Manning - A Matter Of Life & Death (The Journal Of Abel Mann)

Year of Release: 2004
Label: ProgRock Records
Catalog Number: PRR138
Format: CD
Total Time: 53:54:00

The full title for the new Manning album is A Matter Of Life & Death (The Journal Of Abel Mann) and it reintroduces a character first seen back on Tall Stories For Small Children in "The Fall And Rise Of Abel Mann?" (a character who was depressed and suicidal, as I see it). This is the first release with his new deal with ProgRock Records and it is a great start. It features some of the best artwork ever to appear on a Manning album* ? credit goes to Ed Unitsky, who is also responsible for the artwork on both Tangent albums.

A Matter Of Life & Death is mix of styles, from the mid-tempo rocker that opens the album, "The Dream," to the mostly acoustic (with strings), somber, and melancholy "Nobody's Fool," which becomes quite classical at the end, to the gospelly, breathless-at-the-end "Midnight Sail" that closes the album. And what characterizes all the tracks is superb production revealing terrific clarity, revealing the full spectrum of instruments in use in full and vibrant color? What I really love about this album is Laura Fowles sax solos, which are, for the most part, warm and smooth without being cloying.

"Silent Man" is a heavily Celtic danceable track that puts Ian Fairbairn's fiddle right upfront, with drums and rhythm guitars just behind. Then there are the acoustic guitars heard throughout the album, which also lend a warm feeling to the music. But Manning is not warm and fuzzy here, and the pieces are dark and moody, even those that rock. Various keyboards create eddies and waves of sound.

There is occasionally a 70s vibe to the music, and yet nothing about it sounds dated. Hints of Boz Scaggs' Silk Degress come to mind. It's more than just (but also because of) his singing of the words "harbour lights," which is the title of a song on that very same Scaggs album. But this jazzy rock feel that creeps in occasionally, and owing a bit to Fowles' sax, is what brings this to mind. "Omens" is a darker track, as the title suggests. It's one of my favourite tracks on the album, the mix of acoustic guitars, swelling keyboard passages, and tartly screaming guitar solos (Gareth Harwood). Put into your mind-blender these ingredients: Days Of Future Past Moody Blues (particularly "Nights In White Satin"), folky Ian Anderson, a dash of Billy Joel, some country elements, classic rock (esp. that organ sound) and? blend and then give it a Manning stamp. And finally, "The River Of Time," which falls somewhere between the mellow "Nobody's Fool" and the mid-tempo "The Dream," carrying forward the darker feel of "Omens." There's an acoustic guitar phrase that brings to mind Firefall's "Just Remember." Now, the rest of the arrangement is quite different. Manning shares a very beautiful piano-like solo here, too, making this song another favorite (even if the backing vocals that sing parenthetic phrases seem quite sinister even as they sound childlike). There's a shrilly (but not in a bad way) keyboard phrase that adds to that calm-before-something-is-going-to-happen feel? this song builds tension, seeming as if it's going to explode. It never does?

This is followed up by the mostly somber "Falling Down? Rising Up!" the first part setting Manning's vocals against the swirling swell of keyboards and warm tones of a sparse, but strongly felt, piano. It's one of those songs that draws power from its very understatedness, as when the swell crests, you have been caught up and find you crest as well. The second half moves the piano into jazzier territory, with an active bass line (Rick Ashton) setting the pace. It's like standing on the shore while the waves crash about you, but you are determined to stay, impervious as the waves seem to fall short of striking you.

"Out Of My Life" is another beautifully rich piece? sax and layers of keyboards create a multi-hued backdrop against which Manning sings, lyrics harking back to the previously mentioned "The Fall And Rise Of Abel Mann?" The instrumental section that closes the album is another one of my favourites? and even as it harks back to that 70s vibe (though not the references already mentioned); it reminds me that folks just don't make this kind of music anymore (and it's the sax of Fowles that really gets me here)? except, of course, for Guy Manning.

There's a party atmosphere to "Midnight Sail" that saying gospelly is only one aspect, as features piano, keyboards and sax and a whole upbeat jazzy vibe. Fellow and lead Tangent Andy Tillison guests on this track playing keyboards (he contributes a moog solo to "The Dream"). This is the most energetic track I think we've ever heard from Manning? it at the vary least sounds as if it could be. Here is where you hear the backing vocals the most, which gives another dimension to the album.

Manning's voice remains distinctive even as often hints to the oft mentioned Ian Anderson (especially during "Life's Disquise"). In "Silent Man" I did find that I'd have liked Manning's vocal performance just a little stronger at points, but given the nature of the rhythm, you are carried along so swiftly that those moments get lost somewhere back in some unreachable past.

[Addendum: I've been told that I omitted a summary of what I thought of AMoLaD, which left this review hanging: It is a very strong and musically textured work from Manning; it's the kind of album that reveals more of itself after repeated listenings. Those who are discovering Guy Manning through his association with The Tangent will find much to enjoy here; long time fans will as well as this may be his strongest release overall to date, though View struck just a few more chords with me... But like the problem I have with Marillion's Misplaced Childhood and Clutching At Straws, where depending on my mood the albums switch top spots, I can see AMoLaD and VFMW swapping.

* ? Well, that created by an adult as it was the Manning kids that created the artwork for Tall Stories? which were perfect for the children's story book look and feel of the album, so don't get me wrong on that. But, as much as the Bryce work on The Cure was impressive in its own way, and that Manning's albums have always had good to great artwork, this just takes the cake.

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)

Guy Manning - vocals, keyboards, 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars, classical guitars, electric guitars, bass, mandolin, drums and percussion
Laura Fowles - sax, vocals
Gareth Harwood - electric guitars, vocals
Rick Ashton - bass, vocals

Special guests:

John Tipping - drums
Ian Fairbairn - fiddle (1, 5)
Neil Harris - modal piano (6), melodica, percussion, vocals
Tim Moon - cello (1)
Andy Tillison - Moog solo (1), keyboards (9)

Tall Stories For Small Children (1999)
The Cure (2000)
Cascade (2001)
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)
Charlestown (2010)
Margaret's Children (2011)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin UK

Added: November 13th 2004
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website:
Hits: 588
Language: english


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