Onset disillusionment is a painful thing. It is contrary to basic tenets of the human spirit that, when we are called upon, we can summon up our better natures, our nobility, our unselfishness. Thus it can be said that Marillion’s latest album stands as both a document of our times and also of the pain of realizing we’re not who we thought we were, not as good, not as united, and our love for money and power trumps our ability to be, at the very minimum, decent.
The veteran U.K. progressive rock band began writing F.E.A.R., an acronym for “fuck everyone and run,” before the “Brexit” vote, or so the materials indicate. I mention this only to say that the recording is not a reaction to the appearance of the world scurrying off to separate corners, but an observation of it pulling itself apart. Who are the culprits? The separatists, the nationalists, those who value their own power above all, especially at the expense of the powerless. The record is the band’s most “tapped into” offering, and perhaps their most disheartening.
That’s not to say it isn’t terrific. This is perhaps the band’s most fully-realized recording, a true concept record broken out into six songs, three of which are extended suites and all of which exist as portions of a whole. That theme — fear, and the bloody self-preservationist response it engenders — is pervasive. Each musician in the band is performing at their peak, especially vocalist Steve Hogarth. Yes, you can hear the age in his voice, but it works to tremendous effect on tracks like “The New Kings.” He sounds weary of the betrayal of egalitarianism, the worship of money and those who have it, and the acquiescence of those who don’t. And then, on a dime, he becomes ageless, summoning up something of a prophet (Of doom? Of warning?) and because of that remarkably flexible voice, he doesn’t come off as a scold.
Scolding is probably the least of the album’s content, actually. To provide context, Hogarth has been for many years one of the sunniest of performers. Certainly able to conjure up emotional depths and dark aside, but his go-to has tended to be “I believe that humanity has the capacity to rise above this too.” When he sings, “fuck everyone and run,” it is muted and broken, it is on the verge of weeping. It is an admission that perhaps he overestimated the species’ ability to not lie, steal, kill, and hate. From any other singer who might be known for trading in cynicism, it wouldn’t have worked.
The other outsized personality on the recording is keyboard player Mark Kelly. Saying he has written songs undercuts the sweep of the album. It is more like he has written the score, and because the majority of the record follows a non-linear, non-formulaic construction, his sounds move from tenderness to sonic chaos to real anger at times.
Holding down an insistent heartbeat throughout are bassist Pete Trewavas and drummer Ian Mosley. From the edges, guitarist Steve Rothery adds in texture here, patterns there, and at times these don’t call attention to themselves. But when the emotion demands it, his guitar erupts and his presence is irrefutable.
This is an album that could not have been made in the old system of music-making. Aside from the previously mentioned aversion to the verse-chorus-verse song construction or the lack of an obvious feel-good single, the album is a protest, a eulogy, and a rather dark ride. It might have bit the hand that would have fed it. No label would ever get past the title, and there was a lot of conversation about that very thing among the fans when the title was announced. It sounded like a fake-out, a prank, and not something that aligned with this band’s general demeanor. But because of Marillion’s longstanding relationship with those fans who, album after album have taken on faith that the band would deliver, pre-buying to fund recordings, they have taken advantage of an unprecedented freedom to say what they wanted to (or as has been stated in interviews, needed to) say. “Fuck everyone and run” was meant to shock, like a slap in the face that breaks you out of a coma.
With this in mind, if you are not prepared to give the album your full attention, you may not be ready for it. As often beautiful, cathartic, and incriminating as it can be, if you are looking for bite-sized thrills to play in the car, you’re going to be perplexed. In order to get the full measure of “The New Kings” you need to hear how it calls back from the opening “El Dorado” or “Living in F.E.A.R.” That requires an act of trust, and if you can’t relinquish that, the record’s not for you. It might be about you.
Having formed in 1979, with Hogarth taking the reins as vocalist in 1989, and with eighteen studio albums to their credit, Marillion arrive again with an uncomfortable, uncompromising, but altogether magnificent recording. You will probably like some of their other landmark recordings more, the ones that won’t drain your emotions nearly so much, but if you are a fan, you will have a hard time admiring them as much as this. F.E.A.R. is a warning. What we break might take a very long time to repair, if repair is even possible, because it starts not with the corruption of the system, but the corruption of the soul.
F.E.A.R. is available at the band’s website, www.marillion.com