Tracklist: In Swingtime (4:30), Night Voices (5:56), No Hiding Place (9:33), The Mexico Line (7:02), One Small Step... (Parts I-VIII): Star Gazing (4:34), For Example (3:03), At The End Of My Rope (2:04), Man Of God (2:36), A Blink Of The Eye (4:56), God Of Man (2:30), Black And Blue (7:26), Upon Returning (3:28)
Read almost any review of a Guy Manning release, and at some point there will be the inevitable comparison with Ian Anderson. If you’ve never heard a Manning album (shame on you!), this may give a false impression. Yes, there are similarities in the voice, and he does incorporate elements of prog and folk in his music, but not overtly so. He actually has one of the most distinctive voices in rock. Not a great voice in the technical sense, but a warm and compelling voice. His music is difficult to pigeonhole, being a rich blend of prog, folk, jazz, mainstream rock, even pop. This is his seventh album to date, and the second with his current record label. In addition to his work as Manning, he has been a key player in The Tangent along with his old friend Andy Tillison. Together, they have worked on several other projects, so I suppose Manning could be described as a workaholic, something he has in common with fellow musicians Roine Stolt and Neal Morse.
This release reveals his talents as a multi-instrumentalist. In addition to vocals, he plays all keyboards, acoustic 6 & 12 string guitars, classical guitars, mandolins, electric guitar, bass, drums, percussion, and according to the sleeve notes, kitchen sink! Although this has a solo album feel, he has brought in his regular band to flesh out the sound. They are Laura Fowles on saxophones and backing vocals, Gareth Harwood on electric lead guitars, Rick Ashton on additional bass and backing vocals, and Ian Fairbairn on fiddle. Martin Orford from IQ and Jadis guests on flute. Drummer Simon Baskind is credited as “drums consultant” whatever that involves! The inspiration for the songs comes from the artwork of the album designer Ed Unitsky. Special mention has to go to his images inside the CD booklet, which are quite stunning, and deserve high praise.
The bright and breezy In Swingtime gets things underway. The song is about growing older, but the combination of layered acoustic guitars, string drenched keys, relaxed organ, and crisp rhythm section provides a sunny and optimistic feel. The strong saxophone solo with its rich orchestral backdrop is a reminder of Gerry Rafferty’s City To City album. Dynamic saxophone and strings build to a rousing conclusion, with organ having the last word. Night Voices is a gentle reflective song, with the atmosphere effectively conveyed by lilting strings, delicate acoustic guitar, and a folk like rhythm. Guy adopts a storyteller vocal, with serene backing vocals during the choral refrain. Inspired fiddle work, assertive classical guitars, and a mandolin-sounding backdrop are all strong features, which enhance the folk element of this piece.
Melodic electric guitar and a colourful organ sound give No Hiding Place a pop sensibility, providing an effective contrast to the rest of the album. Strong hooks abound, with an infectious chorus, driving rhythm section, chugging guitar, and Mellotron punctuations. A wave of strings leads into a cacophonic Van der Graaf Generator style instrumental section which cuts through the song like a knife. A pulsing rhythm, aggressive sounding organ, piercing guitar, and manic saxophone build the tension to almost breaking point, with symphonic keys holding it all together. A triumphant organ, supported by stately synth and a martial-like rhythm regains order and the main song returns, this time sounding more urgent and dynamic. The choral refrain, with its layered vocals sends shivers down the spine. Poignant synth and guitar take the final bow. I’m going to cast my vote for album track of the year, and this is it. Pop and prog collide head on, and it works brilliantly! Thankfully, for The Mexico Line, Manning avoids the obvious and doesn’t go south of the border for his musical inspiration. Instead, the song adopts an easy going, mid tempo country sound, with acoustic guitar, steel like electric guitar, fiddle, and a relaxed rhythm section. The combination of Guy’s voice and the country feel put me mind of The Mavericks, but somehow I can’t see Manning being adopted by the line dancing fraternity! A strong saxophone break and rich organ solo at the close add spice to the song.
One Small Step... is divided into eight songs, but in reality this is a single suite lasting just over 30 minutes. Each song flows effortlessly into the next, where the changes in tempo and mood are subtle. The listener is taken on a musical journey, which tackles the wider implications of man’s exploration of space. This is a rich tapestry of layered instrumentation, where the ever-present acoustic guitars play a percussive role. The whole piece has a distinctive acoustic ambience, where drums and electric guitars are sparingly used. Star Gazing sets the pattern, with acoustic guitars and a touch of bass providing the rhythm. A strong vocal introduces the main theme, with exquisite harmony backing. Keyboards play a major role with Mellotron atmospherics, a sprinkling of piano, floating synth and a warm recurrent organ sound. In For Example the guitars become more urgent sounding, and the shuffle like rhythm is underpinned by organ. The vocals are more intense in At The End Of My Rope, before relaxing with smooth harmonies against a symphonic backdrop.
In Man Of God rich six string and ringing twelve string guitars assert themselves, and a strong vocal floats on a sea of Mellotron. Flute and violin enrich the soundscape. The main song resurfaces for A Blink Of The Eye, where flute and violin weave in and out of an incessant bass line and a haze of strings. Delicate but incisive mandolin joins the mix. God Of Man returns to the theme of part IV, this time with different lyrics. Expressive violin shines, with a ripple of organ and Mellotron to close. The mood changes for Black And Blue, where David Gilmour like electric guitar dominates. This combined with drums, bass, organ, and lazy saxophone gives the track a distinct laid-back Floyd sound. Delicate flute is ever present. A strong guitar solo supported by organ and sax provides a dynamic end. Sunny acoustic guitar, Mellotron, and piano ushers in Upon Returning (great title), which takes the piece full circle. Beautiful harmony vocals return, backed by Mellotron, which doubles the melody. A hint of organ and synth, before fading voices on a wash of strings and violin provide a majestic conclusion.
I cannot recommend this album highly enough. A copy should be in everyone’s stocking this Christmas. Unlike a number of bands, Manning’s music does not beat the listener over the head with a stick; it invites you in, and holds you in a warm embrace. Just the thing for this time of year!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10