Just last week saw the Connecticut based Mile Marker Zero drop their second full length release in The Fifth Row. You can check out our thoughts on the album here, but there’s more to the story here than a simple concept album. This week we dive into the prog rock quintet proper – their history, the lead up to the album, and meeting a hero. Shall we?
A Brief Look Back
It was back during their studies at Western Connecticut State University in 2005 when brothers Dave (vocals) and Doug (drums) Alley joined up with childhood friends Mark Focarlie (keys) and Tim Rykoski (bass) and reached out to John Tuohy (guitar) to plant the seed that would become Mile Marker Zero. The name itself comes from the idea that it could be interpreted as either a beginning or an end, the start or finish of a journey. It only took a year for an EP to come to light in the form of The Haunted, providing a solid foundation to play shows along the American east coast.
It would be three years before their debut self-titled full length would drop in 2009, allowing the group to be included in the Rock Band game setlist and the chance to share the stage with such prolific groups as Porcupine Tree, Periphery, Scale The Summit, Nothing More, Adrenaline Mob, and Fair To Midland. Another half decade would pass before more new material would come. 2014 saw the EP Young Rust lead the group to be awarded best band for Connecticut at the New England Music Awards. It was 2016 when Tim Rykoski departed, and Jaco Lindito came to round out the bands current lineup on bass. One year later and here we are on the cusp **coughofinfinitycough** of a new record and the beginning of a whole new story.
Writing and Recording the New Album
A moment of editorial transparency: normally we would use this space to flesh out the writing process using quotes from the band spread throughout a framework that gave a clear timeline or simply lead to an interesting read. Here, however, I think it’s better left in the capable hands of the aforementioned Mark Focarile to detail the lead up to last week’s release:
“The 5th Row was largely recorded at MMZ‘s home studio, except for drums and some additional instruments that were recorded at Carriage House Studios in Stamford, CT. Since The 5th Row is a concept album, the writing process was a little different from other projects we’ve done in the past. We wrote the story first, and created a storyboard so we could see how the narrative would play out. We then created what we called the “pillar” songs first, which were the most impactful moments in the story. Then we went back to fill in the music between the pillar songs. Doing this process allowed us to make sure the album was balanced and that the story developed at the right pace.
In the past, we had written new material together in our loud rehearsal room and then experimented with sounds and techniques when we began recording the songs. This time we wrote the songs in a more intimate setting, allowing us to take more time with pre-production. For the first time we also created a template for the sound of the album, which helped us in the writing process because we had to think about how all the instruments would be arranged. We wanted the album to sound like Rush‘s Permanent Waves, so we modeled the drum and guitar tones to reflect the sounds Alex, Geddy, and Neil used as well as experimenting with early 80s synth sounds for the first time. Everyone in the band is also big fans of the TV Show Stranger Things, so we used that soundtrack as well for inspiration.”
The Story Of The Fifth Row
Much of what makes up last week’s release from Mile Marker Zero can be attributed to the throughout integration of narrative into the music at every level. The next question, then, is what makes up this story? In truth, it comes in two parts:
“Source Code” and “2001” start off the first half of The Fifth Row by setting the backdrop of very real American disasters and issues, culminating in the events that happened at World Trade Center, and leaving the government uncertain on how to combat such atrocities in the future. “Digital Warrior” sees the decision being made to predict and solve these threats by creating an Artificial Intelligence machine before “The Architect” introduces the titular character proper. Despite his hesitance, he ‘listens to the people’ and crafts such a device in “Building A Machine”. The JCN (or colloquially known as ‘Jason’) thwarts a major attack successfully, and its “Victory” sees the world accept ‘JCN’ as their hero and prophetic saviour.
“Middle Game” provides an ominous time jump before “Propaganda” makes no uncertain claim of how the competition for natural resources, overpopulation, and general superpower tensions lead to the brink of global calamity. With dawning self awareness, “Source Code” brings JCN a moment of “Clarity” and realization of the inevitable consequences of humanity’s natural tendency to self destruction, illuminating the fact that the only positive outcome must come from shutting down the human race itself. The architect fails to talk the machine down from his plans in “UI” as the populace willingly follows their savior’s directive in “2020”. As the “Age Of Jason” dawns the beginning of the end, “The Collective” reflect on their place and how they got to this point, ushering a poignant and melancholic finale.
One significant aspect of the story this synopsis leaves out is how the presentation and recurring motifs influences the experience of the narrative. Vocal melodies, specific phrases, and a handful of riffs see counterparts in each half of the album. The government’s realization that things are out of hand is mirrored by JCN’s understanding of all possible outcomes sans intervention. The epiphany that leads to the building of the machine matches the epiphany of the AI to implement his own plan. Furthermore, the victorious theming that ends each part with data flowing through the airwaves and being trapped in chains and bindings permeates two very different tonal arrangements. This duality lends a weight to the events of the story, and helps keep the package cohesive.
Meeting A Hero
Meeting someone who has been such a significant influence on your life both personally and professionally can be a daunting yet exciting prospect, more so if that chance encounter involves jump starting their RV. Mark recounts such an experience with a drummer you likely have heard of before. In his words:
“Not too long ago we had a bizarre/funny thing happen to us at a gig in our hometown. We were playing with Mike Portnoy’s son Max’s band Next to None, and they arrived at the gig in a 30 ft RV being driven by Mike himself. Since all of us grew up as big Dream Theater fans, the sight of Mike behind the wheel of huge lumbering vehicle was quite strange. Later on in the night, Mike asked our drummer Doug if he could help jump the battery of the RV. So Doug used his small little 4 cylinder vehicle to jump the battery of a massive RV driven by one of our childhood idols.”
Mile Marker Zero may have been at it for quite a few years now, but the days are still early and future bright for this talented prog rock group. As Mark puts it:
“…right now we are focusing on planning our release show as well as booking other tour dates. Our goal is to have this album grow our fan base and play in markets that we haven’t visited before. We are extremely excited about this album because it shows an amazing growth not only in our sound but our songwriting, and we feel like it can have a significant impact on fans in the progressive rock community. We also feel The 5th Row is an album that can reach fans outside of prog rock because of the emphasis we put on melodies and hooks alongside the more progressive moments.”
Mile Marker Zero is…
Dave Alley (Vocals)
John Tuohy (Guitar)
Mark Focarile (Keyboards)
Jaco Lindito (Bass)
Doug Alley (Drums)
Be sure to check out Mile Marker Zero‘s official website for more on the band, and follow their Facebook page to keep up on future release and tour information. You can listen to more of their music over on their YouTube channel and Bandcamp pages.