Given that 2014's Aichmophobia ('morbid fear of sharp objects'. See sleeve design) is a near-ambient, acoustic-guitar-and-keys album, I'm amazed to find that Don McGreevy's day jobs are as drummer with The Master Musicians of Bukkake and bassist with Earth. His 6- and 12-string playing here are beautiful; he admits to loving circular chord sequences and why not? There's no inherently good reason for instrumental music to go anywhere, per se; drifting along in a meditative kind of way is absolutely as valid as any other approach. Trying to identify any 'best tracks' here is slightly futile; this is an album that needs to be listened to as a whole, aided by its brevity. Given the Mellotron sample use of McGreevy's two main projects, it's hardly a surprise to find the same here, the distant choirs on Annoyances Ala Satie and high strings on Hidden Obscene Permissions (and elsewhere?) not even really trying to sound authentic. All round, a fine effort; play on 'repeat' while meditating.
Colin MacIntyre (a.k.a. The Mull Historical Society) is a Scottish indie/folky type, whose first album under his own name, 2008's The Water, is a surprisingly diverse set of songs, better moments including the title track's folky feel, the effective rhythmic changes in Stalker and the complete change of mood halfway through closer Pay Attention To The Human, complete with its cameo from legendary British Labour politician Tony Benn. Much of the remainder, sadly, is fairly generic indie, but the album's good moments just tip the balance to give it a three-star rating. MacIntyre and Nick Franglen are credited with Mellotron, but if the strings on Famous For Being Famous are anything to go by, it's sampled, a viewpoint exacerbated by a slew of pics from the recording sessions on MacIntyre's website, none of which show a Mellotron. Then again, nor do they show any other vintage keyboard, with the honourable exception of a harmonium, although several are credited, not least a (Yamaha) CS-80, which is possibly obscure enough to be genuine. Doubt it, though.
Dutch heavy psychsters The Machine's fourth album, 2012's Calmer Than You Are, runs the gamut of the genre's approaches, from opener Moonward's doom, through Grain's more Sabbathesque feel to Sphere (...Or Kneiter)'s jamming and closer Repose's 'short, tuneful' take on their sound, although 5 & 4's repetition becomes a little wearing. Best track? Probably Sphere (...Or Kneiter), which seems to wrap up everything that's best about them into one twelve-minute package. Although bandleader David Eering is credited with Mellotron on Sphere (...Or Kneiter), the insubstantial strings are quite clearly nothing of the sort, ditto the uncredited background strings on Moonward. Spurious Mellotron usage is fairly irrelevant here, frankly; this is a fine album of its type and could easily do without a few seconds of sampled Mellotron.
Nigel Glockler is chiefly known for his on/off retainership of the drum stool for NWoBHM survivors Saxon, although his first major job was drumming for Toyah (Wilcox) in the early '80s. Mad Men & English Dogs are his duo project with guitarist Doug Scarratt, their eponymous album being partially an excuse for the latter to shred over Nige's drum and keyboard parts, although several tracks on the album take a more 'progressive' turn than that might suggest, not least Pomporwot, Dreadnought and Snow-Capped. Despite various string and choir sounds, the latter track is the only one with actual Mellotron samples and then only the choirs that come in towards the end of the piece. Mad Men & English Dogs is an album for the guitar lover in your life, although it has far more depth than most of the one-dimensional shredding nonsense it's been my displeasure to hear. Worth the effort.
Maga are a Spanish pop/rock outfit who have elected, for reasons known only to themselves, to self-title their first three albums. Aping Peter Gabriel? In that only, I can assure you. Anyway, 2006's Maga is their third release of that name, a thoroughly average effort aimed at the local market, although I can't imagine these songs doing well internationally with English lyrics, but then, what do I know? Jordi Gil is credited with 'programming, Solina and Mellotron' on several tracks, none specified Mellotronically. As it happens, it's inaudible on all of them, so God alone knows whether he actually used a real one or not and if so, where. Did you need another excuse not to hear this album? You've got one.
A few years ago, I and a group of like-minded individuals who shall remain nameless stood outside the hall where Magenta were playing at a small UK prog festival. Every minute or so, someone would pipe up: "Tarkus!" "Something from Topographic!" "Something else from Topographic!", all to much laughter. It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that ex-Cyan multi-instrumentalist (but mainly keyboard player) Rob Reed's next venture, er, 'somewhat lacks originality'. The female-fronted Magenta, with Christina Booth at the mic, play the kind of contemporary neo-prog that keeps old Marillion fans happy, without sounding like a direct copy; as a result, they outsell many more worthy bands.
