Marillion band members have a well-documented history of extensive solo and side projects, all except Mark Kelly… until now. He has been thinking of releasing his own solo project for quite some time and with some unexpected downtime in 2020 he was finally able to bring his ideas to fruition with the Mark Kelly’s Marathon album. He has assembled a talented new band, now called Marathon, to realise his long-held aspiration to branch out from Marillion, and if the evidence of this high quality album is anything to go by, this project may well take on a life of its own.
It could be said that the album has had a very long gestation period as Kelly has previously said he has been thinking about doing a solo album for over 25 years. Indeed, in a recent interview with TPA he amusingly revealed that he gave Steven Wilson a tape of some early ideas back in the early ’90s to see if he might be interested in working on it… but he never heard back from the former Porcupine Tree man! Kelly was keen to emphasise that this new album has NO connection to those very early ideas, but suggesting co-working with someone else even back then does reveal that he was looking for a collaborator from an early stage. He explained:
‘So this was just me trying to write an album on my own. I think it’s a real challenge to do an instrumental album. I really admire people who can pull that off, people like Mike Oldfield on Tubular Bells… It’s really hard to do a wholly instrumental album and keep people’s attention with good music… so it got put on the back burner, especially with all my Marillion stuff… However, I have to blame this friend of mine, Guy Vickers, who suggested a few years ago I should write a solo album and he could write some lyrics.’
Therefore, what that tells us straight away is that this is not some sort of keyboard dominated instrumental album along the lines of Rick Wakeman. Mark Kelly has worked with lyricist Guy Vickers to create a range of quality rock songs with a fascinating range of lyrical themes. The first piece they worked on was the impressive opening song Amelia, based on ill-fated pioneering American aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared flying across the Pacific in 1937 whilst attempting to fly around the world. The mystery of her disappearance has fascinated people for decades, so it is definitely an unusual and intriguing subject for a song… but is it any good? It is an excellent extended piece which combines engaging melodies and fluid arrangements, smoothly linking the sections of the song. The melodic progressive rock passages fit perfectly with Vickers’ memorable lyrics to clearly convey the narrative and engage the listener, including touching details about possible remains and items found on an island that some believe are associated with the flyer and her navigator. Apart from all that, some of the song just burrows its way into your brain with some earworm hooks, especially the final expansive anthemic refrain over Kelly’s trademark flowing keys, and some thrilling guitar work in a fine whole band performance. As opening song, it really announces the album as something worth investigating.
So, who is in this new Marathon band which Mark Kelly has assembled for this project?
Guy Vickers brought along talented guitarist Pete ‘Woody’ Wood from his own band – well, if this guy has mainly been playing weddings, etc., then those present have been lucky as he can clearly play a mean guitar on the evidence of this album. Alongside him, and giving the band two distinctive guitar approaches, is John Cordy, who was suggested by Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery, based on what he’d seen of Cordy performing on YouTube. Apparently, it took Kelly some time to convince Cordy that he was not pulling his leg about wanting him on board, Cordy being totally unaware that Rothery knew about his work! Rothery clearly knows his stuff as Mark has stated that Cordy’s skilful and intuitive contributions were exactly what he wanted. Alongside them, Kelly recruited his multi-instrumentalist nephew Conal to play bass. Additionally, in the early stages Conal was essential in effectively arranging the songs around Kelly’s keyboard work.
Amelia is a notable demonstration of the dextrous drumming skills across a range of tempos and styles, especially in the expansive instrumental finale which is really pounded out – and who better to do that Henry Rogers, who has also played with Touchstone, Mostly Autumn and alongside Kelly’s Marillion bandmate Pete Trewavas in Edison’s Children. This outstanding drummer first met Mark Kelly back in 2011 when Kelly played keyboards with DeeExpus on their excellent King of Number 33 album, which was enough to convince Kelly he would be the right man for Marathon.
Last but certainly not least is Oliver M. Smith on vocals. Apparently, the search for the right vocalist was rather a tortuous exercise for Kelly who trawled around for over a year looking for a singer, including as shared in the TPA interview, a rather comical ‘discovery’ by Kelly of someone who turned out to already be a rather well known vocalist! However, that red herring did lead to a friend suggesting Ollie Smith for vocalist. Kelly sent him the music and lyrics for Amelia and asked if he was interested in doing something with it. Smith sent back a beautifully produced and perfectly judged vocal performance, including the gorgeous harmony vocals in the closing refrain, and Kelly confessed to being blown away at the quality. Listening to the whole album one can see why Kelly was so impressed. Smith seems to have a very versatile voice, which Kelly characterised as very ‘English’, seemingly comfortable with a range of vocal styles to suit the song. It is rare to hear such an assured and high-quality vocal performance on a band’s debut album, although Smith has previous experience singing rock/pop songs around the world. On Amelia, Smith sounds uncannily like Peter Gabriel, but differently there are smoky echoes of Seal on When I Fell and on the more pop oriented This Time his voice has a touch of Squeeze about it.
