Guy Manning CDs

Title

Label/Cat No.

Year

Length

A Matter of Life & Death (The Journal Of Abel,Mann)

ProgRock PRR158

2004

54'53

A Matter Of Life & Death
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

Track list:  The Dream (7.00);  Nobody's Fool (5.11);  Omens (5.26); The River of Time (6.36);  Silent Man (4.13);  Falling Down?  Rising Up! (7.56);  Life's Disguises (3.25);  Out of my Life ( 8.49);  Midnight Sail (5.18)

"A Matter of Life and Death" is the sixth album to be released by Guy Manning in as many years, and although it hit the streets last year (2004), I confess that I have only recently obtained a copy.  Looking back at my previous articles I realise that it has been some time since I last reviewed any of Guy's work, a serious over sight on my part, and my immediate thought on playing this CD was that I had been seriously missing out!

The album, which carries the subtitle "The Journal of Abel Mann", is a concept piece built up around the character of Abel Mann, who originally appeared on Manning's first album, "Tall Stories for Small Children" (1999).  When we last met this character he had committed suicide by jumping from a ledge (shades of the Genesis track 'Harold the Barrel' perhaps?), and we left him in Manning's own words "sat at a cleric desk writing his thoughts and story down for posterity in Purgatory before being allowed to 'move on'."  "A Matter of Life and Death" looks at what Abel has written, and represents a reflection of the characters life as he now sees it.

Despite the concept nature of the album, and the fact that the songs are closely linked into a larger story, Manning's skill is such that we are left with what is very much a song oriented work.  With none of the tracks pushing beyond the 9 minute mark, each is capable of standing on it's own merits as a self contained piece.

Manning himself covers a wide range of roles including Vocals, Keyboards/Samples, 6 / 12 String Acoustic, Classical & Electric Guitars, Bass, Mandolin, Drums & Percussion.  Providing backup however are long term band members Laura Fowles on saxophone, Gareth Harwood on guitars and Rick Ashton on bass. This album also features the additional talents of John Tipping on drums, and at various points Ian Fairbairn (violin), Neil Harris (piano), Tim Moon (cello) and Andy Tillison (keyboards).

So, what of the music itself?  For the most part the music is an amalgamation of progressive folk and rock styles, with a strong narrative running through the songs.  The concept of the album being what it is, much of the music is slow to mid tempo, but the absence of any really fast moving foot stomping numbers is nothing to be concerned about on what is when all is said and done supposed to be a  reflective work

The album opens with "The Dream" which begins softly before picking up the pace a little.  The driving rhythm section at first dominates the attention, but gradually the listener becomes aware of the subtle arrangements that are weaving the backdrop to the track.  Laura Fowles does an excellent job with her saxophone playing adding some great progressive touches while her backing vocals also provide some great contrast to the main narrative.  Great fiddle work, a fine guitar solo and some great keyboard work here are also worthy of note.

Slow and moody "Nobody's Fool" is, quite simply, a beautiful song.  The soft vocals are set against a suitably subdued musical backdrop to create a moody and emotive number.  The use of string section sounds and acoustic guitar work help to provide the perfect foil for the main vocal line, and the more you listen to this piece the more you realise there is so much more to it than you first realised.

Picking up the pace a little we come to "Omens".  Here the electric guitar work comes across much more strongly and we are treated to some really quality playing here.  Keyboard play also comes across strongly and the excellent use of backing vocals leaves a good impression.

The constant changing of pace and emphasis on this album certainly keeps things interesting and "The River Of Time" takes the pace back down again with another slower introspective number.  Piano work comes across nicely here, and my only criticism is that it is perhaps a little too short lived for my personal taste.

"Silent Man" is more upbeat.  There is a powerful folk element to this number and the strong beat and violin work from the outset put me very much in mind of Fairport Convention, something that I see as a very positive point I should add.

The first part of "Falling Down? Rising Up!" takes a more sombre tone. The plodding piano chords add a melancholic feel to this superb, emotive number where the vocals manage to convey perfectly the soul searching lyrical content.  A jazzy instrumental mid section, strong on saxophone and keyboard sounds then takes us forward to the more upbeat ending section.

"Life's Disguises" is a ballad type number with vocals supported primarily by acoustic guitar, and it works very well indeed.

Once again Laura Fowles saxophone playing adds a strong progressive rock feel right from the start of "Out Of My Life".  This is a very dynamic number with some nice tempo and mood changes providing some solid points of interest and contrast.  Keyboard playing is controlled adding texture to the track without ever going overboard while the driving rhythms, especially in the latter stages, provide a powerful upbeat feeling that counter the bluesy saxophone tones.  Great stuff!

Finally we come to "Midnight Sail".  This is a strangely upbeat number that does not seem to quite fit in to the pattern of the rest of the album.  The swinging piano playing, raunchy keyboard arpeggios and general sing along nature of the track will no doubt do well as a live set ender, but in the context of an album closer, I am not quite so sure.  Nice song all the same!

Before concluding a brief word must be said in praise of Ed Unitsky's fabulous artwork that adorns the accompanying CD booklet.  He has certainly done a fantastic job here and the artwork provides the metaphorical icing on an already worthwhile cake.

In the final analysis I have to say I am very impressed with what I have heard here. "A Matter of Life and Death" is a testament to Manning's dedication to his art and it is hard to fault from a musical or song writing perspective.  While Manning's vocal style may not appeal to all comers, there is a timbre to his voice that I feel is perfectly suited to this style of music. Highly recommended for newbies and existing fans alike.

Simon   13th April 2005

Copyright New Horizons 1999/2000.   All rights reserved.