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Manning - The Ragged Curtain

Manning - The Ragged Curtain
Released: 2003
Label: Cyclops
Cat. No.: CYCL 115
Total Time: 68:04

Reviewed by: Stephanie Sollow, July 2003

Guy Manning's most recent album, The Ragged Curtain, was released this past January by Cyclops (with another due this September). There are several things that strike me as I play this CD, the first being the crystal clear production. You may think this should be secondary, but it is because of this fidelity that you can hear the spoken interludes between tracks by Manning and (I'm presuming) Laura Fowles, she who also plays several mean sax solos, as well as each instrument clearly. The other members that make up Manning, as this album is billed, are Rick Ashton on bass, Johnathan MacDonald Binns on drums, Neil Harris on keyboards and percussion (these latter two who have both since left the band) and Gareth Harwood on electric guitar. Guests include Andy Tillison-Diskdrive (Parallel Or 90 Degrees) on organ and analogue synth for a pair of tracks, and Angela Goldthorpe (Mostly Autumn) on flutes and recorders. And, of course, Guy Manning on guitars, keyboards, bass, mandolins, peace harp, chimes, drums and percussion.

In broad strokes, The Ragged Curtain sounds like Silk Degrees period Boz Scaggs with Ian Anderson on vocals occasionally. Some of the pieces have a pop feel – and I mean that in a good way. In that contemporary or adult oriented pop-jazz style that can be respected both by the trad jazz audience and the smooth jazz audience. If it were late evening in small club, this is the band that would be playing – extremely talented folks deserving wider recognition but virtually unknown to the rest of the world. Which means that the CD has a warm and intimate sound that puts you just in front of the stage. And maybe because I was just there, but I could easily see these tracks translating well to the live stage at NEARfest (and maybe my saying that is a little hint to R&C, too). While The Ragged Curtain isn't a perfect album, as there are some bits of lyric that seem a little awkward, Manning has otherwise hooked himself another winner, using shifting dynamics good effect, balancing mellow, acoustic passages with driving rock passages. And has done so engagingly.

There are other times, though, where Manning's sound draws on a classic progressive rock sound -- say Camel (and as I write this, they are very much on my mind). This I thought in "What Is It Worth?" a mellow, jazzy piece that puts Manning's voice and acoustic guitar right at the front, adding in the various colors at times of sax, tinkly (but warm) keyboards, and brief snatches of electric guitar. Not that it sounds like Camel, mind you, but falls into that same type of progressive rock style. This is the last movement of the concept suite "The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell" which begins with the strident rocker "Tightrope." The bit of piano and guitar in the intro to this piece reminded me of a section in Elton John's "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" -- one of my favourite John tunes, by the way -- just as the first is bleeding into the second (no pun intended). Interestingly enough, the theme of this concept also deals with relationships, as I interpret the "Love Lies…" section (though one can read more into it than that). Each song in the "The Marriage…" suite is a different stage in the relationship.

As I said, "Tightrope" is a strident, rocking tune and where we first hear a wonderfully cascading sax solo from Fowles, followed by layers of keys from Manning – a mix of piano, organ and synth. So strident is this piece, that by the end of the piece you're practically clapping along to the beat. Live this would be rousing track, getting the juices flowing – which it does anyway. "A Place To Hide" has a more romantic feel (and where I thought of Scaggs/Silk Degrees), "Where Do All The Madmen Go?" has a slightly reggae like rhythm mixed in with rock – acidic guitar cuts through the bounce of bass, percussion and keys. A darker Jimmy Buffet maybe, with a hint of Celtic towards the end. The piece closes out with an emotional but optimistic guitar solo.

The next track is "The Weaver Of Dreams," a piece that has a Celtic feel to it without any specifically characteristic Celtic elements. It has more to do with rhythm. "The Weaver…" is another acoustic based piece, which shows Manning again as balladeer, sounding only occasionally like Anderson. It is here on this piece we hear Goldthorpe's lilting flute and recorder tones, weaving a peaceful and dreamy atmosphere much as the weaver in the song is weaving dreams. We get another sharp guitar solo and more distinctive, classic organ sounds. Very nice.

This leads into the title suite track/suite "Ragged Curtains," which uses a wide palette of classic progressive rock sounds to paint its seascape (the theme is the sea/seashore – as metaphor), which is at times calm at times turbulent. At one moment you'll think of Jethro Tull, another of Genesis, and even at times of early King Crimson. But it is just the sonic palette, except for a few exceptions, there aren't moments where you can point to any one specific piece by any band. The Jethro Tull element is something heard in Manning albums past and can be heard right from the start in the subdued organ and vocal opening to "Flow." But things are kicked into high gear quickly with the muscular "Sea" which puts a pair of hard driving guitars ahead of a bed organ (Tillison-Diskdrive) put music to a song about something lurking beneath the sea. "Waves," is a cool and melodic instrumental interlude that includes a trilling flute and acoustic guitars. "Stone" will remind you of "Cross-Eyed Mary" in the certain way Manning phrases the lyrics, but the happy keyboards are less Tull like and more... well, I'd say a classic prog rock sound... early Genesis. "Tides" becomes a tour-de-force rocker, just great, rollicking stuff. Leading into the watery, fluttery, folky "Sand," which, as it builds, adds Hammond organ, flute, and percussion, and more sax and "Ebb" closes things off, echoing "Flow" (naturally, being the "ebb and flow" of the piece). Terrific stuff.

My only quibble is that on "Stronger" (part of the "Marriage" suite), the there is a synth backing that sounds more like bleedthrough than an effect – like a cloudy white haze drifting up behind the main arrangement, or like a monitor was left on, throwing feedback. It may be a "choir voice" patch, but… it is the only element of the entire CD that doesn't work for me. Manning's The Ragged Curtain is a terrific release.

Rating: 5/5

More about The Ragged Curtain:

Track Listing: A Ripple (From Ragged Curtains) (0:40) / The Marriage Of Heaven & Hell: Tightrope (10:40) - A Place To Hide (4:56) - Where Do All The Madmen Go? (6:32) - Stronger (5:33) - What Is It Worth? (6:06) / The Weaver Of Dreams (7:37) / Ragged Curtains: a. Flow - b. Sea - c. Waves - d. Stone - e. Tides - f. Sand - g. Undertow - h. Ebb (25:55)

Guy Manning – 6 & 12 string acoustic guitars, electric guitars, vocals, keyboards, e-bow, bass guitar, mandolins, peace harp, chimes, drums and percussion
Rick Ashton – bass
Jonathan MacDonald Binns – drums
Laura Fowles – saxophone and vocals
Neil Harris – keyboards and percussion
Gareth Harwood – electric guitar

Guest Musicians:

Andy Tillison-Diskdrive – organ (8b), analog synth (8b & 8c)

Angela Goldthorpe – flutes and recorders


  • Tall Stories For Small Children (1999)

  • The Cure (2000)

  • Cascade (2001)

  • The Ragged Curtain (2003)

  • The View From My Window (Sept 2003)