THE MUFFINS — Manna/Mirage

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THE MUFFINS - Manna/Mirage cover
4.30 | 11 ratings | 4 reviews
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Album · 1978

Filed under Fusion


A1 Monkey With The Golden Eyes 3:50
A2 Hobart Got Burned 6:10
A3 Amelia Earhart 15:40
B The Adventures Of Captain Boomerang (for Mike Forrester) 23:00

Total Time: 48:36


- Billy Swan / bass, piano, guitar, percussives
- Paul Sears / drums, gong, xylophone, vibes, percussives, pots, pans, pennywhistle
- Tom Scott / piccolo, e flat, alto and c flutes, soprano, alto and baritone saxophones, b flat and alto clarinets, oboe, soprano recorder, percussives
- Dave Newhouse / pianos, organ, piccolo, flute, alto and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet, cereal box whistle, percussives

Guest musicians:
- John Schmidt / baritone horn and tuba
- Doug Elliot / trombone
- Larry Elliot / trumpet
- Steve Feigenbaum / guitar, underwater guitar
- Greg Yaskovich / bubble trumpet

About this release

Random Radar Records ‎– RRR 003 (US)

Recorded At – Catch-A-Buzz Studios

Thanks to Abraxas for the addition and snobb for the updates


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Members reviews

The Muffins were formed in 1973, in Washington D. C., soon after a keyboardist and saxophonist Dave Newhouse, a guitarist Michael Zentner, and a bassist Billy Swann found a common unorthodox and anti-commercial approach to music. The group, however, remained nameless until a few months later when they named themselves The Muffins, allegedly after one friend of theirs shouted, "The muffins are here!" while bringing them blueberry muffins and more importantly giving an idea for the name of the band. One year after their formation, they were joined by Thomas Scott, a saxophonist with a big-band background. In 1975, Stuart Abramowitz on drums joined, only to leave one year later with Michael Zentner. While playing a concert in 1976, they stumbled upon a drummer Paul Sears, who stayed in the band. The Muffins founded their own independent recording label, Random Radar Records, under which they released their debut album, Manna/Mirage, in 1978.

With influences of acts such as Hatfield and the North, Henry Cow, National Health, Soft Machine, Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention, and even Caravan, The Muffins have shaped their own, distinctive Canterbury scene-inspired style. Although the United States has always been far from being the heartland of the subgenre and recognized it relatively late, the group's music sounds incredibly natural and authentic. Characterized by strong emphasis put on improvisation, The Muffins go far beyond being just another Canterbury-tinged jam band. The extensive use of woodwind instruments such as clarinets, flutes, recorders, and oboes, rather than brass winds, gives the band a varied, unique, almost chamber-like sound, at times reminiscent of Henry Cow's Legend. Keyboard instruments also play a prominent role with smooth, dreamy Fender Rhodes electric piano, reminiscent of Dave Stewart and Tim Hodgkinson-inspired Farfisa organ. Free jazz passages, very much in the vein of Sun Ra or Albert Ayler, are also common, enriching the album with even more of a diverse, varied style. In short: Manna/Mirage is a perfectly balanced mélange between classy avant-garde progressive rock and jazz-influenced Canterbury sound.

The album opens with "Monkey with the Golden Eyes". A calm repeating passage on electric piano is supported by a great interplay of flute and clarinet. Gradually, more instruments are added - xylophone, drums, organ, resulting in an almost ambient texture. In the beginning, "Hobart Got Burned" features just a little part of the previous track until it loses itself in chaotic, quirky, free-form mayhem. At one point, all of the instruments participating in the madness meet and, as if finally entering the same alley, present a theme which would not be out of place on an album by Hatfield and the North. Side One closes with the 15-minute "Amelia Earhart". The piece starts out with mystic, meditative sounds of a wide plethora of percussion instruments, which dissolve into a merry Caravan-like melody. Later, the listener encounters a brief free passage and various different segments of the piece, perfectly displaying the flawless work of every instrument in different musical circumstances. Side Two is fully occupied by a nearly 23-minute suite "The Adventures Of Captain Boomerang". The track begins with an interaction of woodwind instruments supplemented by accompaniment on Fender Rhodes. Then, a more energetic, louder motif dominated by saxophones kicks in. What follows is really inexplicable. Let me just say that the piece is dripping with complex arrangements, contrasted segments, dynamically, rhythmically, and instrumentally varied parts, numerous different themes, lengthy improvisational passages, and proficient instrumental work. The Muffins seem to have a well-thought plan for every second of the suite and make use of their recording time perfectly.

Manna/Mirage is an absolutely exceptional record in the history of the Canterbury scene. While in 1978, its sound might have radically drifted towards jazz fusion, this one American band, that seemingly appeared out of nowhere, skillfully carries on traditions set by bands such as Henry Cow, Soft Machine, and Hatfield and the North. The release is incredibly consistent, mature, and most of all deeply fascinating. A true gem of the Canterbury scene. Highly recommended!
The Muffins played a deliberately Canterbury-influenced style of music, which on this album approaches the standards of Hatfield and the North and other giants of the genre. With plentiful references to more mainstream varieties of jazz, the band clearly possess chops aplenty; rather than simply being a clone band mimicing their betters simply because that's all they know how to do, they're very obviously a set of capable jazz players who play in this mode because they have a genuine passion for it. More mellow and laid back than many of their British contemporaries, the Muffins sound on here reminds me a little of a significantly more interesting and adventurous Gilgamesh.
Sean Trane
Formed in Washington DC, The Muffins had started in 73 as a trio with Newhouse (keys winds) as their leader, and were joined by Scott (winds) in late 74 and recorded a few sessions (which will be later released by Cuneiform under the name Chronometer) but it wasn't until 78 that they recorded their first proper album on a small Wayside Record label..

