“No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious & charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.” ― Kurt Vonnegut
With ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’, Marillion release one of their most upbeat albums of their career while, at the same time, they once again do not shy away from uncomfortable topics, reflect on their own behaviour, and put their finger in the wounds of time.
The band’s 20th studio album, Like its predecessor, 2016’s critically acclaimed and chart-topping album ‘F*** Everyone And Run (F E A R)’, was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios. But, whereas it’s predecessor was more a dark and condemning comment on the government and the bureaucrats who ran the country, this new release deals with the pandemic in a much more hopeful and enriching manner leading to the band calling it their most upbeat album in quite a while.
There’s no getting away from it, a new Marillion album is always a great occasion and a cause for celebration but the release of ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ coincides with us hopefully seeing the pandemic diminishing rapidly and a sense of normality returning to everyday life and mirrors this new found feeling of optimism and promise.
I’d been one of the lucky ones who saw the band on their ‘Light At The End Of The Tunnel’ tour (in fact, I saw them on at the first gig in Hull) so my appetite had been whetted by already hearing the wonderfully dramatic Be Hard On Yourself, albeit in a live setting. Nine minutes of intense but fast paced music with Steve Hogarth’s distinctive vocals at the centre of this impressive track, it certainly opens the album in style. Reprogram The Gene delivers a powerful missive with the hard edged guitar and drums driving the song along, aided and abetted by a sharp suited bassline and keyboards. Steve Rothery has been given free reign to deliver some mighty power chords and Ian Mosley delivers an utterly mesmerising performance behind the drum kit. There’s a determined and catchy feel to this song and it resonates throughout the album as the short, sweet instrumental, Only A Kiss segues into the second single from the album, the irrepressibly infectious Murder Machines, a song that was born in the challenging times of lockdown and social distancing and has become so much more than just a mirror of our times, more than a song that deals with the precious as well as dark sides of human relationships. Steve Hogarth is in fine voice, especially on the buoyant chorus and Rothery’s guitar just sings perfectly.
Three songs into the album and I’m already hooked, it’s a record of, and for, its time, emotive and emotional and that is felt throughout the wistfully brilliant The Crow And The Nightingale, a nostalgic nod to Leonard Cohen and one of my favourite tracks on the album, one that just flows beautifully and shows the band’s thoughtful and contemplative side impeccably. That reflective tone carries on into the sublime Sierra Leone, another great song that sees the band in a storytelling frame of mind. This is a set of musicians who are playing at a ridiculously high level and delivering some of their best songs of a long and illustrious career, a band who are comfortable with themselves and their music and it is really obvious. This track builds gradually, the tempo increasing almost imperceptibly, before Rothery’s guitar breaks out, accompanied by Hogarth’s ever more dynamic voice. There are lulls as it ebbs and flows elegantly, always holding your attention, a fine piece of music indeed.
This superb and entrancing album comes to a close with one of Marillion’s finest ever tracks. In a long career of superlatives Care has to be right there at the top, a three part song that plumbs the depths of despair before rising through to end in promise and optimism. Pete Trewavas shows he is still one of the best bass players around and Rothery’s guitar is just transcendent, he really is at the top of his game. Mark Kelly delivers some bewitching keys throughout the album but none more so than here. This track really showcases the band’s impressive song writing abilities. Impassioned and passionate and, ultimately, uplifting, it is, possibly, the most perfect song they have ever written.
I have been a fan of Marillion for over three decades and, in a career of superlatives, ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ can truly be seen as one of their most accomplished albums. It is an outstanding piece of music that the band should be incredibly proud of and, even though we are only in February, it will take something amazing to knock it off the top of my album of the year list.
Legendary British progressive rock band Marillion embark on a UK tour, ‘The Light At The End OF The Tunnel’, in November 2021, ahead of their recently announced 20th album ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ and I sat down to chat with frontman Steve Hogarth about the upcoming live gigs…
Progradar: Hi Steve and thanks for talking to me, I am coming to see the band play on the first night of the upcoming tour, Hull City Hall, on the 14th November and, in a strange kind of synergy, the first time I ever saw Marillion was at Hull City Hall on the 9th July, 1990, so you’re talking 31 years ago!
Steve Hogarth (SH): Blimey! Do you know, I think that was the last time we were there.
