Progressive rock is a genre that is often thought to have lost its commercial relevance after the punk and new wave invasion of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Contrary to popular belief, however, progressive rock is still going strong thanks to bands like Dream Theater, Radiohead and Tool. The band that is often credited with starting the modern progressive rock movement is the British band Marillion. Marillion is now back with its 18th studio album and the 14th to feature its current lineup, helmed by lead singer and keyboardist Steve Hogarth. The new album, named F E A R, is quite possibly the most socially relevant album that Marillion has released in its existence. A lot of the songs tackle subjects like economic inequality, patriotism and propaganda. In a year that included Brexit, the Syrian migrant crisis and a turbulent U.S. presidential election, this is an album that is sorely needed in this time and age. As far as the track list goes, it consists of three lengthy multi-part suites and three shorter songs that serve as potential singles. While long songs are always expected from any progressive rock group, Marillion usually included one epic per album.
With a noticeable push toward socially relevant songs, the inclusion of multiple epics was the band’s only way to bring this theme across. Speaking in terms of musicality, the band also uses longer songs as means to experiment with various musical ideas. Interestingly, the individual movements of the suites are each listed as separate tracks, bringing the overall song total to 17 songs, the most on any Marillion studio album. “El Dorado,” kicks off the album with a pastoral acoustic intro that soon segues into a bleak and cynical look into the future, permeated with a warning to society that it will soon face the consequences for all the wrongdoings it perpetrated across history.
This song is followed by “Living in F E A R,” which encompasses Hogarth’s delivery of a plea for the end of war and the beginning of universal peace. The closing epic, “The New Kings,” brings about a scathing critique of politics and the banking system and how the two caused most of modern society’s problems. After the barrage of social criticism from the band, the song and the album ends with a brief but uplifting acoustic epilogue that brings about an optimistic lyrical and musical contrast to rest of the album. Two of the songs in the middle of the album briefly move away from the main concept and instead focus on a much more personal side of the band that Marillion rarely reveals.
The second epic, “The Leavers,” focuses on life on the road and all of the personal struggles each of the members face when it comes to their musical careers. While the song itself is among the band’s most poignant, it seems excessive to make it into an epic. The song also happens to be the longest track on the album, clocking in at nearly 20 minutes. Thankfully, the track that immediately follows it, “White Paper,” is only seven minutes long and is straight to the point. The song describes the band members’ wistful wishing to return to a point in their lives when everything was easy and they did not have as many worries and responsibilities to deal with.
The piece features Hogarth on piano before being joined by the rest of the band. Marillion’s whopping 18 albums over a period of over 30 years gave the band a chance to smoothen out their overall sound. With this new record, Marillion is now about as far removed as it can possibly be from the progressive pop sound of its first four albums, when the band was led by singer Derek William Dick, also known as Fish. Hogarth delivers quite possibly his most emotionally charged vocal performance, augmenting the two themes of the album. His guitar solo at the end of “The New Kings” is especially worth pointing out as one of the highlights of the album. The member that dominates the whole album, however, is keyboard player Mark Kelly.
Throughout the album, there are various orchestral and choral presets that made the songs transcend beyond what the band has done in previous records. Last month, the band started a brief North American tour for F E A R. While it is not entirely known if the band planned this one date specifically or if it was pure coincidence, but the last show of the tour was held on election night at Time Square’s PlayStation Theater. Considering the aforementioned themes of the album, the date of the concert made the new songs all the more emotionally resonant with the nearly sold-out venue.
Opening up for the band on tour was guitarist John Wesley, who had worked with various members in Marillion in the past, as well as progressive rock contemporaries Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree. After his set, Marillion took the stage for a near three-hour set of music. Aside from a healthy portion of new music, including two of the three epics, a big chunk of the setlist consisted of Marillion classics in Hogarth’s time. During the middle of the show, the band went further back into their past to perform the Fish era classic “Sugar Mice,” to the delight of the audience.
While the band itself was just as musically sharp on stage as it was on the record, Hogarth definitely stole the show. All throughout the concert, he was giving his all with his stage presence and was cracking various jokes in between songs at the expense of the presidential candidates, life in the United States and the corporate namesake of the venue. The night capped off with a 40-minute encore of two lengthy Marillion epics, including “El Dorado.”
With 2016 gradually going down as one of the more turbulent years in human history, Marillion’s new record has successfully captured the widespread feelings of anger, confusion and fear.