October 1998 – album reviews – Michael Manring’s ‘The Book of Flame’ (“to get on the good foot while booting great clusters of noise about with the other”)

15 Oct

Michael Manring: 'The Book of Flame'

Michael Manring: ‘The Book of Flame’

If you’re already at the top of the tree, technique-wise – as Michael Manring is – you risk losing yourself in the skill, reheating old ideas with the energy you should be using to take yourself somewhere new. Thankfully, Manring’s smarter than that.

The meticulous, mellifluous bass guitarist who flowed his way through graceful jazz/New Age composites a decade ago has evolved into a much broader musician. His central playing style (a clean blend of Jaco Pastorius’ near-vocal virtuosity and the late Michael Hedges’ percussive contrapuntal bounce) remains intact, as do his harmonically dense tapping skills and fondness for stretching things out with the EBow sustainer. But having evolved a wider arsenal of bass noises – giant distorted trunks of feedback, fretboard noise, infinite-sustain drones, occasional On-U-Sound-a-like dub effects – he’s put them to compositional use, pushing out the envelope that way.

‘The Book of Flame’ continues the process begun on 1994’s ‘Thonk’: despite its good points, essentially a reaction record jumping vigorously into noisy heavy-metal fusion to ensure Manring wasn’t tagged with the “dextrous-wimp” label. Subsequent band work – dystopian prog-funk with Sadhappy, jazz-metal with Attention Deficit, more spacious experimental improv with Cloud Chamber – has seen Manring developing the side of his playing that looks towards “why” rather than “how”.

Though ‘The Book of Flame’ uses familiar colleagues (Michael Masley; Tim Alexander; Oregon reedsman Paul McCandless) as well as a few unfamiliar ones, it’s emphatically a solo album, with two-thirds of the tracks exclusively Manring-performed. And it’s his timeliest album to date, the one best attuned to its contemporary contexts. Although he hasn’t abandoned playing for computers and pure beat-science, Manring has discovered samplers, dance methodology and loop-culture with a vengeance, and battened onto them ravenously.


 
Having said that, there are enough real-time bass solos to satisfy technique-junkies: as usual with Manring, extending the instrument’s parameters. The Fire Sermon – executed on Manring’s ten-string bass, each string individually tuned – sounds like a squad of Terminators tap-dancing down a Busby Berkeley stairway, red eyes twinkling, chromium top hats waggling aloft. La Sagrada Familia hangs slippery fretless shapes in tuneful, trapeze-act harmonics patterns; and blurs from sustained notes to clusters of aggressive tapping (similar to Red Right Returning from 1992’s ‘Drastic Measures’). And there’s an echo of Stanley Clarke’s pluck’n’pop on No Wontons for Elvis, mingling athletic bluesiness with impossible tangles of contrapuntal squeaks.

Best of all is The Book of Living and Dying, a beautiful memorial and tribute to the late Hedges in the shape of a mournful lilting tune which shoots off to Hedges’ aspirant, meteor-popping celestial heights but then pulls itself back with a lump in its throat. But these are pretty much a sideline to the real business of ‘The Book of Flame’, which is to get on the good foot while booting great clusters of noise about with the other.


 
While there’s a lot of sonic experimentation on hand, this is also Manring’s most danceable record yet, with a set of busy tunes that shake their booties over cheeky, compressed, Prince-flavoured funk grooves with that tight, offhanded boom-blat rhythm. Adult Content/Brief Nudity has that, when it’s not breaking step into narcotic stumble-shuffling trip-hop ambience. Manring’s gang of basses converse with each other and McCandless’s bass clarinet, which explores and comments like Johnny Hodges taking the air in Paisley Park. Theseus in the Rains never entirely loses its hand-clappy purple groove-chat, even when Manring brings in skirling EBowed whines, percussive string bangs like abused filing-cabinets, and an assemblage of scrapes, pops and whines like an ailing flying saucer.


 
The approach goes furthest on Your Ad Here, which sets out like Adhan from ‘Thonk’ (high and low EBow drones like pipes and ney-flutes), but soon develops the legs of a tinny hip-hop beat. Manring exchanges singing Prince-y riffettes (descending from high plucked bass) and sharp, contrasting beat-science breakdowns – earthquake-wobbles, psychedelic space-echoes, drum shadows and computer noise. Closer to Tackhead than to Stu Hamm, anyhow, and with a similar dystopian flavour to its irresistible dance impulses.


 
‘The Book of Flame’ also sees Manring’s compositional and arranging diversity at its peak. Most misleading track award goes to The Adamski Photographs, both straight and twisted. Dave Tweedie’s violent heavy-Cobham drumming and the belligerent Allan Holdsworth-ish choruses could’ve tied it down to mainstream fusion, but Manring’s bass attacks (sputtering, clattering, playing a solo like someone molding tarmac) and the jarring groove (centred on Barry Gurley’s lurching, Thelonious Monk piano) ensure otherwise. In contrast, Ephemeris is a clean, almost inhumanly perfect two-minute phase of cyclical process music. A duo of basses playing in rolling, cascading minimalist harmony: each moving in and out, in-step, in a build-and-fade composition like a jazzed-up take on Philip Glass.



 
Booming swells of sustained cosmos-bass open The Book of Lies: an undulating atmospheric weave of drillbit melodies, tight clusters of clipped Jaco harmonics and thrumming prayer-like vocal groans before Alexander’s thunderous upfront drumming drags in Manring’s distorted heavy-metal lead bass, spluttering into all kinds of squealing feedback. And eventually it falls to Dromedary to bridge all the previous directions together: a framework of heavy funk and kitchen-sink-contents percussion regularly kicked in by distorted noisecore riffs and outer-space sample weirdness, around which Manring darts bubbling, talkative solo lines.


 
Accessible, yet challenging – and far too open-ended/minded to settle into the role of self-conscious masterpiece – ‘The Book of Flame’ is the best evidence yet of Michael Manring’s importance. Juggling high art and down-to-earth fun, he’s evolved from a rarified treasure into a broader pleasure, and seems set on the road to continue that way for a long time.

Michael Manring: ‘The Book of Flame’
Alchemy Records Ltd., ALCD 1015 (607387101520)
CD-only album
Released:
13th October 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) CD best obtained from large online dealers or second-hand.
Michael Manring online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

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