Those who stumble across the hallowed pages of Ghost Cult with any degree of regularity, or have had the misfortune to know me and feel obliged to read my writings on any recurring basis, will know that I am not a fan of writers breaking the fourth wall. However, honesty is such a core tenet of Marillion that I feel that starting this review off with full disclosure is not only the best option, but probably the only one.
Until 2019, I hadn’t consciously heard any Marillion. Nope, not even ‘Kayleigh’, though it now turns out I did know the “Dilly-dilly” one, and a couple of others seemed vaguely familiar on first dive into the full catalogue. Oh, because since 2019 that full, head-first / touch-the-bottom and pick up the brick deep dive has absolutely happened, and I’m all in on Marillion. But I felt it important to share before I erect that wall again.
I also feel it important to be open on two more points. Marillion have always meant a lot to people that are very close to me – some of my best and most valued friends – and despite their connection to people I care about, I didn’t think they would be a band for me. The passing of one of those friends, Mat ‘Rafa’ Davies, does mean it’s hard to listen to Marillion and not think of them as one of “his” bands. And I really like that. Because they are. They also belong to a couple other people that mean a lot to me. And I really like that, too, as it’s hard to listen to Marillion and not think of you, too, Skull companions.
The second is, there were two moments separated by two years – and a whole load of life (we all have a 2020 and 2021) – where Marillion happened for me. And maybe, when we consider the themes of this record, that context is important. September 2019, I agreed to go to see them both with friends (mine) and “with friends” (theirs – a string quartet and a couple other musicians). A couple of tracks in, I caught myself and realised I had been completely lost in the music. There’s something unexplainable that happens during a Marillion song, at some point – usually about six minutes in and usually just as Steve Rothery is about to peel out a beautiful solo as a song continues to build and build to its denouement – where you realise that you’ve been completely captured and enraptured and pulled in by the musical tale unfurling in front of you without realising; it’s almost insidious.
For the record, it happens at about seven minutes fifty on first track ‘Be Hard On Yourself’, and at four minutes forty on the second, ‘Reprogram The Gene’ as Steve Hogarth leads us through a melodic and uplifting middle eight. The other tracks here all have theirs, too. And it’s important for me to mention ‘Be Hard On Yourself’ as, two years later, November 2021 – over two years since the last gig I’d been to – I was back seeing Marillion with the same friends. I hadn’t listened to much of them in the interim, to be honest, even though I knew I should. But sitting there as they played the opener from this new album months before its release, I noticed – quite likely at around the seven minutes fifty mark – that I was completely wrapped up in this song; I was sat forward, breath possibly held – it definitely felt like it – so wholly and completely in moment.
And very, very few bands can do that.
Since then, the floodgates have opened and I’ve let them wash over me.
And so to An Hour Before It’s Dark (earMUSIC), the band’s nineteenth studio full-length and a stunning album where time and again the magic that is laced into the work these five musicians produce shimmers to the fore. Having maintained the same line-up since 1989, there is such a symbiotic cohesion between the parts that each complements the other effortlessly at all stages…
Maybe there are no songs here, really, instead a series of multi-layered personal chronicles told through words, sound and feelings, all within a similar musical space, but all distinct from each other, and all moving, all connecting, all with undeniable meaning.
‘The Crow And The Nightingale’ is dark, beautiful, powerful yet delicate, rising from a sombre verse, lifted by angelic voices that usher in Rothery’s exemplary and moving solo, backed by the cinematic atmospheres created by keysman Mark Kelly. ‘Sierra Leone’ builds from piano and guitar brushes and Hogarth’s emotive vocals, from a whisper to a sigh to a beautiful swirling storm pinned together with a simple vocal refrain “I won’t sell this diamond… all that man desires, I don’t need that now”, Kelly and Rothery interplay as a masterclass in dynamics, enhanced by a bright, clear production, unveils over the course of the song’s near-eleven minute run time, eleven minutes that passes in half that time, before we are expertly brought back gently to sit on the sand, quietly staring over the horizon, journey complete. ‘Murder Machines’ is embellished by a lilting guitar motif under its chorus as H laments “I killed her with love”, while Pete Trewavas gets his absolute funk-on to the opening strains of the epic masterclass ‘Care’ that closes things out, a track that lives up to the power of the lyrics that pay tribute to heroes who work unseen, unheralded, while we sleep; a journey that swirls and that sees the masterful Ian Mosley push, pull, rise and fall the beat to ensure the song develops through peaks, valleys, holding us close with it throughout. All through, Hogarth has a poets soul to his lyrics, able to cleverly reference matters like climate change and the pandemic – using the words and language we’ve all become used to hearing over the last couple of years while using it as an allegory for deeper, more personal stories. He did it on F.E.A.R.’s ‘The Leavers’ and it is interwoven throughout An Hour Before It’s Dark.
“The angels in this world are not in the walls of churches”.
I’m not fully sure I know why it felt important to tell my Marillion story, but it did, to me. I guess I feel it’s important you know this isn’t a lifelong fan telling you how great their new album is with bias and blind spots aplenty, but I do want you all to know there is an emotional connection here, both with this album, and with this band. And it is new. And An Hour Before It’s Dark is a big part of making that happen. It is unusual to form a bond with a new-old band. It is possible, but maybe it just takes a special band to be able to do it. A special band with a special album.
An Hour Before It’s Dark is both contemporary and timeless, strong and vulnerable. It feels real – this is a musical interpretation and soundtrack to the reflections of the impact of something that has affected everyone, without being explicitly about the thing that impacted everyone, but about the impact of the impact. It’s caring. And honest. And we’re back to where we started. But if you know, you wouldn’t expect anything less. And, if you don’t, then it is never, ever, too late to learn.
It’s an hour before it’s dark. Best to make the most of the light, especially as “no one knows how much time they have left”…
10 / 10