Although the biography that accompanies Mark Kelly’s Marathon claims that Mark Kelly has plotted this debut step away from the Marillion mothership “for over 30 years”, it’s misleading. Keyboardist Kelly toyed with a solo album inspired by Dante’s Inferno during the mid-1990s, even approaching an aspiring young musician called Steven Wilson with a view to collaborating together, but when he didn’t receive a reply the idea fizzled out.
That project and Marathon, which Kelly set in motion less than a decade ago, are completely unrelated. Apart from a guest spot by Marillion colleague Steve Rothery, who appears on a solitary track, and DeeExpus bandmate Henry Rogers on drums, it sees him joined largely by a group of novices. How nice to report that each excels in their field.
A barrister and Marillion fan by day, Guy Vickers transforms into a gifted lyricist after sundown, Oliver M Smith is a virtually unknown singer more inspired by Eddie Vedder than Peter Hammill, while one of its two guitarists, John Cordy, was a YouTube recommendation from Rothery. Throw in Mark’s nephew Conal Kelly on bass, who freely admits that prog isn’t his natural habitat, and band leader Kelly has chosen to dabble in uncertainty. It pays off.
There’s apparently a convoluted hypothesis behind the album about Man (and Woman) striving for the ability to fly, attempting to interact with “whatever might be out there” and a resulting breakdown in communication, but Marathon doesn’t labour under the weight of a concept album – it’s a thought-inspiring yet slickly despatched pop rock record.
Things begin with a three-part song suite called Amelia, John Cordy using its second section, the deliciously sedate Whistling At The Sea, to lay down an early marker with a superb guitar solo. Next up we have the slower still When I Fell which drops down to a whisper, allowing Ollie Smith to stake a claim of his own. What beautiful tone this man’s voice has. In the days when picking the right single mattered for a rock album, the hook laden This Time would surely have been selected for cherished 45rpm status.
However, Puppets – founded upon a heroic, mouth-watering performance from Steve Rothery – is where things really peak, although that observation isn’t meant to diminish 2051, a sci-fi-themed swansong broken down into four suites. One of these, Trail Of Tears, sees Kelly delve into his box of prog rock keyboard tricks to end things with a familiar-sounding flourish.
As a wise man once noted: life is not a sprint, it’s a Marathon. And Kelly’s own debut outing deserves a medal.