Manning - Anser's Tree
Year of Release: 2006
Label: ProgRock Records
Catalog Number: PRR270
Total Time: 63:32:00
My favorite moment on Manning's latest release Anser's Tree comes at the end. There is a dramatic, dark passage here that seems so unlike the folkier material of the rest of the album - and yet fits right in. Of course, it does include a sax solo from Manning mainstay Laura Fowles, but it's more than that, it's...
Well, don't get me wrong. It's not that that's the only moment worth mentioning, because Guy Manning has assembled (another) winning album and in some respects, maybe his best yet. This is tapestry of rich textures, a multi-layered, multi-hued epic that is also very grounded. The album is filled with special moments...
Anser's Tree is a concept album; Dr. Jonathan Anser researching his family tree. Now, if you read the dates and try to find a direct lineage to the family members here, you do run into some challenges ... so let's say these are the tragic branches of his tree, and that these characters might be Anser's great aunts and uncles of some remove, or cousins of some remove. That is, Joshua Logan could not be Prof. Adam Logan's father, as he would have been 11 at the time Adam was born ... much as Adam couldn't be Anser's father, as he would have been 88*.
Many of the characters' stories end sadly, all ending with "untimely" deaths. Two others end in a mystery that it's hard to say whether it ends badly or not; one of those portends a sad end for us all. One of those that doesn't end badly is that of "Joshua Logan" - though he only lives to 58, based on the dates. This is a playful, cheerful, upbeat, jazzy-funky tune; a man looking back at childhood and the endless questions we have as children. It posits that our questions don't end when we reach adulthood (they change and become deeper, but they persist). It's also funny at times and deliberately so ("Why does my best friend have a little belly button and I've got a 'sticky out'..." for example). Sound and arrangement-wise, I thought of Billy Joel, actually (80s-early 90s). This is the one piece where electric guitar is the most prominent -- whereas violin or flute are the featured instruments on earlier pieces (reflecting in many ways the music of the times the piece represent). The guitar soloing here is impressive - not sure if it's Manning or guest David Million, but regardless, pretty cool. We do get some throaty soloing in "Prof. Adam Logan" (one of the album's two epic-length pieces at 11:59) that competes with Fowles sax and widdly keyboards - a bit of controlled chaos. I'm sure it's coincidence, but there's a repeated passage here that reminds me of "Life In A Northern Town" (Dream Academy). It's a mid-tempo rock piece that is neither folky nor jazzy, but it is expansive and epic? on the order of Flower Kings, though not quite as symphonic.
The album begins with "Margaret Montgomery," a track that in many ways reminds me of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" without the orchestration and at a slower pace. And it contains quite a bit of flute (Stephen Dundon of Molly Bloom) -- perhaps more flute on this than on any other Manning release. Instrumentally, you can imagine folks engaging in some Celtic square dancing, moving through and locking and unlocking arms with one another as each moves through the floor of dancers. And yes, if you have been wondering - those of you familiar with Manning - there are times when Jethro Tull comes to mind; in Manning's vocals and some of the trilling flute lines. Swelling, sweeping and romantic fiddle (Ian "Walter" Fairburn) is also a strong element here in this piece. It's the kind of piece that will start playing in your mind unbidden.
70s mellow folk rock is evoked in the arrangement of the first part of "Jack Roberts," a peaceful pastoral piece. Delicate but not fragile, light and lyrical. Then for the middle section we get swirling keyboards, Hammond organ with their characteristic parpy sounds (Andy Tillison); the kind of progtastic material we get from Glass Hammer. Oh... and the piece closes out with the sweetest sounding sax solo from Fowles -- a solo that lasts all too briefly (one of those special moments).
