Have you ever driven past one of those really
old homes that looks like the local "haunted house", and wondered who
might have lived there over the years? As kids we probably all knew of
one of those homes and made up horror stories about them around the camp
fire. At a more serious level it's been the storyline of countless
movies ... and now Guy Manning has written an album about a place he saw
on the way to his Summers End gig.
So it's another Guy Manning concept piece, and once again, Manning's CD is more than just a collection of songs - he always produces music with a purpose - or at least, with a story. Bilston House doesn't have quite the singer / songwriter vibe that was prevalent in much of Manning's back catalogue, yet neither is it the 'in-yer-face' progressive rock of his earlier albums. This one is more subtle, more rounded, perhaps, and definitely very progressive in its blend of '70s elements, modern third wave progressive rock, and occasional jazzy sections that add an element of sophistication.
The mood and the flowing arrangements run from angry through bleak, and from dark through bright. Along with Guy's elegant guitar work, Steve Dundon's flute and Laura Fowles's saxophone are again distinctive elements in Bilston House. There are many sections featuring long instrumentals played on an assortment of instruments including bouzouki, mandolins, and fiddle. Guy's vocals are not quite as Jethro Tull-like any more (although "Antares" might challenge that assertion), and there's more concentration on the instrumentals than before. This focus on instrumentals works well because Manning's vocal style is loved by many of his fans, but the appeal isn't universal.
Bilston House comprises 9 tracks spread over an hour and seven minutes, giving each song between 6 and 10 minutes to develop itself into a richly layered, well constructed piece that will have broad appeal. Production - as always - is very good, and the cover art is noticeably different from Manning's recent CDs because Ed Unitsky did not illustrate the cover. The cover picture is moody and mysterious, and representative of the music within. At all levels, it's a high quality package.
The first song, the title track, may not be the best on the record - but keep going. Listen for the wonderful instrumentals in the 7-minute "Lost In Play" where 'Tron and flute play off against the acoustic guitar then against a bass, synth duets with synth, while acoustic guitars underpin the whole piece as it develops from a folksy atmosphere into a crescendo of sound with the introduction of lead guitar at the end. Along with the nicely rounded "Antares", it's definitely a high point on the album. "Skimming Stones" has an 'olde English' sound to it, driven by a fiddle playing a jig, played off against a heavy Hammond in an unusual prog-meets-old-world vibe. Quite fun. The seven-plus minute closer "Inner Moment" ends the album on a melodic, introspective note, with very English sounding vocals sung over mellow instrumentals that seem rooted in Europe - with passages that could have been lifted from a French cafe. And the record ends with the firm exclamation point of the Bilston house's door closing firmly. Very moving.
It's a pity we didn't receive a copy of Bilston House until early 2008. It would certainly have featured prominently in our 'best-of-2007" lists. In fact, it's a pity that Guy's albums appear - as regular as clockwork - near the very end of each year, often just too late to get into the best record lists. His music improves with each release, and his fiercely dedicated fan base expands constantly - though far more slowly than the music deserves. Manning fans have said this one edges out Anser's Tree by a small margin. We don't agree - and think Bilston beats Anser by a fair margin, and believe it deserves its 5-star rating.
1. Songs From The Bilston House
2. The Calm Absurd
3. Lost In Play
5. Skimming Stones
7. Icarus & Me
8. Pillars Of Salt
9. Inner Moment
Added: March 31st 2008
Reviewer: Duncan Glenday