How does anyone go through the past two years of pandemic, lockdown, death, disease, uncertainty, and isolation—all of it—and come out on the other end not only intact, but with new work that touches on all of that, and that somehow ends up sounding upbeat and, above all, hopeful? This is the unlikely trick that Marillion have pulled off with their latest album An Hour Before It’s Dark.
Marllion have sounded revitalized over the past ten years, using much of their renaissance to focus on the big picture. 2016’s F.E.A.R. was a sociopolitical “state of the nation,” tapping into the undercurrents of xenophobia and inequality in the UK that led to Brexit. While An Hour Before It’s Dark isn’t a treatise on that scale, it does have recurring themes: the pandemic, sure, but especially the environment and a sense of living on borrowed time.
Album opener “Be Hard on Yourself” wastes no time diving in headfirst. Mark Kelly’s ambient keyboards (his style always sounds both classic and contemporary) give way to vocals from guest choral group Choir Noir, and leads into a charging piano and a mini epic of a track that implores all of us to do what we have to do to stem the tide of climate change. It’s a song that could have been hectoring, but instead, feels like an honest plea to challenge ourselves.
“Reprogram the Gene” conjures a future where maybe we’re brains in boxes, finally having remade the scorched planet in our barren images. Yet it also taps into the album’s hopefulness, suggesting that there’s still time to change course if humanity can hack its short-sighted nature and get our priorities straight.
I seen the future! It ain’t orange, it’s green
I been listening to Greta T
Begins with a letter C
The cure’s coming at us
The cure is the disease
It’s also the hardest Marillion have rocked out in some years. With more judicious editing, this very good song could have been even better.
“Murder Machines” does a better job of trimming away the fat—it’s a taut, electro-industrial-tinged rocker that makes the not so thinly veiled comparison between viruses that infect humans and humans as a virus infecting the Earth. Steve Rothery’s squelchy, overdriven guitar tones and solos are electrifying, and fit the song. It’s also the most overt singer Steve Hogarth gets in terms of writing about the pandemic, and living in a world where the innate need for human connection can lead to unspeakable loss.
I put my arms around him
And I killed him with love
“Sierra Leone” is a story about a diamond, but even more so, about redemption and freedom. It’s a solid track, atmospheric and full of fine playing—especially Pete Trewavas’ nimble bass and Rothery’s poetic guitar—but lacking in the coherence that characterizes the rest of the album.
“The Crow and the Nightingale” begins as quiet meditation, a tribute to and remembrance of Leonard Cohen, but eventually winds its way into a joyful celebration of art as a force capable of putting wings on our hearts, one that acts as a filter that makes pain and loss not only bearable, but somewhat comprehensible. One of Steve Rothery’s trademark lyrical guitar solos launches Steve Hogarth’s vocals as he cries out “wrapping the sun in silk!” You can hear the exclamation point. The song is also bolstered by string quartet In Praise of Folly, along with another appearance from Choir Noir; each group’s presence adds another wrinkle and dimension to the band’s ever-evolving sound.
The album closes with “Care,” an epic that’s both loping and funky, and full of the soaring, to-the-rafters moments that Marillion does better than almost anyone. Lyrically, it melds the album’s common thread of not knowing how much time our planet and species has left, with thoughts on compassion, chronic disease, and our own mortality. Which sounds unbearably dour, but yet again, it’s not. It’s life affirming. It’s also a stirring tribute to health care, and other essential workers, who have kept society running during the pandemic. When Hogarth sings “the angels in this world are not in the walls of churches,” it’s easy to think of at least a few people in each of our lives who put themselves at risk for the greater good the last couple of years. It’s a song that could have been oppressively serious or syrupy sentimental, but instead it’s a powerful ode to giving a shit.
An Hour Before It’s Dark is Marillion’s 20th studio album. It’s the work of a veteran group who, freed from expectations, have continued to follow their muse and make some of the most focused and confident music of their career. The band have recently spoken about probably not having many albums left in them. But that urgency has given them clarity, not to mention the drive to make the very best music they can while they still can. This determination seeps into the entire album, and enlivens the music, like the splashes of paint that make up the ticking clock on the album cover. With each note, it’s as if Marillion are saying: We’ve got time. But not a lot. Make it count.
Paint a picture, sing a song, plant some flowers in the park
Get out and make it better
You’ve got an hour before it’s dark.
| Mike Rengel