The question of when a band should release a live album is a sticky one. On one hand, some bands want to capitalize on their success and try to milk every last drop out of it; Vanilla Ice did this with Extremely Live, released after only one - count 'em, one - studio release. On the other hand, some bands take their time and make sure the time is absolutely right for the material.
In the case of Marillion, I honestly would have questioned the release of Real To Reel back in 1984. This was a band who had only two albums under their belt, with their best work still ahead of them. Yet this was also a group who were building up quite a following in Europe, so maybe the time was right over there to release this disc. (For the record: I'm reviewing an import of the original 1984 release, not the newer version packaged with the later release Brief Encounter. That mini-LP will be reviewed soon - once I pay for the copy I won on eBay.)
Recorded in Montreal and England, the seven songs featured do capture the spirit of Marillion well - but it also shows a band who was still very much in development. Granted, they had made significant improvement with their second album Fugazi, but they still didn't have a treasure trove of material to draw from. Because of this, there are peaks and ebbs on this disc.
There are some powerful moments on Real To Reel. It is a trip to hear Fish stop singing during "Garden Party" and "Market Square Heroes" to let the audience take over the job - and they don't miss a single beat. But what surprises me is that the material from the Script For A Jester's Tear period is just as strong as the great material from Fugazi. Yes, "Forgotten Sons" is still a bit overblown, and this version doesn't change my mind about it. But "Garden Party" really shines, especially when paired up with "Market Square Heroes". It's as powerful a one-two punch as "Assassing" and "Incubus," which open the disc.
Of the Fugazi material, only "Emerald Lies" falls a bit flat - but coming off of a powerful trio of "Assassing," "Incubus" and "Cinderella Search," it's not that bad of a fall for Marillion, and could have been easily recoverable. The problem is that the next track is "Forgotten Sons," which we've already mentioned. Maybe had they thrown in "He Knows You Know" as a buffer, it would have helped.
Still, these are not major complaints, and as a live disc, Real To Reel turns out to be quite enjoyable - though, like many of Marillion's albums, it takes more than one listen to really warm up to it. And, unlike their later live disc The Thieving Magpie (La Gazza Ladra), this disc captures a band who is hungry, not a band splintering under alleged excesses. (We'll eventually get to The Thieving Magpie as well - gimme a break, I've been trying for six months to decipher Misplaced Childhood.)
Real To Reel is not the easiest disc to find, but if you are deeper into the Fish-era Marillion than just the few hits they had, this will be a nice addition to your collection. Even if you don't know a lot about the band, it's an interesting slice of their history that's worth checking out.