Progradar: I’m pretty certain it was too! You know what, I saw you twice before lockdown, at the Royal Albert Hall in 2019 and I also saw you at the York Barbican in 2018, I can remember the songs better, obviously, from the last two but the one that sticks out most in my mind was that one, going back all those years ago. I even remember that Little Angels were the support band, a local band from Scarborough.
SH: Yeh, they were good, I remember them.
Progradar: It’s funny how you can remember these things from all those years ago. Are you looking forward to getting back out there again and playing in front of a live audience?
SH: Yes, very, very much, I think it’s all the more precious because it’s been denied us, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I think, for the audience and the band alike, it will be quite something to walk back on stage in Hull. I’m looking forward to it immensely, yes.
Progradar: I went to see Keane at the open air theatre in Scarborough and it just threw it down with rain all through the gig but I just didn’t care, it was spine tingling to see live music again. I am so excited about seeing you guys in November, I’ve been a fan for over thirty years. The ‘Seasons End’ album and tour are where I really got into the band so, to actually think I’m going to get to see you guys where it all started for me, over thirty years ago is a quite a spine tingling thought actually.
Do you find that there is a difference in audiences in the UK and audiences when you go to the continent or all they all pretty much the same?
SH: Yes there is, audiences even vary from one part of the UK to another, to be honest. To be fair, about 18-20 percent probably travel, so there are people in the UK that are moving around. In that sense the geography is not as important but there are certain hotspots in the UK, Manchester, Liverpool are always terrific, Birmingham and London are usually good. Cardiff is a bit of a slow burner, they’re usually quiet but they go nuts at the end.You get used to the kind of dynamics of what to expect from a crowd, after a few years.
Across in Europe, again, certain parts of Germany, you know you are going to have an amazing show. We’ll have a great show in Cologne and Munich, we’ll usually have a great show in Hamburg. Not so much in Frankfurt and Hanover and, if you go over to France, we’ve always had amazing shows in Paris, it’s just about my favourite place to play on earth. Lyon will be good but not that same electric thing you get in Paris.
Over in Holland, it’s only a small country so it doesn’t vary quite as much there but playing Utrecht and Amsterdam is also special as well.
Progradar: I get a strong impression that Marillion fans have a real affinity with the band and you have a real affinity with the fans, do you agree and do you think it helps when you do the live gigs?
SH: Yes, absolutely, like a family. It’s not ‘us and them’ anymore, it’s very much ‘us and us’, we’re all in this thing together. Way back, at the end of the 90’s, when we (together) invented crowdfunding and we found a way to move forward by having fans pre-order the albums we hadn’t even finished yet, that’s almost become a commonplace thing now but it didn’t exist before we did it. That brought us closer together with the fans, it kind of gave us common cause, in a lot of ways.
The feeling of trust when somebody sends you their hard earned money, sometimes quite a lot of it! We are selling these packages where you don’t get much change out of fifty quid, they buy them with no guarantee at all that we won’t just go to Rio and have a party with their money. There’s a lot of faith and trust there and responsibility on us not to let anybody down, that’s pulled us closer together (with the fans) as well.
Progradar: I think for a lot of fans, you genuinely feel involved in what’s going on with a new album. A lot of bands involve the fans in what’s going on so they do feel invested and that helps when you come to the live stage. Fans feel they are going to see people they know, to a certain extent, play a gig. I feel you will have the goodwill from day one of a tour as 70-80 percent of them will have been fans from day one.
SH: Yes, I’ll probably recognise half of the front row just from all the years of doing it and seeing people. Bit by bit, we, as musicians, become conscious of who’s listening to us, I recognise people at the front and it is very much a family now.
Progradar: Do you get many fans who literally pay to go to every gig on a tour?
SH: It’s quite common to see and to get a message from someone to apologise for missing one like, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get down to St Austell”, and we’re like ” I’m not bloody surprised!”. We do, there are people that will travel to all of the shows and wear that like that a badge of honour, there are people who have even travelled around Europe as well! Similarly, Ive met people from all around the world who’ve travelled miles for a show, Americans who’ve just flown in for one gig and flown out again.
