The British art-rock scene was battered by the blunt simplicity of late '70s punk. Some performers, such as Robert Fripp, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno, were capable of adjusting their approaches to flow with the times; others, like Genesis and Yes, foundered initially but soon learned enough to make their way to the pop mainstream. For the most part, though, the elaborate, almost baroque styling that characterized art rock in its infancy appears to have been worn down by the forces of time and taste.
Thus, it's no small irony to find a new generation of art rockers working to reestablish those intricacies with the very technology that delivered their forebears into the pop mainstream. Thanks to synthesizers and new studio technology, third-generation art rockers like Kate Bush or Marillion can generate a degree of aural grandeur well beyond what their influences -- Pink Floyd, early Genesis -- could muster. As such, the challenge for these younger artists is not so much embroidering a brilliant tapestry of sound, but animating their audio images with a sense of significance. It isn't an easy task.
Kate Bush, for example, has a flair for drama that seems perfectly suited to the musical manipulation facilitated by the new technology, and "Hounds of Love" (EMI America ST-17171), her latest release, is packed with all sorts of sonic trickery. Some of it is quite dazzling; "The Big Sky," for instance, mixes instruments into thick sandwiches of sound, grounding its beat with a combination of synthesizers, drums and dijeridu that rolls like thunder under the giddy, jiglike countermelodies she weaves through the verse.
For all that, though, there seems to be something cheap about the thrills Bush provides. "Waking the Witch," for example, is a brilliant bit of sound construction, opening with dreamy piano chords and a collage of voices urging "wake up" before charging headlong into a nightmarish depiction of a witch trial. Thanks to a variety of vocal treatments, Bush is able to unveil a jungle of voices from the demonic inquisitor to his possessed victim, while the singer herself comments with a nursery rhyme: "Red, red roses/Pinks and poses . . ."
Trouble is, the song is all poses, for despite the musical melodrama, Bush is unable to connect to anything beyond the desperation of the unjustly accused, as if acting out an adolescent persecution complex on an unusually grand scale. There's a fair amount of that sort of emotional posturing on the album, from the claustrophobic terror of "Under Ice" to the romantic dread of the title track, and through it all runs the same self-glorifying sense of misunderstood passion.
That might be fine for moonstruck teens eager to find a parallel to their own feelings of distance and desire, but other listeners will soon weary of hearing Bush play Ophelia to her own Hamlet. Which is a shame, really, because Bush has built a number of alluring melodies into her dramatic conceits. "Running Up That Hill," for example, contrasts a lovely, lilting melody with an insistent drum pulse to create a single that's tremendously memorable despite its solipsisms, while "The Jig of Life" weaves bits of traditional Irish music into its fabric with impressive ease. The only question is whether such moments are worth enduring the excesses that surround them.
Where Kate Bush glorifies adolscent angst, Marillion purues the pain of unhappy adulthood, and on "Misplaced Childhood," (Capitol ST-12431) plays out a long and tortured search for the child within. It's mostly twaddle, true, but the band's lyrics are impressive in their ambitions. Consider the album's opening couplet, "Huddled in the safety of a pseudo-silk kimono/Wearing bracelets of smoke, naked of understanding."
Granted, a certain amount of the wordplay is just sound for its own sake, but there is an undeniable intelligence behind the way the words pun on the concept of dressed/undressed.
Unfortunately, such telling twists are a rarity here, for the members of Marillion spend much of the album wallowing in self-congratulatory cleverness, like in the set of self-pitying vignettes entitled "Bitter Suite" (groan). The caricatures are painfully familiar -- the jilted lover betrayed by his own selfishness, the artist tortured by his own facility -- and the album's conclusion is monumentally predictable.
Such obviousness wouldn't be so bad had Marillion something to offer musically. The band's final failing is in its slavish devotion to the sounds of early '70s Genesis. Singer Fish may not be a dead ringer for Peter Gabriel, but he does make an effort, while Mark Kelly and Steve Rothery appear to have practiced their impressions of Tony Banks and Steve Hackett for years. If imitation is flattery, then the members of Genesis are doubtless embarrassed by so gushing a tribute, but it's hard to imagine anyone falling for such secondhand sound.