Have you ever driven past one of those really old homes that looks like the
local "haunted house", and wondered who might have lived there over the years?
As kids we probably all knew of one of those homes and made up horror stories
about them around the camp fire. At a more serious level it's been the storyline
of countless movies ... and now Guy Manning has written an album about a place
he saw on the way to his Summers End gig.
So it's another Guy Manning concept piece, and once again, Manning's CD is
more than just a collection of songs - he always produces music with a purpose -
or at least, with a story. Bilston House doesn't have quite the singer /
songwriter vibe that was prevalent in much of Manning's back catalog, yet
neither is it the 'in-yer-face' progressive rock of his earlier albums. This one
is more subtle, more rounded, perhaps, and definitely very progressive in its
blend of '70s elements, modern third wave progressive rock, and occasional jazzy
sections that add an element of sophistication.
The mood and the flowing arrangements run from angry through bleak, and from
dark through bright. Along with Guy's elegant guitar work, Steve Dundon's flute
and Laura Fowles's saxophone are again distinctive elements in Bilston House.
There are many sections featuring long instrumentals played on an assortment of
instruments including bouzouki, mandolins, and fiddle. Guy's vocals are not
quite as Jethro Tull-like any more (although "Antares" might challenge that
asertion), and there's more concentration on the instrumentals than before. This
focus on instrumentals works well because Manning's vocal style is loved by many
of his fans, but the appeal isn't universal.
Bilston House comprises 9 tracks spread over an hour and seven
minutes, giving each song beween 6 and 10 minutes to develop itself into a
richly layered, well constructed piece that will have broad appeal. Production -
as always - is very good, and the cover art is noticeably different from
Manning's recent CDs because Ed Unitsky did not illustrate the cover. The cover
picture is moody and mysterious, and representative of the music within. At all
levels, it's a high quality package.
The first song, the title track, may not be the best on the record - but keep
going. Listen for the wonderful instrumentals in the 7-minute "Lost In Play"
where 'Tron and flute play off against the acoustic guitar then against a bass,
synth duets with synth, while acoustic guitars underpin the whole piece as it
develops from a folksy atmosphere into a crescendo of sound with the
introduction of lead guitar at the end. Along with the nicely rounded "Antares",
it's definitely a high point on the album. "Skimming Stones" has an 'olde
English' sound to it, driven by a fiddle playing a jig, played off against a
heavy Hammond in an unusual prog-meets-old-world vibe. Quite fun. The seven-plus
minute closer "Inner Moment" ends the album on a melodic, introspective note,
with very English sounding vocals sung over mellow instrumentals that seem
rooted in Europe - with passages that could have been lifted from a French cafe.
And the record ends with the firm exclamation point of the Bilston house's door
closing firmly. Very moving.
It's a pity we didn't receive a copy of Bilston House until early
2008. It would certainly have featured prominently in our 'best-of-2007"
lists. In fact, it's a pity that Guy's albums appear - as regular as clockwork -
near the very end of each year, often just too late to get into the best record
lists. His music improves with each release, and his fiercely dedicated fanbase
expands constantly - though far more slowly than the music deserves. Manning
fans have said this one edges out Anser's Tree by a small margin. We
don't agree - and think Bilston beats Anser by a fair margin, and
believe it deserves its 5-star rating.
1. Songs From The Bilston House
2. The Calm Absurd
3. Lost In Play
5. Skimming Stones
7. Icarus & Me
8. Pillars Of Salt
9. Inner Moment