Photos by: Anne-Marie Forker Photography
No one knows how much time they’ve got left… sings Steve Hogarth in Care, the immaculate closing track of Marillion’s twentieth and latest album An Hour Before It’s Dark. Simple but compelling words to those of us who have not only weathered the horrors of recent times, but arrived at ages where we’re forced to start examining mortality – our own, certainly, but that of people we admire too. Stung by immense musical losses of late, we surely can be forgiven for casting worried glances in the direction of those who craft the soundtrack to our lives, because we need them to continue to do so.
It’s heartening, then, to settle our collective gaze on the five Marillos, each now well ensconced in the sexagenarian club but seemingly in fine fettle and ever-brimming with energy and musical ideas. The musical landscape they traverse may be in a constant state of flux, but they remain a vibrant part of it without resting on their laurels. It’s no small feat to continue taking the strides and chances they do, some 40 years after the release of their debut single (and 33 years with an unchanged lineup). It’s a dwindling breed that can tick all these boxes, and any band that does can only be admired.
2016’s uncompromising Fuck Everyone And Run (a.k.a. FEAR) seemed to be met with equal measures of adulation and apathy. Those who liked it found great depth in its epic nature and biting commentary, while to others it was nebulous and impenetrable; a murky slog of snippets too often fused together without employing the writing methods of their past. So how does An Hour Before It’s Dark stack up to their back catalogue? While it’s silly to compare the music of their fifth decade with that of their first, it’s less so to place it alongside their output since the celebrated Marbles arrived in 2004 and ushered in a career renaissance. The short answer is that the new album lands as a hybrid of latter-day styles: Happiness Is The Road wrapped in FEAR with a Marbles cherry on top… or something like that.
Opening song Be Hard On Yourself will be familiar to most listeners as the first advance release track, and encapsulates the album with its juxtaposition of dark reality and sparkling glimmers of hope. Also introduced straight away is the Choir Noir, whose commanding voices are peppered throughout to great effect. Early reports from within the Marillion camp suggested there was more oomph to this record than the last, and while true, that’s not to suggest it’s an hour’s worth of Hooks In You-type stadium rockers. Rather, the sunnier segments are more prominent and the arrangements a tad crisper than on FEAR, with fewer of the long, placid movements some found dreary.
This sprightlier approach was further evidenced by the second single Murder Machines, with its peppy beat courtesy of the consistently rock-solid rhythm section of Ian Mosley and Pete Trewavas. Truly among the finest in the biz, they’ve been Marillion’s formidable backbone for 38 years, and deserve great accolades for anchoring that wealth of music with such groove and finesse. Murder Machines is a strong track, although I do wonder if the lyrics could have benefitted from being a shade more ambiguous. Words like ‘antibodies’ and ‘vaccines’ feel a bit clunky… although they’re certainly timely. Hogarth is quick to point out that while he found it impossible not to write about the pandemic – and who can blame him – he did eventually broaden the song’s focus (Hint: the instrumental prelude Only A Kiss got its name from these lyrics) so as not to make it one-dimensional.
Reprogram The Gene continues along the upbeat path with catchy melodies and oddball lyrics reminiscent of the days of Cannibal Surf Babe (‘I want to be Dr. Frankenstein, put my brain in a box full of LED light – You can have it for Christmas, next year it’ll be cheaper… and fourteen times as bright’). Thematically, the track can be seen as the brighter, rockier sister song to Seasons End from way back in 1989, with some major key toe-tapping and a dreamy bridge. But the warning message is clear, and the song’s finale exudes an anthemic quality; for my money it could go on a lot longer which might also make for a rousing live atmosphere.
It bears mentioning that Mark Kelly’s tasteful playing and sound choices truly enrich Marillion’s music. Sure, we love his famous ‘widdly-widdly’ Moog solos of the past, but he gets less recognition for the depth and charm he brings to more recent songs with his keen ear for strong melodies and chord changes. Like bandmates Trewavas and Mosley, he shares less of the spotlight than that of the two Steves – which I suspect is fine with him – but he is a crucial ingredient, and likely the member my ears have tuned into the most with these last few albums.
In addition to the Choir Noir, the album features In Praise Of Folly, the Belgian string quartet who previously appeared on With Friends From The Orchestra and a pair of live releases. Both prove to be lovely additions to the Marillion sound palette, as on the inspired track The Crow And The Nightingale. With its sensible arrangement, impassioned vocals and grand, flowing melodies, it’s a darn near perfect piece of music, the crest of which is highlighted by Steve Rothery launching into a hypnotic solo and gliding over his bandmates’ accompaniment in typically arresting fashion. Lyrically, the song is a clear nod to hero Leonard Cohen, and when Hogarth sings ‘Thank you for your words of longing, it doesn’t really matter whether or not I understood them’, we realize that the same sentiment applies here; the allure of these words lies in their poetic nature and the ardour with which Hogarth delivers them. A superb song.
Colourful imagery abounds in the curious Sierra Leone, with talk of its white sands and blue warm air. A more subdued piece overall, it’s perhaps the one that shares the most DNA with FEAR, and tends to stay fairly restrained even during its more expansive moments. Despite a relaxed mystique and flashes of trademark Marillion brilliance, I suspect this could be a divisive track among the fan base, but it’s worth noting that those can often become the biggest growers over time. I recall being underwhelmed with FEAR‘s The New Kings on first listen, which soon blossomed into one of my top favourites of their career. There’s rarely rhyme or reason to these things, and I’ll be as curious to hear other’s thoughts on this track as I am to revisit my own in the weeks and months to come.
What the band continues to bring to the table in such abundance is their ability to conjure vivid moods (something sorely deficient in the blistering music churned out by many of their muso contemporaries). Their songs make listeners feel something, bouncing hither and thither between sorrow and joy, gloom and hope, anger and serenity. It’s one thing to impress with skill and technique, but another to elicit goosebumps and tears. And tears there will be, shed without shame by quivering-lipped listeners when the celestial closing track Care bathes them in its light… and that’s a promise. Surely the album’s centrepiece, the 15 minute epic runs the gamut from funky to mysterious to delicate to otherworldly. Soaring Rothery leads are woven throughout, and Hogarth delivers poignant words that should affect even the most stoic fan during the song’s stirring climax. In fact, Care might be one of the most elegant and transcendent pieces of music this band has ever created, even rivaling the exquisite Neverland (…and the crowd gasps at such a daring statement).
This album will ultimately find itself ranked in every conceivable position from 1 – 20 on fan lists worldwide, jockeying for position among the greats at the top or the stragglers at the bottom in equal measure; rising and falling, ebbing and receding, masterpiece or dud, instant love or dark horse. I anticipate a lot of ‘The best album since…’ proclamations, with myriad titles following the word ‘since’. Not everyone will adore this latest collection, but many will, and that praise will be well deserved. With its contemporary themes, layers of rich melodies, thought-provoking lyrics, and pure, raw emotion, An Hour Before It’s Dark is every inch the Marillion album the world needs in 2022. This music puts its arms around us… and it saves us with love.