“We haven’t got long to the end of this song”, is the desperate cry from Steve ‘h’ Hogarth on Be Hard on Yourself, the opener from Marillion’s new album, an impactful song that focuses on environmental concerns, but which could also suggest that after over 40 years as a band there may not be too many albums left in Marillion. If so, it is utterly remarkable that in 2022 Marillion have created an album which will undoubtedly come to be regarded as one of the finest of their long career. It really is that good.
An Hour Before it’s Dark works on so many levels, with insightful and emotional lyrics framing resonant themes, presented in imaginative and stirring music. Their previous album, 2016’s truly epic Fuck Everyone and Run (F.E.A.R.), unexpectedly touched a zeitgeist nerve with despairing politically biting commentaries on the super-rich and the state of our leadership, amongst other things. Marillion uncannily foreshadowed the coming storms of Brexit and Trump, and somewhat surprisingly achieved significant critical acclaim and renewed commercial success, culminating in a stunning sold out performance at the Royal Albert Hall.
How the hell were they going to follow that?
Well, of course, the pandemic came next, and all bets were off… in fact most things were off. Steve Hogarth was initially determined not to reference the ‘C’ word in his lyrics. However, like everyone else on the planet in the last couple of years, Covid has been impossible to ignore and inevitably the subject permeated his thinking and seeped onto his lyrical page. Thematically and lyrically, this album is resplendent with recurring poetic words and layered meanings. Marillion also do not shy away from other weighty themes such as the environment and serious illness. Despite these seemingly sombre subjects, this is a strangely up-tempo album in which Hope shines through the Dark.
The album is bookended by two fine extended pieces, but we are not in F.E.A.R. territory here. That album took a while to sink in for some (including this reviewer) with its mammoth scale and rather nebulous feel at times (but it was worth the effort!). In contrast, the impact of An Hour Before It’s Dark feels altogether more immediate, perhaps most typified in the middle of the album with the emotionally laden and musically infectious Murder Machines. Preceded by the very short instrumental Only a Kiss (a lyric in Murder Machines), this strident and striking song launches straight into a memorable groove with Ian Mosley laying down characteristically fluid drums. Yet even in just over four minutes, Marillion manage to intelligently interweave so much into Murder Machines. Steve Hogarth has explained that the song was initially inspired by a chilling thought about the virus: “The terrifying reality that to wrap my arms around a father or mother could ultimately kill them, gave birth to this song”.
However, this is Marillion, and nothing is ever that prosaic and obvious. Hogarth develops the metaphors of ‘Arms’ and ‘Murder’ to touch on Heartbreak, including, as Hogarth says, “the pain of watching the woman you love embrace another man, or the emotional ‘murder’ of the serial adulterer. And, of course, the arms of the superpowers, and the psychopaths who sometimes have their fingers on the triggers. Beware the murder machines…”. Only Marillion could take us from a deadly kiss, on to heartbreak and then a potential apocalypse, all in about four minutes, and yet it works. It works because the music fits so well with h’s simple, dark but hypnotic words, impelled by Pete Trewavas’ bass locking with Mosley’s drums to drive on this sinister machine. Mark Kelly’s pulsating keyboards add textures and Steve Rothery’s suitably gritty guitar adds colour and heft, adding a short, distorted guitar passage which has definite echoes of the weird solo in This is the 21st Century from 2001’s Anoraknophobia. Above all this controlled mayhem, Hogarth puts in a great evocative vocal performance dripping with bitterness… and don’t be surprised if later his desperate repeated chants of “She killed me with love…” are going ’round and ’round your head in a rather twisted earworm!
