MARILLION – An Hour Before It’s Dark

Following the release of their eighteenth studio album ‘FEAR’, Marillion found themselves somewhere near the top of their game. The recording had gained them a vast amount of praise, and the subsequent tour saw the band sell out London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall. Not a bad result for a band that some quarters of the press had previously written off. Although a rather dense listen, ‘FEAR’ covered a lot of musical ground, and had plenty of moments that suggested the band were in a more creative space than they’d been for some time. Between some dark arrangements, politically charged lyrics and a desire to make their listeners think, it felt like Marillion’s most complete sounding work for some time. Not necessarily their “best”, but arguably their most coherent.

There would be a lot riding on the follow up. Maybe a little too much. However, 2022’s ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ manages to capture all of the best moments of that previous album, mix them with various more accessible traits, and somehow serve up the most broadly appealing Marillion album since 2004’s ‘Marbles’ double set. This results in a work that’s quite varied, and often demands much closer attention to uncover its most interesting flourishes.

On the lead single and opening track ‘Be Hard On Yourself’, the musical spark that was reignited on 2011’s ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’ comes through in waves via a dark bass sound and solid rhythm occasionally showing faint traces of ‘Gaza’, but also taps into the more grandiose elements of ‘FEAR’ creating a well balanced, prog-ish tune that sounds very contemporary at the time of release. From halfway through the first verse, the arrangement grabs a hold with a solid rhythm that’s augmented by drummer Ian Mosely injecting an almost jazzy swing. A few bars of this more than suggests that ‘AHBID’ might not be quite as “wandery” as some of Marillion’s later works, and rising into the chorus, there’s certainly more of a concession for a hook. Everything adopts a very bombastic feel, though never in a bad way, since the melody grows to allow a broader guitar sound from Steve Rothery, and Steve Hogarth’s vocal ascends from an atmospheric mumble into a full rock croon in a manner that hints at classic Marillion. There’s little here that hardcore fans won’t have heard before, but between the soaring melody of the music and presence of a huge vocal hook, there’s certainly enough to make it an instant favourite. At the point where everything starts to feel, perhaps, as if this is going to become ‘FEAR, part II’, the second part of the track, teases with something much quirkier, when a great contrast between the rhythmic and ambient takes centre stage with Mosley dropping some great tom work against a floating piano line from Mark Kelly. Although still having a few things in common with ‘FEAR’, older fans might hear traces of ‘Brave’ in a couple of the descending melodies, and once everything’s settled in, dark and heavy-ish guitar sounds provide a great counterpoint to a semi-detatched vocal in a way that colours everything with a tougher edge. Climbing from the gloom, the music then grabs a hold with pounding drums, but it’s merely a red herring before the final section delivers some of the most enjoyable music of all. Those looking for “classic Marillion” ultimately get their wish as this segues into the third and final movement, where a quieter, creeping interlude calls back to the core of 1994’s masterpiece ‘Brave’, with Pete Trewavas throwing out a deep, warm bass, before a rock riff brings all of the moods together via a rocky coda and another immediate hook that sounds as if it’s designed with live performance in mind.

Released as a second single, ‘Murder Machines’ taps into some very 90s pop/rock sounds that have often sat at the heart of later Marillion. From first listen, there are traces of tunes like ‘Fruit of The Wild Rose’ and other ‘Anorak’ era gems, but lurking beneath the beefy sound, there are new touches at play. Retro keys bleep in bursts of noise that hark back to early Gary Numan/Tubeway Army; the drum rhythms convey a vague dance influence without actually going there, and the general vibe feels very busy. There’s a feeling that Steve Rothery’s guitar is too low in the mix, but that’s soon rectified with a couple of lead breaks. The first, drenched in various effects harks back to the best moments of ‘dotcom’ and ‘Anoraknophobia’, but the second – almost played as if he intends to absolutely dominate the track – has so much of his early 90s sound, it’s almost difficult to take in at first. Rothery knows it’s great, too; when the vocal returns to deliver a huge, crescendo of sound, hammering home a strong hook one last time, the guitarist holds firm, combating Hogarth’s voice with huge soaring notes that are hugely confident. It’s easy to imagine that long time fans will find plenty to love here.  The album version is prefaced by ‘Only A Kiss’ where mellow keys convey a musical box-ish vibe, allowing time for reflection, before moving into the meat of the riff heavy number.

In lots of ways, it’s obvious why the band chose these tracks to fly the flag for the album itself. ‘Be Hard’ is classic sounding Marillion – grand rock music with almost theatrical edges – and ‘Murder Machines’ shows off a very different side to the band, via its dark pop/rock quirks, but it’s fair to say that ‘AHBID’ offers much bigger treats. One of its essential listens comes at the end of ‘Reprogram The Gene’ where the band revisit huge, semi-commercial rock sounds, very much in line with the best bits of the ‘Anoraknophobia’ LP. The road to this point is rather long but, that said, the number is full of really great moments. A solid melodic rock opening mixes parts of ‘Marbles’ and ‘Sounds’ in a way that makes everything sound familiar, but still new. Hogarth’s louder voice holds firm against some mid tempo grooves, but Rothery quickly steals the show when linking the vocal sections with very punchy but distinctive lead work. There’s not much in the way of a chorus, but there doesn’t need to be; across the first three minutes, Marillion latch onto a great sound that’s instantly recognisable. It’s the second half of the number where everything really shifts up a gear, enjoyment wise, though, and bizarrely, it does so by dialling everything down. The rock is swiftly replaced by a pleasant prog tinged pop – very much carved from the best bits of ‘Holidays In Eden’, ‘Afraid of Sunlight’ and ‘Anorak’ – and Hogarth, from somewhere unexpected, manages to reawaken his older, cleaner, clearer vocal style. It takes a few listens before the light melodies really get under the skin, but for those who loved the Marillion work from somewhere around the turn of the millennium, this pop-edged deviation could eventually stand out as one of ‘AHBID’s greatest melodic turns.

