Nightman Listens To Marillion – Less Is More!

Less Is More (Marillion album) - Wikipedia

Greetings, Glancers! It feels like an age since I’ve listened to any new Marillion material, and it looks like I’ll have to wait a little longer, because Less Is More is Marillion’s… acoustic album? Is it acoustic, or is it simply re-imagined? The ‘less’ part of the title makes me think that this is a collection of stripped back versions of existing songs – less faff, less volume, and dare I say it, less energy. I’m curious to see how the band changes these songs, and if the ‘less’ actually does turn out to be ‘more’. I understand that there is one new, previously unheard song, which presumably ties in with the approach and tone of the other songs. Or maybe it’s a two and a half minute, 110 bpm, punk sung about tits. Lets find out.

Go kicks off the album by presenting me with a challenge; will I remember the original versions of any of these songs? Glancing at the track-list before listening, I recognized and remembered most of the names. If you put me on the spot and asked me to hum a piece of each from the names alone, I’d struggle with quite a few of them. This is odd, given how much I love music and how easily I can recall advertisement jingles or Incidental music from 80s TV shows that I may have only heard a handful of times over thirty years ago. It’s especially odd given how many times I’ve listened to each of the original versions in a relatively recent time. Does this mean it’s harder for me to learn and retain new music now that I’m older, or does it mean that Marillion’s music doesn’t play magically capture my attention like other bands do? <Shrugs>

The main thing I remembered about Go was its intro. I couldn’t have hummed it for you, but I could ‘see’ it in my head. When this new version played, I convinced myself that the version in my head was wrong. Then I realised that the band wasn’t simply playing acoustic updates, but that they were in fact re-imagining the songs, more or less from the ground up. Uber-fans like Paul will debate over which versions are superior or preferred. I’ll leave such debate to those guys, but for my part, I liked this. H sounds wonderful, the vocals are front and centre, and the more laid back and intimate feel accentuates his best qualities. He doesn’t need to be some booming tour de force, but is much more impactful when he sounds like he’s leaning on your shoulder and dripping honeyed musings into your ear from inches away.

It’s a credit to the production that this approach is so potent – stripping songs down can often drain the energy and oomph of the original, and when you’re a band like Marillion who aren’t exactly known for energy or oomph you need to be careful to retain what makes their music so powerful in the first place – their intimacy, their sense of commune, their tragedy and beauty. I think they manage this with Go. While the keyboard drive of the original has been removed, we instead are treated to sneaky tickles of violins, xylophone style keyboard tinklings, and a confidence in the song’s melodic core.

Interior Lulu opens with some near Asian guitar and keyboards, feeling like one of those 80s/90s Hollywood/Hong Kong/Japan crossover movie soundtracks – Black Rain, Rising Sun, Rapid Fire, Big Trouble In Little China, Double Impact. I half expected H to have adopted the persona of a muscle-bound, one-liner spouting martial artist for his performance. Alas, he merely perks up and gives us some RAWK vocals. Maybe’s it’s the stripped back nature of the music which gives him the freedom and space to push his vocals more here, but he does give a little bit of grit throughout the song. It works very well, it’s more convincing than some of the recent attempts at harder rock songs, and his more traditional vocal approach is on point too.

What is less convincing are the transitions. Up until the three minute mark, this is a great song and a great performance. As per the original, the song has a series of twists into new territory, but many of the transitions are almost are non-existent, making this feel like a collection of near unrelated parts. I’m sceptical that they could have done anything else with these transitions beyond conceiving a more lengthy instrumental piece to guide the music more naturally from one section to the next. The second half of the song feels more chaotic than the first and while the performances remain solid, I doubt it’s a song I’ll return to much – a shame given that I did enjoy those opening three minutes so much.

I should mention here that this is likely going to be a shorter post than usual given that we don’t need to talk about the lyrics again – that is unless Paul tells us that the lyrics were given an overhaul too. What I will say is that the re-imagining does seem to help the lyrics come through more clearly and cleanly than in some of the originals, but my central focus in my listens to this album has been on how the music has been re-framed.

