My heart may belong to metal, but it was Coheed and Cambria that cemented my love for rock music. One of my favorite bands to this day, C&C’s influence on my musical tastes has resonated long into my twenties, with sonically similar acts like The Dear Hunter helping to keep me invested in their particular blend of modern alternative and progressive rock. It’s surprising to me then, as a fan of such a specific style, that I’d never encountered Connecticut’s Mile Marker Zero. This is likely due to their current lack of notoriety, which is a bit puzzling to me; MMZ is a really tight bunch of musicians that leans harder into prog traditions than their aforementioned contemporaries, and though their second record, The Fifth Row, is too indulgent for its own good, its execution is indicative of a band deserving of much more recognition.
Sounding something like a cross between The Dear Hunter and classic nerd-prog a la Spock’s Beard, Mile Marker Zero carves out an interesting niche. While bands like The Dear Hunter are typically a bit reluctant to fully expose their prog influences, MMZ embraces them head on. Awash in retro-space-age synths, exploratory guitar lines, and funky time signatures, The Fifth Age is the kind of record that should appeal to damn near every core fan of its genre while also attracting those who grew up on the melodramatic, conceptual angst of Coheed and Cambria. Speaking of concepts, The Fifth Row’s narrative is one that is easy to follow and thematically relevant, centering around the creation of an artificial intelligence called JCN in an attempt to stem the tide of terrorism – with disastrous consequences, of course. The encroaching sense of doom is pervasive throughout despite MMZ’s relatively cheery external aesthetic, making for a distinctly bittersweet vibe that helps solidify the band’s uniqueness.
Mile Marker Zero’s approach to creating a concept album grants The Fifth Row a sort of continuity that pushes it surprisingly close to rock opera territory; once the record hits the halfway point or so, nearly every track incorporates slant variations of riffs and melodies from prior tracks. This action legitimately enhances the album’s back half; it’s a good thing, too, because there’s a ton of music to take in, and the reprisals help prevent TFR from feeling too terribly unwieldy. Even so, there are notable areas where MMZ could have trimmed track lengths, or even nixed cuts entirely. The album’s mid-section in particular is bogged down by interludes and an utterly skippable acoustic number (“JCN”), as well as “Propaganda,” a rhythmically derivative piece that has the added misfortune of bearing painfully obvious and somewhat cringe-worthy anti-war lyrics.
Thankfully, most of The Fifth Row is rock solid, with plenty of notable standouts. “The Architect” and “2020” are great straightforward rockers, with the latter in particular handily matching the exuberant peaks of Coheed and Cambria’s early works, while the album’s openers, “2001” and Digital Warrior,” make strong impressions as sprawling prog explorations. The last two tracks make a similarly effective pair; penultimate cut “Age of Jason” is the heaviest of the bunch and echoes the unique rhythm work of 3, while closer “Collective” shoulders a sense of somber finality coupled with sinister undertones. The performances are universally impressive, with the standouts being drummer Doug Alley’s kinetic, Niel Peart-esque fills and singer Dave Alley’s flexible voice that confidently navigates the material with earnest. The production is similarly impressive with no notable flaws, sporting full, warm tones and a perfectly balanced mixed.
It’s a damn shame that The Fifth Row’s flow if disrupted by a sizeable chunk of bloat, because aside from the excess, Mile Marker Zero’s execution is technically flawless. They tackle a tired genre with a fresh, multi-generational lens, and handle the proceedings with an immensely likeable and infectious vigor. But sixty-seven minutes of music is a tough pill to swallow unless every moment of that music is engaging, and here, that’s simply not the case. The Fifth Row is still absolutely recommendable to prog rock connoisseurs looking for a satisfyingly ambitious epic, but many listeners may end up skipping a few too many tracks to be able to call it truly great.