From 1998 to 2008, Marillion released annual Christmas CDs exclusively to members of their fan club, for free. Each one was different from the previous, but you could count on some cool unreleased music every year. Of the 11 Marillion Christmas CDs, I have physical copies of nine, and legal downloads of the others that I am missing (the first two).
Today in 2014, Marillion have released a new “best of” compilation CD of their Christmas tracks called A Collection of Recycled Gifts. This CD also features new material, but it will be most fans’ first chance to hear some of these songs. I thought that would make an excellent occasion to review a selection of the most interesting volumes of the past Marillion Christmas CDs.
I decided to start with 2001’s A Very Barry Christmas. “Barry” was their mascot during the Anoraknophobia period. This was their fourth Christmas CD, and the second I received. The content on this installment includes Christmas music, specially recorded acoustic versions, and unreleased remixes. (The reason I’m not reviewing the third Christmas album, the first one that I owned, A Piss-up in a Brewery, is this. It was later reissued as a regular live non-seasonal DVD that I can review any time. And I will, because it’s great and that one remains my favourite of these Marillion Christmas releases.)
The album commences with “I Saw Three Ships”, a studio recording of the traditional carol. Of Marillion’s Christmas music, this is my favourite song. When it opens you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a vintage outtake from Clutching at Straws or Seasons End. In fact there is even an echo of “Easter” in some of the instrumental melodies. They also segue into “O Come All Ye Faithful”, keeping things delicate but electric. “I Saw Three Ships” is, in my opinion, an undiscovered gem of the Marillion back catalogue. Then, even though it’s not listed as a separate track, Marillion’s annual Christmas message is included at the end of the song. This time only Mark and H showed up. They describe “I Saw Three Ships” as a Christmas carol hybrid, and I agree with that description.
Then, onto the presents!
The first batch of songs are taken from a 2001 acoustic session at Marillion’s home base, the Racket Club. Every tune is a brand new song from Anoraknophobia, giving fans an early opportunity to hear acoustic renditions of the new material. “This is the 21st Century” is reduced to piano and voice (presumably both by Steve Hogarth). It works well in this setting, even though the album track is long and complex. “Between You and Me” is complete with the whole band, including keyboards and drums, rendering a catchy sorta-unplugged version of their new single. “Map of the World”, co-headliner of that same single, is the stronger of the two songs, but not necessarily in this setting. I think “Map of the World” works best with all the bombast and vocal glory of the studio version. It needs to be let loose, like the character in the song who wants to see the whole world. “Separated Out” was originally the heaviest song on Anoraknophobia. It’s certainly an interesting choice to do acoustically, but I like the way it builds. It’s actually quite cool.
“Number One” is an interesting selection, because it was first unveiled on 2000’s Christmas album, the aforementioned A Piss-up in a Brewery as a preview of Marillion’s new music. The studio version was later included only on the limited deluxe edition of Anoraknophobia, so it’s a bit of a hard song to come by. The cello part is captured nice and beefy, and this ode to artificial pop singers is flawless. The thing about Hogarth’s lyrics is, he’s not really bitching and complaining. Indeed, he compares the precision of a #1 pop performance to that of a figure skater aiming to hit a 9.5. What he does is use his words to get you thinking about the subject, and I like that.
The album closes with three remixes. From the difficult to appreciate marillion.com comes the jazzy dubby trip-hop of “House”. This interesting remix by Marc Mitchell spends a couple minutes just focusing on the muted trumpet, which is never a bad idea. This is a 12 minute remix and it runs the gamut, but it certainly proves that Marillion can and do anything they want musically. Also from marillion.com is “Go!” remixed by somebody called Size 9 Cooperative. It has been robbed of its lightly throbbing pulse; it has sadly flatlined and been reanimated as a dance-bot. This is, quite honestly, terrible. If I was doing a joke remix of a song in order to make fun of remix cliches, this is how it would sound. This is one Christmas present you’ll wish you could return to the store, only to find you weren’t given a receipt. An instrumental mix of “This is the 21st Century” is more my speed. This is the album version stripped of lead vocal and laid bare. I enjoy this kind of track because you can really hear the interplay of the instruments. With Marillion, that is never really boring. This is a full-length track by the way, all 11 minutes of the song. Treated instrumentally, it has a nice ambient quality that would work well on an album such as Pink Floyd’s recent Endless River.