Before reviewing Marillion's new CD Less Is More, I must confess: I am largely unfamiliar with the group, as they are somewhat obscure in the US. The only exposure I've had to their music is through some UK "Best of the 80s" compilations, which included the singles "Lavender," "Kayleigh," and "Incommunicado." So this review may seem pretty basic to UK readers, but it also serves as an introduction to Marillion for US audiences.
Marillion's story begins in 1979, when five musicians from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England formed the group. Led by original lead singer "Fish" (aka Derick W. Dick), the band pursued a progressive rock sound, heavily influenced by such artists as Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Their biggest success came when they released their third album, 1985's Misplaced Childhood, which contained the aforementioned single "Kayleigh."
After Fish departed the band in 1988, the lineup added new lead vocalist Steve Hogarth, who remains with Marillion to the present day. Since then Marillion has fluctuated between a more pop-oriented sound and the avant garde, at times sounding like a cross between Radiohead and Coldplay. Interestingly they are considered pioneers of reaching fans via the Internet, selling their albums and singles themselves through the web.
In fact, they appealed directly to fans to help fund their 2001 release Anoraknophobia , as Marillion was unhappy with their label at the time. Due to 12,000 pre-orders for the album, the band was able to negotiate a deal with EMI to distribute the work, allowing them to retain ownership of their work without being in charge of distribution.
Their latest release, Less Is More, accurately describes the stripped-down approach; the album could have been titled Marillion Unplugged. Here the band has rearranged some previously released songs for an acoustic, intimate atmosphere. Not being familiar with many of the original tracks, I have to judge the songs based on these new versions. Standouts include "Interior Lulu," a haunting, lovely song made more melancholy by Hogarth's falsetto. Delicate cuts like "Out of This World" are tailor-made for headphones, as some of the subtle acoustic guitar and delicate piano chords could be overshadowed by large speakers. Steve Rothery's guitar is also prominently featured on "Wrapped Up in Time," mimicking Hogarth's voice as it glides over the melody.
Coldplay fans may enjoy tracks such as "Hard as Love," as its chord changes resemble some of the band's ballads. Hogarth's voice, particularly during the chorus, is reminiscent of Chris Martin's in terms of range and tone. Hogarth also evokes Thom Yorke on "If My Heart Were A Ball," which contains a catchy, shuffling beat that frames Hogarth's raspy vocals and Pete Trewavas's driving bass line.
A negative aspect of the all-"unplugged" approach is that the songs can lack variety, and Less Is More does suffer from this phenomenon. "The Space" and "It's Not Your Fault" sound very similar to tracks like "Wrapped Up in Time." But the group changes the tempo with the album's final hidden track, a shuffling tune that rocks surprisingly hard for an acoustic performance. Again, Trewavas's bass shines, as does Hogarth's made-for-rock voice. Marillion should have included more tracks like this one and "If My Heart Were A Ball" to vary the tempo and sound on the album.
Longtime Marillion fans will surely enjoy the acoustic rearrangements on Less Is More, while new fans will be intrigued by their hard-to-define sound. Coldplay and Radiohead aficionados in particularly should give Less Is More a listen, and the album may inspire fans to explore the rest of Marillion's vast catalog.
For more information, videos, and ordering, visit Marillion's official website.