The Muffins are a progressive rock band hailing from the Washington, D.C. area. Despite being an American group The Muffins have a totally authentic Canterburyesque sound. In the best Canterbury tradition none of the band members, Tom Scott, Billy Swan, Dave Newhouse, and Paul Sears are virtuoso players of any one instrument but they are all talented multi-instrumentalists. Scott and Newhouse in particular play a wide array of reed instruments which are the cornerstone of their sound. Their debut, Manna/Mirage is possibly the greatest "avant-prog" album ever recorded. The album sounds like a mix of Henry Cow weirdness, Soft Machine psychedelia and Happy The Man melodicism (Kit Watkins is credited as technical advisor and on future albums the band works with Fred Frith).
The album opens with "Monkey With The Golden Eyes," which starts with a quiet electric piano riff embellished by a melodic flute line. The piece builds in intensity by adding saxes, clarinets, vibes and a fuzzy, dirty organ, á la Mike Ratledge and then ends abruptly and is immediately segued into "Hobart Got Burned" which is less structured and more improvisational, yet remaining still somewhat melodic. The use of echo in this song and on the rest of the album is also worth noting because they use the effect almost exclusively on the reed instruments. An interesting choice and it is the main factor in the psychedelic feel the album has at times.
The third track, "Amelia Earhart" is the centerpiece of not only this album but also the band's entire catalogue and simply must be heard to be believed. It is an amazing and completely preposterous piece of music. If there ever existed any rules in music they are soundly broken here. This is musical melange of keyboards, saxophones, flex-a-tones, bicycle bells, squeezie toys, basses and whistles speaking morse code, children playing, and arrogant waltzing bass clarinets. All of this contributes to a wonderfully bizarre, yet irresistibly melodic song structure. Incidentally, the inspiration behind the name of the band and the title of the album come from Amelia Earhart and her fascination with Biblical "manna" and her attempt to reproduce it in the form of muffins.
The final track is a familiar prog staple, the side long epic called "The Adventures Of Captain Boomerang." It is essentially more of the same but perhaps a bit jazzier and just as strange, different, and interesting as anything on side one.
It may take a few listens for some of it to sink in but I guarantee any serious listener of instrumental progressive rock will enjoy this album. Listen and be amazed.
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