Tracklist: The Dream (7:00), Nobody’s Fool (5:11), Omens (5:26), The River Of Time (6:36), Silent Man (4:13), Falling Down? Rising Up! (7:56), Life’s Disguises (3:25), Out Of My Life (8:49), Midnight Sail (5:18)
For his sixth CD, Guy Manning finds a new home on ProgRock Records, and Cyclops’ loss is their gain as Manning’s winning blend of assured storytelling Singer-Songwriter material, blended with a healthy portion of prog rock dynamics and instrumental textures finds a new level of depth and maturity on this, his most consistent and enjoyable disc so far.
All five of his previous CD’s have been reviewed by DPRP, with no less than three of them earning a recommended tag. I was surprised to see that Cascade didn’t quite make the grade, as this was the first one that made me sit up and take notice. Granted, it was a very varied, you might say patchy, affair, but its best moments are hard to beat for accessible melodic Neo-prog.
A Matter Of Life And Death goes a long way to address the shortcomings of Cascade, being entirely more consistent, and largely more prog oriented, although much of the material is mid to slow tempo and favours the reflective side of things, as befits the conceptual nature of the work. It’s a thoughtfully constructed tale of Life, Death and Rebirth and follows the progress of Abel Mann, a character first introduced on Manning’s debut CD.
To realise his ambitious project, Manning has retained the solid band of his last few releases, namely: Laura Fowles – sax, Gareth Harwood – guitars, and Rick Ashton – bass. I have seen them live and believe me, their passion and enthusiasm really spills off the stage in an infectious manner, and the songs are given a renewed sense of vigour and purpose.. I would love to see them tackle this new material live.
On this CD they are assisted by: John Tipping – drums, Ian Fairbairn – fiddle, Neil Harris – piano, Tim Moon – cello and Manning’s fellow Tangent / PO90 compatriot Andy Tillison on keyboards on the first and last tracks.
The CD gets off to a rousing start with the delightful The Dream, which is perhaps my favourite Manning composition so far. It has a brief, delicate intro before taking off with an infectious chugging rhythm, powered by acoustic guitars and featuring a wicked guitar solo and splashes of synths that somehow remind me of 80’s Eloy. When the sax enters we are in classic VDGG territory – Laura Fowles is on excellent form. Guy gives a strong vocal performance in his usual idiosyncratic style. His occasional tendency to over-sibilance is less marked on this disc. Whilst he may not be the best vocalist you have heard, his personal delivery of the heartfelt lyrics adds a welcome dose of character and passion.
Nobody’s Fool is a tender, delicately orchestrated lament for a wasted life. Manning’s lyrics throughout this CD are very satisfying- thoughtful, wistful and, dare I say it, profound. I was often reminded of Peter Hammill’s wordy and intellectual approach to lyrics, though of course Guy’s voice is nothing like Peters. Omens is a mid paced rocker, merging incisive electric guitars, powerful organs and strummed acoustic guitars, with a Mellotron-ish backing (it might be a Mellotron, but I am not entirely convinced) and some great lyrics bursting with references to various superstitions.
The River of Time is another strong song, with a compelling vocal form Guy, boosted with some female backing vocals and a good piano solo. There are some lovely, subtle instrumental touches to this one; it’s a fine example of the current strength of Guy’s material. Silent Man adds a folkish twist with mandolin and fiddle, and Guy’s vocals are at their most Ian Anderson-ish too, lending a Tull vibe to the song. Nice one!
Falling Down? Rising Up! As it’s title suggests is a song of two halves, combining a heartfelt lament in the first half, via a jazzy bridge, with a joyous celebratory song of hope in the second half, which reminds me of the up-tempo world music influenced material purveyed on Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe’s self titled release. The In The Midst Of Life Refrain is catchy to say the least, and there’s some great sax and infectious rhythms too. This is a really successful song, and one of the albums best tracks.
Life’s Disguises is a simple acoustic ballad, but no less enjoyable for that, with a definite Hammill-ian lyrical sensibility at work. This too is one of my favourite moments.
Out Of My Life begins with superb sax from Laura Fowles – she really captures some of the passion of David Jackson from VDGG on this track. There’s quite an orchestral feel to the arrangement and some delicate mandolin to be found amongst the sturdy organ and synth leads. This is a track where all of Manning’s strengths are openly on show. It’s warm and melodic, with plenty of instrumental colour and crafty arrangements, wringing every ounce of interest from a not-especially complex structure, to make an accessible prog rock song, which should have wide appeal.
The CD’s closer is the most upbeat track on the disc, with a sing along feel. The lyrics are appealing and there’s some nice sax of course, but its simplistic Rock 'n' Roll structure, whilst fun, lacks the depth of the other tracks. It is saved somewhat by a nice synth solo from Andy Tillison, but it fails in my opinion to provide the grand climax this otherwise excellent concept work deserves.
Nevertheless, this is Manning’s strongest effort to date, with an excellent sense of pacing and structure, and I have no hesitation in once again awarding a DPRP recommendation. It’s richly deserved and I hope that Manning’s boosted profile following his presence in the Tangent project results in many new listeners checking out his solo stuff. Whilst operating in a more commercial, low key, less bombastic prog area, there’s a lot of high quality song craft and musicianship to be enjoyed on any of his solo stuff and this one makes a great place to start exploring. Enjoy!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10