They debuted with 2001's sprawling double-disc Revolutions, consisting of four lengthy, multi-part tracks, one shorter piece and two genuinely nice brief acoustic guitar instrumentals, easily the best thing about this album. The bulk of the set merely reinforces my original impression of the band; there appears to be no end to the artists Magenta are prepared to 'borrow' from, including Yes (hugely), Marillion (natch) and even The Beach Boys on part one of Man The Machine, just before they shift into a bit of Squonk-style Genesis, so close rhythmically to the original (albeit without its power) that it comes across as pastiche. In places, Magenta effectively lift whole chunks of other artists' work (spot the Heart Of The Sunrise cop on part four of Genetesis, just before the Awaken bit), to the point where I'm surprised they're not challenged on the subject more frequently. Another minus are the almost autistically-literal lyrics, particularly on Man The Machine, making Neil Peart sound like Tennyson, although the bulk of the music's enough to drive most old-school prog fans away. Rather like the aforementioned Topographic Oceans, any random, brief snippet of this album will have you screaming 'PROG ALERT!', but more than a minute or two may well leave you craving something with a little more... originality.
Reed actually underuses his Mellotron samples, which first make themselves apparent in the form of the rather murky strings on part three of Children Of The Sun, The Battle, with more of the same on the 'title track' section of The White Witch plus 'are they/aren't they?' flutes in a couple of places, notably at the beginning of part five of The White Witch, The Spell. Choirs? Hard to tell whether they're Mellotron samples or merely generic ones. I was tempted to give this a paltry two stars for its various failings listed above, but at least Reed has the taste to rip off some decent bands (and Marillion), although the lumpen way the contrasting styles are jammed together betrays a sorry lack of genuine prog talent.
2004's Seven is, as you can see, a concept effort based around the Biblical seven deadly sins, although a preponderance of sickly ballads drags the album down; not so much 'heartfelt' as 'rather too slick for their own good'. Fewer obvious cops from other artists' work, although I spotted a recreation of the ARP Pro-Soloist patch Tony Banks used on Ripples at one point, modulation and all, used in a similar setting. Overall, this loses half a star from an already fairly paltry score for its high boredom quotient, while the choirs on a few tracks might not even be Mellotron samples; it's hard to tell. Reed & Co. shamelessly rip off '70s Pink Floyd on the following year's Home, right down to the well-placed sax solo, not to mention Genesis again and solo Steve Hackett (on Demons). We also get some cod-Celtic nonsense on the title track for bad measure, although the same 'right style, wrong notes' caveat applies as before. As I said, minor samplotron, with brief string parts on Brave New Land and The Journey, but, once again, they're underused. 2006's New York Suite was marketed as an EP (and included as the second disc of the Home reissue), but in my book, forty minutes is an album, so an album it is. Conceptually, it appears to follow on from Home, assuming you're actually listening to the lyrics, which I'm not, while it sounds a lot like its predecessor musically, with a snatch of samplotron strings at one point.
After a couple of samplotron-free efforts, 2013's The Twenty Seven Club (a contemporary Amy Winehouse reference?), recorded as a trio, is slightly better than its predecessors, though not enough to actually pull an extra half star out of the Planet Mellotron hat. While Stoned and The Gift are probably the best things here, closer The Devil At The Crossroads almost loses them that half star again; suffice to say, Magenta still don't appear to be aiming for 'originality', sadly. Not a lot of that samplotron, either, with naught but a few string swells in Stoned. Magenta are the F2 label's flagship act, as far as I can work out, which probably has more to do with having a female frontperson than anything to do with the quality of the music. Go on, argue effectively with that one. Met any British prog fans lately?
Magenta (nothing to do with the outrageously unoriginal UK 'progressive' band) seem to be a Norwegian goth band, for want of a better description, although their sound is rooted as much in 'traditional' indie as anything. They're an augmented trio, effectively, with any number of guests joining the core of vocalist Vilde Lockert and guitarists Anders Odden and Daniel Hill, both of whom double on almost everything. Little Girl Lost is their second full release and, apart from the odd moment (the first part of Mermaid, the electronic title track), made me want to take it off immediately, I'm afraid. Bored-sounding female vocals intoning in bad English doth not a dark, scary album make, people. Andreas Bjørk and Tore Ylvizåker are credited with 'Mellotron', but none of it sounds that authentic, the real giveaway being the muted choirs on I Need My Love, which just don't cut the mustard at all. The rest of their sample use consists of strings on opener These Things, overdubbed strings and flutes on Mermaid and 'Strawberry Fields'-esque flutes on closer Green Dragon, some of which doesn't sound bad, but none of which convinces me it's real. Now, of course, I'll be proven wrong...
