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Manning - Charlestown CD (album) cover




Eclectic Prog

3.49 | 136 ratings

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2 stars I'll prologue my lengthy review of this album by saying that recently two or three reviews have cropped up here that take a more balanced view of this rather below par effort. I'm pleased to see that there are some people like Bonnek actually listening to it and delivering a sane opinion rather than fanboy ranting. How this album has attained such a high place at the end of the year's standings is a complete travesty that only highlights the worrying state that prog rock finds itself in (because those words don't apply to this album anyway), and the bad name that will be brought once again to the genre (and this excellent site) by what appears to be tactical voting and over-rating if this is indeed the case

I've been a follower of Guy Manning's work for some years now and own most of his albums with a couple of exceptions owing to unavailabity. Like Roy Harper, John Martyn and the solo Peter Hammill works of the 1970s, Manning's records fill a void. You don't want to hear mega prog, but you don't want to hear Sabbath or Nick Drake either. He's been very prolific, possibly too much so over the years resulting in occasional drops in standard and a wee bit too much padding. However, there is no doubt that he is an exceptionally gifted songwriter and an intriguing lyricist. In recent years his albums "Songs From the Bilston House" and a good half of its sequel "Number Ten" have been in regular circulation chez - Thompson on their merits as good, concise and interesting songs with tales to tell. (This is often at the request of my better half who finds some of the meandering stuff by other bands I like, boring and over long.) The latter of these two albums loses me as Guy plunges for the Prog Epic, a place where his skill is nowhere near as well served as in pieces like "Pillars Of Salt", "Skimming Stones" or the staggeringly beautiful and simple "Ordinary Day". The epic in question "The House On The Hill" harks (unsuccessfully) more to the Flower Kings/Tangent model with which I suppose Manning feels a need to associate, and with whom he is, in fact, guilty by association. I feel that Manning has enough to offer without needing to do prog epics which frankly, others do better.

Hence for me, this album "Charlestown" gets off to a bad start. An almost 40 minute long bad start. It's not that any of the sprawling title track isn't well performed, or that it's "crap" or anything. It's just that it's a huge waste of talent because about 5 good songs could have come out of it, but in the end, didn't. The ideas jostle against each other without fully developing, nice vocal lines and guitar interjections broken apart by occasional outbursts of Jethro-Prog, the odd time signatures thrown in to remind eveyone that Manning are PROG. The musicians while competent, certainly can't rise to the occasion in the same way that Virgilio powers Big Big Train along or Reingold dazzles with TFK or Karmakanic. Steve Dundon shines with the flute, sure, but it's so derivative of Ian Anderson's playing that it serves no greater role than one of the million people who can play a guitar solo that sounds like Pink Floyd. Even Marvin the Paranoid Android can sound like Pink Floyd.

"COMING HOME" intones Guy who sounds like he's holding his nose. He sings this 12 times and then thinks it's time for a meandering instrumental made of scales. The guitarist sounds like Mike Oldfield (nothing wrong with that), scales go up and down like a Yes record slowed down, and not a lot is achieved emotionally. Then the tale begins, which is basically the story of a ship that goes to sea, gets wrecked, attacked and comes home with a few survivors. Like the worst folk ballads, this rather thin plot is stretched out over 40 minutes (actually considerably WORSE than the worst folk ballads now I think about it) and to me, well, it's all rather irrelevant. I may be old, but I can't really feel much empathy to the story, and feel I'm in some episode of Poldark or the Onedin Line - awful 1970s television programmes here in Scotland, while Yes and Genesis, Stanley Kubrick and Ken Russell worked, the BBC saw fit to regale us with dull stories of clippers and schooners and men with beards and caps with poor Cornish accents which we had to watch while eating Sunday tea. As usual, Manning's voice is pleasing if somehat more nasal than normal throughout most of it (certainly not Cornish at any rate), but I just get the feeling that theres a timer on somewhere and Manning is playing to the "Let's make a really long one" market without actually having the substance to pull it off, lyrically or musically. The unavoidable fact that Manning does sound a bit like Ian Anderson singing, coupled with the already mentioned flute playing leads one to make constant comparisons with Jethro Tull, something prevous albums have hinted at but miraculously sidestepped. Not so here. Melody, while certainly there, isn't all that attractive, like some later swedish releases from his former sidekicks the melodies are like jingles scattered about but nothing lengthy or absorbing.

There are some impossibly good reviews of this track which are at odds with my opinion which have to be taken into consideration alongside mine. Some of these declare it a "Masterpiece", and all I can say is that they are, of course, wrong, possibly deluded by the running time as many people were with last year's Whirlwind. Why believe me?. Because I really like Manning, that's why.

After we've been wrecked, spent days completely at sea, and come home in "a floating marquee" (album's only really dodgy lyric) we finally get to the normal sized tracks on what's left of the album. Yet we still don't get really good Manning stuff here either. "Caliban and Ariel" for us Shakespeare lovers is a nice ditty with some lovely arrangements and melodies and "Clocks" is nice too if a tad camp. "TIC" whatever that means is frankly dull, over extended and - actually, horrible to listen to, it's a poppy thing with some hideous 80s style synth brass parts best left where they were 30 years ago. "Man In The Mirror" is OK, some nice bits, but this man has written some classics in his time, and these don't hold a candle to titles of yore like "The View From My Window", "Margaret Montgomery" or "Songs Of Faith". The whole album ends off with an instrumental thing where the Manning band appear to sort of do a "Los Endos" affair which is executed reasonably well, but without much heart or conviction. Production throughout is disappointing, not actually bad, but not actually good either. The album is heavily arranged as is normal for Manning, but this time it is quite hard to pick out certain things, the quite dull drums and bass sometimes just wobble together, pattering along under sheets of strings and guitars. I'm fairly certain that this album will turn out to be a blip in an otherwise impressive career. I look forward to Manning releases and it's not normal for him to disappoint. As I said before, I've found over the years that Manning is perfect music for those moments when you want to hear something intelligent but you don't want to put a prog record on. There's a reason why I choose a Manning disc instead of a prog disc, and on this release that reason simply isn't there. It's yet more prog in world where there's already too much, and where the market leaders are way way ahead in terms of musical prowess and recording technology. My opinion is "stick to what you are good at". In terms of interesting songwriters, Guy has proved himself to be among the very very best. This release "Charlestown" sees him trying to go for bigger bucks in a market that does not need him. Therefore this will always be a poor symfo album rather than a great songs album. Hey Ho. Wrong turning, but the main road is not yet too far away.

I hope this is not seen as a condemnation. It's an opinion of someone who cares deeply about the man's music and wants to have more of the great stuff. Unfortunately, this is my first review of Manning, I only restarted doing this a year ago, and I intend to write lengthy and thorough reviews of just a handful of artists rather than trying to do everyone. Had this been any of the 10 earlier albums, this would have been a 4 or 5 star result. However - a 2 star review upgraded to 3 stars for the excellent work of the past and in anticipation of the future. Fingers metaphorically crossed for another year then. Knowing Guy, at least I probably won't have to wait too long for my next fix. For those who are new to the man and his work, I can only suggest checking out "Songs From The Bilston House" and "The Cure", working towards this as the last one to get, not the first.

grimtim | 2/5 |


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