MARILLION – “AN HOUR BEFORE IT’S DARK”

MARCH ALBUM OF THE MONTH

(5/5)

“No one knows how much time they’ve got left.” One of many lines from this album about time, the ticking clock. The climate crisis is a race against time. The horrors of Covid brought us all face-to-face with our own mortality. And for a band that can’t go on touring and recording forever, there’s also a simple truth – if you’re going to come back with another album, come back with a great one. And this is exactly what Marillion have done.

More than a great album, ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ is the band’s finest studio album in their 40-year recording career. An album that sits comfortably in the company of the band’s benchmark releases – ‘Marbles’, ‘Brave’ and ‘Fear’ – yet also a collection of songs with the cohesion of ‘Afraid of Sunlight.’ If FEAR was the band’s political protest album, here is Marillion’s humanitarian opus for the NOW. Seamlessly fusing the two big issues of the day – the environment crisis and the pandemic – ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ is different to many of the researched and empathetic stories that went before. The band members have lived through the topics explored on this album and it results in music that is more direct, alive and feels more intuitive. Derided by critics for decades as being uncool, Marillion unleash one of the most starkly relevant rock albums of recent years.

Contemporary. A good word for this album. The music is confident, the lyrics – at times – are direct, the album artwork is bold in its powerful simplicity. This album as a marriage of music, word and image is an emphatic artistic statement.  Some have called this new material rockier or upbeat – for me it’s actually about being more emotive. The band deals with big topics on this album and the music gives the narrative dimension, drama and, at times, a spiritual intensity.  I recall Steve Hogarth said in an interview that he didn’t want to write an album about Covid but there is a very real sense that the seismic change we have all been through makes it unavoidable. And let’s not forget the dark days of lockdown actually underlined the importance of music as a channel for communication; to help us cope, to connect, to make sense and to recover. I saw this first-hand on Twitter from the ramshackle rock caravan, broadcasting a weekly radio show through the length of the pandemic. The sharing of music kept people together and gave many a focus and strength at times of isolation, when it mattered most.

This new album will resonate with what many of us have felt and questioned in dark times; it touches on issues we have to address and there is beauty in reflecting on the enduring strength of the human spirit at times of crisis. If you’re an artist that’s lived through a pandemic, it’s going to come out in the music. It should come out in the music. And, consciously or not, it has with this album – and it’s that essence that elevates this Marillion music above everything that went before.

When I got the review copy through, I was initially a bit baffled why ‘Be Hard on Yourself’ was the album opener. Having enjoyed it as a grat track and seen it performed during the recent tour, this felt to me like one of those classic closing sequences to a Marillion album (thinking as I write of ‘Brave’ or ‘Holidays in Eden’). The call to arms and sense of urgency – “do it now / we haven’t got long” – felt like a natural crescendo to an album.  Instead, as the album opener, ‘Be Hard on Yourself’ sets out the album with pace and purpose. The lyrical richness immediately arrests attention – “the monkey wants a new toy” /”cause of death, lust for luxury”- and the music conveys the sense of urgency in tackling the climate crisis. There’s no slow build or prog reflection to open this album, the music is out of the traps with drama, energy and direction – and this is actually Marillion at their best.

From the album opener, I’ll now jump straight to the closer and – despite my comments above – yes, when you’ve listened to the album all the way through, ‘Care’ can be the only closer for this fine collection of songs. The final section of this song brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard it and it still hits me hard. I may have adopted a meaning to the song that is removed from its intention but, for me, the closing segment feels like a tribute to our NHS heroes, or for all the carers that have helped us get through dark days. I lost my father and some dear friends during Covid and this song, to me, was like the emotional release when you stop and look back on a dark time of confinement.

And the words are just so strong: “The angels in this world are not in the walls of churches” / “The heroes in the world are not in the hall of fame”/ “The heroes work while we’re asleep / “the angels carry us home” – for me this song pays tribute to the enormous acts of human bravery, courage and love – care – from people looking after others during the darkest of days: the real and meaningful triumph of the human spirit. I wonder if a song like this could even have been written without the experiences of recent years; the reflection on life and what really matters. Covid for all its horrors may have actually spurred heightened creativity among artists and this is why some of the Marillion music on this album is, quite simply, on another level.

