shortly after the pretty-good-actually Clutching at Straws, and the remaining band members replaced him with the less visually interesting Steve Hogarth, the writing appeared to be on the wall for Marillion. For the next few years it was a spiral of albums that failed to ignite and the resulting dwindling sales, as much as their fans denied it, it looked like Marillion were on borrowed time.
Then in 1994, in the face of the Britpop boom Marillion weren’t only considered to be as uncool as it was possible to be, came Brave, a concept album about a girl with amnesia who was about to throw herself off of the Severn Bridge. While that hardly sounds like an enjoyable listen, it was executed in such a way that it became an immensely powerful album, both musically, and emotionally. Tales of abuse and homelessness were weaved into a dense tapestry of songs, the solid structure of the story resulted in some fascinatingly complex lyrics in order to keep pushing the story forward. The music was rooted in contemporary sounds as well, so much so that if you take away Hogarth’s vocals, you could easily be listening to something that inspired the creation of OK Computer later in the decade. Okay, so that may be stretching the point a little, but at the time of Brave’s release, no one seriously expected Marillion to come out with an album so musically interesting at this point in their career. Even Hogarth, who had seemed a neither here nor there presence in the band up to this point, appeared to have true empathy with the central character of the story.
As Brave is such a cohesive album, it’s difficult to pick out individual tracks as highlights, though “Hard As Love” rocks in a much more straightforward fashion than the rest of the album and “The Hollow Man” is one of the great songs about alienation. “Paper Lies” was one of the tracks released as a single, but it’s actually one of the albums weaker moments. Topping it all though is the simple and effective “Made Again”, a song of love and redemption that closes this almost unremittingly bleak and foreboding album on a positive and optimistic note – After the terrifying, yet compelling ten tracks that had gone before it’s some much needed relief.
Brave is a unique album, not only in Marillion’s back catalogue, but in the realm of rock music in general. It’s rare that a band so seemingly close to oblivion pulls out all the stops and releases such a powerful album. Marillion may never have been the first choice of those who consider themselves to be cool, yet their fanbase remains the most rabidly loyal outside of Numanoids, and in Brave they demonstrated that you don’t always have to be cool to release a jaw-dropping album.