Marillion’s world is a place littered with contradictions. As far as a huge chunk of the mainstream media are concerned, the band split back in the late 80s, and yet they sold out the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2017. In minutes. They spent the second half of the 90s and the early 00’s fighting against the “prog rock” tag, but continued to release albums that featured ten minute epics. As far the general public’s perception is concerned – at least a proportion of the general public that seems aware of Marillion’s existence in the modern day – the band are unfashionable. And yet, their 2022 album ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ was a critical and commercial success, hitting #2 on the UK album chart.
Marillion wave goodbye to 2023 with a typically contradictory move. For a band who’ve previously tried to shun “prog”, they pull out one of the most prog tricks ever: for their xmas single, they’ve covered ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’, a tune associated with a member of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (surely the biggest prog rock behemoth of all), and kept it traditional, complete with bursts of Prokofiev. Not only that, but, for a band who’ve always championed physical formats (they basically invented the idea of crowd funding deluxe editions back in 2001), it doesn’t appear to be available anywhere outside of streaming services.
What’s more, it’s great. The opening is distinctly Marillion with its atmospheric keyboard sound coupled with Steve Hogarth’s deep and emotive vocal, but beyond that, these festive four minutes stick very closely to the Greg Lake arrangement, which will surely please fans everywhere. At the end of the first verse, Steve Rothery arrives with a very delicate take on the Prokofiev melody via finger-picked guitar riff which, augmented by a few bright, very festive bells and a prominant glockenspeil somehow sounds more festive than ever. Into the second verse, and Hogarth’s voice appears to lighten up, and with a more melodic backdrop, offers a vocal that’s comparable with some of the most melodic moments on ‘A Hour Before It’s Dark’, and into the big finish, and Ian Mosley’s drums take on a huge militaristic sound whilst Rothery drops in with a gorgeous soaring lead that’s possibly better than the original. Mark Kelly appears to be bringing in various sonic textures throughout, and listen carefully and you’ll even discover a couple of absolutely terrific bass fills from Pete Trewavas. For something that’s not ever likely to become a massive centrepiece on an album, this recording has an impressive amount of layers, very much in keeping with the Marillion of the previous five years or so.
Marillion are no strangers to a festive track; they’ve released covers of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, Jona Lewie’s ‘Stop The Cavalry’ and other xmas fare on fan club freebies in the past, but this appears to be the first time the band have issued a Christmas tune more broadly, and without a home on a parent release. It also happens to be one of their best. In the prog world, Greg Lake’s ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’ is as ingrained with December as turkey, fake pine trees in your living room, and the imagined Hallmark card imagery of snow covered towns. Now, Marillion can be a bigger part of Christmas too.
Check out the recording below.