On their 20th album Steve Hogarth and co look to the future with an infectious optimism, in spite of the underlying elegiac tone
A central reason behind the enduring craft of Marillion is their knack of capturing the mood of society. A casual glance at the title of the band’s 20th studio album suggests they have done it again. An Hour Before It’s Dark is an especially prescient statement for these times of uncertainty, yet here is an album with positivity coursing through its veins.
The band is ready to focus on the positive aspects of emerging from a pandemic. Live music will undoubtedly be at the top of their list, for this is an outfit whose bond with their fans is stronger than almost any other.
Their new music will go down a treat, but newcomers will warm to it too – for once again Marillion find the sweet spot between accessibility and music to probes the depths. At times their sound is that of comfortable, mid-morning radio rock, but only fleetingly – for by taking subtle liberties with rhythm, harmony and form they take their listeners on meaningful journeys. Vocalist Steve Hogarth gives another virtuoso performance, taking the album by the scruff of its neck early on and setting it down nearly an hour later. By then he has had a lot to say.
Marillion are of course completely at home when writing multi-dimensional songs of 10 minutes or more, an art they’ve practised since the likes of Muse were in short trousers. It continues to be their natural means of expression, and the compositions here have a satisfying ebb and flow. Key to their success is the intelligent probing of drummer Ian Mosley, spacious keyboard backdrops overseen and coloured by Mark Kelly, the versatile and tasteful bass playing of Pete Trewavas and, crucially, the penetrating guitar lines from Steve Rothery. The folk-inflected solos he applies to Reprogram The Gene are well worth the price of admission.
All these elements complement Hogarth’s muse. Murder Machines finds him on best form, a tragic tale borne of the pandemic. Initially unwilling to commit the subject to music, he sings powerfully of an illness that can be transmitted through love and affection. “I put my arms around her, and I killed her with love,” runs the all too tragic tale.
The band establishes the album’s autumnal atmosphere before Hogarth appears, with shafts of dappled sunlight streaming through the window at the start of Be Hard On Yourself. This call to arms is a dramatic start, Hogarth demanding his audience “run towards the things that scare ya”. The pandemic may be on his mind, but in the face of war the resonance of those words runs far and wide.
Reprogram The Gene deals with environmental issues, Hogarth in thoughtful mood during the song’s interlude. “I’ve seen the future! It ain’t orange, it’s green”, he sings. “I’ve been listening to Greta T.” In the wrong hands these lyrics could be clunky and contrived, but the conviction of the voice just carries them through. The same applies to the dreamy Sierra Leone, continuing rock’s penchant for singing about seemingly exotic, far flung countries. Hogarth sings of a diamond “more than treasure… this was sent to me from God”. The serious tone is enhanced by another of Rothery’s considered solos. The guitarist graces the stately Care, an impressive mini-suite closing the album, with shimmering keyboards from Kelly.
An Hour Before It’s Dark is an autumnal work, reflecting the appointed hour of the day, but it is one of Marillion’s most positive statements. Steve Hogarth and his men look to the future with an infectious optimism, in spite of the underlying elegiac tone. The listener is carried upwards, revelling in the sound of a band in fine form.