Tracklist: Margaret Montgomery
[1581-????] (7:13), Jack Roberts [1699-1749] (6:39), William Barras
[1803-1835] (14:45), Diana Horden [1900-1922] (7:47), Joshua Logan
[1990-2048] (7:58), Prof. Adam Logan [2001-2094] (11:59), Dr. Jonathan
Anser [2089-????] (7:07)
The DPRP have recently published two excellent prog metal specials, an indication of just how vibrant that scene currently is. What has that got to do with this release you may well ask. If nothing else it highlights the diversity of music that comes under the general heading of prog. If prog metal sits larger than life in one corner of the genre then Manning’s meld of progressive rock and folk sits comfortably in the opposite. That’s not to suggest that his music lacks the same fire or dynamics, this album has that in spades. His style is more subtle however with seemingly effortless mood changes coaxing the listener from one rich musical passage to the next. Never one to follow the pack, his music retains an individuality that deserves the listener’s attention and respect whatever you musical preferences. Anser’s Tree comes less than a year after the remarkable One Small Step, which for my money was easily one of the best albums of 2005.
In addition to being his surname, Manning is also the collective name of Guy’s band. Guy has retained some core members from the previous releases joined by several new names in key roles. The results sound fresh whilst retaining elements that will be familiar to Manning followers. Laura Fowles and Ian Fairbairn once again provide saxophones and fiddles respectively with Guy himself assuming responsibility for vocals and all manner of guitars, keyboards, basses, drums and percussion. David Million takes over lead electric guitar duties from Gareth Harwood although ironically the latter is given a name check on the sleeve notes. The sound of flutes has always been an integral part of Manning’s music and here guest Stephen Dundon from folk band Molly Bloom fills that all important role. Completing the line up are Guy’s friend and Tangent colleague Andy Tillison and Neil Harris who both guest on keyboards on two tracks.
On the face of it, the concept behind Anser’s Tree is a simple one. It traces the history of one family told though the eyes of the last descendent, one Dr. Jonathan Anser. He is the subject of the final song and his birth date reveals that his story is set over one hundred years in the future. The lives of six ancestors are chronicled through the proceeding songs. Why these particular family members are singled out is not exactly clear except to say that their lives have a tragic twist, often blighted by death and disaster. The albums title is an intriguing one. Taken on face value it is obviously a reference to Dr. Anser’s family tree. However said out loud it also describes his quest to find the “answers” to his own existence and the Universe. To add depth to the concept Guy has once again employed the services of designer Ed Unitsky whose meticulously detailed artwork provides a stunning visual backdrop to each story.
The album opens in fine style with Margaret Montgomery (1581-???). Musically the tone is sunny and optimistic with bright acoustic guitar joined by lyrical violin and soaring flute each playing melody and counter melody. The familiar warm Manning vocal tones weave a tale of treachery before a rasping Ian Anderson style flute solo opens the instrumental section which features a crisp Spanish guitar solo from Guy. Following a deceptively reflective start, Jack Roberts (1699-1749) includes some of the albums most prog laden moments with strident Hammond punctuations and fiery Rick Wakeman style Moog from Andy Tillison. This track would have sat comfortably on any of The Tangent albums. Guy and Laura’s vocal harmonies underpin the sumptuous flute led melody which peaks with a glorious sax break that ends all too quickly.
William Barras (1803-1835) dances into life in folk style with a hand clap rhythm, lilting violin melody and shimmering organ. Guy avoids padding out this epic length piece with bombast and prog clichés and instead settles for a free flowing almost classical style reminiscent of the title Suite from his last album. Driven by a tumbling acoustic guitar riff, flute, mandolin and orchestral keys ebb and flow before the triumphant life affirming conclusion. The sinister tale of Diana Horden (1900-1922) is offset by a bright upbeat melody and Latin rhythm. Classical guitar and saxophone make notable contributions but the highlight is the meditative vocal and celestial organ bridge section. The quirky Joshua Logan (1990-2048) finds Guy at his most lyrically playful and features some uncharacteristic instrumentation. This includes a funky Steely Dan style introduction and rousing blues guitar contributions from David Million. Neil Harris replies with a spirited ARP synth break, and the gutsy electric guitar and sax interplay towards the end is a blast.
The beautifully structured Prof. Adam Logan (2001-2094) is a standout track with rich melodies and memorable hooks. Riding a wave of mellotron and organ, Laura Fowles blasts out the opening theme. Guy’s drumming in particular, which is transparent for most of the album, makes an impact here. It’s also his turn to shine on synth with a solid solo that lays the path for two stirring vocal chants. These appear independently at first before combining for the uplifting coda joined by synth strings, a neat guitar break and “Singing in the Rain” lyrics from the man himself. The closing Dr Jonathan Anser (2089-???) opens in suitably atmospheric fashion with a measured vocal against a gothic organ backdrop. The reflective mood continues with organ and mellotron strings reminiscent of the first Greenslade album. A marching rhythm signals the climatic build with grandiose keys and bass sax overlaid by spirited lead saxophone and a gradual fade. Think ELP’s Abandon’s Bolero meets Steve Hackett’s Shadow Of The Hierophant and your some way there.
This is Manning’s eighth album to date and seemingly he goes from strength to strength with every release. Margaret Montgomery, Jack Roberts and Prof. Adam Logan are certainly amongst some of his best work. His music never fails to surprise and delight with melodic invention around every corner. If I had to be perfectly honest then I did miss the fluid guitar style of Gareth Harwood which I feel is more sympathetic to Manning’s music than David Million’s more bluesy heavy rock approach. But that’s my only quibble. In all other aspects Guy has produced another excellent release that comes unreservedly recommended. I’m reluctant to throw around terms like ‘musical genius’ casually, but if any one person deserved that accolade then Guy Manning would surely be on the shortlist.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10