2007's two-hour, four-disc Sojourner is actually a full release of the source material for Magnolia Electric Co.'s previous year's Fading Trails, four recording sessions, one (wastefully) per disc. It's a pot-pourri of Molina's influences, discs one and two (Nashville Moon and Black Ram) sounding more like What Comes After the Blues, while the brief three (Sun Session) is more country and four (Shohola) pretty much solo acoustic. Alan Weatherhead is credited with Mellotron on disc two, but the only even vaguely audible use is some most likely sampled background strings on Will-O-The-Wisp, unless it's buried away in the mix elsewhere. Molina followed up with 2009's Josephine, a laid-back, countrified record with little of that Neil influence left, sadly, although it can vaguely be heard in the title track and The Handing Down. Saying that, it's a good, mournful Americana effort, better tracks including Shenandoah and Hope Dies Last, although possibly not matching up to the band's earlier work. Michael Kapinus is credited with Mellotron, but I'd love to know where, as it seems to be completely inaudible.
Magnus are a Belgian synth-pop duo, 2000s style, so no Human League/Soft Cell-style pop sensibilities here, more a dance-influenced, sample-based approach, so contemporary that, seven years later it sounds quaintly old-fashioned. Better tracks include Jumpneedle and Rock Chick, but I can't imagine this is going to excite anyone who has a place in their heart for the first wave of synth-based pop. Peter Vermeersch adds obviously fake (yet credited) Mellotron strings and flutes to French Movies, with vaguely similar sounds cropping up on a couple of other tracks. All rather dull, really, particularly on the fakeotron front.
Nick Magnus joined The Enid as second keyboard player in 1976, staying for six months before leaving to form the Portsmouth-based Autumn, whose recordings finally appeared in 1999 as the highly-recommended, though sadly Mellotron-free Oceanworld (****). After a fortuitous mix-up with a 'musicians wanted' ad, Nick teamed up with Steve Hackett for a decade, playing on his run of albums beginning with 1979's wonderful Spectral Mornings, releasing his first solo album, Straight on Till Morning, in 1993, after contributing to the semi-legendary Rime of the Ancient Sampler: The Mellotron Album, albeit in sampled form. It seems Straight on... is actually a re-recording of a library album Nick released, titled Framework (there's a library music title if ever there were one), so it won't come as any great surprise to hear that it largely consists of music more back- than foreground, much of it with something of an '80s sheen about it; you know, all programmed drums and chiffy synth patches. Best tracks? Probably the gentle Miranda and the orchestral version of Lac Lucerne that closes the record, although, since Voiceprint allowed this to go out of print many years back, you'll be hard-pushed to find a physical copy. The album's sole samplotron use is the vague strings on Nick's contribution to the aforementioned Rime... disc, Night Of The Condor, although you'd be forgiven for missing them entirely.
1999's Inhaling Green is an album of mostly instrumental symphonic progressive rock, although the female-vocalled Cantus, maybe surprisingly, is nearer the dance end of the spectrum, while Dixon Hill is more in a swing vein and Nick's take on George Martin's Theme One (you'll know the Van der Graaf version) is slightly techno-flavoured, would you believe. Best tracks? Probably the flute-led Veil Of Sighs and the lengthy, three-part title track, part three being especially Hackett-esque. Those Mellotron samples crop up here and there, with strings on Free The Spirit, The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea and Weighing Of The Souls, although it's not the heaviest use you'll ever hear, sampled or otherwise. Five years on, 2004's Hexameron can been seen either as more cohesive or less varied, depending on your outlook (I prefer the former description), concentrating more on the progressive end of the spectrum. Nick adds vocals to the mix this time round, guest vocalists including ex-Hackett colleague Pete Hicks and ReGenesis man Tony Patterson's Gabrielesque tones, other guests including guitarist Geoff Whitehorn (If, Procol Harum) and Hacketts John (flute, of course) and Steve. The furthest the album deviates from the (loosely) symphonic template is the Celtic flavourings on Sophia's Song, most of its material sitting somewhere between Enid-style symphonics, contemporary guitar-driven prog and a touch of new age in places. On the samplotron front, we get strings and/or choir on several tracks, including Marduk, Brother Sun Sister Moon and Seven Hands Of Time, used, once again, with welcome restraint.