After the mayhem, Marillion soothe us with The Crow and the Nightingale, an altogether more sedate song dedicated to legendary Canadian poet-singer Leonard Cohen. Steve Rothery has revealed this is his favourite song on the album. Hogarth has shared that Cohen is one of his favourite lyricists and this song was inspired by Cohen’s 2006 poetry collection Book of Longing. It includes the lyrics to Nightingale, from Cohen’s 2004 album Dear Heather, touchingly written in memory of singer Carl Anderson. Marillion’s take on Leonard Cohen commences with an almost monastic choral harmony intro and then a gently flowing piano, joined by tasteful guitar before the drop into Hogarth’s lyrics, mainly supported by piano and cello. The music is lovely, but it is h’s delicate emotive vocals which stand out on this song as he pays tribute to Cohen’s artistry:
It doesn’t really matter whether or not I understood them,
It doesn’t really matter where they take me, nor how they take me…”
The same could be applied to Hogarth’s sometimes not overly obvious words, although I doubt the modest h would place himself near the poetic skill of Cohen, as shown in the line “Adding my dull sheen to your brilliant words…”. Nevertheless, Hogarth produces his own evocative images and lines of arresting beauty as he compares himself to ‘The Crow’ in comparison to the dulcet tones of Cohen’s ‘Nightingale’.
Make it something that can be looked at without hurting… but I can try…
I could fly but I open my rough beak, squawk at the sky, the Crow and the Nightingale.”
By this time the whole band have joined in a rising tide of sound. Initially, I had thought that maybe a ‘less is more’ approach would have been preferable, with restraint more in keeping for a song inspired by Leonard Cohen. Then I realised what I had been expecting was a musically ‘Cohen-esque’ song, and probably wisely Marillion do not go down that route. The majestic musical development of the song matches h’s lyrical imagery of the Crow aspiring to the melodic flights of the Nightingale. Hogarth proclaims the power of poetry, “making something better than madness, better than darkness” leading the song to its emotional peak with the sounds of harp and choir ascending to an emotive and sublime Rothery solo before Hogarth’s yearning voice gently lands the song. This clever but emotional piece characterises the imaginative and intuitive fusing of words and music throughout the album. Steve Rothery describes it as “close to perfect”.
The joyful and enchanting sound of playing children underpins the deceptively gentle piano opening to Reprogram the Gene. The spell is suddenly broken as the whole band crash in on an avalanche of drums and thunderous bass. h howls with increasing frenzy in a series of “I wants”, including the demand “I want to waste your time, I want to be Dr. Frankenstein…” whilst the band rolls along, rocking out with triumphant guitar… and is that even a hint of cow bell!? The song abruptly transitions into a much more restrained section and, rather cleverly, words that were spat out venomously in the opening section are repeated in a much more beseeching, almost whispered and more persuasive manner – sometimes it’s not what you sing, it’s how you sing it.
The song seems to be describing a transition in attitude, almost as if h is re-programming himself during the song, moving from a demanding, acquisitive creature opening into a more reflective soul.
The Curse is coming at us, The Cure is the Disease.”
Reprogram the Gene is clearly heavily influenced by Covid’s effect on society, but this piece concludes in a blaze of optimism as Rothery’s glorious guitar riff injects a celebratory feel in a real shooting star conclusion. Marillion take the power of the darker opening section and twist it heavenwards as Rothery soars above the band’s driving backing and h loudly proclaims:
Shaking this one’s going to take years, but is there a cure for us?
I’m going to be a friend of the Earth, Let’s all be friends with the Earth…”
Rothery’s fizzing, crackling guitar alone starkly ends this short and sweet finale. Yeah, it mentions the ‘C’ word, but Marillion look hopefully to the future, and point to a way forward… with the hint that perhaps for the Earth mankind is the virus, for which an environmental cure is required, thus tying together the two greatest concerns of the last few years in one song.
Marillion’s songwriting approach of lengthy ‘jams’ from which the best bits are then pieced together is well known. There could be a sense that this way of writing could produce compositions that feel ‘patched’ together at times, and initially that was how I felt about Reprogram the Gene. However, as is often the case with Marillion, repeated listens reveal an intelligent evolution of the music and lyric over its seven-plus minutes.