A few years ago we did a show at Shepherds Bush Empire and I met a couple of guys in the alley by the back stage door from Venezuela! I asked them what on earth they were doing there and they said we’d come to see you! So, when people are prepared to do that, it’s extremely mind blowing.
Progradar: I’d imagine it’s pretty humbling when you think they could have spent the equivalent of six months salary just to see one concert?
SH: It is humbling, it’s extremely humbling, it makes my head swim. I don’t think I’ve ever travelled more than sixty miles to see a band in my entire life! I can’t imagine getting on a plane and going to see somebody.
Progradar: Like I say, I saw you at the RAH in 2019 and, apart from having the most uncomfortable seats of any venue I’ve been to, it was an amazing gig, do you find that there is a difference in the atmosphere when you play the bigger venues to when you play the smaller ones?
SH: You can’t really generalise because you can amazing gig in a little club and you can have an amazing gig in a football stadium and every size in between. Each venue, and the space of that venue, has its own character. My job is to walk out there on the stage, get a feeling for it and wring it out like a cloth, get the very best out of that space that I can. That’s part of my job, although it’s not necessarily a conscious process to be fair, part of my job is to go, right, what can we do with this then?
Progradar: I’ve been to concerts where they’ve really dragged and I’ve been to gigs, like the RAH and York Barbican gigs, where the time has flown by and I haven’t wanted to leave. We won’t call it working the audience as you say it is not a conscious process but, you certainly look like you’re enjoying it when you’re up on stage?
SH: Yes, to be honest, it’s dead easy to do when you’re meeting those waves of affection that I’m very fortunate to meet. It doesn’t make my job very difficult at all, all I’ve got to do is kind of bounce it back and see it for what it is, not take it for granted. Just go with what is special about a show from one moment to another, the vibration in the hall, I’ve kind of got to have my radar up, to pick that up and acknowledge it.
Progradar: I would imagine that, even if you played the same set list in two different venues, you’re still going to have two different events, two different concerts?
SH: Totally, yes!
Progradar: So, the new album, which you’ve had a bit of fun with, the fans guessing the album name, there were some quite interesting ones that came up in the Facebook group, some humorous ones as well!
SH: Yes, my favourite was‘All Hard Bastards In Doncaster’, that really creased me up!
Progradar: You said that you are probably going to play one or two tracks from the new album, are you excited about giving the new music an airing in that live setting?
SH: Yes I am, because a lot of the stuff on this new album is really quite upbeat and will work really well live. In the end, we decided we would only play one track. When I say one track, it is about ten minutes long, it’s the equivalent of three of anyone else’s.
Progradar: Long gone are the days of tracks like Hooks In You, three and a half minute radio friendly stuff!
SH: Never say never but, we haven’t written a three minute song for quite a while now, it takes us three minutes to get to verse one these days. We’ve got a song called Be Hard On Yourself and I can tell by the nature of how we wrote it that it is going to be great live, it’s really going to kick arse! I’m looking forward to giving that an airing for sure.
Progradar: I’m really looking forward to hearing it, I have been prevaricating but finally got around to ordering the double vinyl today, especially when I saw it was the last day to get your name in the credits! I don’t know about you but, I grew up on vinyl and cassette tapes, then sold it all to make way for CDs and now we are buying vinyl reissues and remasters at ten times more than we we paid for them when they first came out in the 70’s and 80’s!
I have bought good quality pre-owned copies of ‘Holidays In Eden’ and ‘Seasons End’ and boxsetsof ‘Marbles’ and ‘Brave‘. If you pushed me I would say that ‘Marbles’ is my favourite Marillion album, closely followed by ‘Seasons End’.
SH: Great, what’s your favourite track on ‘Marbles’ then?
Progradar: Funnily enough, I have just been listening to it in the car, it’s Fantastic Place, it’s one of my all time favourite Marillion songs. You played it live in York with a couple of my other favourite Marillion songs which are Seasons End and Easter but I absolutely love Fantastic Place.
SH: That’s a feather in my hat because I wrote two out of the three of those songs.
Progradar: There’s also Steve Rothery’s guitar in that song, it has no edges, do you know what I mean? It’s smooth and the solo just bleeds emotion. Leading on to the next question, you’ve also said you are going to play what you consider to be the best of your catalogue. With so many albums behind you, how do you pick the tracks on the setlist? Is it a democratic process, do you get a massive list and then just whittle it down?