2010's Children of Another God ups the ante somewhat, possibly even being Nick's Big Progressive Statement, featuring repeating musical and lyrical motifs throughout in true concept album style. Top tracks include the opening title track, the Hackett-esque The Colony Is King, with its strange, chanted vocals and the slightly Spock's Beard-esque Babel Tower, while Doctor Prometheus is reminiscent of mid-'70s Rick Wakeman, albeit considerably better, leaving the female-vocalled The Others as the album's odd man out, sounding as if it belongs on another record. The 'guest list' this time round is fairly familiar, including Hicks, Patterson and both Hacketts again, plus Nick's old Enid bandmate Glenn Tollett on upright bass. Did I use the phrase 'welcome restraint' regarding Nick's sampled 'Tron use above? Am I mad? This time round he gets strings and/or choirs in on most tracks, used with considerable taste, as I'd expect, often alongside sampled Taurus pedals, using the ever-faithful Genesis template; a compliment, in case you were wondering.
2014's N'monix', while still undoubtedly 'progressive rock' (whatever you take that to mean), shifts further towards the orchestral spectrum than Nick's previous work, although opener Time is full-blown classic Hackett/Magnus. Elsewhere, Memory is a choral piece at the prog end of the musical theatre spectrum, Kombat Kid is a grimly amusing cautionary tale regarding modern technology, complete with historical references, while there's more than a little of Gentle Giant about Headcase, leaving the remainder of the album loosely 'progressive', the eccentric Eminent Victorians also reminding the listener of the odder tracks on Hackett's 'classic period' releases. Samplotron on several tracks, with strings (and brass?) on Time, block string chords on Kombat Kid and string swells on Eminent Victorians, Broken and Entropy.
Duncan Maitland used to play in Irish sensations Pugwash, so it should come as absolutely no surprise at all that his first solo album, 2010's Lullabies for the 21st Century should be a gorgeous, sun-drenched concoction of intelligent pop and gentle psychedelia. Think late-period XTC; actually, keep thinking that as you listen to the first track, Your Century, as it sinks in that none other than XTC's Colin Moulding's playing bass. There genuinely isn't a bad track here; mind you, not everyone's going to get the 'Light Programme' whimsy of closer Insect Under The Stone, in which case they should probably go for the Beatles-esque Your Century, Terry The Toad (beautiful chorus) or Alien At Home, to name but three. I had to apply a little pressure, but Colin eventually owned up to using samples, largely because I couldn't work out how he'd tracked down a Chamberlin in Ireland. He uses 'Tron or Chamby samples on nine of the eleven tracks here, with a wider range of sounds than most real Mellotron users can manage (often a 'sample giveaway', that one), notable parts including the 'Tron flutes on Your Century and Cry Me To Sleep, the 'Tron strings on Up To You and Supermarket Dream and the Chamby sax solo on Insect Under The Stone, "So good", says Duncan, "That I credited it to a fictional player!" ('Herbert Ginshell', for what it's worth).
Major Parkinson find themselves variously described as 'prog', 'alternative rock' and 'pop/rock', the truth, unsurprisingly, lying both somewhere in between and elsewhere. Influences on their second album, 2010's Songs From a Solitary Home, are as disparate as '77 punk, Brecht & Weil (notably the deranged Dance With The Cookie Man), French chanson (Downtown Boogie) and early '80s post-punk, while I'd be amazed to hear they'd never heard Cardiacs. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts, however, so trying to nail this lot down to any one style is an utterly futile exercise. Someone plays fakeotron strings and flutes on Solitary Home and Domestic Violets, with possible background use elsewhere, but it's hardly the album's defining feature. This is a very good album that repeated plays can only make better, its eclecticism showing a million lesser outfits the way. As a result, they'll probably sell very few records.
Ben Mallot(t)'s debut album, 2008's Look Good, Feel Good, completely belies his relative inexperience, Mallot sounding like a seasoned, world-weary peddler of fine Americana. Of course, there's little actual originality on display, but what do you expect from a genre that's been around this long? It's all about the songs, anyway, which are good, if not outstanding, the best ones probably being Shotgun Suzy, Leaving and closer Just Like Angels. Producer Mark Hallman allegedly plays Mellotron, although I have absolutely no idea where, as it's completely inaudible.