Producer Mike Hunter has become almost an unofficial sixth member of the band, such is his crucial role in recording their jams and intuitively weaving musically interesting and compatible sections together, which the band can then further develop and polish into the finished pieces. Reprogram the Gene is a fine example of this artistry, tracing a path of transformation with skill and, most importantly, engaging melodic progressive rock. Similarly, Sierra Leone traces a journey over four short sections, focusing on a poor man finding a possibly life-changing diamond buried in a rubbish dump, but then refusing to sell it. Hogarth says this strange tale is about ‘dignity and respect’. Mark Kelly’s delicate piano accentuates the fragility of h’s voice as the sparkling discovery is made amidst the poverty, over a softly rolling bass and drum canvas. This segues into a brief dreamy interlude with suitably somnolent vocals and music: “Dreaming in the white sand of Sierra Leone”. Tinkling keyboards, guitar and percussion shimmer like a diamond as our protagonist defiantly asserts “I won’t sell this Diamond…”. The music rises in power and tempo as h voices the growing decisiveness of the man, becoming firmer in his resolve to retain dignity and control over his own life. You can almost visualise the resolve of a man who is not a charity case or willing to sell himself out, striding proudly down the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, as the musical procession gathers momentum and volume with “Walking free in Freetown, walking free in Freetown…”. Diamond imagery dominates the song, which recedes into a shimmering segue, with echoes of 1995’s Brave, before the band opens up brightly again with a resplendent guitar, like a “sparkle in the gloom”.
The album is shot through with Steve Rothery’s guitar like a stick of rock, but more subtly and just as vitally it is Mark Kelly’s atmospheric, subtle yet expansive keyboards that fill this album with colour, shade and sometimes just sheer magic. Sierra Leone’s final section is more strident as Hogarth proclaims “This is more than treasure, this is sent to me from God…” over Mosley’s fine drums, Rothery leading the melody with his usual smoothness. Sierra Leone is a peculiar story of belief and hope out of poverty, and it trails away into the distance with a recapitulation of the “White Sands” theme and lyrics over dreamily fading synths, piano, guitar and percussion – it’s a lovely ending. Does it feel a little ‘patched together’? Maybe for some, but repeated listens again reveal the power of those sections working together narratively and emotionally.
An Hour Before it’s Dark is bookended with the epics Be Hard on Yourself and Care, which may well be two of the best songs of their whole career – seriously. They differ significantly but are connected by very different perspectives on the album’s title, such is the subtlety of Hogarth’s words. Originally the title came from a whimsical line, imagining a mother saying familiar words from most of our childhoods: ‘You’ve got an hour, I want you back in before dark’. From those stem words, Hogarth grows an environmental call to arms for the opener, and for the final song transforms them into an elegiac reference to a person’s last moments of life.
Marillion have an excellent track record of great opening tracks, right back to Script for a Jester’s Tear through to Splintering Heart, The Invisible Man and beyond. Be Hard on Yourself can now be added to that honoured roll call as Marillion grab the listener right from the start. An expansive soundscape with flute-like synths and a short burst from a ‘choir’ presage a rolling piano. Hogarth immediately intones a passage about Earth, “Big ball of rocks and water spinning round in Space”, with a clever rhythmic extension underpinning the line “miracles on miracles on miracles”. The agenda is starkly clear right from the start – this is about the environmental climate crisis facing the planet, framed in metaphorically harsh tones over a relentlessly flowing rock back drop. Mosley and Trewavas are particularly fluid on this piece. It’s no soft paean to Mother Earth – this is an angry, in-your-face plea to all of us to take some responsibility:
Be hard on yourself, you’ll be glad you did,
Run towards the things that scare you, I dare you, there’s a tear in the big picture…”
This may sound like dour stuff, but the music is powerful and strangely uplifting. Rothery’s guitar takes up the vocal melody as the first section closes with a sudden change in tempo and harmony. Kelly’s flowing piano carries on the momentum, and Mosley and Trewavas gradually weave ever more hypnotic patterns of rhythmic complexity whilst the stark lyrical imagery is utterly unrelenting: “The Monkey wants a new toy and that’s all that it knows: Cause of Death – Lust for Luxury…”
The final section of this outstanding protest song commences with the ticking sounds of keys as if time is running out, possibly indicating the last hour before the dark of an environmental disaster. Trewavas is on particularly fine form as Hogarth whispers mournfully in falsetto. Indeed, Hogarth’s vocals and lyrics in this song are some of the best in his career, deftly switching from fragile, almost broken desperation into roaring proclamations filled with passion, with a reprise of the powerful earlier lyrics “Strap in, Get ready, Foot down, Push the button, Blow it all up and Be Hard on Yourself”.
