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This Strange Engine Song

In March 1997, Marillion released their ninth album, called ‘This Strange Engine’.  It is, in my opinion, not one of their best albums though there are some fantastic songs on it such as Estonia, An Accidental Man and Man of A Thousand Faces.  A lot of the songs are acoustic guitar based and definitely sound quite folky.


I will be discussing the fifteen minute and thirty three second long title track, eighth and final song on the album: ‘This Strange Engine’ (the song will be referred to as TSE).  I personally think it is one of their best songs.


What makes this song so special?  Is it because the band do not write many songs over ten minutes long? It seems as though they prefer to write songs averaging around the eight minutes mark.  Which brings me on to another point about a few of their albums containing only eight songs.  Many people understand numerology but I think it is just a nice number and an album with twelve tracks will have to have shorter songs.  I think the only album with twelve songs on a single disc is the acoustic album.


No, what makes this song special is that it is made of many sections and every section, despite all being very different, incredibly moving, beautiful pieces and all are very well written.  The first section is soft piano based.  There is also a fast section with some very heavy (by Marillion standards) guitar part.  One of my favourite parts is towards the end where Mark plays a lovely high octave almost bell-like riff.  It is over this riff that the guitar solos fit.  The song also changes time signatures like all good progressive rock songs should.


The line in the song that makes the title up is “Stirred his red coat heart to this strange engine.” What actually is a ‘Strange Engine’? The album cover and booklet shows a bizarre Heath Robinson style Victorian contraption with blueprints but this does not hint at what it is actually supposed to be.  There are no known hints in the Marillion world as what it means but it is believed to be the human heart.


The lyrics are an autobiographical account of Steve Hogarth’s life.  He sings about his childhood while his father was away a lot in the navy.  How his father then left the navy and became a miner in Yorkshire so he could be with his family.  I will not delve too deeply into the lyrics as they are quite personal and have no intention in trying to analyse them.  Plus I prefer to look at the musical structure of the song and the lyrics are only a small part of it.


TSE has not one but two guitar solos, a synth solo and even a saxophone solo.  The saxophone was played by Phil Todd on the album.  When the song is played live, Steve Hogarth uses a cricket bat fitted with switches and electronics to enable midi capabilities to play the sax solo. 


Mark Kelly’s synth solo is about five minutes into the song. It is believed to have been played on a Roland synthesizer and is definitely one of the highpoints of the song. It sounds fantastic when played live but is usually overlooked because of the second guitar solo. 


People love the first guitar solo but there is something about the second guitar solo that makes Marillion fans go crazy.  There is so much emotion in Steve Rothery’s playing (interestingly, I am writing this on his fifty forth birthday).  It is not a technically difficult piece in terms of tempo but this is what makes it work.  The way he uses the effects is nothing compared to the way he controls the strings on the fret board.  It is a privilege to watch him play it live and there is usually a long cheer after it is played which does annoy a lot of people as it interrupts the flow of the song. 


TSE is not only one of the finest and most popular Marillion songs but also one of the finest progressive rock songs of the last forty years.  I do believe people will still be listening to it in 40 years’ time.

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