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The Muffins - Manna/Mirage CD (album) cover

MANNA/MIRAGE

The Muffins

 

Canterbury Scene

4.05 | 66 ratings

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VanVanVan
Prog Reviewer
4 stars I first heard about The Muffins as the backing band for one half of Fred Frith's solo album "Gravity." As I very much enjoyed that album, this one seemed like a natural choice to check out. I will confess, however, that "Manna/Mirage" was not entirely what I was expecting. Simply due to their association with Frith, I was assuming that this would be more or less a straightforward RIO affair. While there are elements of that sound here, they're crossed into the Canterbury scene, and to my ears this album sounds much more like the latter than the former.

"Monkey With The Golden Eyes" is the first track here, and it begins the album on a decidedly jazzy note, with laid back, soothing keyboards setting the stage behind an equally tranquil flute part. What I believe is an oboe makes an appearance as well, dueting briefly with the flute before a whole host of different horns come in, slowly layering on top of one another until, in the final minute of the track, all the instruments come together to create a sedate, peaceful blend of sound. Easily the most straightforward track on the album, "Monkey With The Golden Eyes" provides a nice, accessible opening for the album, though it doesn't really give a great representation about what's coming next.

That fact is made immediately apparent from the opening notes of "Hobart Got Burned," which dismisses the peaceful sounds of the opener in favor of a dissonant horn part, very reminiscent of Henry Cow's "Western Culture." This track also sounds far more improvisation-based than "Monkey?" with a very open structure filled by wild drumming and brief, punctuated horn bursts. Midway through the track, however, keyboards and bass enter, and the track enters a much more composed section, falling back into rhythmic normalcy and taking on a kind of demented carnival feel. The horn bursts don't stop, however, with plenty of howling solos wailing over the backbone the piano and bass are laying down. A great, experimental track, "Hobart Got Burned" is much more interesting to me than "Monkey?" and proves that The Muffins can innovate with the best of them.

"Amelia Earhart" is the first of the two long tracks that finish the album. Beginning with very minimalist blend of percussion and some very faint playing from the winds, the track really kicks off at about 2 minutes in, when the keyboard begins a rather cheerful chord progression. Horns add to the sound, playing an energetic repeating line over the keyboard and giving the track a very hopeful feel. Eventually the track drops back into a more improvisational mode, with really excellent drumming providing a background for a variety of instruments to solo over. The winds and especially the flute give the track a very interesting sound, and provide a nice contrast when an electric guitar comes in and begins its own solo. A very cool low brass section follows this, followed itself by a huge variety of instruments, including something that sounds like a train whistle. With about four minutes left in the track the pace slows down a little bit; the solos stop and the track takes on a floaty, almost ambient quality. Low, throbbing bass and a psychedelic flute part give this last section of the track an amazing, dream-like feeling that serves as a wonderful outtro to an otherwise wildly energetic piece of music.

It's a bold move to follow up a track as good as "Amelia Earhart" with another epic, but "The Adventures of Captain Boomerang" tries to do just that, clocking in at a hefty 23 minutes. It begins in much the same way "Amelia?" ended, with dreamy wind parts and an overall peaceful feel. The pace quickens, however, with a bombastic horn section that recalls in equal parts big band music and Henry Cow. This very jazzy motif is interspersed with more experimental sections consisting of minimal sound effects and percussion. Both of these themes, however, eventually fall away, and the track enters another long period of instrumental soloing. Despite the avant-garde sections earlier in the track, this section of "Captain Boomerang" is probably the least avant section on the album, and the one that's most akin to the more mainstream Canterbury scene. At about 12 minutes in the energy wanes a little bit, moving again into a spacier feel that slowly builds back up in intensity before dropping away again to almost nothing. A very, very faint wind part plays over some even fainter swooshing sounds, and when keyboard and horns enter again they're markedly more subdued, playing in a way that's rather reminiscent of the peaceful, smoky jazz of the first track. Another very minimal, avant garde-section follows, with long, atonal horn drones and high-pitched squealing from either horns or keyboards. Slowly, a more conventional keyboard part enters into this soundscape, and with it come more horn solos. The track ends with several wild horn parts merging into one, until finally the track ends on a sudden, squeaky chord. "The Adventures of Captain Boomerang" is a very long track that feels even longer, but somehow that manages to avoid being a bad thing. Interesting playing and varied themes make for interesting listening throughout, with hardly a bad moment over the entire, massive span of the piece.

So this is a great album, no doubt. To be honest, I can't point to any specific thing that prevents this from being a five star album; it just feels like it falls a bit short, and when I'm deciding between four and five stars I tend to trust my gut and err low. Nonetheless, this is a very good album and a worthy listen for anyone who wants to hear some off-kilter, experimental psych-jazz from the late 70s. Great stuff.

4/5

VanVanVan | 4/5 |

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