The song reaches a crescendo and then in an ethereal coda, floating on Kelly’s atmospheric keyboards like musical dust settling, h’s more optimistic words give us some hope:
I have gone on and on about this song, but it is a truly outstanding piece lyrically and musically, saying something very important, and how often can you say that these days?
The emotionally charged and inspiring finale Care is based on a real-life event in which a friend of Hogarth was diagnosed with tumours in his spine and sent h a series of ‘selfies’ recording his experience receiving harrowing doses of chemotherapy. This brought them closer as friends, but inevitably it got h thinking about our mortality: “No-one knows how much time they’ve got left…”
The opening section is from the perspective of the patient receiving ‘Maintenance Drugs’ as the bubbling, rumbling bass, coolly restrained drums and eerie synths establish a strangely slinky electro-funk, reminiscent of Anoraknophobia (one of Marillion’s most under-rated albums in my view). Hogarth shows his dexterity with another finely nuanced vocal, subtly suggesting the desperate voice of a man dealing with serious illness. Just when we think the song will groove on through a darkly funky setting, it spectacularly breaks out with a soaring guitar fanfare from Rothery before the song dives back into the electro-funk soup. The lyrics become increasingly hopeful and optimistic (“You have to care, You have to care…”) as the song alternates between the roiling rhythmic melody and the brief but glorious guitar-led ascendancies. The following short An Hour Before it’s Dark section is a passage of gently chiming guitars, soft drums, and most notably Kelly’s shimmering synth soundscapes. It is clear death could be near as h sings:
Thank you for making me truly, truly alive.”
The third section (Every Cell) drops in delicately on piano notes. Indeed, it’s a great example of the subtle but vital and often beautiful keyboard sections which fill Marillion’s musical canvas. h’s elegiac words sound more contemplative and reflective – ‘a final declaration of love’, as he has called it, realising what is truly important when facing the end. There is even a subtle and symbolic Sierra Leone reference to a found diamond, underlining how Hogarth weaves multi-layered themes and images throughout the album. This section gradually builds to a characteristically emotive and beautifully imaginative guitar solo, once again demonstrating Rothery’s recent assertions that you should “try and do something which is not obvious… there’s something beautifully random about the guitar”. The solo drops away to Kelly’s crystalline piano and Hogarth’s truly heart-breaking “And as I unpeeled you, you realised you loved me enough to leave me forever”.
I have to confess that line was particularly resonant for me, evoking heart-breaking but honoured memories of being alone with my father on his last night on Earth. Great songs can just transfix you like that sometimes, with one line taking you back to a moment in time.
Care reaches a glorious and very moving ending in the final Angels on Earth section, partly inspired by a mural of an emotional nurse painted in Manchester by Paul Barber, based on a photo taken by nurse Johana Churchill of her exhausted colleague Melanie Senior. Synth skies slowly dawn, and gently rolling bass and drums deftly underline softly jangling guitar as the tempo and volume gradually rises. h’s impassioned but controlled voice chants repeatedly: “The Angels in this world are not in the walls of Churches”. Hogarth is referring to nurses, doctors, carers and all the people who worked often thanklessly to care for and support us all during the pandemic, people that we came to respect and appreciate far more when it really mattered. Quite rightly h is celebrating those that truly deserve to be celebrated in our society:
Pure class, right there, right there.”
