A gentle piano intro, and the voice intoning a complex and odd melody, “picking melodies out of the black and fumy air” indeed. Then, something stirs, crashing chords, strident bass and drums, and a synth melody soaring aloft; yes friends, it’s Prog O’Clock. I Am The Manic Whale are back. The band play through a kind of overture sequence, ascendant and triumphal, then back to the vocals, where Michael Whiteman’s lines are answered by the backing vocals in a call and response arrangement, somewhat similar to the technique often used by Big Big Train. The Manic Whale build to a fittingly grand conclusion, then disappear in a series of synth squiggles.
So opens Things Unseen, the new album from I Am The Manic Whale, their third studio effort and easily their best yet. Without any pause for breath we are off again with a riff overlaying Mellotron sweeps, then some tricky Zappa-isms punctuating proceedings for no apparent reason! Quirky for quirky’s sake? No, I think quirky simply for fun, and it works brilliantly. The Deplorable Word is of course inspired by C.S. Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia, a word which supposedly results in the death of all living things, except for the person who utters it. “The Deplorable Word, she’s finally Queen of the World, The Deplorable Word, last left alive under the sun”. Clearly written to become a prog anthem, The Whale do it justice for sure. The instrumental break again brings to mind BBT with its lively bass and drums rhythmic thrust from Michael Whiteman and Ben Hartley, the basis for some great guitar and jazzy piano improvisation courtesy of David Addis and John Murphy. Listening to this inspired section it becomes obvious how far I Am The Manic Whale have come in a short space of time. Rob Aubrey’s mixing skills have really brought out a new dimension to their sound, and he is known for being something of a perfectionist, but I’m sure it’s also down to experience enhancing the writing process, and the self-confidence which that brings to the performance. The band must at least suspect they have made something a bit special here.
Onward, and a gentle introspective acoustic guitar ushers in a song reflecting on the single biggest issue in the world today, and no, I’m not talking about any virus, but the seemingly wilful destruction of the planet by humankind. Into the Blue is a plea to change our ways, and has a hint of optimism, as in the line “now we’re waking up”, but is it too late? Whiteman thinks not, and continues “When wicked men make profits from the salt-ripped earth and punished sea, it’s time to wave our banners true. So let’s do everything to clear the air, and take the deepest breath into the blue”. Well his heart is undeniably in the right place, and the music sounds hopeful. On the heels of the acoustic intro, a heavy guitar and keys riff gives it gravitas, but we return to an optimistic vibe with a Summery chorus with great vocal harmonies. In fact the vocal delivery on this album is one of the hallmarks of the improved sound. Again, the instrumental break mid-song is so inventive and includes a fast section with manic guitar shapes from Addis which are a joy to hear, but order is soon restored, and the song concludes with a reprise of the acoustic intro. It’s just perfect.
Perhaps the album title Things Unseen is a reference to Whiteman’s penchant for unusual song subjects, or odd observations. One thing is for sure; if you can make out the album title from the front cover, you’re doing well. I had to be shown! Anyway, the next subject to come under Whiteman’s critical eye is the celebrity culture, and it is examined at some length, so Celebrity is the album’s centrepiece at nearly 19-minutes. It is a multi-part epic, but eschews the usual tried and trusted prog clichés on the whole. The lyrics are amusing and well observed, although the targets are difficult to miss when they are this absurd, but it’s a fun romp, and so full of finely crafted musical ideas that the minutes flit by quickly, rather like the moments of fame our hapless hero craves. The more ridiculous parts are very Zappa, or even Beardfish in flavour. It will go down a storm live without a doubt, and the byword here is definitely ‘fun’, and sometimes prog can forget this vital element in music.
The Manics do have a serious side though, and both Smile and Halcyon Day are songs of love for children and the moments of joy they bring, and both are delightfully honest whilst retaining that quirky element in their arrangements. That leaves two blockbusters to mention; the first is Build It Up Again, which extols the joys of Lego, and is currently my favourite track. I’d find it hard to listen to this song without having a cheesy grin on my face, and the chorus says it all: “Build it up, take it apart, build it up again”. Can’t wait for the grandchildren to be allowed to visit again and I know what we’ll be doing! Whiteman’s vocal gymnastics hit new heights here, and the weird and whacky jazz interludes are hilarious.
Final track Valenta Scream is a homage to British engineering prowess of the Seventies, something we may well have lost over the years, but The Manics remember, and you will too as the Paddington to Bristol diesel express screams through the English countryside. Perhaps it doesn’t quite have the obvious allure of the age of steam, but it is nevertheless a memory that Whiteman cherishes, and conveys vividly.
So there it is, I Am The Manic Whale have made, not only the best album of their career so far, but one of the most engaging and entertaining albums you’re likely to hear this year. It is as prog as you could possibly want, but avoiding the clichés so often associated with the genre. It is the sound of a band on top of their game really going for it, and that is a cause for celebration. When I first saw the band live a couple of years ago, I enjoyed them, but didn’t honestly think they would be capable of an album of this quality. I’m very glad to be proved wrong.
01. Billionaire (7:30)
02. The Deplorable Word (7:56)
03. Into the Blue (6:28)
04. Celebrity (19:01)
05. Smile (4:24)
06. Build it Up Again (7:03)
07. Halcyon Day (5:28)
08. Valenta Scream (7:19)
Total Time – 65:09
Ben Hartley – Drums, Percussion, Vocals
John Murphy – Keyboards, Murphatron, Vocals
David Addis – Acoustic, Electric & Classical Guitars, Vocals
Michael Whiteman – Bass Guitar, Strombolief Bass Pedals, Electric & Acoustic 12-String Guitars, Vocals
Ella Lloyd – Flute (tracks 3 & 7)
Iona Garvie – Bassoon, Contra-Bassoon (track 4)
Rob Aubrey – Unsolicited Additional Bass Pedals
Halcyon Strings (tracks 1,7 & 8):
Coral Powell – Violins
Martin Carrick – Violins
Michael Bullock – Violins
Mairi Warren – Viola
Matthew Talks – Cello
Record Label: Independent
Country Of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 24th April 2020