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The Manning music machine motors on with their latest release Songs From The Bilston House, an album inspired by an abandoned house Guy Manning noticed whilst in Bilston for the first Summer's End festival. While it might seem an odd thing to say, this is the most "proggy" that I remember Manning being. I say odd, because he's been progressive all along, but musically, there seems to be a stronger element of "classic prog" in the compositions. But, there's also the expected folksy element, here something that mixes together Americana and Celtic styles, all centred on the fiddle (Ian 'Walter' Fairbairn) - an instrument that links the two together (and given migration from the "old world" to the "new world" over the past few centuries, is that really a surprise? I think not). Examples of this are in "Lost In Play," "Skimming Stones," and the closing track "Inner Moment."

Songs… is filled with approachable music without pretence; that doesn't mean simple or pop, but that it is arranged such that you are drawn in… invited in, as it were, to sit a spell and learn a bit about some of the (imagined) inhabitants of this house. Musically rich without a lot of heavy symphonic elements - not that those are bad, but the more open, airy, folky arrangements make this seem fresh and energized. Like a room with fresh coat of paint, new windows that let sunlight stream through (ironically, as it is, you know, about the exact opposite). Perhaps it is because Manning isn't exploring darker realms of the psyche as on past releases. Certainly this is topically much brighter than the series of tragic deaths on Anser's Tree, and yet it is not a happy album.

Even if his "Songs…" draws upon his own experience, their externalization gives them universality. That isn't to say that death isn't standing nearby, it most assuredly is - how can one not think that about album where the central character is the abandoned, dilapidated, and deteriorating house; and the characters within the various rooms are not exactly happy-go-lucky. No, you will find a sense of loss for something in each track, whether it's of time, people, purpose or direction, or just of the past. In fact, the only looking forward, heads-up song is the closing track "Inner Moment," where the protagonist is embarking on a journey -- or at least at the threshold of one, as we imagine that he is standing in the doorway with the future out before him and the past enclosing behind him (in fact, the lyrics make this moment clear right there in the second verse). This is the most pastoral of the three; mellow and relaxed, fiddle is as prominent as vocals in the mix.

Aside from the house, each song based on a room (real or imagined), the other recurring element one can find in each of the album's songs, except "Songs…" and "Pillar…," is water - a river here, the sea there. Each of these have their symbolic uses, and each come with their own symbolism, too. Rivers often imply journeys, though it is the sea that symbolizes the journey in "Inner Moment" (dedicated "to Andy" it reads; if he means Tillison, perhaps that is a reference to his having moved to France recently). And windows and doorways are featured elements in the photography of the booklet (by Manning's daughter Rosie), all of which, bar one, let the light of the outside world in; this is: shining a light on the characters of the house.

The arrangement to the mid-western styled "Lost In Play" made me think of the music of Tom Petty; more so his solo work than with the Heartbreakers and especially in the acoustic guitar intro (and intro that also made me think briefly of REM's "Losing My Religion"). But as Manning has a far different vocal style, the similarity ends there. And the light and airy instrumental interlude is far more pastoral prog (and quite lovely at that) than out of Americana … though that fiddle does creep in at one point. A topic that Manning touches upon often is the lost innocence of childhood - of growing older and longing for those carefree, stress free days of yore. Within the context of the concept here, it's also a musing upon the children that might have lived in the Bilston House.

"Skimming Stones" is a sad, philosophical tale that we call all relate to. We have watched or will watch a loved one way slip from these mortal bonds; we all will ourselves do the same. Whilst sad it is not mournful or morose; although Manning approaches this with a matter of factness, it is not unfeeling… It begins moodily with just vocals cushioned in gentle bed of organ (though we get more strident bursts between the first two verses). Things blossom for the middle section, including more excellent fiddle work that duets and plays against flute and organ. In fact, this middle section is something that is not quite a hoedown, but you can almost hear each instrument - including a crisp guitar solo - come to the centre of the circle, say their piece (that is, solo), then step back into the group. It is, at times, almost danceable, and I kept seeing a crowd of folks all in browns, beiges and greys of coarse fabric all gathered in an open framed all-wood structure. It suggests more the peasants of the middle ages, than the farmers of Kansas, but I could easily see both.

"The Calm Absurd" is a Canterbury - or Canterbury-ish - piece complete with jazzy organ-like keyboard figures (likely Andy Tillison, who also guests on vocals) and trilling flute (Molly Bloom's Steve Dundon) and a swell of orchestration. And let us not forget the fine sax solo from Laura Fowles. While it starts out understated, by the time the repeated last verse appears, the song flowers open. This song has a sunny disposition, though not quite as sunny as the title track that precedes it and opens the album. Though "Songs From The Bilston House" details this dark and gloomy place, full of mystery, the mid-tempo, upbeat, swinging, danceable rhythms come in contrast, where keyboards are at the forefront.