Out Of This World is a song which has made my Marillion Playlist for car journeys, and I remember it being one of my favourites from Afraid Of Sunlight. The studio version was all about atmosphere and tone, helped greatly by the keyboards. On Less Is More, those keyboards are gone and we have a less atmospheric, more plaintive clean keyboard approach. The guitars are kicked up to front and centre, at least in the opening moments. As such, the song takes on a different tone. It’s not as gloomy, but feels more lonely. It feels more like a cry for help.

Out Of This World has plenty of transitions and they feel more organic than those on Interior Lulu. They are sudden, but not out of left-field. That being said, the final couple of minutes didn’t have much of an impact on me this time around. I think it would have been interesting simply to end the song after the last ‘only love will turn you round’. Sometimes it’s cool when bands just remove a piece of a song when doing a re-recording or a live rendition etc.

Wrapped Up In Time has always been a gorgeous song. I talked a little about the Less Is More version when I was doing my Happiness posts. No matter what the form the song takes I’m sure I’ll love it – this version is good, but there’s something niggling at me; I don’t think the definitive version of this song has been made. If it has been, I haven’t heard it. I think the core of the song and it’s potential are so strong that someone, someday will make a better version. Or more accurately, one that will be definitive for me.

It’s strange… this version at once feels too long and too short. The song is played at too glacial a pace, but it ends too soon. The arrangement here leans more into a Gospel/Country sound when I think they should go folk or full overblown power ballad. I don’t know what I want my version to be, but I’ll know when I hear it.

The Space was one of those songs which convinced me that I was going to like H as a vocalist, writer, and presence in the band. It’s a bit of an epic, it has a great atmosphere, and it’s a song which takes full advantage of having a full band involved in its creation and execution. The Less Is More version, as the name suggests, is over a minute shorter. Not only is the time cut, but much of the original’s atmosphere is gone, removed in favour of a more displaced Jazz approach. It works in its own way, but part of why I loved the original was because it was unashamedly silly and bombastic. We lose the crazy solo section, which I don’t mind being cut, but more of a loss is the follow-up vocal section where H channels Sting. The Less Is More version just peters out from an already drained point. It does get points for perhaps having more of a haunting and subtle ending in its final seconds. Similar to Wrapped Up Time, while I think the original version of The Space is the definitive one, I feel like there is a better stripped down take than what we have here.

Hard As Love is a song which gets stripped down both in terms of time and sound. It was Brave’s near over the top Rock song at over six minutes long, while here it’s a gentle, slow song at just over five minutes. It’s one of the more obviously different versions on Less Is More with the bulk of the song being H and piano. The guitar crunch and the gruff vocals from Brave are gone, and instead we have something tame in the Coldplay sense. As such, it takes on a different potency, a tenderness free from the reins of the Rock blow-out. Hearing this, it made me think whether a darker, slower version of the song may have worked better on Brave to match the tone of that album. The original song isn’t one I’ve gone back to much since finishing with Brave and I’m not sure that this version will make my Marillion playlist. Quality wise, or preference wise I’d put them on a similar level even though the band does a good job of making the two quite different in tone and content.

Quartz was always something of an airy, spacey song which compensated for the lack of a strong core by plastering a load of studio trickery all over it. An acoustic version is certainly brave – how do you replicate the studio trickery, never mind attempting to make a decent song over something that was quite barren? It succeeds more on the first point, but on the whole it takes a song which was already on the dull side and exposes its weaknesses. The opening three to four minutes are meandering and lifeless, even if all the twinkling and riffs make solid attempts at bulking out the song, while the closing couple of minutes are quite strong. The closing solo and vocal melodies are highlights, but it’s too little too late.

If My Heart Were A Ball is another adventurous choice given the length of the original song. This rendition loses the bombast of the original and goes all jazz club – nice. Except, I don’t like Jazz, so not nice. Like Quartz, the opening minutes do very little for me and I can’t see me, or anyone else, choosing this over the original. It has a different flavour, but it’s simply not very interesting beyond its concept of stripping down a big Proggy boy. For a minute in the middle it’s a little more interesting, but it then fades away into tepid musings. I can applaud the ambition and bravado of the attempt, but it doesn’t really work.