Circling back to track two now – ‘Reprogram the Gene’ wraps together the twin themes of the album. The opening verses touch on genetics (and with it the vaccine), a sense of the quest for perfection and human control of identity – invincibility – offset by the planet that’s slowly dying. The first sumptuous guitar solo contrasts with the edge of the verses wonderfully, a surprise twist that lifts the song to a new level. In the final section we have Marillion doing uplifting well, reminding me a little bit of the finale to ‘A Few Words For The Dead.’ As a band well-known for writing about dark, depressing topics, this song reminded me that the band can do uplifting so well – Hogarth singing “I’m gonna be a friend of the earth” bringing a sense of hope. And you know what, ‘Happy Marillion’ is great – and we need to see it a bit more often!

Overall, ‘Reprogram the Gene’ is a wonderfully inventive song. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Up next, ‘Murder Machines’ is possibly the best ‘single’ from the band in years – a great song and accompanying video. A bit like the singles from ‘Marbles,’ this is an accessible song, one that could appeal to a broad range of new audiences. The recurring lyric “I put my arms around her,” a line which returns at the end of the album, struck me as powerful. After two years of not being able to see – or even stand less than a metre from – loved ones, there seems to be something on the power of the most timeless and universal statements of human love – the embrace – yet something that was forbidden during lockdown and brought with it a risk of danger.

Like our 2020 Single of the Year, CovAid2020’s ‘Desolate Days,’ here with ‘Murder Machines’ is another song that takes you back to what it felt like to live through the pandemic era.

‘The Crow And The Nightingale’ reminded me of fan favourite ‘Neverland.’ A supremely constructed and well-arranged track. A cinematic, widescreen opus – the kind of oeuvre that, over the years, Marillion have become masters of.  The crow and the nightingale are, respectively, symbols of death and beauty. As with many songs on this album, there’s light and dark, danger and hope. The musical artistry of this song is enough to celebrate at face value though, a fully immersive music experience. It’s so well put together – and I’ll get this next sentence out the way and run for cover before the Marillion fan club chase me down the road hurling rocks (in a Life of Brian kinda way): For me, ‘The Crow And The Nightingale’ is better than ‘Neverland.’ There, said it…

Marillion seem to like songs named after places: ‘Gaza’ and ‘Berlin’ spring to mind but ‘Sierra Leone’ reminded me a little more of ‘Montreal’ from the ‘Sounds That Can’t Me Made’ album. Absorbing storytelling painting vivid pictures in the mind with luscious musical textures. References to diamonds for a country famous for mining and the recurring statement “I won’t sell this diamond” which again returns for the close of the album – “I found freedom in a diamond I won’t trade.” Is there a reference here back to the climate issue? Making the choice not to plunder the planet’s resources for profit (“cause of death lust for luxury”)?  My only quibble with this song is I wasn’t sure, musically, how well it fitted with the album at large. There’s probably something profound I missed here that flew over my head but thinking about album flow, my sense was this song somewhat broke the mood and momentum of what went before and what follows. That said, it’s a vivid, cinematic song and it will undoubtedly become a favourite with the fans.

So there you have it. The best Marillion album to date. A big claim, perhaps, but I’ve followed this band for 38 years. I was there as a school kid, with my poor attempt at copying the ‘Assassing’ single cover on my school history folder in ’84: I was at gigs through the 90s when the band couldn’t shake the prog label post-EMI – and into the Millennium when the band that invented crowdfunding blossomed into a new era. Through these years, there have been Marillion albums I have loved, others that underwhelmed – and some albums where I liked some of the songs. One truth with a lot of Marillion albums is you have to give them time, sometimes a lot of time to really bed in.

Not with this one.

‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ had me fully hooked on first listen. What’s more, my teenage daughter loves the opening track; a young environmentalist who’s adopted the song as her own and – wait for it – even called the band ‘cool.’ When a teenager can call Marillion cool because the music resonates with the issues they care about in their world – and when a prog band can pen a socially relevant album that makes the cool rock bands sound a bit tired and cliched – that’s the moment when Marillion have released a truly great album. The fluency, the directness and intuitiveness of ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ makes this Marillion’s benchmark album. It’s not a prog album, it’s an album about and for everyone, it’s an album for our world today. There is the threat of devastation and darkness but there is hope and there is also beauty. The clock is ticking but there can still be a happy ending. The angels will carry us home.

Album pre-order

‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ is released on 4th March 2022

Pre-order’An Hour Before It’s Dark’here:  https://Marillion.lnk.to/AnHourBeforeItsDark

As Album of the Month, tracks from ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ will be on rotation during my Friday show for the month of March.

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