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The Muffins - Manna/Mirage CD (album) cover

MANNA/MIRAGE

The Muffins

 

Canterbury Scene

4.06 | 64 ratings

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Cesar Inca
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars After struggling for 5 years in the marginal field of avant-rock, the magnificent USA ensemble The Muffins managed to release their debut album "Manna/Mirage" in 1978. at the time, the band was slightly diminished as a quartet without the participation of a permanent guitar player in its line-up, so they had to use an occasional guest for this album (plus a few other guests on wind instruments), but this factor in no way led to a decay in the band members' creativity or a decrease in their performing energy. "Manna/Mirage" is an amazing Canterbury-meets-RIO album that makes the band behind it totally worthy of all the praise that deservedly goes to bands from the other side of the Atlantic such as Soft Machine, Hatfield & The North, Henry Cow, Nucleus and Matching Mole. All us prog collectors that have been appreciating the work of American bands such as However, Happy The Man, Rascal Reporters and French TV from the late 70s and beyond have good reason to recognize both a foundation and a precedent in the material comprised in "Manna/Mirage". I said the expression "Canterbury-meets-RIO" in an earlier sentence, but the main fact is that The Muffins' guys are especially connected to the Canterbury trend and happen to be openly friendly with the sonic deconstructive strategies rooted in the RIO ideology: that is more accurate, all in all. There are also traces of influences from Zappa's jazzier side, as well as classic items of 70s American fusion - Weather Report, a bit of Herbie Hancock, perhaps - but essentially, the band's sound is pretty much England-orientated. The lack of a permanent guitarist (who also doubled on violin) makes it necessary that Dave Newhouse's keyboard inputs take center stage in the tracks' developments, with Tom Scott absorbing lots of room for his sax/clarinet/flute interventions. As a result of this, the jazzy factor in The Muffins' quintessence becomes undeniably enhanced. The opener 'Monkey With The Golden Eyes' delivers 4 minutes of autumnal, minimalistic textures mostly based on eerie electric piano washes and dreamy lines performed on various woodwinds. This contemplative introduction ends with a magical climax that sets an atmosphere of expectation for the remaining repertoire, whose graceful surprise starts with the free-form adventures that mark the beginning of 'Hobart Got Burned', a true celebration of chaos in a disjointed conjuncture. Once a more cohesive rhythm structure is settled in, things become vibrant and engaging while bearing a similar air to that of Soft Machine's fourth and fifth albums. Now... this is the very essence of The Muffins we are seeing through. Next is 'Amelia Earhart', which starts with a brief excursion of tonal and concrete percussions, then shifts to a warm display of nostalgic ambiences that might as well sound to our ears like a hybrid of Gilgamesh and Weather Report. Bassist Billy Swan finds a couple of spaces to shine individually in a very Hopper-esque way among the explicitly playful vibe that the musicians are indulging into at the moment. Somewhere in the middle there is a languid section that points at impending danger and silent immensity - clearly, an allusion to Mrs. Earhart's tragedy. The whole second half of the album is occupied by the monster track 'The Adventures Of Captain Boomerang (For Mike Forrester)', a 22+ minute journey that completes the band's vision quite fairly. Lots of melodic developments and arrangements bear moods that are by now recognizable, but there are also signals of Zappa-esque Dadaistic tricks, which make the whole musical trip an enhanced adventure. Despite the relevance of the restless motif shifts, the band avoids the resource of dramatic contrast consistently - and that is a very clever thing, indeed. Cheers to them! The track's last passage if filled with a certain tension which ultimately serves to elaborate an effective abrupt ending. So, my final balance for this album is very good: "Manna/Mirage" is a wonderful progressive effort that should not be ignored or overlooked. Luckily, this was not the last of this obscure band, since in the early years of the new millennium they have released great (or even greater) albums - anyway, those will be a matter for other reviews.
Cesar Inca | 4/5 |

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