Marillion’s latest album With Friends At St. David’s is, as the title suggests a live interpretation of the recent studio offering With Friends From The Orchestra, an album that reworked some classic tunes with the In Praise Of Folly string quartet. While touring that album with In Praise of Folly (now bolstered to a sextet) the Cardiff gig was recorded and the resulting double set (on CD and DVD) is a sumptuous document that presents 11 Marillion treasures in a whole new light.
Marillion have always had a knack of writing lengthy, labyrinthine songs (whilst making them easily accessible) and they don’t come more epic than opening cut “Gaza”. The benefit of performing with an orchestra becomes immediately apparent and the sound is simply humongous and allows the band to produce a soundscape you can almost step inside. Garnished with warm textures and peppered with middle eastern flourishes “Gaza” is a song that swings between light, airy passages and crushing, weighty sections with each acting as a foil for the other and creates a palpable sense of tautness that holds the audience in a state of rapt attention for 18 minutes and the applause that’s generated at the songs finale testifies not only to a solid performance but also a sudden release of tension.
This incarnation of Marillion has been together for over three decades and the chemistry they display on With Friends At St. David’s verges on an alchemy. The bands musicianship could easily render these live renditions as mere facsimiles of their studio counterparts but the orchestra adds another dimension that renders “Seasons End” all the more poignant. The title track from their fifth album (and Steve Hogarth’s debut) it was a watershed release for the group and found Hogarth confidently staking his claim and moving forward a band who were in danger of stagnating after the departure of original singer Fish. Steve recaptures a little of that era here with his deep, marble smooth vocals sounding quintessentially English: at once melancholy and resigned.
Plucked from the critically acclaimed concept album Brave “The Hollow Man” works surprisingly well when taken out of context and, as the most succinct song here (a mere five-and-a-half minutes), it adds a touch of brevity and that’s a perfect example of where this otherwise perfect album falls a little short. I know it’s not what the band are aiming for here but there’s no “Incommunicado” or “Hooks In You” to add a change of pace and a bit of punch (and I’m sure they’d sound equally good orchestrated). Only “Zeparated Out” finds the band opening the throttle and the audience gladly respond in kind. Cheekily throwing in the riff of “Kashmir” was a good move and the strings make it sound suitably grandiose. A few more of these moments dotted throughout would have a made for a more rounded and balanced album.
Recorded in Cardiff at St David’s Hall, a wonderfully complex structure in which to frame their music, With Friends encapsulates all that’s great about Marillion. There’s a plethora of Marillion live albums available but the perfect welding of progressive rock and classical renders this release an essential purchase.
With Friends At St. David’s is released by EarMusic on 28th May 2021
Header image: Anne-Marie Forker