All bands have an expiry date; some bands are just more aware of that fact than others. And when an act has been around as long as Marillion has, it's not uncommon for their age to begin to show. Whether or not that is a bad thing is uncertain--some classic rock acts have put out some of their best material quite recently, even while the noticeable majority have struggled for relevance. It's in that context, a looming shadow of inevitable irrelevance, where we find Marillion's most recent (and PMA-nominated) release, Sounds That Can't Be Made.
And, to be quite honest, I'm still a bit undecided on where Sounds That Can't Be Made falls on the whole dichotomy. On the one hand, Marillion certainly displays the signs of a band well-aged. For one, the musicians are all playing with much less intensity and finesse; the music is very lethargic and down-tempo, as if the band literally doesn't have the dexterity to play faster. Even more noticeably are the unusually strenuous compositions; the songs all sound much more languid and stale than some of Marillion's early material, focusing heavily on simpler structures and progressions in compensation.
But on the other hand, it's clear that a lot of thought and effort has gone into the compositions, much more so than expected from bands of Marillion's age. Despite their languid inner-workings, pieces like "Gaza" and "Montréal" are brimming with the compositional brilliance of a band in its prime, using the band's downtempo aesthetic to its very fullest. Far from phoning it in, Marilion sounds like a band that's planning on being around for many years yet--they may have aged, but gracefully so.
Though the album does pull both ways, the deciding factor really is the overall impression the album leaves on the listener--which, to be honest, is not particularly memorable. It's enjoyable in that same, melancholy way as hearing a voice you once loved perform again, but that's not enough to forgive the general lacklustre nature of the recording. The few strong songs on the album don't really excuse the rest of the bland, ballad-driven drivel, and, at the end of the day, the album doesn't make enough of a statement to warrant another listen.
So while it's clear Marillion aren't to be counted out yet, Sounds That Can't Be Made shows a band clearly beleaguered by their tired years. While some of the individual songs on here are top-notch--"Gaza" is the kind of thing a band waits a whole career to write--the whole product isn't much to note. It's not album of the year material, but it'll please Marillion's fans, and that's more than good enough.
Recommended if you like: Yes, t, Spock's Beard