Mamiffer (who have also collaborated with Locrian) are one of American guitarist Aaron Turner's multifarious projects, albeit one actually led by vocalist/pianist Faith Coloccia, whose debut, 2008's Hirror Enniffer, is probably best described as 'post-metal', whatever you take that to mean. Coloccia's piano is the lead instrument throughout the bulk of the record, although Death Shawl is essentially a slow build-up of distorted organ and closer Cyhraeth is similarly piano-free. Coloccia is credited with Mellotron, but the strings on Black Running Water sound pretty shaky from where I'm standing (OK, so I'm sitting), although whether they're actually Mellotron samples or generic strings credited as such is hard to say. So; is this any good? Good at what it does, assuming you like the sound of ambient piano overlaid with wordless vocals and distortion.
Mammoth Volume are part of the 'third wave' of stoner hard rock/metal, following the late-'80s burst of activity from Trouble, Monster Magnet et al. But are they any good at it? I hear you cry. Well, I've heard better, to be honest, although they have a certain level of competence going for them and a disinterest in 'playing the game', making every track sound like every other, all of which sound like a bad amalgam of Black Sabbath and Hawkwind. You know the type. Maybe I'm just becoming incredibly jaded, but even on a second listen, I can't really warm to their second full-length effort, 2001's A Single Book of Songs, although it has its moments. The 'Mellotron' parts are fairly obviously sampled, with strings on opener To Gloria, The So Called 4th Sect and Evening Streeted, with distant, phased choirs on Pleroma, strings and cranky flutes on Brave Manic Mover and finally, more strings on closer Instead of Circles, which would've given the album something like TTT were the Mellotron genuine. There's supposed to be more 'Mellotron' on their eponymous 1999 debut, but all I can hear is some dodgy generic string samples, though I've been wrong before... As far as A Single Book of Songs goes, it's fairly adventurous for a stoner band, but somehow, I just couldn't engage with it properly, (fake) Mellotron or no. Sorry.
Mangala Vallis' first album, The Book of Dreams, features real Mellotron, although that's just about its only redeeming feature. However, their follow-up from three years later, Lycanthrope, proves that neo-proggers can improve, if only slightly. It starts off as a vast improvement on its predecessor, although it still opens with a Genesis steal (Watcher this time). Guest vocalist on their debut, ex-PFM man Bernardo Lanzetti, seems to've become a full member by this time, making Chocolate Kings comparisons inevitable; better than Script though, eh kids? Mangala Vallis' previous Spock's Beard influence seems to have become more dominant here, with the vast bulk of the hour-long album taken up by the sort-of title track, the Werewolf Suite, replete with loads of Enzo Cattini's Hammond and fake Mellotron work. Hurrah! This isn't to say it's all good, by any means; Lycanthroparty pumps away at a mainstream rock groove for far longer than necessary, including the obligatory dullsville guitar solo, and in fact, the quality dips as the album progresses, until by the end, it isn't an awful lot better than its predecessor. What a shame; if only the album had been shorter, maybe the band could've tightened up their arrangements and made for a better release all round. 'Tron samples across the board, mostly strings, with bits of flute and choir here and there, although some of the notes hold just that little bit too long. So; a partly good partly non-neo-prog album with fake Mellotron. Concentrate on what makes the first half of Lycanthrope good, lads, and your third effort could be very reasonable. Incidentally, many thanks to my old pal Gary for extracting a sample use confession out of the band.
Mangrove formed in the mid-'90s under a different name, releasing their first full album (after a brace of demos), Touch Wood, in 2004. Obvious influences include 'mid-period' (i.e. post-Gabriel, pre-chart success) Genesis and, I'm sad to say, Marillion, their sound being pervaded with an unfortunate neo-prog sensibility, particularly in the vocal department. Actually, I'm reminded in places of superior Scottish neo-proggers Citizen Kane, also IQ, although with little of either band's sometime inventiveness, the nearest this gets to an exception being the vaguely bluesy/jazzy touches in closer City Of Darkness. This is one of those 'OK in small doses' albums, where any single track is perfectly listenable, but over an hour in one go becomes exceedingly tedious. Samplotronically speaking, obviously fake string, cello and choir parts on opener Fatal Sign, flutes on Vicious Circle and combinations of these four on most of the rest. The following year's Facing the Sunset is basically more of the same, albeit in longer form, featuring four lengthy tracks; unfortunately, the band's talents don't really extend to complexity in any great way, so they all become a bit dull after a while. Less samplotron than before, but better sounds, for what it's worth.