It’s Not Your Fault is the new boy. It’s sweet enough – almost childlike in its simplicity, like an Imagine or a Let It Be. It’s the sort of thing that H does very well – exposing lyrics and emotion. I quite like it, but in opposition to the rest of the album it’s a song which feels like it needs some additional instrumentation to bring out its strengths. It feels a little unfinished and I’d like the chorus to feature a few more lyrics rather than just the title repeated over and over. Elsewhere the lyrics cover familiar ground for the band – it’s very open, it’s less cryptic than their lyrics sometimes get which aids in the overall lullaby effect. I’d be keen to hear a more fleshed out version if such a thing exists.

With Memory Of Water, there’s only so much you can do with it. The original was already very short and simple – converting it into an acoustic or stripped back version would seemingly take little effort. The Less Is More version is a little more intimate and feels less cinematic, and the slightly increased pace helps it feel less like an interlude. I prefer the H performance in the original, but he’s still very good here. There’s not a lot to it, but I would have no qualms about having it on a playlist.

This Is The 21st Century seems to be a quite highly regarded song in some Marillion circles, but in its original form I was ambivalent about it. Bits I enjoyed, bits I didn’t. I much prefer the Less Is More version and the stripped down nature allows the melodic qualities of the first half to rise to the top. We lose the bananas guitar solo but the piano climax makes up for the loss. It’s half the length of the original so almost all of the atmospheric soundscape stuff has been omitted meaning we have two very different versions of the song. An eleven minute stripped back version wouldn’t work at all. Which version you enjoy more will be down to your personal preference and your mood in the moment.

Finally, Cannibal Surf Babe is throwaway fun. I wasn’t much of a fan of the original, but I get it. This one isn’t too different – it’s very loose and the band are clearly enjoying the performance, but I don’t like the vocals, the talking, or much else. It’s not a mess, but it’s not something I’d ever need to hear again.

Between You And Me (@BYAMPOD) | Twitter

Over to BYAMPOD and… are the guys covering the whole album in a single episode? It’s a long one (lovely), but it seems like they’re talking about H’s new solo EP too. Maybe they’ll just fly through Less Is More because the bulk of the songs have already been covered in previous episodes, albeit in their original form. Or maybe it’s a two-parter. Of course, I could just listen to the thing before wastefully typing this nonsense, but then I’ miss out on my million words a day quota.

We begin by talking about that new EP – I have not heard it, but I’m sure it’s as lovely as a Long One. Before releasing Less Is More, the band released a bunch of Live albums and curios. I haven’t heard those either. The band were burned out, but still wanting to do something. They decided to re-arrange a bunch of old songs in a semi-acoustic fashion, whittled down the list, and were ready to go. At the time, Paul wasn’t too impressed by the album and felt it was lacking in almost all respects, but in this re-appraisal he is more positive. The general consensus seems to be along the same lines – some people are uninspired, other people found preferred versions of songs within. I think that’s the way most of these things tend to go.

We get going with Go, a song which Paul felt was a little pointless due to its similarity to the original. It’s a song which relies on energy, especially when played live, and here the guys feel it has that energy drained. I felt this too, but that the new arrangement also increased some of the more gentle and melodic qualities of the original.

With Interior Lulu, Sanja didn’t notice many differences and that it’s lacking the funk of the original. Paul thinks that the song lacks the potency of the original’s ending. Not much more to add. Paul and Sanja both feel that Less Is More’s Out Of This World is the better version. I liked most of it, but felt the second half dragged a little. Paul says that this is the case when the song is played live, but he enjoys it here and wishes it was longer. That’s the complete opposite of what I said and that they should have cut out the ending entirely. Controversy all around, then.

Wrapped Up In Time is another song which the guys are favourable on, with both thinking this is better. It could be a bit of the ‘newness’ factor – sometimes when you hear a cover or new version of a song, that newness leads you to enjoy it more than the original, but sometimes that newness fades. Sometimes it doesn’t, and the new thing becomes the definitive thing. I felt that, while I liked this version a lot, it still left me wanting. That definitive version is still out there, somewhere.