‘The Crow & The Nightingale’ opens with a full choir and theatrical piano, offset by a few programmed rhythms. This doesn’t give much away, but merely hints at something that’s possibly mismatched. However, when Hogarth starts to sing, it all makes sense. His understated presence is the musical glue until the rhythm section blossoms into live with a very typical Marillion slow groove. There are hints of ‘Happiness Is The Road’ in the melody’s gentle heart – but thankfully a greater musical interest – and occasional flashes of a ‘Neverland’-esque grandness within the lead guitar work, but never in a way that feels like a deliberate retread. In terms of its relationship with the rest of ‘AHBID’, it’s very much a slow burner, but a superb guitar solo at the close (again, revisiting Rothery’s classic tone circa 1991) is more than enough to suggest it’ll eventually sound much better than those first listens suggest.

Adding more of a poppier edge to a brilliantly mixed bag of material, ‘Sierra Leone’ revisits the piano based sound of bits of ‘Marbles’ and blends that with more accessible pop/rock. Adopting a mellow tune, the bass and piano align in a way that creates an atmosphere similar to ‘The Sky Above The Rain’, whilst Hogarth mumbles his way through lyrics that are undoubtedly thoughtful and very important. Considering this isn’t a tossed off singalong, it’s odd that he wouldn’t want his message to be clearer, but even so, his tone is friendly and familiar, and by the time things crank up a gear, listeners can at least latch onto the repeated hook of “I won’t sell this diamond”, assuming they can tear their ears away from the shimmering guitar sound that seems as if it’s been waiting, ready to burst into life the whole time. By the time it does – at around the five minute mark – Rothery offers another superb lead; never overplayed, quite concise, again with roots within ‘Neverland’, but recycled with love. It sometimes feels as if this track is about moments rather than a whole experience, but looking broadly at the arrangement, the way the mid tempo works solidly beneath the slight vocal is classic “latter day Marillion” and could slot itself seamlessly into any albums from 2001 onward, and although there’s a suggestion that the band might coasting, it isn’t without charm. Far from it: at the point Hogarth hits his vocal peak and Rothery joins him with a guitar part that’s heavy on effects, it genuinely sounds like the work of a band who genuinely believes in the material, familiar or otherwise. Finally, sliding into an almost ambient section, the vocals become slightly too mumbly and affected, but the gentle music is just lovely. Pete’s bass pushes forth as if he’s jamming ‘Hotel Hobbies’, and Mark’s bell like keys even call back to a couple of passages from ‘Clutching At Straws’ and ‘Seasons End’ in a very unexpected twist. There are various elements hidden within ‘AHBID’ that seem to rose tint a musical past, but few would suspect anything from this far back to resurface in shiny new clothes.

In the time honoured prog rock tradition – one that Marillion desperately tried to shake off in the late 90s – the album closer is purely epic. ‘Care’ is a fifteen minute sprawl that, like the core of this album, takes in a lot of musical styles from the band’s past and twists them into different shapes with enjoyable results. The most striking moments rely on very mechanical rhythms, instantly reminiscent of tracks like ‘Quartz’ and ‘If My Heart Were A Ball’. In many ways, this marriage of pop, rock, prog and smart, almost Radiohead and Massive Attack influenced sound is as “distinctively Marillion” as the moody, disquieting atmospheres elsewhere. The very structured melody gives Hogarth a far more sympathetic base with which to work – it certainly makes him crank the volume. His affected, emotive, almost spooky side comes through with aplomb on this final piece, showing a real affinity with his lyric. Lines about love and loss seem especially pointed (a couple of references to memories and bereavement could be the most stirring since ‘Estonia’), and a whole section devoted to a mural depicting NHS heroes captures a point in time beautifully. When joined by an arrangement that showcases howling lead guitar against a soaring vocal, it’s especially powerful. With the louder emotions juxtaposed with quieter sections where an almost funky bass is challenged by a blanket of keys, it all comes with a kitchen sink approach, but its busy approach never feels forced. If there’s any criticism here, it would be that this track would be just as emotional, powerful – striking, even – if it were half the length, but then, post “dotcom” Marillion have never been that handy with the editor’s scissors…

Faced with the daunting task of following the critically acclaimed ‘FEAR’, this album hits the mark at almost every turn, and is actually a massive improvement due to a little more variety, and more of a song-based approach. Various musical nods to much older works come as a huge surprise – as well as adding a very welcome familiar tone, especially via Steve R’s guitar work – but in going backwards to go forwards, Marillion appear to shine more brightly. Undoubtedly, a core of their fan base would’ve loved this regardless of quality, but unlike the fan praise that’s been heaped upon some of the band’s past works (the cold and tossed off ‘Somewhere Else’, and the overlong and exceptionally dreary ‘Happiness Is The Road’), any approval for ‘An Hour Before Its Dark’ is entirely justified. Forty years and nineteen albums down a very long road, at a point where so many rock bands would have split, reformed, split again, or merely started to sound incredibly tired, Marillion have delivered one of their most inspiring recordings in a long time. In short, if you’re any kind of fan – even a casual admirer – ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ is an album you don’t want to miss.

If you’ve enjoyed this review, or anything else at Real Gone recently, please consider buying us a drink at this link. We’d appreciate it right now. Thanks!

February/March 2022

Buy the album here: Marillion AHBID