An Hour Before It's Dark has finally arrived. Several years in the making, the new Marillion record looks to take aim at everything from environmentalism and the pandemic to excessive consumerism and poverty. So, quite the light subject matters, then.
2016's FEAR (or Fuck Everyone & Run) proved the band had their fingers on the pulse for the impending political turmoil and general darkness we'd be entering at the time and provided a brooding, atmospheric soundtrack for the time. Now, a few years later, they've done it again - An Hour Before It's Dark is a record that encapsulates the dual worlds of dark political turmoil and the impending climate crisis and simultaneously, the sense of hope and power as we (hopefully) emerge from the last few pandemic-riddled years with great gusto and attacks it from every angle with a combination of both galvanised protest and ethereal soundscapes.
Compared to the light acoustic guitar that opened up FEAR on the first part of El Dorado, An Hour Before It's Dark proves the band aren't pulling any punches with the gritty Be Hard On Yourself that looks to prove the point that we're entering a crucial point for humanity where we need to cut back in order to preserve what we've got.
This is, of course, a cleverly worded reference to the climate crisis and the notion of people having unlimited wants and limited needs, the former of which has essentially led to people disregarding the environment for their own personal gain. As Marillion's opening songs go, it's one of their best, featuring some marvellous instrumentation from Rothers, Pete T. and Mark Kelly, and some pounding drums from Ian Mosley that definitely complement H's seething vocal nicely.
The ensuing Reprogram The Gene, at least in its second half, offers the brighter recorded we were promised with an increasing amount of optimism that nicely juxtaposes the kick-in-the-teeth opening. There's a certain vibrancy to it all that just makes this not only one of the album's standout songs but one of the best from their entire discography. If you wanted a track that so fantastically encapsulates the album's themes, then Reprogram The Gene does exactly that. It captures the spirit of modern society with its discussions of the quest for perfection and the point of people wishing to be invincible and the realisation this isn't possible, which is then contrasted by hopeful optimism ("Is there a cure for us,?" Steve Hogarth so wonderfully sings in the song's final passage) to create something magical.
The references to the pandemic allow for some of Steve Hogarth's best lyrics for a good while - "Locked down, Knocked Down, Country In Tiers" is there to take clever shots at the current government and their poor handling of the pandemic, for instance. Although, to say the entire record is a simple rant would be overstretching. It's a much more impactful body of songs that allow for the contemplation of where society has been for the last few years and what we need to do to prevent the clock from striking twelve, much like Fish did on 2020's Weltschmerz.
Murder Machines sees further aim taken at the pandemic, with it all wrapped up in the metaphor of people's embraces being deadly, and the associated emotional pain of losing someone within the last two years. Death, in this pandemic era, is something that has become almost part of people's daily lives thanks to the daily counters of cases and deaths being broadcast on news stations worldwide.
It is this proximity to death however that has arguably given way to insensitivity, and Murder Machines hones in once again on the harsh reality of losing someone, whilst people simply see numbers on the television. This obviously stands in stark contrast to the point that we need to "let the bodies pile high" in the alleged words of this country's apparently esteemed Prime Minister. It's one of An Hour Before It's Dark's more thought-provoking yet energetic offerings, and by this point, it would be easy to assume the entire record would be brimmed full of attitude-driven anthems, but not so much.
The Crow And The Nightingale is arguably An Hour Before It's Dark's crowning glory with the track acting as Steve Hogarth's ode to the late, great Leonard Cohen. It's a gorgeous six and a half minutes of music with everything from soaring guitar solos to well-placed strings and delicate vocals. There's a certain immersive quality here that arguably hasn't been seen since Clutching At Straws, which remains my favourite album from the Marillio's to date, as the song features that quintessential Marillion sound of musical peaks and troughs that go through a proper cycle of emotions. These are then ultimately resolved with an ethereal ending of Hogarth's light vocal backed by the power of the Choir Noir who are used to great effect over the album's course.
Yet, that classic sound is also utilised to great effect on Sierra Leone, the penultimate track that charts the story of child labourers within the African nation as they're forced to scratch the earth for diamonds, and the tale of someone who finds a diamond, seemingly at an opportune moment, and their contemplations of what to do with it. It's a song that takes me back to the times of Seasons End and the likes of Berlin or The King Of Sunset Town that also seek to tell cleverly worded stories about the state of the world. Sierra Leone is a song in five parts, each of them wonderfully diverse and clever in their own right, but when taken as a collective, creates one of the band's best longer songs, and arguably also, one of their meaningful about a key location since 2012's Gaza.
Well, what about the album's final offering, the fifteen-minute long Care. Well, given its groovy opening on Maintenance Drugs, the song's opening part, you wouldn't expect it to go in the direction it does. Following this, it moves into the more sinister An Hour Before It's Dark section in a movement reminiscent of Misplaced Childhood, complete with light cymbal touches from Ian Mosley and a haunting riff from Steve Rothery. Then, we're soon into Every Cell that's characterised by a soaring soundscape only seasoned veterans of the prog space could create that's underscored by Hogarth's lyrics of someone contemplating death, and looking back on the life they've had.
Where Care is at its most impactful comes in its last movement, Angels On Earth, which reveals the song's true sentiments of being a thank you for health professionals around the world. It's here where Marillion are at their best with pure love emanating from Hogarth's every word. "The angels in this world are not in the walls of churches", he sings, with an emotional refrain that you can't help but shed a tear to as the song reaches its climax. At times like this, the band's music can only be summed up as being beautiful and simply breathtaking. If the beginning of An Hour Before It's Dark was characterised by warnings, its ending is one of hope and signalled by the point that maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel after all, even if we aren't sure of how long it is till we get there.
In short, An Hour Before It's Dark is a truly stunning collection of songs and marks out a true return to form the band hasn't experienced since the likes of Anoraknophobia and Marbles. At times, it's angry and powerful, but at others, it's heavy and emotional and insightful, which sees Marillion at their very best.
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