The least we can say is that The Muffins were heavily biased to Canterbury-sounds as their album is a mix of Soft Hatfield Health crossed with Crimsonic RIO, even if the two don't entwine as much as interact. Generally the two styles succeed each other and much of the greatness of this album is the transitions from one to the other. The first side of the album is made of three excellent tracks: Golden Eyes start as a gentle National North but ends quite abruptly, segueing directly into a free improv (not unlike what Keith Tippett has done with Ovary Lodge) of Hobart, before a Ratledgian electric piano pulls the track into Kent territory, with some of the wildest and most energetic moments of Canterbury ever, throwing chills down your spine as Scott and Newhouse just blow their lungs into their respective wind instruments. Fantastic, terrific, but nothing compared with the 16-min Amelia Earhart. Starting out on an incredibly low percussion intro (much like Crimson's LTIA), the track constantly rolls back and forth between Canterbury, even pulling a spacey Gong interlude midway through.

And this is even without having heard the 22-min opus on the flipside. However for some reasons The Muffins cannot equal the perfect transitions and balance that they had achieved on the other wax slab. Overall, I'd say this album has Canterbury outlasting RIO/improv by 3 to 1, but it won't always be the case later.

The band would then meet one of the major influences Fred Frith (of Henry Cow fame) once he moved to New York and they backed him up in his solo album Gravity and in turn would produce their second album. Getting back to this debut album, this is one of the best US albums of the 70's as far as prog is concerned, leaving JR/F out
This album, like Henry Cow's Legend, really seems to walk the line between Canterbury scene's style and avant-garde rock/jazz. It's similar to that album in another couple ways, in that it's the band's debut and it's an incredibly great, innovative and complex album. I was drawn into the music when I read in reviews at Prog Archives how it reminded listeners of a mixture of RIO/Avant and the Canterbury scene, as I love both of those genres. I'm very glad I listened to the other reviewers and checked this group out.

The album starts off slowly and quietly, eventually building up over the course of the first track, adding layer after layer of instruments to the great atmosphere, bringing to mind for me the sound of National Health, with a hint of Frank Zappa.

Then, at the outbreak of the second track, things take a turn to the avant-garde side, with some seemingly free sounds reminding me of some of Henry Cow's improvisational moments. It seems to me as if the band wanted to play with contrasts, going from calm and quiet to loud and complex, back and forth, over the course of the album. Near two and a half minutes into the second track we get some echoing sax lines, playing over the interesting drum patterns. At three minutes the keyboards join in and present a little section of melody and togetherness. Nearly four minutes in I'm strongly reminded of Dave Stewart's playing in Egg. The track from this point on continues on with the same general course it's currently taking, a nice jazzy avant tune.

Next up is the album's first epic track, "Amelia Earhart". The track starts off with some light and almost mysterious sounds, mainly percussions and some sort of whistle, continuing on like this for around a minute and a half. The rest of the band joins in at this point where we're presented with a more normally structured section of music. At about two and a half minutes in the song gets quieter again and builds quickly, with fast breaks into sections led by the reeds, speeding up after three minutes for a while as the bassist goes a bit wild and the sax floats on top of the maelstrom of drums and bass below. The piece calms down again some after four minutes. The song is all over the place, and manages to go all over the place without being tiring or sounding contrived. About five and a half minutes in we get some nice fuzzy bass, always a great thing to add in. The xylophone and piano in the background fade into mainly guitar and keys, then what sounds like bass clarinet and maybe harp join in to the fun. We get a (very) quick break with what sounds like a dog toy, then another jazzy section comes along led by saxophone and a screaming something in the background. After a short while like this we return to the earlier bass and keys led melody with the excellent drumming. Near eight and a half minutes in we get a nice little section with more echoing sax lines, followed by a playful section of interplay between the bass running up and down and the flutes answering in a quirky little dissonant way. The flutes (or whatever wind instruments are present) continue on with their little bit as the band plays under them for a while. Things build back up at ten and a half minutes and we get some fun sax lines and then a more calm section with what sounds like a slide whistle put through some computer effects, and later some flute to take us out of the track. The band's playful instrumentals in this track are really great.

Finally, we come to the beast which is the side long epic "The Adventures of Captain Boomerang". This is another great track (though all the tracks here are great, if I may say so). We get about a minute of atmosphere before the sax, bass, drums and others join in to get things moving. The track breaks into some great complex bits with funny interplay between instruments/wordless vocals playing back and forth with various percussions, repeating each others' rhythms. At three minutes we get some "classic" jazz drums for a short while before they go crazy again. The band is really enjoying themselves with this album. Again, they manage to make the shifts back and forth from one melody/rhythmic idea to another throughout the track sound good. This piece overall reminds me pretty strongly of National Health's jazzier moments. Rather than give a minute by minute breakdown like I did for the beginning of the track and the entirety of the other three, I'll just mention that it has a lot of warm sections with the lush, Canterburian keyboards, some more "out there" sections with squeaking sax, some heavily Zappa-inspired sections with xylophone, and just about everything in between the two.

This band and this album are a real treasure to the music scene. They're one of those bands which can mix jazz, Canterbury quirkiness, and avant-garde rock into something with the best elements of all three and, for me, none of the pitfalls. For fans of any of those genres, or more specifically of albums like Henry Cow's Legend, National Health's albums, and Frank Zappa's jazzier output (The Grand Wazoo and Waka/Jawaka especially), you can't go wrong with this. I realize I got a bit wordy with the review and might seem as if I was just rambling on and on and on, but I hope I got across the idea that I think it's a top notch album, and worthy of 4.5 stars.

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  • MoogHead
  • lunarston
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  • Lynx33
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