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Style : Symphonic Progressive Rock

Summary : A subtle mix of sounds, richly textured song structures, and very memorable melodies.

Modern recording techniques make it easy for one-man-bands to produce CDs that sound - for all the world - like a multi-part ensemble. But they usually lack the depth that comes from the multiplicity of personalities, influences and inputs that comes from a real band.

Well Arjen Lucassen, Neal Morse and Guy Manning are making it clear that wonderful results can be produced from one man's vision and control, but by also enlisting a group of deeply talented artists whose contribution elevate the music to a higher level. The core band of Manning, Laura Fowles, Gareth Harwood and Rick Ashton have been together for two previous CDs, and some members go further back; and the depth that they and the 5 guest artists bring into the recording is invaluable.

The music on A Matter Of Life & Death ranges from progressive folk through '70s-Styled symphonic-progressive, modern hard-edged rock, singer-songwriter ... and there's even some rather heavy pure jazz. That variety may lead you to fear that the music would be all over the map, but rest assured - although Manning delivers a good range of sounds, it's a very cohesive piece that revolves around the story hinted by the subtitle 'The Journey Of Abel Mann'. This character was introduced in previous Manning albums, and here we find him in apparently writing poignant memoirs on the successes and failures of his life and his relationships. Manning's lyrics are more intelligent than most in today's progressive music, and the heartfelt prose is perfectly matched to the music. I would have liked a summary of the story in the cover booklet, though.

If you can imagine an early '80s era acoustic Jethro Tull in the without the cynicism, you'll have a good idea of some of the songs and all of the vocals. Guy's voice has a rich mid-ranged timbre, and his The singing is very up-front in the mix and there aren't many long instrumental sections, so this record is defined, in large measure, by the vocals and the prose.

The song that will appeal to most prog fans is probably the 9-minute mini-epic "Out Of My Life". This mostly instrumental piece is rich in Laura Fowles' wonderful sax, which lend the music an air of mature credibility with its VdGG references. Another standout is "River Of Time". This soft melodic piece revolves around Guy's fat-sounding twelve-string guitar which supports Laura Fowles' whisper-soft and very feminine background vocals, while the rich but understated keys, the gentle bass and occasional high-register synth motifs build an elegant, introspective piece that segues nicely into "Silent Man", a more folk-rock oriented piece with fiddle and mandolin.

"Falling Down? Rising Up!" is interesting in that it switches over to pure jazz about half way through, and for about 4 minutes there's an upbeat bass/drum loop with Guy playing piano - positively smashing the keys in a series of staccato chords - then trading the limelight with the sax, Hammond, and vocal choruses.

The production and mixing are exemplary, and the cover art by Ed Unitsky is excellent and we should look out for future artwork by this talented artist whose illustrations have also enhanced albums by The Tangent and The Flower Kings. This is Manning's sixth solo album since 1999. In that time he's also worked on parallel Or 90 degrees, two acclaimed The Tangent CDs, and with La Voce Del Vento on one (soon two, we understand) Colossus 'Spaghetti Epic' projects.

The depth of his experience and creativity is clearly evident on this CD whose strongest points are the subtle mix of sounds, the richly textured song structures, and above all, the memorable melodies with hooks that sink in so deep that this CD will be in constant rotation in many collections. Highly recommended.

With its subtle mix of sounds, the richly textured song structures, and above all, the memorable melodies with hooks that sink in so deep, A Matter Of Life & Death is a fine body of work and is highly recommended.

Now imagine what guy could do if he were to add more singers to his projects, Ayreon-style!