The dread that falls over a fan when they hear their favorite band is about to release a live album or an umpteenth greatest hits compilation is palpable. You didn’t get this far being a music appreciator without seeing the hints. Those releases often signal a way out of a contract, a quick fill in order to move on with the messy business and start looking for a new label or, worse, a way of shuttering a career. In the late 1980s and on into the ’90s, artists found new wine in the old skins of the back catalog by recasting those tunes in an acoustic setting. MTV’s Unplugged phenomena held strong for a period of time, but then everyone felt the need to pull out the guitar cable, settle on a stool (or a haybale if one was really trying to make things rustic) and acousticize the hits. And now, the acoustic album has fallen into that same chilly subgenre, the filler album category.
This brings us to Marillion’s latest offering, Less Is More, a collection of their songs spanning the years featuring vocalist Steve Hogarth, roughly 1989 to the present. A couple things to mention up front are that the acoustic arrangements are not a new idea as Hogarth, guitarist Steve Rothery and bassist Pete Trewavas often tour as the acoustic and abbreviated Los Trios Marillos. Also, while the band generally plies in the sound of electric rock/pop/prog, they’ve never been shy about turning off the power for recordings such as the 1997 release This Strange Engine, roughly half of which features acoustic instrumentation. Even so, one can’t help but feel this is a group who has been forced to wait for their muse and have made this album in the interim.
Does it work on its own merits? Sort of. The new arrangements certainly are more sedate, specifically with tracks taken from the Anoraknophobia album, an experiment that tried to infuse their sound with Massive Attack styled trip-hop elements. Some of the group’s longtime fans rebelled against that release, feeling it strayed too far from the preconceived notion of what the band was, so it’s no surprise that Less Is More recasts three tracks from it, “If My Heart Were a Ball, It Would Roll Uphill,” “Quartz” and “This Is The 21st Century.” Since I wasn’t a dissenter, I now miss the energy of the original versions. I also miss the melodic build most of these songs once had, as these recordings all have a very linear mood cutting across them. The original version of “Go!” from marillion.com built slowly through atmospheres from electric guitar and synth to finish with a satisfying full band coda. With the new edition, the song hasn’t changed, but that ‘oomph’ just isn’t there.
It doesn’t make the release a failure and sets it aside as a nice chilled-out reflection of the group’s work for the last twenty years, but there is a blankness about it that begs the question of whether this is a denouement of sorts. Marillion has shown over the years that they still are capable of bringing the good stuff to the table, and as such I hope Less Is More is just a recharging period and not a winding down. As a breather, it’s fine. As an ending,Â it could hardly be categorized as triumphant.
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