There's apparently an overall concept behind this debut solo album from Marillion's keyboard player, Mark Kelly, that's somehow tied to humankind reaching for the skies but finding itself suffering from the inability to communicate. I keep trying to make myself pay enough attention to the lyrics to find out how that evolves from the initial multi-part song about Amelia Earhart to the final and still more ambitious equivalent, Twenty Fifty One, so named because it's set in that year, but I keep focusing on the music instead.
Part of that is because the vocals of Oliver Smith are very soft. They're also very capable indeed and I have no complaints about his talents, but he becomes a texture here for me. I hear words, sung clearly and effectively, but they mostly translate in my brain to just another instrument making sounds that layer into pieces of music. The surprising exception is the longest track, Twenty Fifty One, in which he remains obvious throughout, leading the story. Elsewhere, he was supporting the music, but, on this song, the music seems to support him.
Smith sounds older than he looks, perhaps because he's had quite the unusual and versatile career in music (not everyone has topped the Russian charts with an album written in Uzbekistan and few have performed at Glastonbury at fifteen). There are points here where he channels solo Peter Gabriel but there's an alternative feel in there too. I'm not well versed enough in modern alternative bands to be able to throw out comparisons, but while his voice sounds older than he looks, his style doesn't.
Partly, though, it's because the music is constantly changing. This isn't about riffs and choruses, even though both those things are here and these are vocal songs rather than a synth-driven instrumental epic. It all flows for me, like the colourful ocean on in the evocative cover art. Even with sound effects and spoken word sections showing up, on the first part of Twenty Fifty One, this feels like it's ebbing and flowing so much that I began to sway in my office chair with the constant motion. For all that it's an album of five different songs, each drenched in dynamic play, and the overriding concept has to be dug for, this still plays to me like a 44m suite.
Sure, there's a lot of Marillion here, which shouldn't surprise us, but this felt like a Vangelis album to me rather often, Kelly's keyboards obviously leading this band even with a pair of capable guitarists in play in Pete Wood and John Cordy. That's because he clearly sees his job here as not to accompany musicians but to create worlds for them to flesh out and us to explore. His keyboards are immersive, painting not just the ocean but the sky, the birds flitting across it and the sun shining down. I think he's trying to be the cover art and he's doing a damn good job of it.
I like the two long multi-part songs, but I think I prefer the shorter ones in between. When I Fell may start out soft and a little old fashioned, but it continually builds and the second instrumental half is joyous, courtesy of Kelly's keyboards. Puppets is probably my favourite track here, not least because of a delightful guest solo from Marillion's Steve Rothery. Here, the instrumental section comes in the middle of the song, but it's just as joyous. That leaves the shortest piece here at sub-four minutes. It's an obvious single called This Time, easily the most commercial song here and the one where Smith is perhaps most at home.
Twenty Fifty One explores first contact, referencing 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Stanley Kubrick), Mars Attacks! and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it begins with a neat narration. "We think you'd like our planet. We have Richard Strauss, the Beatles and Scooby Doo. Who else can say that?" Well, I can happily add that we also have Marillion and a growing number of side projects and solo efforts. I think this is a worthy addition to that ouevre and one to which I might return more often than most.