Sanja found The Space funky and soulful, but again lacks the energy of the original. Paul agrees that it’s not an improvement and is another of those songs which feels somewhat plodding and unnecessary. Both guys enjoy this take on Hard As Love – particularly Sanja, and both may be convinced that this is the preferred version. Quartz sounds unfinished according to Sanja and that the loss of the bass is detrimental. Paul thinks the whole thing is a patchwork, but that the ending solo is sublime. Sanja prefers this version of Heart – Paul thinks it’s fine but isn’t a huge fan of the original in any case. Incidentally, I haven’t been taking notes on how many songs the guys prefer over the original. Or how many I prefer.

Sanja enjoys It’s Not Your Fault more than Paul, who says H wrote it as an adult lullaby, while Paul loves the lyrics more than the music. Paul prefers this take on Memory Of Water, Sanja prefers the original, while I’m in the middle – for anyone counting. It’s not very different. Sanja prefers the Less version of 21st Century, while Paul doesn’t think it works very well. He still likes it, but it’s not on par with the original. Naturally, I felt that this version was much better. Finally, Cannibal Surf Babe happened.

The guys think the album is more for the hardcore fans, while being a bit of a cash in. I like albums like this in theory – I have a whole series (mostly unpublished) about bands I wished had made an MTV Unplugged album, or something similar. While this isn’t quite that, it’s a similar idea – stripped down versions of songs we already know. As a music fan who gets passionate about many bands – I want more material from them, and if something like this bridges a gap between albums, then I’d rather it existed than didn’t. What I’m not a huge supported of is multiple Greatest Hits or multiple Live albums. One of each is more than enough. Even though Iron Maiden has released a couple of the best Live Albums ever, they are more than guilty of ripping the arse out of it. It seems like every new album is accompanied by a Live album – yet typically the setlist doesn’t vary much. And they never shy away from a ‘new’ Greatest Hits every few years.

I think that if you’re going to do it, do it different. Make it somehow unique – something that you wouldn’t expect from the band, like Metallica’s S&M. Make it worth hearing. Put on a new track or two. Make the new version drastically different. Radiohead’s From The Basement series are a great example – Radiohead typically giving new life to songs that I don’t think work particularly well in their original form.

On the whole for me, it’s an album which suffers from two key issues, issues which many albums of this ilk fall foul of; the wrong songs were selected for this experiment, and the wrong approach was taken on the songs that were selected. I use ‘wrong’ subjectively. I’m a minor Marillion fan by all accounts, and while I have my own list of songs I’d like to see given the stripped down treatment, the lifer fans would have personal lists too. I like that they didn’t just pick ‘easy’ songs to play safe versions of, but by the same token many of the songs which were selected simply weren’t very strong to begin with. I’ve often said that the strength of any song (if we’re going by my own personal metrics of melody and emotion) is whether or not it retains its power when stripped down to its most simple parts – a vocal and a single instrument. Some of the songs selected didn’t have that core to begin with, instead relying on atmosphere and what the band and Producers can concoct in the studio. If choosing a song like this, you can transform the thing by pushing the core into a different genre, changing the pace, even twisting the melodies, but for some of the more dull entries on the track list, the band simply cut away the chaff and played slower.

On the other hand, some of the revisions are much more successful and come to close (or succeed in) surpassing the originals. I had a couple I would choose over the originals and a couple that were on par. It’s not an album I see myself returning to, and I don’t expect many others would. While I appreciate the idea of these albums, the only one that ever truly worked for me was The Gathering’s Sleepy Buildings. Still, at some these bands will be no more, and it’s nice that we got one more album from them, even if it may not be essential.

There we have it! I’m away to cut and paste my comments on the second half of the album here, meaning that this will turn out to be quite a long post after all. But that’s Less Is More out of the way in a single post. Up next is a bunch of other side projects. I’ll probably give them a cursory listen but likely won’t post on them unless they change my life. Go listen, go comment, do all of the stuff!

Tell it like it is!

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