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Manning - Charlestown CD (album) cover




Eclectic Prog

3.49 | 136 ratings

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Symphonic Team
4 stars Coming home after an uplifting journey

Prog albums have a tendency to connect with the listener and when this occurs it is always a rewarding experience. Guy Manning's Charlestown is an enjoyable ride in some melodic prog territory utilising some well executed instrumentation and strong vocals. The band are well accomplished musicians who work as a tight unit to produce a crystalline sound that will appeal to a wide audience. The non threatening style is not going to deter the non prog music listener but there are a variety of progressive nuances on offer that will act as a drawcard for the prog aficionado, in particular a majestic magnum opus.

The album begins with Manning repeating "Coming Home" and in a sense the feel of the album is like coming home after a long journey. The album cover is an iridescent blue that emulates the bright music. The boat on the vast ocean signifies the theme of the album as the boat struggles to get from shore to shore as it traverses treacherous oceanscapes, perhaps in the sense that humanity struggles to find their place in the world as they are forced to ride the stormy waves of life to get to the place where they belong; safe at home. Guy Manning is the driving force on the album naturally and plays a myriad of instruments including acoustic 6,12 and classical guitars, keyboards, and bass. He also enhances the music with slices of bouzouki, and mandolin chopped up with some percussion. His vocals permeate each track and are easy to listen to. He is well backed by some excellent musicians including Chris Catling who plays electric guitars along with Manning and Kev Currie. Dave Albone keeps time on drums, though there is nothing flash on this album. Steve Dundon is a revelation on flute giving the tracks a mystical feel, in the same way as Gabriel on vintage Genesis albums or Ian Anderson. Kris Hudson-Lee enhances the tracks with some inspired basslines and Julie King assists well on backing vocals. The album has a full on orchestral feel thanks to the virtuoso performances of Ian 'Walter' Fairbairn on violin and Kathy Hampson on cello, along with the wonderful Soprano and tenor saxophone by Alison Diamond. With this musicianship, it is little wonder the album has captured the attention of prog related magazines and forums.

The journey begins in masterful style with a massive multi movement suite Charlestown in the progressive tradition of the 70s era when bands indulged in the segmented epic. The title track is the most progressive track with a monstrous running time clocking over 35 minutes. This begins stagnantly with some fluid vocals and minimalist instrumentation. It builds gradually and changes mood until it breaks into a sweeping instrumental break with powerful layered keyboards and a soaring lead guitar. About halfway through, the piece plunges into rock guitar mode and then the flute enhances the mood of travelling aboard a boat in the traditional style. There is a whimsical full sensory vibe helped by conceptual storytelling vocals. I am reminded of Ian Anderson's style here as there are definitely Tull influences that abound in the vocal delivery and lyrical style; "The captain grabs a spinning wheel, and waiting for the strain, oh he pulls against the tide, turns the boat within the water, ... The men aboard feel braced and steady grimly working, we are ready and locked inside this race, safe ashore in their mother's arms, our children lie asleep".

The time sig is choppy like waves on the ocean. The atmosphere is generated by the lyrics of course but the flute and shimmering Hammond make it even sound somewhat like ELP's Pirates, Genesis' Home By The Sea or even VDGG's A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers. Especially this is the case when the pace settles to allow for an interlude of dreamy violin and electric piano. The peace and tranquillity is beautiful with effects of lapping water to create the feel of a boat adrift on an endless ocean. Fairbairn's fiddle flows organically with the keys that lull you into a false sense of security. Then the atmosphere changes and a storm of hurricane Hammonds and crashing percussion breaks out. The electric guitar becomes a lightning rod on the wall of sound. It settles into an upbeat chord progression. The bassline drives it along and the synth takes over. At this point I am really hooked by the power of these musicians. This would be a magnificent live experience. The thunder crashes and there is rain as a haunting backdrop for the new section which is dominated by lush keyboards and meandering mellotron. Soon the vocals return in another segment but the hope has dried out and the mood is darker with the desperate pleading vocals; "we wait for the wind it but it has slipped away, at last my dry lips move and I start to pray, Oh Lord how can this be, so close to shore and final rest, body and mind take the final hopeless test". The story moves from the storm wrecked ship to the final hope of finding shore and survival. It may be a metaphor of life or taken literally. The boat is finally guided in by the spirits of the ocean, we hear seagulls as the boat nears the shore, and, maybe like Coleridge's "The Rime of The Ancient Mariner", the sea faring adventures are "purged of all their sin". The piece builds to a crescendo with splashes of keys and a searing lead guitar. To bookend the adventure Manning sings "Coming home" again and confirms that it has been a cycle, as the tale has turned full circle, returning to the endlessness of the sea, and perhaps the circle of life, it is unclear as this seems open to interpretation. The piece ends with the violins playing 'Auld Lang Syne' to augment the coming home feel. The ray of hope is evident, the sea farers have made it to shore and have survived their ordeal. What lessons have we learnt from their story? It is up to the listener to glean meaning according to their circumstances.

