Tracklist: Phase (The Open And Widening Sky) (7:23); The View From My Window (9:07); The Rut (8:04); After The (Tears In The) Rain (5:18); Blue Girl (6:14); Suite: Dreams – ((i) Dreamian Rhapsody; (ii) On The Carousel; (iii) In Slumbers; (iv) A Visit To The Sandman; (v) REM; (vi) From Slumbers) (20:03)
Guy Manning is one of those prog musicians who, having arrived on the scene a few years back, seem to be keen to make up for lost time by maintaining a heavy work-rate. This is his fifth release in as many years (the fourth under the Manning banner) and comes fast on the heels of his last album, The Ragged Curtain. In addition, Manning has appeared on a number of albums from his contemporaries, the latest being the superb The Music That Died Alone release from The Tangent.
Manning here maintains his core band of Rick Ashton (bass), Gareth Harwood (electric guitar) and Laura Fowles (saxophone). Apart from a few guest appearances (including one from Andy Tillison, prime mover in The Tangent), the rest of the instrumentation is handled by Guy Manning himself, including vocals, drums and a veritable battery of different keyboard-type instruments.
I must admit that I feel this album gets off to a less than promising start. Opener Phase (The Open And Widening Sky) is something of an eighties-style polished rock song. Manning’s rather husky voice sounds a little like Ian Anderson’s, and indeed the song could be compared to something Jethro Tull might have put out at the time of A Crest Of A Knave or Rock Island. However, unlike Anderson, whose voice I like, I must admit to having some difficulty with Manning’s vocal delivery, especially on the more up-tempo and harder edged material – I don’t think the voice necessarily suits the music, and his intonation and phrasing I found a little off-putting. To be fair though, his delivery on the softer tracks, where he adopts a much cleaner vocal style, is far more effective.
Overall, Phase… is pleasant enough, but goes on way beyond its natural length. The same could be said about the title track, which despite a promising middle eastern-style intro, develops into a rather bland, mid-tempo ballad – its clearly going for epic, but misses the mark. Both these songs would be acceptable as short, three minute-odd tracks, but at a combined length of over 16 minutes rather outstay their welcome.
Things look up once the dark, moody strains of The Rut kick in. This is more like it – a fine mid-paced track with sharp, sinister guitar work, plenty of symphonic overtones and a classy chorus. The classical-style ‘string section’ (actually handled from Manning’s bank of keyboards) is very effective, as indeed is the extended instrumental section as a whole, allowing all the musicians room to stretch out within a vastly more interesting framework than that offered in the first two songs.
The shorter (in relative terms!) tracks conclude with After The (Tears In The) Rain, an acoustic-led ballad, which harks back to Manning’s days as a solo singer-songwriter, and Blue Girl, an upbeat pop / jazz song which swings along nicely and allows Laura Fowles a chance to shine on the saxophone. Both are pleasant, if hardly essential. However, once the opening strains of Suite: Dreams are played, the step up in quality is marked. Opening with some wonderful piano playing by Andy Tillison, the first section Dreamian Rhapsody is best described as a lullaby, with Manning’s voice here at its very best. Gradually Tillison’s piano leads, via a jazzy interlude, into a swirling orchestral mass which heralds the excellent instrumental section On The Carousel. This is a wonderful piece, Manning’s keyboard work and the general theme of the track leading to favourable comparisons to mid-70’s Genesis, particularly Mad Man Moon. The mood switches from playful to dreamy with ease, and includes a superb (if short) electric guitar solo from Gareth Harwood that proves you don’t need a million notes to make an impact. This section gradually merges into the warm vocal section In Slumbers, with Manning again on improved vocal form (armed as he is with far stronger vocal melodies than on some of the previous songs) and hitting the hammond rather heavily, always a good thing in my opinion. This part ends with some great fiddle playing by guest musician Tim Moon. The two instrumental sections that follow see the band moving more into slightly darker, Van der Graaf Generator-esque territory, particularly on the sax/ keyboard duals. Tillison fires off a suitably swirly solo, before the extended finale of From Slumbers ties things up in the usual crowd-pleasing fashion.
Overall then, this is a good album of solid prog rock. In Manning’s favour is the warm, full sound he’s captured here, and the obvious skill of himself and his band as musicians and arrangers; against is the stretching of many songs beyond their natural length, and the ‘love it or loathe it’ nature of the vocals. If you’re already a fan of Manning’s work, I imagine you can purchase this with confidence; if not, perhaps try some of the samples first, though I would say that if you’ve got some money burning a hole in your pocket and are a fan of the prog epic, it might be worth splashing out on this just for Suite: Dreams, which really is an excellent epic in the best prog traditions.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10