2006's double live (bit early for that, isn't it?), Coming Back to Live, might've gained an extra half star had it edited their live set down to its best forty minutes or so. As it is, two new tracks aside, we get large chunks of their first two albums, in a live setting, with samplotron strings and choirs throughout. That's it. Sadly, 2009's Beyond Reality is, unbelievably, even worse than its predecessors. Most depressing of all, though, is that the band manage flashes of inspiration, then brutally smother them to death with endless minutes of utterly clichéd neo-prog drivel. Guys, guys... Can't you do better than this? Stop listening to Marillion; that'll help. More of the usual samplotron, not that I care any more. I had a nasty feeling that Mangrove were going to suck, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt and have been comprehensively defeated. If I (or anyone) could actually be bothered, there's probably about twenty minutes of good bits spread over all three of these albums, which is vastly too little to be any use. Why do the Netherlands chuck out so many of these bands? Please stop.
The Manic Street Preachers' story has been one of tragedy; their arch-propagandist, Richey James, disappeared in the mid-'90s, having almost certainly thrown himself off the Severn Bridge during a bad bout of depression; the band regrouped, recording Everything Must Go as soon as possible to try to overcome the trauma. In retrospect, Richey didn't seem to actually do an awful lot in the band, existing more as their public face than anything else, so their subsequent career hasn't suddenly taken a lurch in a different direction. The Manics started off wanting to be The Clash, but quickly mutated into a stadium-rock outfit for disaffected teenagers, an area they still inhabit today.
This is My Truth Tell Me Yours does nothing to change this state of affairs; mostly mid-paced, with a great deal of rather hollow lyrical rhetoric and somewhat clichéd song structures. Session keyboardist Nick Nasmyth brought in a raft of vintage gear, principally a Hammond and a Wurlie piano, making reasonable use of them across the album, although it's interesting to note that the band's next effort featured a noticeably stripped-down sound, as they apparently felt that This is My Truth was a bit 'lush' in the production department. I've always been under the impression that the credit for 'Mellotron' meant exactly that, but going by the interview with producer Dave Eringa here, it seems they're samples. Anyway, fake 'Tron on three tracks; the rather pretentiously-titled single, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next has strings running through it, while the balladic You're Tender And You're Tired has a short arranged string part in the middle. The Manics also used a proper string section on the album, so Nasmyth was obviously going for a distinct 'feel' by using the pseudo-'Tron here. Album closer S.Y.M.M. (South Yorkshire Mass Murderer, apparently) has a background strings wash, with a slightly more upfront part on the second verse.
I'd heard that the Manics had recorded an album of music set to unused Richey lyrics, incorrectly assuming that it was 2010's Postcards From a Young Man. Well, it'd make sense, wouldn't it? It seems that was the previous year's Journal for Plague Lovers, however, its successor apparently being, "One last shot at mass communication". To be honest, it makes a pretty good shot at it, the band's tried'n'tested stadium riffs crossed with indie vocals trick serving them well once again. Do I like it? Not especially, no, but it's difficult to deny that they do what they do rather well. Loz Williams is credited with 'Melotron', but with real strings on most track, who knows where it might be? Are those 'Melotron' strings faintly audible at the end of The Future Has Been Here 4Ever? If so, I'd swear blind they ain't real. Again.
Aimee Mann (US) see:
Manna Jäntti is a Finnish singer-songwriter, clearly aiming at the international market by singing in English. Her debut, 2007's Sister, is a surprisingly decent effort, largely steering clear of the genre's expected cheesy melodies and limp arrangements, better tracks including Lost, I Gave In and the title track. Manna's close-mic'd voice is considerably better than those of many of her transatlantic contemporaries, thankfully missing the nasal edge that so many American singers seem unable (or unwilling) to drop. Kalle Gustafsson Jerneholm is credited with Mellotron on opener Stars, but the vague strings on the track sound little like a real machine to my (admittedly jaded) ears. It's notable that probable sample users Soundtrack of Our Lives' Martin Hederos plays on the track, although whether or not he's had anything to do with the presumed fakeotron is unknown. Anyway, good at what it does, but unlikely to appeal to most Planet Mellotron readers.
