Man - "Back Into the Future" (Esoteric Recordings 2008, ECLEC 2060, originally released 1973)
Man - "Maximum Darkness" (Esoteric Recordings 2008, ECLEC 2061, originally released 1976)
From Aural Innovations #40 (September 2008)
During their heyday of the early to mid-70's, Man were one of the most popular rock bands in their home country of Wales. To me, they often sounded like they were having a difficult time deciding whether they wanted to be a pub rock band or a progressive rock band. The reality is, they were very eclectic, comfortably blending the two aforementioned styles with both Carnaby Street British and West Coast US psychedelia, blues, and space rock, with an emphasis on extended jams, especially in their legendary live sets.
The sprawling 1973 double album, Back Into the Future, was considered by many to be the high point of their career, and here Esoteric has given it an appropriately lavish re-release in the form of a triple CD boxed set, complete with extensive liner notes and vintage pictures and artwork. It's a real treat for fans of the band, but also a terrific place to start discovering them.
The original double album (represented here in its entirety on Disc 1), consisted of a collection of studio songs on the first vinyl disc and two lengthy lives jams culled from live show recorded early in '73, on the second disc. The studio disc definitely bears the band's trademark eclecticism, from the loopy, psychedelic romps of A Night in Dad's Bag and the title track, to the more progressive Just For You (with some terrific synth soloing over complex funky rhythms), to the pastoral and spacey Pink Floydian sounding Don't Go Away. The jamming side also comes out in the studio with the funky Ain't Their Fight and the spacey, exotic and gorgeous journey of Never Say Nups to Nepalese, both of them around 7 ½ minutes long. They even brought in the Gwalia Male Voice Choir to sing along with a rendition of Sospan Fach, the anthem of Llanelli (a city and region in Wales) to bring a close to the studio disc!
The live disc of the original album consisted of two lengthy cuts, both clocking in around the 20-minute mark. C'mon was one of the tracks that gave the band its reputation on the space rock scene (they toured often with Hawkwind). Here it begins with some deep outer space guitar noodling that slowly builds into a pulsing, rhythmic jam with dazzling slide guitars and funky organ playing, before delving into a lengthy excursion into spaced out blues. This was back in the days when a rock band could bring a choir on stage with them and no one would even bat an eye, so here on this track we hear the live return of the Gwalia Male Voice Choir to haunting effect before the band returns to the upbeat jamming we heard earlier in the piece. Jam Up Jelly Tight/Oh No Not Again (Spunk Rock '73), on the other hand, is a revved up bluesy boogie rock n' roll work out that really smokes, especially in its latter half where it builds to a spectacular crescendo.
Included in this CD boxed set are two extra discs containing a complete live show recorded at The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, London on June 24th, 1973, not long after the release of Back Into the Future. This superb recording features live versions of many of the studio cuts from the album including A Night in Dad's Bag, Just For You, and Ain't Their Fight. The same choir joins the band once again, opening the show with Sospan Fach and contributing to another live version of C'mon (this one perhaps a little more spacious sounding (and slightly better recorded) than the version on the first disc). Also part of this show is another live version of Jam Up Jelly Tight/Oh No Not Again (Spunk Rock '73), and a 16-minute long version of the boogie-woogie crowd favourite Bananas. The final disc closes with two studio songs, The Single (I'm Dreaming) and The Symbol Who Came to Dinner, recorded in August of '73, that show less of a psychedelic influence, and seem to be looking more towards the mid-70's album-oriented rock of the studio album that would follow this one, Rhinos, Winos and Lunatics.
Also re-issued by Esoteric is the 1976 live document Maximum Darkness, which was actually drawn from performances recorded the year before at both The Roundhouse in England and The Keystone in Berkley, California. The band were joined at this point by the late, great American guitarist John Cipollina, whose background in Quicksilver Messenger Service allowed him to fit in quite nicely with Man's jamming aesthetic. His style obviously influenced the band towards more of a west coast San Francisco sound but certainly didn't draw them away from their roots completely. The album opens with the absolutely stunning 7171 551, a raging guitar freak out with duelling lead and wah-wah guitars. It's followed by a version of the oft-covered Buffy St. Marie classic Codine. Honestly, never one of my favourite songs, the band nonetheless do a knock up job of it, with spacey blues guitars, and howling vocals courtesy of returning lead vocalist Deke Leonard. The band come the closest ever to the West Coast sound with their version of the Anne Bredon folk classic Babe I'm Gonna Leave You. Their version is, not surprisingly considering John Cipollina's involvement, very similar to the version Quicksilver Messenger Service did for the obscure 1968 movie Revolution (oddly enough, Quicksilver also covered Codine on the same soundtrack). After that, the band return to their classic material with the lengthy cuts Many Are Called, But Few Get Up and Bananas. The former in particular has some really delicious, psychedelic wah-wah guitar and a general freaky air about it, the latter a slightly more raunchy and fuller sounding version than the one they were doing just a couple of years before. Two bonus tracks not on the original album are included here (these ones are the tracks recorded in Berkley, CA). The first is a powerhouse 24-minute long version of C'mon (this time with the choir replaced with some terrific harmony vocals), and Romain, a simple but effective blues stomp.
On the map of classic 70's rock, Man has unfortunately largely been forgotten (despite still existing, recording and performing live to this very day). But they are a band that should be re-discovered, and these two Esoteric releases will hopefully help that to happen. If you're just hearing of them, definitely go for Back Into the Future to get a wide ranging sense of what Man is all about, then pick up Maximum Darkness to see what happens when they join forces with a legendary guitarist from across the pond. Neither album will disappoint.
For more information, visit Man at their web site: http://www.manband.co.uk
Visit the Esoteric Recordings web site at: http://www.cherryred.co.uk/esoteric/artists/man.htm
Reviewed by Jeff Fitzgerald