Well, after that incredible track what else is on offer? Caliban and Ariel is next and did not resonate with me, but it is only a short interlude between two great tracks. The melancholia created here is startling after the lengthy multi movement suite of the title track. It is almost like a calm after the storm.

Man in the Mirror is a faster more lively track with some pleasant melodies and a resounding clang of a keyboard chord. The sax is a welcome enhancement to the sound in the extended intro. The vocals are higher and tell a story of famine and struggling to survive in a greedy town full of callous cruel folk, "we live in a sheltered humble home where the hillside meets the sky, far from the gaze of prying folk." The story continues about one good soul who stands out among the crowd who refuse to be greedy and callous; the man in the mirror. The melody is upbeat with memorable lyrics; "the man in the mirror with the smiling face watches their world go by, watches their world go by, the man in the mirror with the tragic face never said goodbye, never said goodbye." There is an unreserved jaunty flavour in the instrumental break with swinging violins sounding like a prog hoedown, along with jumping keyboards and jangly guitar crashes. This is a really great song with an infectious melody that grows on you with every listen, and it is totally accessible for those who do not like their music too way out and complex.

Clocks is a slow dreamy piece with scintillating flute motifs that wash over the music like waves of ambience upon a sea of tranquillity. The haunting lyrics promote a state of searching for hope in the form of being with the loved one of your dreams; "time to turn against the tide and let me live again, feel you close beside," the romantic lyrics are reflective and bring the listener into a relaxed mood. There are some interesting flute and mellotron trade offs that create a strong ambience. The lyrics may be interpreted to concern life's struggles and the hope within each person when they find the one who fills that void, in this case a ghost pleads with his living lover to help bring him back though she fails to do so and watches him fade away "the vision fades the hope is gone, but I watch you go and I just slip away, stay with me". The chorus builds with the help of multi layered keyboards and subtle flute; "when I'm feeling up when I'm feeling down, when I'm with you I'm right here on the ground." A very nice track that has the power to grow on a listener over time.

T.I.C. is a more raucous song with strong vocals; "I know what your'e thinking, I see where you go, I know what I'm feeling, You're never alone". The instrumental break is a powerful melodic synthesizer, in a retro style and there are many eclectic nuances as styles are blended to create some inspirational music. The sax is terrific but the Jethro Tull style flute passages are the real key feature on this track.

Finale of course ends this and for me it ends on a high note with a lengthy instrumental in the same flavour as Genesis' Los Endos, focussing on crystalline synth passages and there are blasts of Hammond to revel in. It reminds me in some ways of early King Crimson, especially when the flute chimes in. The lead guitars are well executed as another layer. The pace locks into a quirky time signature towards the end and the return of the acoustic guitar ends the piece.

In conclusion, "Charlestown" is a pleasant surprise, as I have heard nothing else from this talented group of musicians who have quite a prolific discography. The opening epic is masterful, and I felt the rest of the album did not measure up, but this was still overall a well-produced album, with every musician rising to the occasion. Manning has executed a memorable journey, and, with the aid of subtle nuances such as seagulls, rain and storm effects, this resonated well with me. It was a delight to be able to soak in the atmospherics, to plunge deep into the concept that spoke to my heart when I needed it, and it was uplifting to my spirit. In light of this I can award this 4 stars for innovation, musicianship and, on a personal level, the wonderful enriching experience.

AtomicCrimsonRush | 4/5 |


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