SH: Yes, more or less. We all get a vote each, make a list, whatever wins gets chosen. We did decide for this particular tour that we would play what we all personally felt were our most important songs. Anyone who comes hoping to hear a couple of obscurities will probably be disappointed but anyone who’s hoping to hear the really big songs, they’ll be delighted because that is what they are going to get.
Progradar: So I can sort of live in hope that I am maybe going to hear one of my favourite three on the 14th November?
SH: You certainly can, for sure.
Progradar: Not being a musician, I find this quite fascinating, are there songs that you like off studio albums that you think wouldn’t work in the live experience?
SH: There’s certainly a couple, yes. TheFruit Of The Wild Rose has always been very tricky live because, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, it kind of goes into a groove at the end that is set down by an acoustic guitar, playing a loop and then it kind of kicks off with a guitar solo overlapped and we just don’t have enough guitar players in the band to do both! I’m not a good enough acoustic guitar player to be able to lay that loop down while Steve solos, Pete probably is but then I’m not a good enough bass player to cover the bass duties!
So there are one or two that kind of came into the world as studio works and are a bit of a struggle. I mean, we have still done them but they’re trickier things to roll out.
Progradar: I don’t want to put you on the spot as there’s hundreds of songs you’ve written but, are there a couple of songs that you particularly enjoy playing live yourself?
SH: Yes, for sure, I really like to sing The Invisible Man, that’s one of my favourites to perform. What else would I look forward to doing? I enjoy playing Gaza, I enjoy playing A Few Words For The Dead, to be honest. Seasons End and Estonia, they’re both great to play.
Progradar: I remember Seasons End at York Barbican in 2018, my friend Iain Sloan came down from Scotland, he lives near Edinburgh and is a guitarist in an Americana band call The Wynntown Marshals. We were stood together, almost in tears, it was one of those moments you’ll remember forever.
You said you enjoy playing in Holland and that leads me on to my next question, are you intending doing Marillion Weekends again?
SH: Yes, we absolutely are, we had to keep kicking it down the road. The thing about Port Zelande is that we promote the entire thing ourselves and we’re about half a million quid in the whole before anyone turns up. If, god forbid, the Dutch government decided to lock the country down, it would cost us more money than we could stand to lose, to be honest. So we had to keep postponing it and we moved it to next spring and then we decided we couldn’t even risk that. We moved it again, I think it’s booked in for March 2023 now, it’ll happen but we’ve just got to get through this strange pandemic that seems to be a bit slow to leave.
Progradar: I’m 54 this year and none of us are as young as we used to be. You’ve been touring for donkey’s years, do you find it more tiring now or does just getting out on that stage just infuse you with energy?
SH: I can’t remember, it’s so long ago! I am two years older than the last time I did it so there is a part of me thinking I hope I’m up to this? I’d better get out on the bike and get myself sorted out a bit. I’m going to find out, it may come as a terrible shock!
Progradar: Do you keep fit before you go on a tour, do you do anything extra?
SH: I’ll do a little bit, I won’t do enough because I’m a lazy sod but I should really. I mean, I can’t just expect to remain fit, I’ve got to make the effort. I live in a three storey house so I’m up and down the stairs and get a few steps in but I’m going to have to do a bit more.
Progradar: I really appreciate your time Steve, it’s been brilliant talking to you, just one final question before we sign off. It’s a question I ask everyone who I interview, do you prefer writing and recording and album or do you prefer playing the material live?
SH: Playing the material live, night and day, for me. I hate writing, I hate most of recording, once you get beyond a certain point then it does start to become exciting but that takes such a long time. Whereas to play live is the point of it for me so, hands down, I prefer playing live.
Progradar: I’ll just tag a little bit on the end of that, when you’re on tour, can you hit the same level of enthusiasm at the last gig that you had at the first?
SH: Absolutely, no problem at all, I love it!
Progradar: That’s brilliant, I really appreciate your time and I am so looking forward to seeing you at Hull City Hall on November 14th!
SH: Thanks for your time and thanks for your support man!
Marillion‘The Light At The End Of The Tunnel’ tour starts on 14th November at Hull City Hall.
Pre-order Marillion’s 20th album, ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ here: