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(63 min, Progrock)
TRACK LIST: 1. Margaret Montgomery [1581-?] 7:13 2. Jack Roberts [1699-1749] 6:39 3. William Barras [1803-1835] 14:45 4. Diana Horden [1900-1922] 7:47 5. Joshua Logan [1990-2048] 7:58 6. Prof. Adam Logan [2001-2094] 11:59 7. Dr. Jonathan Anser [2089-?] 7:07 LINEUP: Guy Manning - vocals; ac. & el. guitars, bass; drums; keyboards Laura Foules - saxophones; vocals David Milton - el. guitar Ian Walter - fiddles Stephen Dundon - flutes With: Neil Harris - piano (2), harp (3) Andy Tillison - keyboards (2)
Prolusion. "Anser's Tree", the eighth album by Guy Manning (his surname serving as a moniker for his band), marks my first acquaintance with the work of this renowned progressive musician from England.
Analysis. This is a complete concept creation, since not only the lyrics are all subsumed to a unified storyline, but also the music is stylistically uniform - at least overall. Thematically this is a fantastical novelletta about the history of one family, which comes from the lips of its latest descendant Dr. Jonathan Anser, living in the first half of the XXII Century. The seven tracks are titled after the names of the family members - the heroes of corresponding stories, the narrator's one concluding the list. Guy Manning appears as a guitarist (handling both acoustic and electric guitar), bassist, keyboardist and drummer all rolled into one, additionally utilizing some sampled sounds. To be objective, I must note that as a commander of the battery Manning is not on a par with, say, Barriemore Barlow, but while his drumming is relatively straight it is always both intact and precise. Instead, the man is a real keyboard wizard, shining also when playing an acoustic guitar. The latter instrument, by the way, is one of the prime soloing forces on each of the first four tracks, being at the same time one of the factors that are determinative regarding the identity of the project's sound. Guy's passion for Ian Anderson's work is obvious everywhere on "Anser's Tree" (the influence revealing itself on both the vocal and instrumental angles, though more often latently than openly), but the man so resourcefully intermixes his own compositional discoveries with those of his teacher in absentia that I perceive this album as a kind of philosophers' stone obtained by an extremely lucky alchemist. Most of the music I see as a modern take on quintessential Symphonic Progressive, meaning at the time of the genre's bloom when it still was unclear how soon its potentials would be exhausted. The sonic palette incorporates the sounds of numerous instruments which - apart from the aforementioned ones - include organ, piano, string ensemble, various synthesizers, saxophones, fiddles and flutes, so most of the tunes have a lushly saturated, at times even orchestral sound. All the themes and most of the solos on the recording are strictly composed, and I believe I will not forget in due time to mention the exceptions to that rule. The first four tracks are just filled with a genuinely creative energy. Overall, all of them are the works of symphonic Art-Rock with a strong folk component, having generally much common ground between themselves, but since those three that follow Margaret Montgomery are more complicated plus they reveal some distinguishing features, Guy did act wisely in putting the said song at the head of this musically-genealogical parade. If the content of the opener is as progressively saturated as that of the title track of Jethro Tull's "Aqualung", then the next two, Jack Roberts and William Barras, are closer to Thick As a Brick and A Passion Play, respectively. The former tune falls squarely into the framework of classic Symphonic Progressive, never exceeding the bounds of that idiom, besides which two guest keyboardists introduce some additional symphonic drive to its sound. As to the latter epic (14:45), I've just remembered how infamously the Tulls were accused of "alienation from people" after the release of "A Passion Play" - their only album on which Anderson also plays saxophone. In short, William Barras is the most intricate-and-intriguing composition here, and if violinist Ian Walter is still responsible for bringing folk colorations to the mixture, Laura Foules provides some genuine jazz solos in places (and more such are present on the next track as well). What is curious is that when improvising she very successfully conveys the refined semi-improvisational style of Anderson-the-saxophonist. Diana Horden musically in many ways follows in the footsteps of both its precursors. What sets it apart from them is its abundance of Flamenco-inspired acoustic guitar solos on the one hand and the presence of dark symphonic shades in its palette evoking classic Van Der Graaf Generator on the other, the quintet at times creating patterns that are paradoxically atmospheric and dense alike. Then follow two songs that I am not enthusiastic about, each standing out for its really stormy jam, which nevertheless is too brief to tip the scales. Prof. Adam Logan begins in the style of so-called Smooth Jazz, but while the remainder more or less well suits the album's primary style, there are too many repetitions to take this song seriously. The blues-rocker Joshua Logan has a couple of short symphonic episodes, but for the most part, it sounds like a benefit performance for David Milton. Fortunately the last track, Dr. Jonathan Anser, turns out to be very good. Although having at first only organ, string ensemble and vocals in the picture, the composition unfolds in a really diverse and dramatic way. Closer to the finale the music gets the outlines of powerful Art-Rock with lush orchestral arrangements, marching drums and a solemn atmosphere. Guy could've hardly done better had he used any other piece as conclusion for the album.
Conclusion. "Anser's Tree" is quite a grandiose musical show and is a very pleasing listen - not counting the two tracks that, well, didn't impress me. Anyway, Manning has created a very strong concept work, which might serve as another bridge between the past and the future of our beloved genre. The success of this recording lies not only in Guy's talent in composition, arrangement and performance, but also in his potential as a producer. All the tracks, without exception, are located just where they should be. Finally, the sound is pristine and is a true art in itself.
VM: December 12, 2006
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