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MANNING‘Songs From The Bilston House’ (Festival Records) 

            Having purchased The Tangent guitarist Guy Manning’s previous solo album (‘Anser’s Tree’) on a whim, and found it to be a rather strange conceptual album, the receipt of this new album for review from David Robinson of Festival Records left me with a feeling of apoplexy, and I put it aside for several weeks before gaining any desire to listen to it. I think the album’s enigmatic title had something to do with it too.

            Well, goodly Fireworks readers, what a silly billy I was – for this is an absolutely delightful album. Let me explain…firstly the songwriting; Guy Manning is undeniably a craftsman when it comes to finding a thread for inspiration and then developing the different layers that ensue from this in a tremendously effective way. Thus, whereas ‘Anser’s Tree’ dealt with successive generations of the same family (some past, some future), the present album focuses upon various former residents of a now derelict house – in Bilston (surprise, surprise – although this small West Midlands town does get shifted to the coast for the stunningly atmospheric song ‘Antares’). As GM himself explains: “Here we are then, with stories, observations and atmospheres which have been set within the walls of one building over time” and he has let each of these run their natural course, with just the one song – about a lonely musician (‘Icarus & Me’) - coming in at less than six minutes – and then only just!  But there are so many highlights here – not least the epic ‘Pillars Of Salt’ with the sort of imagery I remember Barclay James Harvest using so well in their heyday (on songs such as ‘Poor Man’s Moody Blues’, ‘Hymn For The Children’ and ‘The Tale Of Two Sixties’). However, I did have my doubts, because the title track that opens the album is a rather strange song – redolent of Redbone’s ‘Witch Queen Of New Orleans’ (as noted so accurately by another reviewer) – that made me doubt whether I was about to have a more rewarding listening experience than with ‘Anser’s Tree’. I need not have fretted, and as a scene-setting song it is in any case lyrically sublime.

            Secondly, the music; I have personally found it rewarding to listen to a progressive album that is not also a metal album for a change. Whilst I do like my metal, albums such as ‘Songs…’ with their more eclectic, beautiful and atmospheric instrumentation provide a very welcome counterbalance to increasing doses of frenetic music. Male vocals are handled by Mr Manning himself and he has also input a vast array of instruments. Julie King and Laura Fowles also contribute vocals, and the saxophones provided by the latter remain a key component of the sound on Manning albums. Ian Walter Fairburn ‘fiddles’ away whilst the guitar sections provided by David Million are sheer quality. GM’s keyboardist colleague from The Tangent, Andy Tillison is ever-present on this album (and shared production duties too) whilst Steve Dundon from Molly Bloom guests on flutes.

            I know that Guy Manning’s vocals do not universally appeal (stand up Gary Marshall!) but on this album they seem to work a treat and blend effortlessly with the carefully thought-out arrangements and sublime solos and with all of the players present helping to produce an end of year progressive rock highlight.

Paul Jerome Smith