I can't work out what Parallel or 90 Degrees associate and Tangent member Guy Manning did before the late '90s; like many other current progressive artists, he probably spent years making music he didn't like, finally finding the freedom to follow his heart. Incidentally, some years ago, he wrote to tell me that he used Mellotron on all his albums, then didn't reply when I asked where he'd sourced a machine, although he's recently let me know that he started off using an Akai, moving on to the ubiquitous M-Tron.
He released his first solo album (and the only one credited to anything other than Manning), Tall Stories for Small Children, in 1999, falling in between the progressive and singer-songwriter genres, sounding not entirely unlike Pink Floyd in places. This is the kind of album that rewards multiple plays and much reading of the lyrics; unfortunately, I don't have the luxury of being able to give everything I review the appropriate attention, but initial listens give the impression of a reasonable, though far from classic effort, incorporating no fewer than three multi-part epics. The Last Psalm is probably the most Floyd-like thing here, The Fall And Rise Of Abel Mann? accentuates the singer-songwriter aspects of Manning's work, while Holy Ireland explores his heritage, with some appropriately Celtic themes cropping up here and there. As for the 'Mellotron', indeed it is sampled, given away by the pitchbend on The Last Psalm, with strings and/or choir on most tracks; maybe a TT½, were it applicable.
The following year's The Cure (as Manning) is, essentially, more of the same, although the Floyd references seem to have been put to bed. Its concept might possibly be explained by the brief essay in the CD booklet, 'The Effects of Partial & Total Sensory Deprivation'; suffice to say, this is music where the lyrics are at least as important as the music, à la your typical singer-songwriter. The music's perfectly good for what it is, but its slightly back-seat role makes this a slightly less engaging listen than its predecessor. Less samplotron, too, although Manning gets a bit in on most tracks. 2001's Cascade is, I'm afraid, a rather weaker effort, its uneasy prog/folk/pop crossover almost designed to keep everyone unhappy; its best track is a version of Hushabye Mountain (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), unfortunately highlighting the relative weakness of Manning's writing. Saying that, he has his fanbase, but I suspect that, like, the artist himself, they're as interested in his albums' lyrical content as the musical. Once again, fakeotron on a few tracks, but nothing startling.
2002's The Ragged Curtain seems to be the next instalment in Manning's lengthy sequence of (presumably unrelated) concept titles, the vaguely Floydish music once again more of a backdrop to the lyrics. As with his previous albums, it features the occasional really nice moment dotted amongst tens of minutes of rather forgettable ones, not to mention some quite unforgivable sax solos. Once again, samplotron on a few tracks, for what it's worth. Incidentally, spot the Mott the Hoople's All The Young Dudes quote on Where Do All The Madmen Go. Keeping up his 'one a year' workload, 2003's The View From My Window carries on a similar vein to its predecessors, which is about all I can think of to say about it. It contains a little sampled Mellotron. 2004's A Matter of Life & Death (The Journal of Abel Mann), while no more interesting musically, seems to have a more cohesive concept, giving the Tall Stories... character his own album. Is there a best track? Probably Out Of My Life, but that isn't really a recommendation. It certainly isn't the cheesy rock'n'roll of closer Midnight Sail, anyway. Y'know, my problem with Manning's albums has just come into focus, listening to this one: he's influenced by rather too much of the insipid end of prog, crossing over into '70s 'middling rock' to be able to claim any real prog credibility, much of his material sounding more like Elton John, say, or maybe The Alan Parsons Project. Manning may take the comparisons as a compliment, but they're not.
2005's One Small Step... carries on that concept thing, also bringing in the occasional new influence, notably the prog/Americana of The Mexico Line. Man Of God is probably the best thing here, Manning's influences coming together in reasonably pleasing form, avoiding cheesiness en route; shame he can't apply the technique to more of his material. The following year's Anser's Tree (go on, work it out), however, is a rather better effort, although its pseudo-historical concept is less than fully transparent. Why is this better? Not sure, it just is. Less MOR? Hard to say, but the material manages not to irritate, while the lyrical vignettes make more sense than previously. Manning keeps the (relative) quality up on 2007's Songs From the Bilston House. Now, I originally thought that this would be a live album recorded at the (semi-) legendary Robin 2 club in Bilston, in the Birmingham conurbation, but, er, it isn't. What we actually get is another hour or so of new material (regular as clockwork, this guy), which delves further back towards the very early '70s. if not the late '60s, better tracks including the really rather good Understudy and the jamming Icarus & Me, although losing rather dreary closer Inner Moment would actually improve the album.