Mark Kelly’s Marathon shows variety as When I Fell moves well away from the more expansive multi-part pieces like Amelia and 2051 which bookend the album, and describes love and grief with an emotional bluesy style. When I Fell features a lush Hammond organ wig-out from Kelly… and if you listen hard enough in the closing ‘dub’ section you can just about hear a harmonica, which is lyricist Guy Vickers ‘cameo’ musical contribution to the album!
Some have suggested pop/rock piece This Time is reminiscent of Mike and the Mechanics (or ‘Mark and the Mechanics’?), which Kelly jokingly said felt a bit of an insult! That comparison is difficult to hear but it is definitely a song with its musical DNA printed in the ’80s with clear echoes of Difford and Tilbrook, which is no bad thing – it may just not be what some fans may be expecting of Marillion’s keyboardist. Nevertheless, it sounds pretty lightweight amongst other more ambitious pieces. In contrast, Puppets portrays its theme of ‘determinism’ or ‘free will’ in a much more imaginative musical canvas. Kelly has revealed that this is based, as is some other material on the album, on some of the many formative free-form and unused jams Marillion play when creating an album. On the original jam, Steve Rothery played a soaring guitar solo and as that was exactly what Kelly wanted on Puppets he asked Rothery to provide his characteristic stellar guitar work. There is a great interplay between guitar and keyboards throughout the album, and understandably it is the most ‘Marillion-esque’ piece here, with crisp drumming from Rogers and Smith excelling on vocals.
2051 is an epic musical journey with an interesting dual theme, commencing with a focus on the complex relationship between sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick during the creation of the 1968 film classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The latter part of the song moves on to consider the risks to humanity of actually making ‘Contact’ with Aliens, as touched on by Kelly in our interview when he recalls Stephen Hawking’s warning that perhaps we should not be trying to send out signals to space as we might not like who comes to investigate the source of those signals. Indeed, Kelly shared that Guy Vickers originally wanted to call this piece Turn it Down!
It’s a complex concept but it is handled deftly by Kelly and his band. A synth laden spacey intro is underlain by speech, apparently carried by the Voyager probes, saying ‘We think you’d like our planet…’. A portentous wall of keyboards comes in to convey the expansiveness of the subject matter. The piece then drops to a more restrained level describing the tense relationship between Clarke and Kubrick ‘…with Stanley as your guide…’ alongside references to curious Victorian suggestions to send signals, including setting fire to giant trenches filled with kerosene in the Sahara to indicate a message to observers on neighbouring planets – yes, really! Strangely, as esoteric as the themes may appear, the lyrics fit well and Smith carries them with conviction and passion. The pace and power increase significantly with cinematic wall of sound with a thrilling driving rock guitars interweaving with waves of keyboards. A more contemplative interlude flows in as Smith intones ‘nothing is actually what it seems, space is turning inwards, splintering our dreams’ over flowing piano from Kelly with finely judged drums and bass. This leads into an assertive and triumphant finale with guitars soaring above Kelly’s keyboard canvas… and fittingly for a space-based piece it drifts off into the void. 2051 is another ambitious multi-part production with outstanding ensemble playing by the whole band and is an impressive and satisfying album closer.
Mark Kelly’s Marathon is not a concept album but there are some common threads about communication and its breakdowns, such as the errors in communication and planning which almost certainly led to Amelia Earhart’s sad demise. These themes are considered in different ways in 2051, and both Amelia and 2051 touch on the draw and risks of exploration. In the TPA interview Mark Kelly gave his view on the album:
That seems a fairly accurate description, but just to clarify, before some fans get their proverbial Prog knickers in a 7/8 twist, this is NOT an album which obviously echoes the grandiose ‘Prog’ style of the first Fish-led Marillion albums. This release is filled with extended passages with impressive instrumental sections, which do hark back in some ways to more of a ‘Prog’ heritage, but it is conveyed in a more contemporary style. Mark Kelly’s Marathon is an impressive debut album in which Kelly and his fine new band have carved out their own identity with high quality melodic rock songs… and the good news is that Kelly shared that work has already commenced on a follow-up, which will hopefully not take quite as long to reach fruition – after all, as he has stated in the interview, ‘I’ve got some catching up to do’.
[You can read Leo’s interview with Mark Kelly in full HERE.]
01. Amelia (11:16)
02. When I Fell (6:10)
03. This Time (3:48)
04. Puppets (7:12)
05. 2051 (15:26)
Total Time – 43:52
Mark Kelly – Keyboards
Henry Rogers – Drums & Percussion
Oliver M. Smith – Vocals
Pete ‘Woody’ Wood – Guitars
John Cordy – Guitars
Conal Kelly – Bass Guitar
Steve Rothery – Guitar (track 4)
Guy Vickers – Harmonica (track 2)
Record Label: earMUSIC
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 27th November 2020