Marillion – Happiness Is The Road Volume 2: The Hard Shoulder

Marillion - Happiness Is The Road Volume 2: The Hard Shoulder

With Essence (the first volume of Happiness Is The Road), Marillion showed that they could succeed at writing simpler, catchy songs without losing their uniqueness. For the second volume, The Hard Shoulder, they chose to be more experimental by extending track lengths, adding weird sounds and rocking out more. The result is neither better nor worse than the first part; it’s just a different approach.

The Hard Shoulder opens with “Thunder Fly,” a fairly complex yet laid back jam, with especially nice keyboard chord changes. There’s an interesting use of dynamics and a lot of interesting sounds mixed in with the music. The vocals aren’t necessary (the focus is clearly on the music), but they don’t hurt the track. It has a nice, positive energy that appeals to both prog fans and the casual listener. “The Man from the Planet Marzipan,” like the second track on the first volume, has a very emotional melody on the guitar (this time played on harmonics). The bass line is funky and biting but not overdone. Hogarth showcases the vast range of his smooth, colorful voice with the melody changes, which are plentiful because the track goes through several sections. “Asylum Satellite #1” has a luscious production with various synthesized instruments creating a slightly apocalyptic sound over the chorus. The verse is more lighthearted and sparse, which makes the chorus’ power even more alarming. The song concludes with two guitar solos, one piercing and the next calmed down along with the music, as if in the aftermath of the destruction.

“Older Than Me” opens with synthesized vibes as Hogarth sings about nostalgia. It’s the first commercial, short song on the album. The melody isn’t as strong as other pieces of a similar style and aim, but the subtle, haunting music is nice. It fades into “Throw Me Out,” which begins with a ticking clock and organ. Soon strings and a standard rock beat come in. The most intriguing aspect is the ELO style ochestration and unfamiliar timbres. Also, Hogarth’s use of isolating his voice in each stereo channel gives it some longevity. “Half The World” reminds one of Spock’s Beard with its high harmonies and optimism, reminiscent of Neal Morse. This track carries the joyous choir feel of some of the tracks on Essence.

The final trio of songs begins with “Whatever Is Wrong With You,” the most conventional rock song on the disc. The guitar tone is noticeably heavier and Hogarth sounds somewhat gravely. The guitar solo has cool effects on it, and it’s a track to blast through the speakers. “Especially True” is one of the best tracks on here because of its engaging melody and corresponding guitar riff. It’s a bit disappointing that the drums keep with a simple beat instead of using more syncopation (since the rest of the music is more energized), but it’s only a minor complaint. The end of the track is quite heavy and rough, almost to the level of King Crimson. The closer, “Real Tears for Sale” opens with a simple chord progression and a catchy melody. Hogarth again shows a skill for singing affectively, and the lyrics are surprisingly poignant. The middle section tones things down in order to build back up for the finale (a standard technique in prog rock), but it still works. The arpeggios and syncopation effectively lead into the horns and swirling vocals, and the concluding moments are quite intense. The track fades out with piano and starry chimes.

The Hard Shoulder is more of a mixed bag than Essence. Whereas the first volume works as a disc of pop songs with vibrant sounds, the second has less interesting offerings of the same template as well as more intricate sections. If The Hard Shoulder was to be the more progressive chapter, aimed at fans of classic Marillion, they should’ve maintained that throughout instead of venturing into less memorable pop songs. It’s still a good record though, and worth repeated listening. As a whole, Happiness Is The Road, which was supposed to be half pop songs and half progressive experimentation, favors the former too much, and leaves only a bit of room for the latter. Still, it’s a damn fine accomplishment.