"William Barras" is the other epic-length pieces (14:45), detailing the story of Barras and his son Jack who die tragically and alone inside a mine. It is a varied piece that mixes mellow Celtic-folk with fiddle and organ taking the lead for the first part (one the most Tull-like moments, actually), moves into layered keyboards with moments of sharp guitar soloing and strident flute for the second passage, subtitled "The Cave-in" (and despite what you might expect given the subtitle, it is not chaotic; this cave-in happens in slow motion and high detail; the section is entirely instrumental. The third segment, "Auld Nick and Co." is at first plaintive, sparse and restrained; it reflects the isolation that Barras feels; then becomes swirling and romantic as he imagines himself elsewhere. It brings all the elements of the first and second passages together for this final movement "The Working After-Life."
"Diana Horden" begins as breezy, lively, sunny, energetic piece - organ and sax characterize the first section; Diana is full of confidence as she pursues a serial killer in 1920's New York (she is one of the first female police officers in the city). The piece becomes darker, more gothic when the point of view is the killer's (having killed Diana). We eventually return to the opening, but now it is from the point of view of the killer, and takes on a more sinister aspect by association.
The most gloomy track arrangement-wise is the last track, "Dr. Jonathan Anser." It begins with keyboards (maybe even Mellotron, certainly an organ) creating an almost-gothic atmosphere. It's gloomy story-wise, too, as Anser is alone in what remains of the Scottish country side, trying to track his past. My favorite moment begins at the 4:36 mark; marching drums and keyboards ... the rhythm quickening with each measure, tension building... sax bleeting as a perfect accent to this rising tension.* It is a moment of high drama... brings chills to my spine, stops me in my tracks... it's just a cool, cool passage.
Anser's Tree is a really good album. Nitpicks? Well, my actual nitpick has nothing to do with the music. The booklet is very well done, pictures or images reflecting the song and setting of the song. The artwork was done by Ed Unitsky (the concepts Unitsky and Manning). My nitpick is that for a couple, the lyrics are hard to read. Not a major nitpick, you see.
However, one might think the sequence of music pieces doesn't quite flow, that it's too diverse... For example, "Joshua Logan" doesn't really fit in stylistically with the rest of the pieces - too upbeat for what is otherwise and often somber affair. On the other hand, this lighter touch does keep the album from being entirely gloomy... Musically, this album is great and seems richer than any past Manning album, rich as those have been. Whether that has to do with the array of guests, adding some different depth or not... I'm not sure. But, in the broad view, I think this will become one of the essential Manning releases in one's collection.*Never mind modern or future fertility miracles; and let's not speculate that, before Adam did his research into global warming and the resulting implications, he had some May-December affair with a 20-something and Anser is the fruit of that union... unless Manning's planning a sequel that will cover the sordid history in Anser's tree? [insert clever title here].
[Feb 2012: So, the sequel has come, in the form of 2011's Margaret's Children. And in the limited/special edition family tree poster, we learn that Joshua and Adam are brothers; children of David and Rebecca... Adam is not Jonathan Anser's father, either; Adam had no children....]
Margaret Montgomery (1581-?) (7:13) / Jack Roberts (1699-1749) (6:39) / William Barras (1803-1835) (14:45) / Diana Horden (1900-1922) (7:47) / Joshua Logan (1990-2048) (7:58) / Prof. Adam Logan (2001-2094) (11:59) / Dr. Jonathan Anser (2089-?) (7:07)
Guy Manning - guitars, mandolin, keyboards, samples, basses, drums, percussion, vocals
Laura Fowles - saxophone, vocals
Ian "Walter" Fairbairn - fiddle
David Million - electric guitars
Stephen Dundon - flutes
Andy Tillison - Hammond organ, Moog, Rhodes (2)
Neil Harris - piano (2), ARP (5)
Tall Stories For Small Children (1999)
The Cure (2000)
The Ragged Curtain (2003)
The View From My Window (2003)
A Matter Of Life & Death (The Journal Of Abel Mann) (2004)
One Small Step (2005)
Anser's Tree (2006)
Songs From The Bilston House (2007)
Number 10 (2009)
Margaret's Children (2011)
Genre: Progressive Rock
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