When you work with tropes that are basic to your genre, you have to be extremely careful. Importing the ideas and themes of those great who came before you also invites in their blindspots and their preconceptions. Instead of winding up with a new piece of work that pays tribute to those greats, you find yourself with a duplication, a copy containing not only all that’s good about the original but also its flaws and failings. This is the challenge facing Mile Marker Zero, as they traffic in the kind of modern progressive rock that was popularized by Steven Wilson in the previous decade. Their new album, The Fifth Row is steeped not only in the musical ideas of bands like Rush, Yes, Genesis and more, but also in the thematic milieu in which these bands worked. So, which is it? Is The Fifth Row a carbon copy rife with the shortcomings of yesteryear or a fresh take on the genre and its vocabulary?
The answer is, as is most common with these cases, a bit of both. On one hand, the music presented on the album is well executed and excellently produced, adding a lot of verve and passion to the tried and true formula of progressive rock. One great example of this is the usage of vocal harmonies on the album. This is something that many veteran bands have always been bad at; even the great Yes have some parts on their classic albums (Relayer comes to mind) where the backing and lead vocals just don’t work, no matter how hard the band tried otherwise. On The Fifth Row these vocal back lines work perfectly with the main ones to create a sense of majesty. The best example of this is the first proper track on the album, “2001”. The backing vocals throughout the track are a pleasure, injecting a lot of volume into the end product.
But this track is also an example of the trappings in which the album comes. If the track name didn’t clue you in, Mile Marker Zero peddle in the same social conceptions and perspectives as their progenitors and, just like in the days of yore when progressive rock was getting started, the result is less than pleasing. The opening track, “Source Code”, uses the tired cliche of news snippets to depict a world on the verge of collapse and the rest of the album leans into the science fiction narrative that is always the answer to these distresses. To put it bluntly, it’s been done before and done to death and, even when it was fresh, it was pretty embarrassing. Progressive rock would do well to grow past these narratives and what they mean for its releases, the musical trappings which come with them.
These trappings can be easily heard throughout the album. They manifest in synth solos which serve little purpose or ballads ill-positioned in the album’s structure. The follow up to “2001”, “Digital Warrior” is a prime example of this. It’s more mellow timbre isn’t really what you want here at this point in the album, high off the highly satisfying opening of the previous track. Another such example is “JCN”; it comes after an incredibly powerful duo of tracks and robs them of their momentum in the service of progressive rock’s age old templates.
When the band shake these templates off, The Fifth Row is a fantastic album for those looking at a young perspective on progressive rock. The instruments sound great, the composition is intelligent and works well together and the production is on point and modern in the best of ways. It feels as if Mile Marker Zero, not exactly a newcomer to the scene, are struggling to let go of the vestiges that the classics of their genre have embedded within them. When they rise past them, they are their best. When they give in to them, the force of their execution is diverted for the sake of awkward narratives. If they can push beyond those primordial desire, they can make something truly great, unrestrained by the weight of the past. For the listener who can look past these moments of conservatism, The Fifth Row holds much to like.
Mile Marker Zero sees release on March 2nd. You can pre-order it right here.