Less Is More, the 16th studio album from British progressive rock veterans Marillion may just go down as my favorite album from the band since their acknowledged masterpiece, 2004's Marbles — although not for the reasons you might expect.
As its title indicates, Less Is More is a stripped-down effort — call it Marillion's Unplugged — in which the band take eleven songs from their back catalog, and basically perform them in mostly acoustic arrangements. But here is where I have a confession to make.
There is a huge, twenty something year long gap in my knowledge of this band. I was a big fan of Marillion's first incarnation with original lead vocalist Fish back in the eighties as a sort of baby Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. But then — like so many American fans — I lost track of them, up until about three years ago.
So as far as the remade songs on Less Is More go — which I assume have to come mostly from their pre-Marbles albums — I really have no point of reference to compare this music with. For me, these are essentially brand new songs. The thing is, though, I really like what I'm hearing here.
The most notable thing about Less Is More is Steve Hogarth's voice. Stripped of the full-on electric arrangements of Marillion's usual sound, it quickly becomes apparent just how crucial of an instrument Hogarth's voice is to Marillion.
On songs like "If My Heart Were A Ball," Hogarth's vocal sounds like part scream and part aching plea, and is the one thing separating this song from what otherwise sounds like a slower take on the Doors' "Break On Through (To The Other Side)." Not that this is a bad thing…
For the most part, the mood of this album is very quiet, and to my ears at least, very late night. Songs like "Wrapped Up In Time" and especially "The Space" provoke the sort of color and shade you might hear in a smoky jazz lounge around closing time. At least until Steve Rothery's guitar and Mark Kelly's keyboards kick in. On the former, Rothery's guitar adds just the right amount of flourish, while on the latter it is Kelly's haunting piano that does the trick.
On "Interior Lulu," the band probably come closest to the proggy sound of their other recordings, but even here the mood is a decidedly late night and laid back one. Set against an oriental sounding backdrop of strings and percussion instruments I couldn't identify if you paid me, Hogarth's dramatic, off-color falsetto vocal gives the song all the lift-off it needs.
Less Is More is a bit of a departure for these guys, but it is also a destination I wouldn't be at all disappointed to see them visit more often. At the very least, it's great to see a band like Marillion continuing to musically stretch itself this far into their career.
Less Is More indeed.