His tenth release, 2009's Number Ten, wittily references the British prime minister's legendary residence on the sleeve, although I didn't spot any overt political references on the album, which starts well with the dynamic r'n'b of Ships, while the point at which A Road Less Travelled shifts up a gear is a highpoint. Yet again, though, the album suffers from Manning's usual 'around twenty minutes too long' issues; losing Another Lazy Sunday and lengthy closer The House On The Hill would actually have improved the end result. Sadly, the following year's Charlestown seems to be a backwards step into sort-of prog dullness, exacerbated by the thirty five-minute opening title track, despite its upfront samplotron flutes and strings. The album picks up by closer Finale, but by then, it's too little, too late. For what it's worth, all of the above that lack specific mentions have reasonable levels of sampled Mellotron, tending to shift between the 'holy trinity' of strings, flutes and choir.
I initially presumed 2011's Margaret's Children referenced our (now) unlamented ex-prime minister, although I'm not sure how that might fit the overall concept. A sequel to Anser's Tree, the lyrics cover biographical excerpts for another seven linked fictional characters, the music partially illustrating their lives, notably on Harriet Horden (1912-1955) (A Night at the Savoy, 1933). There seems to be more of a Jethro Tull vibe about this record, with overblown (in a good way) flute work abounding, other highlights including the brass on Harriet Horden, which works surprisingly well, ditto the instrumental coda on Amelia Fairfax. Minimal samplotron, with naught but background strings on Harriet Horden and David Logan, plus upfront flutes on the latter. After 2012's unsurprisingly samplotron-free Akoustik, the following year's The Root, the Leaf & the Bone does that Tull thing again, often to very good effect. Infuriatingly uneven, highlights include the opening title track (with its creepy "Tick... tock" vocal interjections), the folk/metal of The Huntsman And The Poacher and the dynamic Mists Of Morning Calling To The Day, although I find myself unable to warm to several tracks. Typically sparse on the samplotron front, all we get is distant choirs and high strings on the opening title track and upfront strings on Mists Of Morning Calling To The Day.
Do you bother with Guy Manning? All of the above are essentially singer-songwriter albums, played in a proggish style, although you feel he might be more comfortable shucking off the stylistic baggage and simply making albums of linked songs, rather than overlong, pseudo-prog efforts that fall between several stools. These should all have been trimmed to a fortyish-minute length, in my humble opinion; that might mean losing some of the concepts, but the musical gains would more than compensate. Potentially decent albums mostly scuppered by excess.
I'm not sure if Finland's Mansion could be said to continue their country's grand (?) tradition of playing sleazy cock-rock on 2014's The Mansion Congregation Hymns Vol.1, begun by the legendary Hanoi Rocks in the early '80s. Because? Because while the 'A' side (despite its title, this isn't even EP length) fits that description, the flip is more of a stoner/doom thing, almost as if it's by a different band. Are either side any good? Not especially, no. Joona Lukala is credited with Mellotron, but the vague choirs on New Dawn are quite clearly nothing of the sort. Can I recommend this? Not especially, no, although at least it does its thing with the requisite levels of vim.
Maple Mars' 2001 debut, Welcome to Maple Mars, is a decent, if not classic powerpop album, concentrating on the psychedelic end of the genre, although, as with so many similar, you get the feeling that it would've been improved by some trimming. Top tracks include the opening title track, Souvenir and the Mott-esque Absolute Zero, but a mid-album lull loses it half a star. Rick Gallego allegedly plays Mellotron, but the 'Strawberry Fields'-esque background flute part on Fly is so muffled that if a real machine was used, I can only say that's it's long overdue an overhaul. Not bad, then, although I suspect the best was to come for Maple Mars.
Marbles are basically the solo side-project of Apples in Stereo mainman Robert Schneider, taking less of a '60s and more of a late '70s/early '80s turn on 2005's mini-album Expo. Largely informed by synth-pop, a handful of tracks work well enough in isolation, but the overall effect, even in under half an hour, is of tedium, I'm afraid, and as for Schneider's well-documented ambition to sound like ELO... Given my chariness at the Apples' Mellotronic veracity, it comes as no great surprise to report that the credited 'Mellotron' here... isn't. Some of the strings barely sound like one at all, although it's possible they're actually something else, but the supposedly definite 'Tron strings don't sound right at all, ditto the choirs, leaving only the easy-to-sample flutes sounding at all genuine. Sorry, but if you want to hear retro synth stuff, there's an awful lot better around than this. I like the Apples' albums, but I'm afraid this leaves me cold.