Live albums? Covers albums? Acoustic albums? These days they're all just stop gaps and contract obligations aren't they?
Well no actually.
Right from the opening glockenspiel intro to "Go" it's undeniable that Marillion have not taken what would appear to be an easy option with Less Is More. Instead this album represents the opportunity to not only revisit some classics from their past, but to redesign and deconstruct the chosen songs, before rebuilding them from the ground up using instruments as diverse and foreign to a "rock" record as you could wish for. With Portuguese guitars, autoharps, harmoniums, or hammered dulcimers being only a selection of the exotic instrumentation in evidence, actually recognising which track is being reinterpreted isn't always as easy as one would expect. For some this may actually be a stumbling block, however to me it is the true strength of Less = More and has led this release to be a fresh, innovative album in its own right and not just a curio to be listened to sparingly.
Surprisingly the stripped back and bare sound on Less Is More actually gives each individual member of the band more room to shine and for an outfit who very often create huge encompassing soundscapes with their music, their ability to convey those same emotions within a more restrictive setting is quite stunning. Guitarist Steve Rothery benefits the most from the sparse approach, with his contributions always coming to the forefront of the music in a way that isn't always possible within the styling that Marillion often explore. His solos are soft caresses while still making a huge impact on proceedings, whilst his rhythm playing gently holds everything together. That's not to say that Pete Trewavas doesn't make a huge impact on acoustic bass or occasion xylophone, or that Steve Hogarth's vocals aren't stark or emotional in all the right places. Neither does it mean that Mark Kelly's Pipe Organ or Piano playing isn't sublime or that Ian Mosley doesn't put in a great performance on drums, Moroccan bongos or skulls, it's just that Rothery's playing takes on a dimension not always heard in his standard setting.
"Interior Lulu", "The Space" and "This Is The 21st Century" are in places unrecognisable from the original tracks they came from and remove the vocal from them and at times they are so radically different that they really are new songs and in fact only "Hard As Love" or the untitled bonus version of "Cannibal Surf Babe" whilst still vastly different from what you know, are reasonably faithful throughout, that is if you call making "Cannibal Surf Babe" into a calypso jazz quintet really being faithful?!
One song is a new recording specifically for the album and "It's Not Your Fault" would serve as a worthy addition to any recent Marillion disc with Steve Hogarth sitting alone at the piano singing a plaintive vocal about learning to deal with the decisions and actions that befall us all at certain points in our lives. It really is a quite beautiful piece of music and it sits easily with the (slightly!) more familiar songs around it.
Of the other songs included, "This Is The 21st Century", "Interior Lulu" (not previously a favourite of mine), "Out Of This World" and "Quartz" with its irresistible tick-tock, tick-tock beat, are the stand out moments and all four benefit hugely from the naked beauty that these reinterpretations bestow upon them. However taken as a whole Less = More is a compelling and embracing listen that invites you inside the songs and allows you to reside there undisturbed until the album is finished.
I can't pretend that this is an album for all occasions and in the same way that past Marillion masterpiece Brave really needs the correct surroundings to release it's true harsh beauty, Less Is More also benefits hugely from being listened to in one of those moments when you really can give yourself wholly to the music.
None of the new versions on show improve upon their elder siblings, however that really wasn't the aim of Less Is More. Rather than an exercise in comparison, this is an opportunity to completely reappraise the songs included and in that setting it works superbly well.
Not many bands could, or indeed would be courageous enough to completely alter some of their most popular songs and present them in a radically altered form, however with this release Marillion have shown once more their ability to create wonderful expansive music with the most deftness of touch.
2. Interior Lulu
3. Out Of This World
4. Wrapped Up In Time
5. The Space
6. Hard As Love
8. It My Heart Were A Ball It Would Roll Uphill
9. It's Not Your Fault
10. The Memory Of Water
11. This Is The 21st Century
12. Cannibal Surf Babe