Incredibly, it’s already been a dozen years since the short, moody piece Liquidity (on Marillion’s Happiness Is The Road vol. I) begged the question: what could Mark Kelly do on his own, and why hasn’t he done that yet? He’s contributed playing to other people’s music, but it’s something of a rarity for someone of his stature to stay within the confines of his band for so many years without something more his own coming to light. Most of his bandmates certainly didn’t. I didn’t think we’d have to wait until near the end of 2020 to find out what he could do, but the question is now answered. He can do a lot, and it sounds damn good.
Kelly’s first proper foray away from the Marillion mothership reveals a bit more about the ivory tinkler we’ve come to know. The music is accessible, even if it’s not always simple. And though it’s only natural to imagine how some of these songs may have sounded had they gone through the Marillion machine instead, truthfully they tread quite different ground, with only occasional flourishes reminiscent of that band’s music over the years. The DNA pops up here and there, but Marathon exists in its own distinct musical world.
Kelly could easily have gone on autopilot here and still garnered much attention from the fan base. It wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility to produce a more stereotypical keyboard player’s solo album; taking a more orchestral route, or delivering an indulgent instrumental platter as a vehicle for flashy solos. Instead, he opted for a song-based album with a properly assembled band that turns out to be a somewhat breezier affair than the occasionally dense and dramatic offerings of his main band.
Opening 11-minute suite Amelia eases in with the gentle, atmospheric opening of Shoreline, before giving way to the tuneful Whistling At The Sea, carried beautifully by the soulful, smoky vocals of Oliver Smith and a climactic guitar solo from John Cordy. 13 Bones finds Kelly sprinkling piano melodies liberally while drummer Henry Rogers picks up the tempo for the hopelessly catchy White Album-vibed chorus. Kelly slyly injects a few of the ol’ trademark widdly-widdlies into the rocking, energetic finale – and I defy any listener to not tap his or her foot. Now that’s a strong opening to an album.
A change of pace and mood follows with the mid-tempo ballad When I Fell, which morphs midway into a fine organ solo from Kelly and a slow, jammy coda of sorts. An unusual but successful arrangement for a song that could otherwise have been in danger of overstaying its welcome at six minutes in length. This is but one of the many little surprises found throughout Marathon that sets it apart from other albums of its ilk. The more straightforward and bouncy This Time showcases Smith’s strong, appealing voice in a concise pop track which, in another time, would have earned radio play and drawn much deserved attention to this fine group of players.
Steve Rothery, Kelly’s bandmate of four decades, drops by on the track Puppets, delivering his usual brand of emotive lead guitar playing to an already substantial piece that also finds Kelly dazzling on the keys. This will be a highlight track for many listeners – particularly Marillion fans – and it certainly is a contender for the best track on the album, but it faces immense competition from what’s still to come.
Bookend epic suite Twenty Fifty One is surely the album’s centerpiece, a 15-minute sci-fi journey that is the most adventurous (and certainly proggiest) music on the album. Experimenting with sounds and textures, the piece weaves through shifting moods, every player taking their own moments in the spotlight and combining to fashion a beautifully layered and anthemic finale. Kelly’s nephew Conal delivers some impressively fluid bass lines that approach lead territory, particularly during the last segment Brief History, a joyous track that caps off these proceedings with remarkable flair.
Ultimately, the vibe of Marathon is an uplifting one, and the effort put into it pays off. Guy Vickers’ lyrics are engaging, the themes are interesting, and at 45 minutes, it’s not a hugely challenging listen. Melody is king, the sound is crystal clear, and although Kelly seems happy not to be the star of the project, he can’t help but shine throughout the album with so many cool phrases and lines, much as he often does in that ‘other’ band. The album should prove to have a broad appeal, crossing over genres with ease, and after all these years of wondering, it’s a relief to know that Kelly is just as able to produce such high quality and tasteful music regardless of the musicians he surrounds himself with. It’s about time, Mark! Let’s not wait so long until the next one.
Amelia (i) Shoreline (ii) Whistling At The Sea (iii) 13 Bones · When I Fell · This Time · Puppets · Twenty Fifty One (i) Search (ii) Arrival (iii) Trail Of Tears (iv) Brief History