After over 25 years as a recording/touring unit, it’s safe to say that Marillion has earned the right to do whatever they damn well please in the studio. Not to say that this isn’t exactly what they’ve done over the years; I have yet to find a period in their history where they mirrored what they did on their previous studio release with their newest output.
So, why choose now to record an album such as Less Is More, which reworks selections from the Steve Hogarth-era of Marillion and turns them into mostly acoustic, stripped-down versions of their earlier studio counterparts? Well, why not?!? While Marillion has occasionally thrown acoustic versions of earlier songs onto albums, they’ve never gone back in time to put new spins on a larger collection of old favorites.
While this disc is hauntingly beautiful at times, this is one instance where I can say that I wish Marillion had listened to a piece of constructive criticism I had leveled against their previous release Happiness Is The Road – namely, the band works best when they intersperse power and subtlety in their music. Instead, this collection focuses on the subtlety – and this proves to be its main weakness.
Now, I freely admit that it’s possible I’ve missed nuances in this disc that normally come to me after – oh, I dunno, fifteen to twenty listens. It has been my experience that a Marillion album is not one you merely listen to; you need to truly immerse yourself in it and experience it. Needless to say, this isn’t something you can accomplish with a cursory listen or two, so I’m freely willing to admit I’ve missed the experience of this disc. But I think I’ve gleaned enough from it to make an educated opinion of it.
And, that opinion is: it ain’t bad. From the almost Oriental opening riffs to “Interior Lulu” to the ambiance that is created on “The Space,” Hogarth and crew aren’t trying to re-write their older material; rather, they’re shining different lights on them to discover something different about these old friends. And, for the most part, this succeeds.
Yet there is something definitely absent from Less Is More – namely, a sense of urgency. Oh, one occasionally pokes its head out on more energetic tunes like “If My Heart Were A Ball” and “Cannibal Surf Babe,” but there is not enough of this “yang” to balance the gentle hum of the “yin” that makes up the bulk of this album. It proves to be almost a little too relaxed, making it a little too relaxing for the listener. This is, by no means, a slap against the material, but my experience is that Marillion is best experienced when you’re kept on your toes, not knowing what’s going to come at you sonically. (Check out the track “Man Of A Thousand Faces” off This Strange Engine to understand what I mean.)
In the end, Less Is More lives up to its name and delivers some very entertaining spins on songs that long-time Marillion fans know and love (as well as a few interesting surprises, including their cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”). But while this undoubtedly helped to clear the creative pipes for the band, this disc proves to be a little too laid-back at times. It is possible to create an acoustic-themed album that has as much a sense of urgency as it does collected cool. A little more of the former and less of the latter would have made this disc unstoppable.