I’ll be honest: I’m always overly cautious when I talk about Marillion. The band has diehard fans who I respect, and who I sincerely do not want to offend. I don’t think I covered Marillion’s last album, FEAR, for that reason (even though I liked it). Well, Marillion is back and I decided to take the plunge. The album is called An Hour Before It’s Dark, and it released on March 4th.
Marillion has been with us since 1979, almost 45 years now. That’s crazy. The UK-based band has boasted the exact same lineup since the late 80s. That’s impressive. The lineup is Steve Hogarth on vocals, keyboards, and percussion; Steve Rothery on guitars; Mark Kelly on keyboards; Pete Trewavas on bass and backing vocals; and Ian Mosley on drums.
An Hour Before It’s Dark isn’t necessarily a big change from what the band has done in the past. This is still a melodic, modern prog rock. There aren’t many twists or turns in the formula, but why fix something that isn’t broken? This music is more about communicating a message, especially on this album.
Now, I must confess that I’m not your typical Marillion fan. I don’t like “Fish era” Marillion at all, and my favorite album by the band is Anoraknophobia from 2001. I really like Marbles, Brave, and Seasons End, as well. To a certain extent, I enjoy Sounds That Can’t Be Made, too. So, you can say that I don’t follow the normal Marillion fan in how I rate their discography. Keep that in mind as I talk about the new album.
There are two aspects to this record: the music and the message. While that might be obvious, the reason I’m saying this is because they need to be discussed separately because they both stand out, so to speak. Firstly, the music here is wonderful. It is keyboard-forward, for sure. I’ve seen some people complain that nothing much happens until Rothery’s guitar saves the day, but I don’t think this is true. Between Hogarth’s excellent, seasoned vocals and Mark’s nuanced, beautiful keys, there is plenty to absorb, and it does take several listens to start picking out more and more.
Rothery is indeed a highlight here, though, with some seriously effective solos and licks that are definitely near the top of the list for memorable moments. For what it’s worth, I would point out that Pete’s bass and especially Ian’s drumming are both fantastic, as well. Ian helps to keep the album fresh and moving, creating momentum and shifts in beat that are very attractive. In fact, I think I noticed his drums more than Rothery’s guitar on most of my listens.
Then there are the lyrics. I admire the band for being able to tackle a serious topic. It obviously has to do with the recent and ongoing pandemic, but it has less to do with establishing an opinion and more to do with mourning the lack of unity, self-awareness, and selflessness that was brought to the surface. Whatever you believe about the virus, mandates, or vaccines, it is undeniable that some people weren’t going to comply simply because they didn’t want to, or because of misinformation from all directions. Now, I don’t necessarily agree with everything that the band has offered here, but I can see that their heart is a humanity that works together, loves together, and builds a new future together. And yet togetherness might sometimes mean that we have to be apart physically for the greater good. There are many nuances to the message here.
There are seven songs on An Hour Before It’s Dark, yet eighteen “tracks” technically. I look at them as full songs, not suites, though. Anyways, I’m finding that various portions of various tracks are my “favorites” on the album. It’s a weird effect. For instance, the opening song, “Be Hard on Yourself”, is an energetic song overall, but the best parts come at the end of the first part called “The Tear in the Big Picture” and the middle of the third part called “You Can Learn”, most of which involves some infectious rhythms that will get your head bobbing. This is also true for the five part “Sierra Leone”. What is the point of having a “part” that is only 53 seconds? I’m not sure. But it’s clear to me that the best parts are “The Diamond”, “The Blue Warm Air”, and “More Than Treasure”, the last three. I especially love how Hogarth swells his voice in parts 3 and 5 for some seriously emotional peaks.
The album is simply strange in how it is structured, though. The single, “Murder Machines”, is an incredibly addictive track with a beat and groove that only veterans could construct. I love it to death (no pun intended). Yet “Only a Kiss” is a 39-second interlude that seems entirely unnecessary. “The Crow and the Nightingale” is also a good track, if a little overly reserved for the most part. I would say the same thing about the three-part “Reprogram the Gene”, as I barely notice that while it plays.
I think, without a doubt, the best song on the album is the four-part closer “Care”. The band is really firing on all cylinders here, especially Rothery with his pealing and powerful guitar contributions. The song is funky and groovy, too, as well as containing the best vocals on the album. I like how earnest Hogarth feels here. Perhaps it is also because the lyrics on this song are the most universal, i.e., the most able to be accepted by people with different viewpoints. The finale called “Angels on Earth” is especially luxurious and uplifting. “Care” is simply an outstanding song overall.
Marillion are still making music, and that music is still great. They haven’t lost any of their potency or skill, that is for sure, and while An Hour Before It’s Dark might require more focus and attention than other albums, that is a feature, not a flaw. The band makes subtle, classy, and rich music that, I think, can be appreciate by just about anyone.
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Thanks for your wonderful review of this amazing (in my opinion) album by Marillion. Nice twist to split into a lyrics section and music section. I am a Marillion fan since the early days and I rate this new record among the best stuff they have made. Steve Hogarth always hits the right buttons for me with his voice and lyrics. Looking forward to see these guys live in concert later this year