Man : Diamonds and Coal

Album Cover

As ever, the only constant is change. With Deke having departed to tread his own path, and Micky, sadly forced off stage due to circumstances beyond his, or anyone else's control, the Man band seem to start again. Change can be a scary thing, but is best met unflinching, and head on. The Man band understand this.

So, looking at the big picture, Martin Ace is the only old school member left, though Bob Richards is approaching his ten year anniversary in the band; both George Jones and Gareth Thorrington have been touring with the band for a few years now, and even new boy Josh Ace has benefited from the occasional guest appearance before signing his full time contract. No lack of experience then.

The title tracks opens the CD, a simple but catchy riff, and the song ambles along with a gait that reminds me of Man with X-ray Eyes. Ace senior takes the lead vocals, which drone slightly in the verses but perk up for the chorus. The whole song is carefully structured, doesn't rely on any extended soloing, and holds the interest throughout; the middle eight is full of sharp guitar hooks and excellent ensemble playing. I'll declare straight away this is my favourite track on the album, and I'd rate it better than anything on Endangered Species.

All Alone had been performed live a couple of years prior to being recorded so has had chance to mature; led on by Gareth's insistent organ riff, a vaguely bluesy number sung by George, and featuring some big guitars fighting for space between the verses.

It's unlikely that Freedom Fries will encourage the USA authorities to grant the band a visa for a tour. A curious song with quirky rhythyms and a disconcerting chorus, it has Martin's fingerprints all over it. Musically, I think there's too much going on, with a background full of wailing harmonica and howling guitar. Strange, but a good attempt to push back some boundaries.

Twistin' the Knife sounds like it was written to a formula, the end result being three and a half minutes of guitar driven radio friendly power pop. Not that there's anything wrong with guitar driven radio friendly power pop as such, but the band can do much better than this.

More writing effort has been put into Man of Misery, which is thoughfully structured, is full of quiet / loud contrasts, and makes full use of all the musicianship available to the band - washes of keyboards and a variety of guitars. It might be sparse lyrically, but musically it's not lacking in ambition and successfully pushes all the right buttons.

Both Welsh Girl and Thanks God it's not Miss Cathy are Martin Ace songs, and wouldn't have sounded out of place performed by the Flying Aces, the latter especially, which might just be a Radio 4 afternoon play set to music. Nothing wrong with the performances, but not exactly full of the essence of Manband.

Teddy Boys Picnic might have made it purely on the merit of its title, but what the hell... another Ace song, this sounds like a very close cousin of a certain Walrus. Brothel creepers optional.

The closer, When you've got Someone to Hold, is perhaps the most interesting song on the album. Easy paced, a summer song even, Martin's vocals are almost crooner like, but fit the piece perfectly. Sometimes the Man band sound like they're trying to force too much into a song, but that isn't the case here, in fact it's as if the song never quite reaches take off speed just because the band resist the temptation to throw everything in to the piece. Lyrically it's as strong as anything they've done for a very long time. Though it comes in at 7 minutes plus, it doesn't feel like it. This could well be a sleeper of a track that insists on growing on you, and might have great potential as a live piece. I like it already, and may well come to like it even more.

It's six years since the last studio album, so it might seem strange that my overall conclusion about this release is that it's been rushed. There are a few excellent pieces on Diamonds and Coal, but I'm just a little bit uneasy that there is more than the usual amount of filler material. I appreciate the practicalities of the band mean that they can't necessarily pick and choose when they get to record an album, so I'm not going to be overly harsh, but I can't help thinking that a collection which maintained the quality of the first and last tracks would have been a breathtaking triumph. Still, you can probably make the same point about most albums; it just seems very obvious in this specific case. The playing from all parties is as flawless as ever, the production is fine, and the packaging excellent.

Finally... as mentioned in the opening paragraph, change is constant. If you doubted, consider this - Gareth left the band before this album was even released.


Released in December 2006.

Available on Point, PNTVP134CD.

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