Talking of beauty and pure class, at the peak of the song Steve Rothery plays a heartfelt and resplendently celebratory guitar to emblazon across this piece as a ‘choir’ sings angelically. That may sound corny, but trust me, it really works. The elegiac coda to this diamond of a song poetically recapitulates the earlier rather more sinister lyrical imagery of the embrace of arms, but poignantly recast so touchingly. I won’t share it here as you really need to hear it fresh the first time. This is Steve Hogarth’s most accomplished and lyrically poetic album, with its inventive use of recurrent images with multi-layered meanings.
When I got this album, I listened to it repeatedly. Going for a walk one day and ending up in a country pub (as all good walks should!) I sat there reflectively with a pint and really listened attentively to this final song on headphones. I have no problem in telling you that by the end I was genuinely in tears, such was its emotional resonance and impact. It was no surprise to later read that Hogarth was similarly in tears when singing it. This is simply and beautifully one of the most moving pieces of music ever written by Marillion. (And the story behind part of the song had a happy ending as h’s friend did return to health… but nevertheless, “no-one knows how much time they’ve got left”.)
Cards on the table – I have been a Marillion fan literally my whole adult life, since 1982, but it has not all been plain sailing for me as a fan: I do not go into paroxysms of orgasmic delight every time they release an album! However, as you can probably tell, this album has absolutely blown me away. Not bad after 40 years of recording! (Take note some other older bands – it is still possible to produce music of high quality and creativity that actually means something!)
Thematically, Marillion bravely confront some of the most important and pressing issues facing us today, but avoid the trap of boring, pompous lecturing. This album presents ideas through the prism of individual experience and feelings to make a human connection with the listener. Marillion address serious matters with an assured and insightful touch, fusing telling words perfectly with wonderfully creative, cohesive and emotionally engaging sounds. They adeptly manage the trick of making you think whilst also stirring your heart. In short, these songs really MEAN something, and the more you listen to them the more you ‘get it’.
An Hour Before It’s Dark will undoubtedly and deservedly be acclaimed as not only one of the best albums of 2022, but one of the best albums Marillion have ever released.
01. Be Hard on Yourself
– i. The Tear in the Big Picture (3:52)
– ii. Lust for Luxury (2:07)
– iii. You Can Learn (3:29)
02. Reprogram the Gene
– i. Invincible (3:32)
– ii. Trouble Free Life (2:01)
– iii. A Cure for Us? (1:29)
03. Only A Kiss (Instrumental) (0:39)
04. Murder Machines (4:21)
05. The Crow and the Nightingale (6:35)
06. Sierra Leone
– i. Chance in A Million (1:33)
– ii. The White Sand (0:53)
– iii. The Diamond (3:30)
– iv. The Blue Warm Air (2:24)
– v. More Than A Treasure (2:35)
– i. Maintenance Drugs (4:37)
– ii. An Hour Before It’s Dark (2:28)
– iii. Every Cell (3:19)
– iv. Angels on Earth (4:56)
Total Time – 56:20
Steve Hogarth – Vocals, Additional Keyboards & Guitars
Mark Kelly – Keyboards, Programming, Backing Vocals
Ian Mosley – Drums, Percussion
Steve Rothery – Guitars
Pete Trewavas – Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
Record Label: E.A.R. Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 4th March 2022
[It is appropriate to include acknowledgments and thanks to two sources used to inform this review:
– John Beaudin’s ‘Rock History Book’ YouTube interview with Steve Rothery.
– Dave Everley’s article/interview with Marillion in Prog Magazine (Prog 127 – February 2022).
– Special thanks to TPA’s Mel Allen for kindly stepping aside to allow me to take on this review: much appreciated, Mel – I owe you mate, thanks.]