THE MUFFINS — Manna/Mirage (review)

THE MUFFINS — Manna/Mirage album cover Album · 1978 · Fusion Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
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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