Starting with the 1999 debut
Tall Stories For Small Children, each consecutive year has
seen the release of a new Manning album. As we head towards the yearís
end, 2007ís offering arrives in the nick of time. With my appreciation
of Guy Manningís music growing with each release, Songs From The
Bilston was the most eagerly awaited so far. His contributors
include the now regular band and Ďguestí lineup of Laura Fowles, David
Million, Ian Fairbairn, Andy Tillison, Steve Dundon plus Julie King on
backing vocals. As before, in addition to lead vocals, Guy provides an
array of instrumental backing including keyboards, acoustic and electric
guitars, bass and drums. Conceptually the album continues in a similar
vein to last years'
Anser's Tree linking fictional and semi-autobiographical
events and characters by a common thread. On that occasion it was the
successive generations of the same family, here itís the various
inhabitants of a now derelict house.
The title track Songs From The Bilston House is a suitably buoyant opener with a hint of menace that recalls Redboneís The Witch Queen Of New Orleans. Compared with the succeeding tracks the instrumentation is sparse with spiky guitar punctuations and a brief but forceful sax-break from the ever-excellent Laura Fowles. It has a memorable chorus and closes with some engaging wordless harmonies from Guy and the band. From the smooth jazzy opening, The Calm Absurd sounds like a throwback to Lost In London from The Tangentís last album. Following a compelling bass line and electric piano section the mood becomes gutsier with super charged flute and sax solos from guest Steve Dundon and Laura respectively. Although until now the quality level has been high, for my money it reaches new heights with the next two songs in particular.
Lost In Play is a wonderfully uplifting song with stunning fiddle, synth and flute exchanges anchored by an undercurrent of crisp acoustic guitar. Just when you feel it canít get any better, it does with a stunning electric guitar and synth duet that recalls the classic Yes front men at their best. The monumental Understudy that follows is the winning track for me, comparing favourably with No Hiding Place from 2005ís One Small Step, a song I love dearly. A surge of heavy weight drumming propels this keys led powerhouse along with its solid organ sound and twiddly synth work that races from speaker to speaker, courtesy of the prolific Andy Tillison. It reaches grandiose proggy heights with soaring Moog and Mellotron voices, and I almost forgot to mention Guyís stirring vocal thatís one of his most infectious to date. Special mention at this juncture has to go to the production by Guy and long time friend and Tangent colleague Tillison, which is simply stunning.
Following the excellence of the two previous songs Skimming Stones could have easily been an anti climax, but it isnít. It asserts itself with a statacco organ riff before breaking into a lively fiddle led reel supported by edgy Ian Anderson style flute work. David Million rounds things off nicely with a supreme exhibition of blues flavoured guitar. Antares features some beautifully tranquil and rich instrumental work that has become a Manning trademark. Pastoral acoustic guitar, flute, mandolin and a relaxed vocal set the scene for a sweet sounding violin solo courtesy of Ian Fairbairn. The mood is broken by a heavy rhythmic passage featuring driving organ and (I think) electric piano. Guy adds a warm and friendly bass pattern to a stirring orchestral section before things come to a gentle conclusion. Icarus & Me is a lively mid tempo song that makes good use of a fat organ sound, rocking piano and synths. Laura provides a driving sax lead leaving Million to have the final word with a soaring guitar solo.
Pillars Of Salt is a cleverly constructed song thatís modeled on The Beatlesí A Day In The Life. References to the fab four abound in the music and lyrics including sophisticated keys induced orchestral embellishments and ending with a sustained piano chord. It features one of Guyís strongest choruses to date with colourful harmonies and elaborate guitar and organ parts with a retro timbre evoking the spirit of the 1960ís. The atmospheric guitar solo in particular is a highpoint of both the song and the album. Unlike Manningís last album, which ended on a bombastic note, Inner Moment provides a mellow and reflective conclusion. A waltz like rhythm provides the backdrop for some folky lead work taking in ringing mandolin, acoustic guitar and accordion sounding keys. A bittersweet violin adagio takes centre stage along with a potent vocal melody leaving a touch of Spanish flavoured guitar that could have come from the hands of Gordon Giltrap to bring proceedings to a fitting close.
Given that six out of the eight previous Manning releases have each received a DPRP recommendation then this latest has much to live up to. No worries on that score however as this in my opinion is the strongest outing to date. Despite Guyís prolific output itís evident that this is the result of many hours of meticulous labouring by the man and his band. With his ability to elicit top performances from the whole team I suggest Guy puts his name forward for the post of England football manager. With everyone playing with skill, precision and unity, the Man of the Match for me is David Million. After his debut on the last album I concluded that his guitar style was not wholly sympathetic to Manningís music. Following his performance here I take it all back. Not only is his playing stylistically in tune I believe itís the best Iíve heard on any Manning album. In fact along with Bryan Joshís performance on the last Mostly Autumn album, itís some of the most convincing work Iíve heard from a UK guitarist all year.
Conclusion: 9+ out of 10