One of my favourites is "Understudy." It's a rocking progressive rock track with a bit of muscle. Whilst not lyrically, it's a track that is fun to listen to; it has a lot of movement and drive. It mixes in a lot of prog influences without sounding retro at all - keyboard effects suggest Hawkwind; heavy rhythmic percussion and a certainly lyrical turn of phrase suggest some of the best of Fish when we was with Marillion (although Manning has always been lyrical). We get parpy keys; a memorable chorus, and you can be sure if Manning (the man and the band) perform this live, this will be the "audience clap-along/sing-a-long" track of the set (of the new material). There are probably more biblical references here than I can identify, but I do recognize references to Moses.

"Antares" is a mostly peaceful, gently undulating piece contrasting the sea and sky - though it is mostly about the sky. Sailors use the stars to guide their ships, but our protagonist is focused on but one, the titular Antares. This is the 16th brightest star in our night sky. It's not quite melancholy, but wistful. And if I'm reading it right, the sea is turbulent outside whilst his father and brother sail back home, perhaps losing their catch, and our young boy -- young or else he'd be out on the water, too -- is stargazing. And yet, if young, also fatalistic - "Our own journey is short and over soon…" compared to the star's, which can take years to be seen by us (no science lesson follows, research on your own). Of course, we can read this another way: much as the lighthouse will help guide his father and brother back to shore, the light from Antares is guiding our protagonist elsewhere (so maybe there is a tragic ending here) - this second "interpretation" draws from the illustration accompanying the song.

"Icarus & Me" is one of two that makes reference to music. Although "The Calm Absurd" also refers to the creative process, there it is songwriting (writing a love song, in fact; cf. Fish's "Cliché"), that is… well, okay, let's say "Icarus & Me" is one of three that makes reference to music. And you might think "Understudy" refers to the theatre arts; in as much as all the world's a stage, it does, but there it is more metaphorical. So… "Icarus & Me" musically is a bit Beatles-esque at times… like "Understudy" it is more a rocker than a folker (eh, pardon the word creation there). Beatles, yes; but I also thought of Billy Joel, too. And not just because of the tinkling piano. But neither of these are dominant elements, and I'd wager only the Beatles is apt, the Joel just a coincidence (or just me again). The "music room" is what inspires this tale of a musician for whom fame remains elusive reminiscing upon a key moment in his life… though the perspective seems to shift from stage to audience between verses… perhaps a shift from dream to reality?

The Beatles get a name check in "Pillars Of Salt," as well as lyrical references and musical references, too; the arrangement also recalls the latter period of the band, though Manning sounds here more like Starr than Lennon, McCartney or Harrison. And though Starr has not been considered to be the best vocalist of the four, I do not mean that as a comparison in the negative. Just that the sound Manning's voice sounds like Starr's, Manning is a better singer. Anyway, not to dwell on that, here we are in the parlour, filled with memories of the 60s. A strummed guitar and a hint of organ, lead us into the room to have a look around, see the tattered posters on the wall… Swooping and chiming 60s-styled guitar phrases resonate in this melancholy paean to a time and promise that are gone. "Which way did the sixties go?" Manning asks. There's a passage that references "Strawberry Fields Forever."* We even get a passage with some thick, psychedelic organ, the easily transitions into a more jazzy phrase with a vaguely middle-eastern feel. Well, you know all the eastern mysticism was quite popular. This transitions to a bit that references, with its trumpeting brass, "All You Need Is Love."

Well, I do think I'll need to listen to the whole Manning/Guy Manning oeuvre to tell you whether this is his best yet, because I think I might say that with just about each latest release from Manning, and I'm going to say it again. It edges Anser's Tree by a slim margin; it flows together perfectly, and so gains those extra fractions of a point. The muses were with Manning in full force for this one.

*Down the way from me about a quarter mile there once was a strawberry field; and for most of my memory thus far, it was more unused empty lot with dying strawberry plants than an active strawberry field. A few years ago, half the lot was turned over to a controversial shopping centre (controversial because folks worried about increased traffic so near an elementary school); and just about a year ago, the other half was turned over to more of a shopping centre… Now, I don't really begrudge the shopping centre as it brings needed revenue to the area, and to do so would make me hypocritical, as I have shopped there. But I often think to myself - and yes, it was a long way to get here - "nope, strawberry fields are not forever."

February 16th 2008
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow